The Chicken Book by Garth Williams

The Chicken Book cover

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 a story so simple you’d wonder how it could include all seven steps. Yet it does, between words and pictures. Today’s picture book is The Chicken Book by Garth Williams, first published in 1946.

This makes The Chicken Book an example of literature which emerged between the first and second golden ages of children’s literature, when the publishing industry very much took a back seat to other world events. Namely, Garth Williams wrote and illustrated The Chicken Book at the end of the second World War.

The ideology of this story is more typical of the pre-war period. Child characters from the first golden age were self-sufficient, free-range and healthy and robust. The chicks (child stand ins) are not like that at first, but are chided accordingly and end up self-sufficient by the end. It’s basically a celebration of Puritan work ethic. During the wars, there was no room for anyone to take it easy. It was all hands to the pump. Women were seconded to do ‘men’s jobs’ (and didn’t easily retire to the home once the war was over, either.) With mothers out working in bullet factories and whatnot, the war era child was required to pull their own weight within the family. These chicks are wartime chicks.

Garth Williams is a standout illustrator of American children’s books. He illustrated Little House on the Prairie and Charlotte’s Web, so his work is still widely seen. His father was a cartoonist and his mother was a landscape painter, so it’s no surprise he combined those interests and ended up in children’s books. He also studied architecture, and brought his drafting skills into his illustrative work. The Chicken Book is one of his first works from a prolific career, and the first as both writer and illustrator.

The less we know about the man himself, the better we can enjoy his legacy. There is a surprising number of people who’ve made outstanding work for children yet in their personal lives were hardly upstanding citizens. Obituaries contain the glowing bits, so here’s a link to that, from 1996.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CHICKEN BOOK

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

There is an entire brood of main characters in this picture book, but they are all identical. They are siblings and they look the same. They behave the same. For story purposes, this book has one main character — a chicken.

The other question to ask here: What is wrong with them?

They’re a bit lazy, or haven’t yet learned to do for themselves.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

They all want food. Sure, they each want something slightly different — one even wants a piece of gravel for some reason. But basically they want something to peck and munch.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

If The Chicken Book were a longer story an outside opponent would be necessary, but this is one of those super short narratives which gets away with ‘the main character is their own biggest enemy’.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Since these chicks are by their nature passive, they have no plan. That’s the entire problem. They literally just stand there and do nothing.

When your main character has no plan, someone else in the story has to make a plan for them. (It’s the mother who makes the plan.)

BIG BATTLE

Because Garth Williams places his ‘camera’ near the ground, when the mother hen turns up she’s formidable. When she tells the chicks to go ahead and scratch it feels like a telling off — at least, that’s how it felt as child reader. The Big Battle is the mother glaring at the chicks while standing over them.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

When the chicks scratch they immediately find their hearts’ desire.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

This phase is omitted from the story because we can extrapolate on our own: We know that the chicks will keep scratching and finding good things to eat.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST THE CHICKEN BOOK

After The Fall is another example of a main character whose biggest opponent is themselves, although in Dan Santat’s book, Humpty’s anxiety is almost turned into a separate entity.

England’s Enid Blyton is an example of a children’s author who was writing and publishing prolifically all through this world war period of the 20th century. Notably, Enid Blyton makes no direct reference to war, anywhere. For her, writing was an escape, and her stories provided an escape for her young readers equally. In The Chicken Book, America’s Garth Williams has created a utopian version of an American farm, in which food is plentiful if only you know how to look for it.

You might also compare the original printing with a later one from the 1970s, in which printing technologies now allowed mass printing of highly coloured double spreads. My version, printed in the 1970s, is the full-coloured version. Printing technologies have made further advances since then.

with an odd little shrug

The Chicken Book with an odd little shrug

 

 

After The Fall by Dan Santat Story Tips

After the Fall cover

Earlier this month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story.  Today as case study let’s look at Dan Santat’s After The Fall, a metaphorical picture book with a very simple storyline and a strong message. Still, this isn’t a didactic (preachy) message. Why not? Because it’s metaphorical. If you have a strong message you sure can put it in your story, but you can’t tell readers directly — you have to allow them to put two and two together. (Hopefully they’ll make four.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF AFTER THE FALL

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

The main character is a well-known figure from the world of nursery rhymes. Even if modern kids aren’t being read the classic nursery rhymes (due to there being so many other things to read), Humpty Dumpty will still be familiar because of things like the Shrek franchise.

WHAT DOES HUMPTY DUMPTY WANT?

After The Fall opening page

Have you ever wondered WHY Humpty Dumpty wanted to sit on that wall? I hadn’t. I just figured he liked it up there.

To convert a short nursery rhyme into a full story, Dan Santat had to think a bit deeper. He knew there had to be a reason why Humpty Dumpty was sitting up on that wall. “I loved being close to the birds.” (Read: He wants to be close to birds.)

Heavy symbolism alert: Birds and flight are used often in literature to symbolise freedom (along with other things). Here they symbolise freedom from fears and anxieties. (Read: He wants to be free, like birds.)

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Normally, the general rule is that the main character’s main opponent can’t be themselves. This doesn’t make for a great dramatic arc, mostly. This is true for longer stories.

But it works here for two reasons:

  1. Very short works like picture books can break a few rules because they don’t have the problem of a saggy, boring middle.
  2. Humpty’s anxiety is so strong that it really is a formidable opponent. (I just realised I wrote that sentence as if Anxiety is an opponent in its own right.) Dan Santat has talked widely about the very personal story behind this picture book, like at Publisher’s Weekly.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Humpty’s plan is to avoid the scary thing. That’s pretty common in main characters, especially when those characters are pretty ordinary people just like you and me. They don’t have any reason to believe they can overcome adversity, so they sit around hoping they won’t have to. We can identify with this.

But fictional characters who plan ‘to do nothing and hope it goes away’… well, that NEVER happens.

Otherwise there’s no story. Well, maybe there’s an ironic, shaggy dog kind of a gag:

Humpty Dumpty fell off a wall.

He decided not to sit on walls.

So he didn’t.

The End

(Comedic arc is different from dramatic arc. We’re talking about dramatic arc here, folks.)

Humpty’s world becomes very grey and dull. The supermarket/cereal aisle scene shows that. But Dan Santat doesn’t dwell on that period of Humpty’s life. One double spread is enough to get the message across. Notice how the cereal boxes are bright and colourful, but Humpty’s state of mind makes everything he sees (at his eye level) dull and grey. Even the titles of the cereals look rubbish down low. This totally benign cereal display reminds him of the wall. Ladders, and all that. (Notice he’s looking at the ladder and frowning.) This picture says so much.

After the Fall supermarket page

Next, Humpty catches sight of a paper plane so he decides to make those because it’s kind of like being close to birds again, even though he is anxious about getting paper cuts (and does get paper cuts). This isn’t as good as being up there with the birds, but it’s a little bit like that.

All of this is a way of saying: You might not be able to do the REALLY scary thing, but if you do something a little scary you can build on that and eventually the scary things seem less scary.

BIG BATTLE

The Big Battle for Humpty is when he tackles that wall again. It’s all in the hands — there’s a close up of the hand, reaching up to grasp onto the higher rung.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

When he’s up on that wall he realises it’s awesome being with those birds again.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

Humpty has overcome his fear of falling from the wall, and feels a huge weight lifted from his life.

Is he up there flying with the birds? There are three small white dots in the sky and any one of them could be Humpty flying.

I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew

solla solew

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 I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew by Dr Seuss.

Solla Sollew is plotted using classic mythic structure. A character goes on a journey, changes a little along the way, meets a variety of friends and foes (and some who are both), ends up in a big battle and then either returns home or finds a new one. Yesterday I looked closely at The Gruffalo, which is also mythic structure but less obviously so. The day before I looked closely at The Gingerbread Man, which is pretty classic mythic structure except Gingerbread Man never meets any helpers along the way (and spoiler alert, he doesn’t live to learn anything from his journey). I figure it’s time to present a solid, classical mythic structure picture book with all of the most basic elements.

STORY STRUCTURE OF I HAD TROUBLE IN GETTING TO SOLLA SOLLEW

Continue reading “I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew”

The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee

the farmer and the clown

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 Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee to show how universal structure exists behind all good stories, even when those stories don’t have words.

(Frazee is pronounced FRAY-zee.) Continue reading “The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee”