No Roses For Harry by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham is a sequel to Harry The Dirty Dog. I like this story less due to its increasingly outdated message about masculinity.
WHAT HAPPENS IN NO ROSES FOR HARRY
Human grandmother sends partly anthropomorphised pet dog a coat for the dog’s birthday. The coat has roses on it, and the dog does not like it. He goes to great lengths to lose the coat. It ends up being used by a bird to make a nest.
This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at The Snowman by Raymond Briggs.
The Snowman is another carnivalesque tale, in which the ‘classic story structure’ needs a little reinterpretation.
The illustrators I admire the most have one thing in common: They each employ the full range of perspectives and points of view: high angle, low angle, up through tunnels, long shots, close ups and so on and so forth. Much can be gained from thinking about perspective in picture books, though Perry Nodelman the whole thing up in a few sentences:
Generally speaking, figures seen from below and against less patterned backgrounds stand out and seem isolated from their environment and in control of it; figures seen from above become part of an environment, either secure in it or constrained by it. Also generally speaking, illustrators who make significant use of changing angles tend to be those who emphasize the intense drama of the stories their depict; Van Allsburg and Trina Schart Hyman, both of whom tend to depict highly charged emotions, use extreme views from above and from below in book after book…
As well as viewing their characters from varying angles, picture-book artists can place them against differing sizes of backgrounds, much as movie directors do, in order to focus our attention on specific aspects of their behaviour.
Long shots, which show characters surrounded by a lot of background, imply objectivity and distance; they tell us about how a character’s actions influence his environment, or vice versa.
Middle-distance shots, which show characters filling most of the space from the top to the bottom of a picture, tend to emphasize the relationships between characters.
Close-ups generate involvement with characters by showing us their facial expressions and, presumably, communicating the way they feel…In picture books, close-ups are rare–not surprisingly, for the width of most picture books makes it difficult to show a face without any background behind it. In any case, this is a literature of action rather than of character, and the emphasis is on events and relationships rather than on subtleties of feeling. If close-ups are used at all in picture books, they tend to be on the front cover or dust jacket and to operate more as an introduction to a character’s appearance than as a way of revealing character.
In Rudie Nudie sister and brother have a bath together. Their mother towel dries them. Instead of getting dressed immediately, they take a few minutes to prance and leap and enjoy the way their textured environment feels against their skin. The story ends with their parents putting pyjamas on them and tucking them into bed. Everyone is exuberant from start to finish.
WONDERFULNESS OF RUDIE NUDIE
The words have wonderful mouthfeel, and remind me of the prose of Dr Seuss at his best. This is a kind of chant, which I can see being memorised and played out in real life by children who emerge from the bath.
There’s an argument to be made that there is not enough nudity in children’s book, or in media in general. Left to their own devices, children are interested in the body in its natural form.
There may well be a time when we look back on this period of history the same way we modern people tend to look back on the Victorian era: There’s something very strange about how we conflate nudity with sex. And surely this is the reason we don’t see more naked children in picturebooks for young children. Children in real life are naked a lot more often than they are naked in the books they read. The conflation of sexuality and nakedness is especially the case for naked little girls.
As Perry Nodelman writes:
There are few [especially] female nudes in picture books, simply because there are relatively few pictures of unclothed girls in picture books — it seems that we so associate feminine nakedness with sexual availability that artists tend to forbid its appearance in the theoretically sexless atmosphere of children’s books. Nevertheless, the rare female nudes in picture books tend to sit in bathtubs or hold towels around themselves or hide behind trees; they almost always take on the traditional gestures of nudity, and they almost always smile out at viewers. For instance, Carl Larson’s “Bedtime scene,” reproduced in Wiliam Feaver’s When We Were Young, shows a young girl in nothing but black stockings, facing the viewer; she stands and looks at us without modesty but clearly not without consciousness of her full frontal nudity. Her gesture implies that she knows she is being looked at and clearly assumes that her viewers have the right to look at her, and her pout makes it clear that she enjoys being looked at.
Even rarer than female nudes in picture books are naked females. The only two I have encountered are both infants, and thus, presumably, representations of a safely asexual innocence, and both were drawn by Maurice Sendak. When Sendak depicts the Princess of MacDonald’s The Light Princess as a naked baby with exposed genitalia, her facial gesture is unlike those we associate with nudity; she is neither smiling nor pouting nor in repose with her eyes close; she looks a little drunk. Of all the naked goblin babies depicted in Outside Over There, only one reveals her genitalia and only once, and that happens when she is too busy dancing to Ida’s wonderhorn to look very enticingly available. The other naked babies in Outside Over There do often take the poses of nudes, but their doing so establishes an ironic tension both with the fact that they are dangerous goblins and the fact that they are “just babies”.
There are more naked boys than girls in picture books, probably because we unconsciously accept that boys can have their clothes off without implying their availability for our pleasure. In fact, pictures of naked boys almost all show them clearly doing something–moving, active, not posing. One of Caldecott’s illustrations for “The Farmer’s Boy”shows a naked boy cavorting on his nurse’s knee while a nude girl with the pouty mouth of many pinups sits quietly in the tub, her voluptuous back awaiting our inspection. When male frontal nudity occurs–more often than does female frontal nudity–the boys in question are too involved in intense activity to be passive pinups. The action lines at the elbows and knees of Carlos Friere’s depiction of the unabashedly naked Simon in Daniel Wood’s No Clothes make it clear that is is in motion even though he directly faces viewers.
– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
The wonderful but rare thing about Rudie Nudie is that we see two naked children (one boy and one girl) and neither of them is aware of the ‘gaze’ of the imaginary camera. They are completely unselfconscious in their nakedness. Not only that, but they take great delight in the sense of touch, rubbing their bare feet across the coir doormat, running through leaves, feeling the wind rush past as they run. This is a period of early child which is all too soon gone, but Rudie Nudie is a celebration of that carefree time.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF RUDIE NUDIE
The best picture book illustrators are able to show characters in motion. Too often (as described by Nodelman, above), characters are too static. It is indeed easier to draw a character who is poised for the viewer. Much more difficult to convey a sense of movement. Emma Quay notes this on her blog, and realised between creating the first drafts and the final that even the mother needed more movement:
When I look at this page from my sketch book, I can see the history of the development of my ideas for the bath illustration. I tried a few positions for the little boy, and at first Mum was a bit too static, sitting on the right hand side of the bath. I decide to move her to the left and have her leaning in to splash the children. The various diagonal lines help add more movement to the picture.
So how does Emma Quay avoid the ‘icky’ feeling that some adults harbour about children cavorting naked in books?
1. This is an Australian publication. I’m going to hazard a guess that Australians are generally a little more open when it comes to showing vast areas of skin. It’s probably to do with the subtropical/tropical climate of the top part of this continent. A hypothetical question: Would this book have emerged out of England, or America? If it had, it probably would have taken a slightly different form. I can’t imagine English children finding delight in rushing outside naked for all but a few weeks of the British summer. On the other hand, there are parts of Australia where you wouldn’t let your children run around outside without shoes on. In the end, anything is possible in a picture book.
2. There is no depiction of genitalia. The children are drawn side-on and in motion, and their raised legs hide any genitalia. Their bottoms are in full view, but…
3. These are highly stylised drawings of children. It wouldn’t do to make these drawings too realistic, to the point where a viewer could recognise the child model upon which the illustrations are based. these children are everyone and no one.
4. The illustration style never lets the reader forget that these are just drawings. Apart from the highly stylised line-drawings, the colour of the children extends beyond the line, reminiscent of cut-outs glued on. So the reader thinks of collage. The graphic design of the book is quite like a scrapbooking project, with blocks of pastel colour forming the background. The ‘cut-out children’ therefore seem like embellishments, like part of a decoration. Their nakedness therefore is very much secondary.
Interestingly, the hue chosen for the colour of the skin is what we typically think of when we think ‘flesh colour’. This is the colour of the ‘flesh’ labelled crayon of my 1980s box of Crayolas. In other words, it’s nobody’s colour in particular, though undoubtedly reminiscent of ‘white’.
I really like that there is a father who gets involved in bath time here. Although the story could have been completed without a father in sight, I get the sense that some fathers (more often from an earlier era) feel uncomfortable getting involved in the nitty-gritty personal care of their (or especially other people’s) children.
STORY SPECS OF RUDIE NUDIE
Published 2011 in Australia by HarperCollins
Children’s Book Council Of Australia short-listed book
Australian book industry award winner
COMPARE RUDIE NUDIE WITH
Books mentioned by Nodelman, and which work as counterpoints to Rudie Nudie:
One of the best ways to retell a familiar story is to add plenty of minor detail. The trick is to make this detail seem both unexpected and surprising.
There are things I really like about Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel:
1. In earlier retellings, it is Hansel who has all the bright ideas. Hansel realises what the parents/step-mother has done to them — abandoned them in the woods. By comparison, Gretel seems naiive and even stupid. In this retelling, Gaiman offsets this interpretation by making Hansel — but not Gretel — privy to an overheard midnight conversation between the mother and the father.
2. So often in fairytale retellings, it is a step-mother rather than a birth mother who is evil. It is generally thought that a story with an evil mother is too terrible for a young reader to contemplate. If there are unwritten rules in children’s literature (and indeed, there must be few these days, if we include YA), it is that mothers must love their children unconditionally, even if they themselves are too screwed up to care for them properly. If you went looking for terrible mothers in children’s literature you’d be hard pressed to count the evil ones on one hand. But Neil Gaiman does not shy away from the reality that some women do indeed lack mothering instincts, just as many men lack fathering instincts.
3. Not only that, Neil Gaiman portrays gut-wrenching emotion in the father. Counterintuitively, this is what makes this story feminist — a story in which women are not put on a pedestal as mothers, where women have only one representation: self-sacrificing and emotional. In stories, men are often allowed to be just men, even when they have children. They are not judged so much on how effective they are as fathers. In this story, however, the father is the parent with the nurturing instinct, and is at the mercy of his wife’s terrible decisions rather than the other way around. We won’t have gender equality until we have as many bad mothers as there are bad fathers, I guess.
Food In Fairytales
Carolyn Daniel writes in Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature:
The woodcutter’s family is poor and they “did not have much food around the house, and when a great famine devastated the entire country, [the woodcutter] could no longer provide enough for his family’s daily meals”. At the suggestion of their stepmother, Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the woods. The hungry children come across a house made, in the Grimm version, of “bread” with “cake for a roof and pure sugar for windows”. Cane sugar was a very costly commodity and had been imported from India or Arabia since the eleventh century. It was used for making marzipan and other sweetmeats. Sugar would only have been available to rich nobles and not to woodcutters and their families. The house made of sweet food represents something exotic, very rich, and beyond the reach of the peasantry. When your diet is poor and monotonous, a story featuring plentiful, appetizing food is bound to have appeal, but I believe this fantasy goes beyond the desire to alleviate hunger: it also represents economic desire. The exoticism and richness of the sugary food in the fantasy represent not only the riches of the nobility but also their ability to avoid the hunger and drudgery of the peasants’ daily life. The Grimm version ends with the children filling apron and pockets with the pearls and jewels they have found in the witch’s house and taking them home to their father. “[In] the meantime” their stepmother has died and so “Now all their troubles were over, and they lived together in utmost joy”. Their future is secured by the wealth with which, like the nobility, they can now live in relative ease and luxury. Unlike the magic porridge pot that merely alleviated hunger, the jewels provide the woodcutter’s family with riches and instant freedom from their menial existence.
Possum Magic is a classic Australian picture book by Mem Fox.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY OF POSSUM MAGIC
Grandma Poss uses bush magic to make a child possum (Hush) invisible so that Hush won’t be eaten by snakes. (I’m going to put aside the fact that snakes seem to ‘see’ via vibrations, so an invisibility superpower wouldn’t necessarily protect her…) But soon, Hush longs to be able to see herself again, the two possums make their way across Australia to find the ‘magic food’ (quintessentially Australian food) that will make Hush visible once more. Each year on Hush’s birthday they eat the same food ‘just to make sure Hush doesn’t turn visible again’, thereby creating a kind of mythology about why (white) Australians eat certain foods as celebration.
In case you were wondering just how deep it’s possible to go in the analysis of a seemingly simple children’s story such as this one, Carolyn Daniel has much to say about Possum Magic in her book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature. First she points out that this is an example of a Quest Narrative.
Mem Fox’s Possum Magic is a quest narrative, following an ancient tradition in which a hero strives for something of value such as treasure or a beautiful woman. In this storybook the quest is for personal identity, a universal, internalized, and significantly contemporary goal. Grandma Poss makes Hush invisible to keep her safe from snakes. Hush has lots of adventures but there comes a time when she wants to be visible again. Most pertinently Hush wants “to know what [she] looks like.” In Julie Vivas’s illustration Grandma Poss leans over a pool of water witha fuzzy outline of Hush beside her. But Hush has no reflection in the mirrored surface of the pool. Because she is invisible she lacks subjectivity and, therefore, agency.
The food in Possum Magic is obviously important, but did you know how important?
But Grandma Poss has trouble finding the magic to make Hush visible again and, although Hush tells her she doesn’t mind, “in her heart of hearts she did”. Eventually Grandma remembers that, “it’s something to do with food. People food–not possum food”. And she and Hush set off around Australia to find the food that will make Hush visible.
The foods that Grandma Poss and Hush eat are seen to be quintessentially Australian and their journey is a search for national and cultural identity as well as visibility or subjectivity. Fox’s narrative suggests that an individual’s sense of self does not arise spontaneously but is derived by literally consuming culture. By eating these significantly Australian foods Hush becomes visible and can be recognized as having a legitimate place within Australian society; she thus eats her way into culture. This reflects and supports the notion that ‘we are what we eat’ and that food narratives teach children how to be proper human subjects.
When we say this is an ‘Australian’ picturebook we should be careful to acknowledge that it represents a particular part of Australia and not its whole. She also offers a great example of the word ‘metonymically‘, which comes in handy when talking about picture books:
Applying a post-colonial reading to this storybook, which was published in the early 1980s, it is pertinent to point out, however, that the national and cultural identity Fox writes about is limited: geographically to the coastal regions of Australia and gastronomically to exclude indigenous foods and flavors.
In Fox’s narrative food is the magic that makes Hush visible. It constructs her as a subject and thus may be said to stand in, metonymically, for culture itself. For Michel Foucault culture is the magic that makes individuals visible. Following Nietzsche, Foucault argues that cultural discourses of truth, power, and knowledge distinguish between normal and deviant behavior, thus determining individuals’ actions and constructing them as subjects. For Foucault power does not “crush” individuals; it does not need to because
[it is] one of the prime effects of power that certain bodies, certain gestures, certain discourses, certain desires, come to be identified and constituted as individuals… The individual is an effect of power, and at the same time, or precisely to the extent to which it is that effect, it is the element of its articulation. The individual which power has constituted is at the same time its vehicle.
In Fox’s story the consumption of certain foods constitutes Hush as an individual. The various foods might be said to carry certain discourses or stories about what it means to be Australian, including lifestyle, attitudes, desires, and even power relations (who gets the biggest slice?). As Hush consumes these foods, she also consumes Australian-ness and is constituted as an Australian. As a visibly legitimate Australian subject Hush embodies culture or as Foucault puts it, she is an “effect of power.” Simultaneously she is also “the element of its articulation.” Hence by her annually repeated consumption of proper Australian food/culture she confirms, for all those (child readers) now able to see her, just what it means to be Australian.
And the feminist reading:
Having eaten into Australian culture, Hush is visibly an individual. Grandma Poss is additionally visibly designated as specifically female by the apron she wears (notably she is the only character in the book who is clothed). Judith Butler argues that the body is “always ready a cultural sign” and is “never free of an imaginary construction” as either male or female. To Foucault’s argument that there is no position outside power/knowledge,” Butler adds there is no classification outside of the culturally assigned binary opposites male and female. For Butler embodying culture means acquiring the necessary skillls, “bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds,” to “constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. Butler argues that the bdoy is a politically regulated cultural construct,” “a signifying practice within a cultural field of gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality”. Gender is an “act” which is both “intentional” and “performative”. It is “a strategy of survival within compulsory systems” performed through a “stylized repetition of acts” under “duress”. For Butler then, gender is performed rather than possessed. Its performance must be reiterated repeatedly in order that the illusion appear natural. Each and every successful performance reiterates the systems of power relations that produce the illusions in the first place. Even something as simple as Grandma Poss’s apron reinforces the systems of power relations that produce the illusion of femininity. The apron is a symbol of domesticity, a stereotypical accoutrement of the maternal figure in children’s fiction. Grandma Poss’s apron is metonymic of culture; it defines her and serves to reiterate the definition of proper femininity.
Tough Boris is an Australian/American pirate picture book. As fodder for stories, ocean piracy has never yet been out of fashion. Especially in stories aimed at boys, the pirates of modern picture books are often comical rather than scary; jovial rather than evil. Pirate stories bear little to no resemblance to the actual crime of piracy, which is alive and well in the world today.
What is the allure of pirates, and what kind of stories can they tell the modern reader? In this particular story, ‘pirate’ is a visual metaphor for ‘masculinity’. This is the age of the antihero; for adults see Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire etc.
Marjery Hourihan breaks down the difference between pirates and heroes in her book Deconstructing The Hero:
This picturebook breaks down the dichotomy between pirates and heroes.
Young readers love to hear about naughty children. If this were a story by Roald Dahl or Edward Gorey, the naughty Millie would definitely have met a nasty end, but this particular naughty child remains the apple of her parents’ eyes. Since all children have bad thoughts sometimes, this story is a comfort-read, and would be especially so as a bedtime book at the end of a bad day.
Just Me And My Puppy is worth a close look because, like many others in this long-running series, it is a wonderful example of ‘counterpoint irony’ in picture books.
Though the title may annoy purists, the grammar of the title foreshadows a story told from the point of view of a toddler-aged creature. As a child I always wondered what ‘critters’ were. I thought a critter must be some sort of American animal in particular.
Apart from ‘counterpoint irony’, another useful concept when considering any disconnect between words and pictures is ‘symmetry’. Nikolajeva and Scott have attempted to create a sophisticated taxonomy of picturebook interactions (between words and pictures) and came up with a sliding scale. Symmetry is at one end, in which the pictures pretty much repeat what the words have already explained. At the other end is ‘contradiction’, in which the pictures say something completely different from the words, often creating irony or humour. The problem with having ‘symmetry’ at the extreme end is that pictures cannot help but say more than the words, since ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ (or thereabouts). So there will never exist a perfectly symmetrical picturebook.