Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t by Lauren Child

Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t is my favourite Lauren Child picture book. I can see it being used in the classroom to teach the concept of the leitmotif, among other things.

Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don't cover
If you run your finger over the dog’s body you’ll find it’s printed in some kind of textured paste. There is also a diamante used for the dog’s collar, but make no mistake — this isn’t a crappy mass-market story made with no love under the assumption that girls have been conditioned to read anything pink and sparkly.

This is a picture book written and illustrated by British kid-lit master, Lauren Child of Charlie and Lola fame.

The story might be used in the older classroom or with a child reader to discuss sound devices and alliteration, for starters.

P alliteration

In particular, Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t is a wonderful example of the leitmotif, in which sound devices are used to tell us more about a character.

This story — like many picture books — is a wonderful example of how character names can say a lot in fiction. Why is Mademoiselle Verity Brulée named as such? In the Anglo world, what connotations are associated with the French? Since crème brûlée is a kind of sweet dessert, what might we surmise about this character?

Crème brûlée…is a dessert consisting of a rich custard base topped with a contrasting layer of hard caramel.

— Wikipedia

Perhaps Verity has both soft and hard edges to her personality. Perhaps the contrast of textures in this particular dish is symbolic of how two characters living together as one family can have such different temperaments that they are like chalk and cheese. However, it is precisely the contrast in textures of the crème brûlée that make it work so well as a dessert. If only Trixie and Verity can learn to live with each other they’ll make a great team.

Ideology Of Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t

“Dogs should be left to be dogs, not treated as toys to be groomed and molly-coddled.”

Since, in children’s stories, animals are stand-ins for children, the ideology is therefore also that children should be allowed to be children, free to run around parks and get themselves dirty.

Notes On The Illustration Of Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t

This book is illustrated in a similar style to the Charlie and Lola series, though Charlie and Lola books make quite heavy use of collage, in which photographs appear to have been cut out and stuck on. This book retains the feel of collage but doesn’t employ that exact technique. Instead, I’m reminded more of the Japanese kimono, with its distinctive admixture of highly detailed patterns. I’m sure this is intended, since Verity is seen at one point wearing a kimono inspired dressing gown. (I believe they’re just called ‘kimonos’ in the West.)

Japanese fashion

The setting might be in Paris or in England or America — the era feels a bit 1920s, but we do see a retro style TV, which places it more squarely in the 1950s — before the Aristocracy had died, in any case.

The scribbly/collage illustration style of Lauren Child, in which the rules of perspective are thrown out the window, lends a childlike, playful feel to everything she writes, and encourages us to poke fun at the characters and to look for humour which we may have to dig just a little deeper for. These characters are ‘off-kilter’ and ‘quirky’, like the illustration itself. The childlike nature of the story is evident even in the punctuation (or lack thereof) on the cover: The title is a run on sentence and lauren child does not capitalise her name on book covers.

The text in this book requires advanced decoding skills, which is an interesting development in picturebooks since ‘type text to path’ became so easy in Photoshop. Illustrators and book designers can now design pages with any sort of shape to their words. In this book we have the text fully integrated with the pictures, and the reader is challenged at times to find the book text among the intratext, to slide down the page then defy the rules of reading and read up the page and even to read in circles. Coupled with the advanced language in this book, I’d say it’s a picture book designed to be read to children by an experienced older reader (rather than as an independent scaffolded exercise).

Plot Structure

Who is the main character in this story — Verity Brulée or her miniature poodle Trixie Twinkle Toes Trot-a-lot Delight? The answer to that question is always: Which character changes the most? In which case, the dog and the woman are one and the same character. Trixie Twinkle Toes is a canine manifestation of the part of Verity who feels the social pressure to be ‘perfect’: ladylike and manicured and everything ‘just so’.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Verity Brulée is inflexible and has perfectionist tendencies, preferencing image over practicality. Her dog Twinkle Toes is a dog, and therefore needs to do doglike things in order to be happy. These two characters are trapped together in the same place, which is a requirement for any kind of significant narrative conflict.

Verity introduction

Trixie Twinkle Toes does not like her name or any of the rituals that go with being an upper-class dog.

Trixie introduction

DESIRE

Verity wants to own a dog who is pretty and well-behaved while looking rich and well-groomed. She wants to perfume, powder and pom-pom her poodle and dress her in pink ribbons. She wants to keep her little dog happy and healthy — constantly wrapping Trixie up at the first sign of a cold — but she misunderstands her pet due to communication difficulties. (The dog can’t speak English.)

Trixie wants to  step in puddles. She wants a different name. She wants to brave and adventurous. She wants to do something rather than seem something.

Trixie’s dissatisfaction comes to a head at the point in the story which switches from ‘iterative’ to ‘singulative‘. The first part of the book is about how things always are, and describes how they (often) go to the park and how Verity (often) dresses Trixie up. Now:

One night Trixie Twinkle Toes was lying in her room listening to the real dogs howling at the moon.

This is the event that instigates Trixie’s self-revelation: “I hate being a poooooodle”.

OPPONENT

Verity and Trixie are each others’ opponents, symbolising the internal conflict between being free and being self-restrained. So when Trixie complains that she hates being a poodle, Verity completely misunderstands why she is crying and takes her to the vet, where very cleverly, the vet finds nothing but a sore throat. This is masterful because the young reader is left to fill in a gap: That Trixie’s sore throat is due not to having a cold but to howling.

Opponent

This story is a good example of a pair of fictional opponents who have each other’s best interests in mind but end up standing in each other’s way due to communication difficulties, separate agendas and poor empathy. We often see this dynamic in husband/wife stories, or between parent and child in young adult fiction. Opponents are often members of one’s own family.

PLAN

 

At the dog salon Trixie sees a before and after picture of a scruffy to well-groomed dog and realises that it can work both ways. Her plan is to become a scruffy dog. She plans to (and does) catch some fleas after chasing a cat and chew Mr Chomley’s newspaper.

Verity foils this plan to become scruffy by telephoning her pet psychic. When the psychic sees nothing in Verity’s cup but ‘two lonely tea leaves’ this provides for obvious and humorous symbolism, showing the young reader that although Verity and Trixie live together, they are each lonely.

BATTLE

The battle between Verity and Trixie is a constant swing between Trixie getting herself messed up and Verity putting it ‘right’ with visits to the pet salon and extra grooming sessions and eventually a pooch psychologist. This part of the battle conforms to the law of threes in storytelling:

  1. The poodle parlour
  2. The psychic
  3. The pooch psychiatrist

Notice, too, all of that wonderful alliteration with the plosive ‘p’ — basically a ‘b’ sound which is bursting to escape. (Psychiatrist is technically a sibilant, but we’ll go with what’s on the page.)

All this to-ing and fro-ing aside, in a memorable story we need some sort of climactic battle. In a novel we might get a lot of time spent on the psychological turmoil of the main character and not need a set piece, but picturebooks are more like films in this regard. The set piece (big budget scene arranged to maximum effect) in this story is the part where Trixie gets the chance to save another little dog by diving into a puddle. Again with the ‘p’ (puddle).

battle scene

SELF-REVELATION

Even more masterfully, the alliteration during the puddle scene changes to ‘d’: ‘dazzling’, ‘daring’ and ‘dangerous’. The careful reader will notice (or at least sense) that Trixie is less ‘poodle’, more ‘d’ for ‘dog’! The transformation in the puddle has happened. In case we missed the way the alliteration is related to the story we have it reinforced on the following spread:

Verity Brulée looked at Trixie Twinkle Toes and saw not a little pompommed toy poodle but instead a DAZZLINGLY DANGEROUS DARING dog.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The thing about picturebooks is that they don’t take themselves too seriously, and authors are free to signpost their plot points with phrases such as ‘From that day on…’ which is where we find the bit with the mandatory new equilibrium. (All stories require a new-equilibrium — it’s just usually more subtle in stories for adults.)

From that day on, Mademoiselle Verity Brulée and Trixie Twinkle Toes eagerly read the weather pages — and if it was raining … they went out … with all the other dogs.

In an earlier age, children’s stories were often tied up a bit too nicely, resulting in a twee conclusion. Modern readers have less tolerance for this, perhaps because we can no longer buy anyone’s version of a ‘perfect world’, so we are told on the final page that Twinkle Toes and Verity are still not fully eye-to-eye — after all, Verity still calls Trixie’s very embarrassing full name at the public park.

Mr Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs

Mr Chicken Goes To Paris Cover

Mr Chicken Goes To Paris is a carnivalesque picture book about a chicken who goes to Paris on holiday.

For a whiff of the Foreign, film makers often turn to France and especially Paris. The same is true in children’s films, from “Ratatouille” to “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” And the same is true in children’s books.

Jerry Griswold, Paris in Children’s Books

STORY OF CHICKEN GOES TO PARIS

Not a high concept book — indeed, a chicken goes to Paris. For a holiday. It’s what it says on the tin. This is a third-person version of someone’s summary of a trip, of the kind it’s possible to get quite bored of, unless, of course, the holiday maker happens to be an enormous chicken. A reader’s enjoyment of this story will depend on how funny they think huge chickens are.

There is no real story to this poultry’s holiday and each page jumps to one of Paris’ famous tourist attractions.

– 3 Star Goodreads Review

I’m approximately 30 years older than the target audience, I thought this was rather adorable.

– 4 Star Goodreads Review

WONDERFULNESS

The main drawcard of this story is the disproportionate size of the chicken, who grows larger and larger as the story progresses. Continue reading “Mr Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs”

Madeline’s Birthday by Mavis Gallant

Mavis Gallant died last year, but if she were still around she might not think much of my attempt to dissect her stories in order to learn from them:

Gallant is dismissive of analysing or explaining her work, and distrustful of academic attempts to do so.

The Guardian, 2009

The same Guardian article says of her work, ‘One of the most striking things about Gallant’s work…is its cinematic quality, shifting perspectives and chronology, resulting in what Lahiri calls “narrative that refuses to sit still”.’ This is the sort of story that, if you were to upload it to a peer review writing site, would be shot down as an example of ‘head-hopping’. Yet as Gallant’s work demonstrates with ease, it’s possible for an adept omniscient narrator to dive in and out of heads without confusing the reader in the slightest.

Mavis Gallant is a master at condense writing. Of novels she said:

A lot of it is just stuffing between the important things. In between is nothing.

Mavis Gallant herself feels that she didn’t develop her own style until the 1960s, yet this one was written a decade before then.

PLOT

full story available at The New Yorker online but it's behind a paywall
Full story available at The New Yorker online though it’s behind a paywall.

 

SETTING

This story was published in 1951 and the setting is modern for the time. Apart from workings of the telephone (which back then needed operators) and absence of the Internet (in which Paul could have emailed his professor), there is not much about the story that is different from a modern-day setting. We are told that this is set in rural Connecticut.

Connecticut

We are told that this takes place 7 days before Labor Day, significant because both of the young house guests are counting down the days until the end of summer, when they can leave. In the popular imagination, summer is, in contrast, a happy and carefree time, not a time to be endured.

THEME

 

Madeline's Birthday Jhumpa Lahiri

 

CHARACTERS

Mavis Gallant introduces a complex cast of characters in the economy of a short story.

Characters Madeline's Birthday Mavis Gallant

 

The theme of this short story is conveyed through the attitude of Mrs Tracy. Point of view is important, switching between close third-person POV and a more omniscient one when Gallant chooses to tell rather than show. The story starts with the point of view of Mrs Tracy, switching next to that of Madeline, then to Mr Tracy. POV is not strictly adhered to, switching only after double paragraph breaks; the narrator weaves in and out of heads as appropriate.

I know who they are, what they do and what they are saying to each other. And I know more than they do, because I know about all of them.

Mavis Gallant

The main juxtaposition is that between Mrs Tracy’s memories of childhood at the farmhouse, and the reality of living with a single daughter and an emotionally distant husband who is there only on weekends. In an attempt to recreate the bustling, lively childhood she remembers, Mrs Tracy invites guests each summer. There is no backstory about Mrs Tracy’s childhood; it is enough for the reader to be told that it was marvellous: ‘Technically, the Connecticut house belonged to his wife, who had inherited it. Loving it and remembering her own childhood there, she looked upon her summers as a kind of therapy to be shared with the world.’ 

This main juxtaposition is foreshadowed/explained with a series of present-day incongruities. First there are the incongruities that Mrs Tracy notices herself:

1. Madeline is not the bright-humored girl she thought she might be. Instead, she is a teenage girl suffering the aftermath of a broken family, a father who has left to remarry and a mother who can’t cope with the fact and who has gone off to Europe.

2. Paul is the inverse of Mrs Tracy’s idea of a German. He is dark not blonde, can’t swim, doesn’t enjoy the outdoors.

3. Madeline and Paul do not get on even though they are fairly close in age. So the young house guests themselves serve as contrasts, with Paul being of stable mood and Madeline being emotional; Paul being tidy, Madeline being messy; Paul being sensitive to the emotions of others, Madeline deliberately brushing over them. ‘They did not even have a cake of soap in common.’

 

Then there are the incongruities that Mrs Tracy is not aware of, but which the reader is privy to via the nature of the storytelling:

1. Although Mrs Tracy is full of plans, she’s not a woman of action, instead leaving the task of making Madeline’s birthday cake up to the housekeeper. Mrs Tracy can’t even remember telling the housekeeper about the birthday cake, thinking she might actually be making waffles for breakfast. While Mrs Tracy is ‘propelled’ out of the house, Doris has ‘a deliberate tread’. Mrs Tracy has an active imagination, who (ironically and comically) imagines that Doris’s imagination may have been ‘uncommonly fired’. Even the task of braiding her own daughter’s hair is off-loaded to the seventeen-year-old houseguest. Mrs Tracy is not the practical sort. ‘[Madeline] could hear Mrs Tracy downstairs, asking Doris if she had ever seen such a perfect morning. Doris’s answer was lost in the whir of the electric mixer.’ In an attempt to make her own life exotic, she thinks of Madeline as a ‘jeune fille’ (when she could just as easily have thought ‘young girl’).

2. Mrs Tracy’s routine life at the farmhouse is not the lively setting she strives to achieve, and so the contrast between the house of her imagination and the reality of running a household is stark. Unlikely comparisons come from Mrs Tracy, demonstrating her richer inner world: ‘The hall seemed weighted at one end–like a rowboat, she thought.’ She finds her husband’s morning greetings tiresome precisely because nothing new happens overnight, and because he says the same thing each morning he’s there.

After lunch with a lawyer friend on a trip to Montreal in 1955, he drove her back and stopped in front of “a very charming looking house with vines growing up it. ‘I’d love a house like that,’ he said. And I said, ‘It’s not for me.’ Saying, ‘How was your school day?’ every evening . . . I’d run away.

– Mavis Gallant

Mrs Tracy says to her daughter, “My summers have always been so perfect, ever since I was a child.” But the reader knows this isn’t true, from the single paragraph outlining the various houseguests over the years, from Mr Tracy’s point of view, in which it is revealed that one of the previous summer guests had been a single mother who killed herself.

2. Although Mrs Tracy is curious about Paul’s troubled childhood in wartime Germany, hoping to use him for her own entertainment, he doesn’t talk about the war at all. Mrs Tracy’s curiosity shows a lack of empathy for a boy who is probably suffering post-traumatic trauma to some degree. Mrs Tracy’s need for socialising and merriment at her idyllic house in the country doesn’t equate to empathy for others. She wonders why the boy sleeps with his shades drawn, perhaps because she’d like to spy on him herself, but likely simply a metaphor for Paul’s introverted ways.

3. Although Madeline is younger in age, it is Madeline who is world-weary and Mrs Tracy who has maintained a youthful but unsustainable optimism. This is established in the first paragraph: The morning of Madeline Farr’s seventeenth birthday, Mrs. Tracy awoke remembering that she had forgotten to order a cake. It was doubtful if this would matter to Madeline, who would probably make a point of not caring. The difference in attitude is underscored later on in the story, when Mrs Tracy enters Madeline’s room to wish her a happy birthday, and Mrs Tracy ‘looks younger’ than the birthday girl. While Madeline was ‘ideally happy’ during her three weeks of isolation in her mother’s abandoned apartment, Mrs Tracy is at her happiest when surrounded by people.

4. Then there is the literary symbolism. For example the radio announcer says that ‘McIntoshes were lively yesterday…but Roman Beauties were quiet. Even the garden life is in contrast. The Roman Beauty, incidentally, is a compact evergreen shrub with aromatic, needle-like, dark green leaves with contrastingsilver undersides. Paul looks out Madeline’s window and observes that “The pear tree is dying.” Madeline has already failed to attract the positive attention of Mr Tracy, she doesn’t acknowledge the masculinity of Paul and is feeling down that she has no romantic possibilities in her life.

Pear Tree Symbolism

So there we have garden-inspired contrast again, between Madeline’s nubile age and the dying of the pear tree.

 

LANGUAGE TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

Mavis Gallant uses dialogue tags skilfully. Rather than using, say, adverbs, she explains the subtext of dialogue in a single phrase:

“You probably haven’t read it,” Madeline said, intending the insult.

The ‘starched coverlet’ of Mr Tracy’s bed is a transferred epithet. We learn as the story goes on that the word ‘starched’ could in fact be applied to Mr Tracy himself.

The description of Madeline’s dream is described as an accurate portrayal of how dreams can intersect with the real environs:

In the next room, Madeline had stopped crying and fell asleep. She dreamed that someone had given her a dollhouse. When a bell rang downstairs, it merged into her dream as something to do with school. Actually, the ringing was caused by the long-distance operator, who had at first reported that the circuits to New York were busy and was now ready to complete the call.

The reason for the dream itself is significant, not necessarily in any Freudian way, but because the difference between dreamscapes and reality have been the central theme of the story. Note that Madeline is woken from her dream by a call about a call regarding Paul’s essay; real life minutiae of the dullest kind.

 

HOW IT ENDS

Sometimes characters in a short story have some sort of epiphany. Other times, it is remarkable that they haven’t changed at all. Who has changed in this story? Mr Tracy realises that he is silly to let the teenaged guest dictate the emotional well-being of his household. “She’s only a kid,” he says, and agrees to come home for Madeline’s birthday dinner. His wife, on the other hand, refuses to believe that things are not hunky dory. “People often say things,” she explains to her young daughter, “You must never pay attention to what people say if you know the opposite to be true.”

By this point, the reader of the story knows that the opposite is true; that no one in this household is particularly happy, and that Mrs Tracy refuses to admit it. The birthday party will go on, presumably, as Mrs Tracy wishes it to, with everyone else there under sufferance. Specifically, the story ends with Mrs Tracy telling Allie for the umpteenth time to call Madeline and Paul so that ‘we can get breakfast over with and get this day under way’. By this point, even Mrs Tracy is starting to endure things. Earlier, Madeline overheard her remarking to Doris what a beautiful day it is. So the last sentence serves to highlight to the reader the contrast between hopes/perceptions and realities.

 

QUESTIONS LEFT OPEN FOR THE READER

I’m not sure if I’m meant to be wondering this, but I found myself wondering about the nature of the relationship between Madeline and Mr Tracy. Why does Madeline get so upset at a small slight from Mr Tracy in the library? If she cares about his opinion of her, perhaps she has conflicted emotions. Has something happened while Mrs Tracy was absorbed in her own fantasy world? Or is Madeline simply missing her own father, hoping for a more present and engaging father figure for the summer? It is likely that Mr Tracy has no attraction to the girl. His thoughts of her hair are simply about its being ‘too long and thick for the season’. I suspect his assessment of the girl’s hair would be one of admiration if this were a Lolita sort of story.

 

OTHER SPECS

Approximately 3400 words broken into 1000, 900, 1200, 300 word segments.

The entire story takes place over the course of a few hours, maybe less than an hour, before breakfast.

This story is the first in a collection of Gallant’s earliest stories.

The Cost Of Living Book Cover Mavis Gallant

 

CONTRAST WITH

Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party, in which a teenage girl starts her day in high spirits but ends in a quite different frame of mind. See also Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss for an example of a pear tree used symbolically.

Mavis Gallant herself recommends anyone who aspires to be a short story writer should read Chekhov.

She has only two words of advice for aspiring short story writers: read Chekhov! “Anybody who has the English language and doesn’t read the wonderful translations of Chekhov is an idiot.” She also admires Eudora Welty, Marguerite Yourcenar and Elizabeth Bowen, although she was disappointed to read Bowen’s letters to her lover Charles Ritchie, whom Gallant knew. “She turns out to be a snob.

WRITE YOUR OWN

  • A birthday (or other instance of contrived fun) which doesn’t go to plan
  • A summer (or other season) spent in a place where you didn’t want to be
  • A character who perseveres with a positive attitude despite surrounding circumstances which fail to live up to expectations