Anton Can Do Magic by Ole Könnecke is a great book for parents who would like to teach their kids The Magic of Reality (as expressed by Richard Dawkins and others).
Written and illustrated by a German picturebook maker, this was translated by New Zealand’s Gecko Press.
Anton Can Do Magic is part of a trilogy (The Anton Saga):
Anton and the Girls (2004)
Anton Can Do Magic (2006)
Anton’s Secret (2007)
As far as I know, only this one has been translated into English by Gecko.
STORY STRUCTURE OF ANTON CAN DO MAGIC
Anton’s weakness becomes clear only as the story progresses and we see he is easily duped and overconfident.
Anton wishes to impress his friends by performing a real magic trick. This desire is made clear even before the story begins, on the interior title page, where we see Anton gazing up at a poster of a famous (we assume) magician.
The reader is addressed as one such friend, and from the first page we are told, ‘Here comes Anton. Anton has a magic hat. A real one.’ We are invited to believe it. On the following page:
Anton wants to do some magic. He wants to make something disappear.
This little bird with a mind of its own may ruin Anton’s magic trick and the stakes are upped when ‘the girls’ come along, since boys are especially keen on impressing girls.
But the bird turns out to be a false-enemy ally, or we might consider the bird to have no motivations whatsoever. The bird simply flits around. This is a ‘real’ bird rather than a storybook bird who wears clothes.
A better opponent is Luke, the boy who doesn’t believe that Anton can do magic. There’s more at stake when the opponent is human, because there’s a chance Anton will be humiliated. The reader does not want him to be humiliated, no matter how silly he is.
Often in stories the initial plan does not work and needs to be modified.
Anton stares at the tree.
Then he does some magic.
When this doesn’t work he changes his plan slightly. He’ll try something smaller. The bird.
The battle scene is the bit where three children are waiting for Anton to produce the missing bird.
Anton produces the bird from under the hat and wins the battle, as well as the respect of the three children.
This is a Chekhovian story in that the main character is not the one who undergoes the revelation — Anton walks off the page at the end of the story and as far as he knows, he has made a bird appear. But the reader knows differently. We learn that although sometimes something appears to be magic, but it is really just coincidence and circumstance.
The final image shows us that Greta is happy to have her bird back, Luke is trying to do his own magic with the flower in his little pot, and Anton is satisfied.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST ANTON CAN DO MAGIC
When the child is a few years older, it’s time for this book. (Yes, much could be said about Richard Dawkins and all the junk that comes out of his Twitter feed, but I have to say it, this book is excellent.)
Black Dog by Pamela Allen (1991) is about a girl who actually neglects her dog, but learns not to by the end.
A few weeks ago I took a close look at the much more recent picture book with a similar name, Blackdog by Levi Pinfold. In that, I interpret the black dog as agoraphobia or a similar mental illness that descends in winter.
Here is another book with a black dog, a winter setting and a mental illness metaphor, this time from 1991.
For a history of the symbolism of depression and black dogs, see here. (tl;dr: Winston Churchill made it well-known, but the symbolism goes back to medieval times.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF BLACK DOG
If you’re ever wondering who the main character of a story is ask the following question: Who undergoes the greatest character change?
After thinking carefully about who is the hero of this book — Christina or the Black Dog — I’ve come to the conclusion that the girl and the dog are two halves of the same character.
The first three pages of the story, written in the iterative, explain how happy Christina and the dog are playing together during spring, summer and autumn.
Then we have a switch to the singulative: One cold day in winter the wind blew and the trees shivered.
The personification of the trees (‘shivering’), and the image of the girl and her dog walking into the forest, shows how much the girl is part of the landscape. Christina is the winter.
Wind symbolises change. Also, the wind is blowing towards the house, which makes the trees lean in to retrieve her.
It was then Christina first thought how hungry the birds must be now the worms were deep in the ground and there were no seeds to be found.
So she goes to the cupboard and breaks a small piece of bread and scatters the crumbs on the ground, in an image that will immediately put the reader in mind of a scene out of Hansel and Gretel. The forest in Hansel and Gretel is the ultimate ur-Forest — whenever a child character enters a forest we know that danger lurks.
Christina wants to keep feeding the birds through winter.
Using a trick from classic fairytales, Pamela Allen sticks to the rule of three: first one little bird comes to eat the crumbs; next two little birds, then a magnificent big blue bird.
Who is the opponent in this story? It’s a bit tricky to work out, but not if we start from the idea that in children’s books featuring animals, the animal and child character very often meld into one.
You could argue it’s the blue bird, who probably doesn’t even exist. This figment of Christina’s imagination causes her to obsess, and neglect her dog (and herself).
Christina is Black Dog’s opponent because she is supposed to be taking care of him.
Christina is her own worst enemy.
Depression, obsession and false hope is the overall opponent here.
After getting thinner and thinner from neglect, it is black dog who hatches the plan.
He will climb the tree and pretend to be a bird.
As is usual in children’s books in which the animal hatches (heh) the plan, we don’t actually see the plan until it’s carried out. But we do see him lying on the ground with his eyes looking up as if he’s thinking about something.
The ‘set piece’ of the book is when Black Dog leaps from high in the tree.
Birgitta Sif is a picture book illustrator originally from Iceland, now living in England. So far she has produced four books. Oliver was first published by Walker Books 2012.
A nice touch is that the opening page says ‘This adventure belongs to’, where most books say ‘This book belongs to’, leaving space for the child owner’s name. This already feels a lot more exciting. Perhaps this is something Walker books has decided to do with all of their publications recently?
THIS ADVENTURE BELONGS TO
That said, this story is not what I would call an ‘Adventure story’ in the technical definition of the genre. This is a mythic journey: The (male) hero leaves home and goes on a journey to find himself, meeting people and changing in the process. Still, that’s not what most people think of when they think of a mythic picture book, so it’s probably best the opening page doesn’t say ‘This myth belongs to…’.
It’s not unusual these days to find picture books with this few words, but even so, this stands out for its brevity — more than half of the story by far is told by the pictures. My reading of the story is that Oliver is on the autistic spectrum, though readers will bring their own interpretations, I’m sure. He may just be a highly imaginative little kid with some social anxiety issues. Since we don’t hear any dialogue, it’s possible that Oliver does not speak.
The Dark is a picture book written by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Jon Klassen. A boy faces his fear of the dark in an archetypal dream house.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE DARK?
As usual I’ll break the narrative down according to John Truby’s seven essential elements, which seem to apply to everything from advertisements to novels. Picture books are great for studying this structure, because it’s often made so very plain. You can sometimes even lift direct quotes to illustrate the steps:
Psychological Weakness: “Laszlo was afraid of the dark.”
In children’s books, characters don’t need a moral weakness. (In other words, a child character doesn’t have to be treating anyone else badly in order for us to find them a sufficiently interesting and engaging character.)
On the first page we can see what Laszlo desires: He is playing with his toy cars in peace and solitude on the floor, so he obviously wants to continue doing that without being afraid of anything.
The Dark. “The dark lived in the same house as Laszlo”. Normally the opponent has to be another human or monster, but here the dark is anthropomorphised, and might as well be a monster: ‘Sometimes the dark hid in the cupboard’. Daniel Handler spends quite a bit of time describing this monster and what it does.
Lazlo’s trick for keeping the dark out of his bedroom is saying hello to it during the day.
But when the bulb on the night-light burns out (we assume at this point), the dark does come into his room. The dark challenges Laszlo to visit it in the basement, which requires a scary trip down several flights of stairs. (Why he doesn’t just turn that torch on and use it as his night-light I’m not sure. I don’t think we’re meant to think that’s a possibility, though I have to admit it bothers me some — I think it’s a minor weakness in the plot.)
Laszlo’s self-revelation comes in the form of a lecture, delivered by the author, meant for the young reader. There’s a very Roald Dahl feel to it, because Dahl used to do the same thing (for example in The Twits, when the reader gets a — rather hypocritical — lecture about not judging people based on what they look like):
In The Dark we have:
You might be afraid of the dark, but the dark is not afraid of you. That’s why the dark is always close by.
Young readers are then told that every scary thing with dark insides is actually necessary and useful and, ‘without the dark, everything would be light, and you would never know if you needed a lightbulb’, which is of course the far more humorous thing to say rather than, ‘without the dark you wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep’, and is very Daniel Handler.
We assume Laszlo has achieved this revelation on his own without the help of a narrator, and now the open drawer in the basement looks like a smiling face. He has realised there is nothing at all to be afraid of.
The dark can be kind, helpful even.
The Dark, written by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen, shows us the dark through Lazlo’s eyes, which at first is scary and menacing. But through the shadowy illustrations and the lovely one page monologue in the middle of the book, we realize that we need the dark, and by the end, we fall in love with the dark’s generosity.
‘The dark kept on living with Laszlo but it never bothered him again.’
We even have the very same image bookending the story — the one where he’s playing with his toys on the floor. But this time the sun is in a slightly different place and Laszlo doesn’t look worried. Also, he no longer feels the need to carry a torch everywhere. This small detail shows that he has now overcome his fear of darkness.
Darkness is of course symbolic throughout the history of literature and folkore and everything that came before. Below is a beautiful excerpt illustrating the dark in words by Joyce Carol Oates:
The house looked larger now in night than it did in day. A solid looming mass confused with the big oaks around it, immense as a mountain. The barns too were dark, heavy, hulking except where moonlight rippled over their tin roofs with a look like water because of the cloud shreds blowing through the sky. No horizon, solid dark dense-wooded ridges like the rim of a deep bowl, and me in the center of the bowl. The mountains were only visible by day. The tree lines. By night our white-painted fences and the barbed wire fences were invisible. In the barnyard, the humped haystack the manure pile, I wouldn’t have been able to identify if I didn’t know what they were. Glazed-brick silo shining with moonlight. Barns, chicken coop, the sheds for the storage of machinery, much of it old, broken-down and rusted machinery, the garage, carports–silent and mysterious in the night. On the far side of the driveway the orchard, mostly winesap apples, massed in the dark and the leaves quavering with wind and it came to me maybe I’m dead? a ghost? maybe I’m not here, at all?
— from We Were The Mulvaneys
Fear of the dark is at its peak in early childhood, between the time we first learn of the daily dichotomy and the age at which we can logically comfort ourselves that the dark is simply the absence of light; no more, no less.
It’s that in-between period of literature that seeks to reassure rather than scare. There are no monsters here; just nothingness.
As far as picture book houses go, this is a castle rather than an inviting, warm home. The floors are bare. Hard surfaces everywhere. It’s the oneiric house of Gaston Bachelard’s dreams (The Poetics of Space). Of course a house like this needs a cellar. A story like this needs a cellar, because cellars are always dark. From other stories we have learnt to be afraid of cellars — murders and criminals and all sorts can be found in a cellar, or at least suspected, and even when you take a torch down there, the place is still cast mainly in shadow.
(Interestingly, my version reads ‘flights of stairs’ rather than ‘sets of stairs’. Flights definitely feels nicer to me. Is ‘sets of stairs’ an Americanism?)
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION
Illustrators have many different ways of illustrating the dark. For other examples, see my post Illustrating The Dark.
Many modern books include plenty of white space — white is the neutral choice. But where black is chosen as a fill, the effect is dramatic. Here, of course, the black simply equals darkness. These areas of flat blackness emphasise the geometry of the pages. Here we have a rectangle and a couple of triangles, formed by the light from the torch. The triangles themselves almost form a monster’s mouth, with the bed-end resembling a grille of teeth. The effect of these strong, geometrical shapes is to complement the ‘cold windows’ and hard surfaces of this huge, unwelcoming house, which in real life might be nothing of the sort; this is the dream house of a little boy, and when you’re little, your house always seems much bigger in your mind.
This kind of geometry really is well-suited to the horror genre in general.
The verso image below includes a couple of interesting shadow. We can’t see what is casting the shadow in the foreground. Likewise, we don’t know exactly where that rectangle of light is coming from down the hallway. (We do know it’s from Lazlo’s bedroom, but we can’t see the bedroom.) All of this ‘off-the-page’ lighting lets us into Lazlo’s fear.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
It creeps all over the house.
I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs.
The above is an excerpt from the feminist short story from 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper. Charlotte Perkins Gillman inverted the usual trope of the dark, gothic house and applied horror symbolism to yellow, a colour most often associated with sunshine and happiness. The attic at the top of this particular haunted house is an example of a well-lit room, which is quite unusual in horror. Then again, the author isn’t writing a straight horror story; she is writing an allegory for postpartum depression, pointing out how horrifying the condition can feel when you’re in it. She’s inverting the very hauntedness of the house, saying it’s not the house that’s haunted at all; it’s the people inside the house.