The Tale Of Pigling Bland by Beatrix Potter

As you read “The Tale of Pigling Bland” (1913) imagine Beatrix Potter sitting in a pig shed with her art gear and muck boots on, because that’s how she spent one summer, diligently rendering pigs (and then decking them out in clothes). Apparently she struggled to knock this one out. She’d had a big year.

Despite her illness, her engagement and her Escape To The Country, I’m not surprised she had trouble with this story. It’s a jumbling mess of a plot. Compare Pigling Bland to the tidy narrative of Peter Rabbit. What the hell is even happening in this one? I don’t pretend to even know, but Halloween recently passed, Beatrix did create decent talking-animal body horror fiction, so I’ll give it my best shot and enjoy every minute.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE TALE OF PIGLING BLAND

(The plot summary quoted below is snagged from the Gutenberg  website.)

NARRATION

Pigling Bland begins as Potter’s stories often did — with what sounds like an omniscient, third person narrator.  Then boom:

Aunt Pettitoes and I dragged him out by the hind legs.

Beatrix Potter

(Harsh.) At first I’m like, who is this first person narrator? One of the other two pigs?

We soon learn this is Beatrix Potter talking. She’s put herself in the story. She’s in the illustrations as well (but presumably not in this one).

A hugely successful pair of Australian children’s book creators do the same thing in their Treehouse series. Inserting oneself in your fiction must be a useful tactic for authors and illustrators doing the publicity rounds, visiting schools and whatnot. Extra stardom! I assumed that’s mostly why Andy and Terry do it. But Potter did it first! (Was Potter required to do publicity rounds?)

SHORTCOMING

Pigling Bland begins in carnivalesque fashion, with a series of images depicting the fun mischief of piglets. First Potter lists the fun names of the piglets (by the way, Chin-Chin in Japanese is a colloquial, cutesy word for ‘penis’, a problem also for anyone reading “The Three Pigs” to Japanese kids.) Stumpy has had an accident to his tail, so it’s not all fun and games.

The piglets get stuck in things, they eat soap, they get into baskets of clean clothes, root up carrots…

Aunt Pettitoes, an old sow, can no longer cope with her eight troublemaking offspring and thus makes them leave home, with the exception of a well-behaved sow named Spot.

But suddenly the story turns dark.

Two of them, boars named Pigling Bland and Alexander, go to market.

Pigling Bland is now a mythic journey.

In a mythic journey you’ll probably find images of roads. (Or rivers.)

The point of view switches to the piglets and away from Beatrix Potter and Potter’s sow alter ego, Aunt Pettitoes.

Let’s call these little piglets the main characters. I reckon this is a harrowing story for young readers. I still remember a nightmare I had as a kid. I came home to find my entire family gone. For some reason we lived in a forest, but I knew it was meant to be home. I had to drive the family car to try and find them. (How they were meant to have got to where they’d gone without the family car, I will never know. I awoke before finding any answers.)

The illustration of the little pigs in the wheelbarrow is heartbreaking, actually. I shall never enjoy bacon again. (Or wheelbarrow rides.)

piglets in a wheelbarrow

DESIRE

We assume the little pigs don’t want to be turfed out of home, right? Well, not too much is made of that. They may not have a loving and secure home life, but at least they get their adventure.

PLANS AND OPPONENTS

As befits a mythic journey, the pigs meet a variety of characters along the way: allies, enemies and not-sure-yets. The pigs themselves have different personalities and I imagine Pigling Bland is cracking the shits with Alexander. If you’ve ever been abroad with a flake you know what I mean. They lose tickets and burn through all their money (or their ‘conversation peppermints’).

Now Alexander has scoffed all his own peppermints and wants Pigling’s.

This could almost be a scene from To The Manor Born.

Basically, Pigling Bland has more advanced executive functioning skills.

Pigling Bland is very sensible but the more frivolous Alexander loses his pig license and, when he fails to produce them to a passing policeman, is made to return to the farm.

Sheee-it.

Now Pigling Bland is all alone in the world. This is basically a mish-mash between The Three Little Pigs and that nursery rhyme, quoted by Potter in this, in which one little pig goes to market, etc. (then runs wee wee wee all the way home). Because which of the Three Little Pigs was the most sensible? The one who built his house of bricks (not just cheap ass brick veneer, either). Pigling Bland is basically Sensible Brick Pig.

The policeman accuses the disenfranchised child pigs of… stealing pigs. This feels like a gag, except for an associated dark history. I’m reminded of several ridiculous laws:

  1. During the era of slavery in America, an escaped human being would be accused of stealing themselves from their ‘owners’.
  2. Even today, sex workers can be legally tried for ‘trafficking’ themselves, most at risk when crossing international borders.

The policeman takes Alexander back to Beatrix Potter, who re-homes him nearby. (Why did she not do that in the first place?) Apparently Alexander gets used to it after a while. Let’s not ask further details.

Reluctantly going on alone, Pigling Bland later finds the missing papers, which ended up in his pocket as a result of an earlier scuffle with Alexander.

Well, shit. How guilty would you be?

In any good mythic journey the main character will end up in their deep, dark Jungian subconscious (ie. the woods).

He tries to find his brother but ends up getting lost in the woods and has to spend the night in a stranger’s chicken coop.

Hey, weren’t the pigs told to keep away from hens/chicken coops whatevs?

Ever found something weird in your chicken coop? I once had a dead chook come back to life. At least, that’s what I thought until learning the mundane truth: My own chook died; coincidentally, a neighbour found someone else’s chook and put it to bed in our coop that very same evening. Rhode Island Reds all look exactly the same, too.

And is this gruff farmer gruff in general, or only gruff on the outside? Appearances can be deceptive… but never trust a beard, kiddies:

 He is found in the morning by a gruff farmer, Peter Thomas Piperson, who allows him to stay in his house, but Pigling is not sure the farmer is trustworthy.

Sure enough, the beard is a baddie and the poor little piglet has waded into a house of grisly horrors. He doesn’t just have a beard — he is ‘offensively ugly’. Now we have Hansel and Gretel in the mix, the archetypal fairytale of cannibalism and famine.

All Pigling wants right now is food to eat, which is weird because as I mentioned in my take on “Singing My Sister Down”, appetites tend to disappear when our lives are at stake.

But Mr Peter Thomas Piperson seems to realise this ain’t no ordinary pig. For starters, the pig’s in pants. So he lets the pig sleep on the rug. Maybe he’s going to keep Pigling as a pet, like a dog. Or maybe not. There’s not enough food here, either. For a murderous individual, Mr Piperson has a typically English way of ousting his uninvited visitor: “You’ll likely be moving on again?” But then he threatens to skin Pigling if he doesn’t leave the house without meddling.

Instead of getting the hell out, Pigling decides to have a leisurely, tidy breakfast at Mr Piperson’s. He’s singing to himself while wiping the dishes when another voice joins in. Creepy much? This scene reminds me of Roland the Minstrel Pig. (Maybe it’s just the singing-pig combo.)

Pigling discovers that Piperson has a second pig in his house who was stolen from her owner and whom he intends to turn into bacon and ham. The second pig, a beautiful black Berkshire sow named Pig-wig, suggests they run away so that they won’t be sold, or worse, eaten. Pigling Bland has in any case decided to avoid the market and become a potato farmer instead.

The meet cute scene

BIG STRUGGLE

Like Hansel and Gretel, Pigling and Pig-wig make their escape:

At dawn the pair sneak off but in the course of their escape they come across a grocer in a cart who recognises Pig-wig as the recently stolen pig for whom a reward has been issued.

Thusly, Pigling Bland (basically a porcine Walter White) turns from a bland sensible guy trying to make his own way in the world despite terrible odds into a sneaky trickster to get what he wants. Which is to not be eaten, thank you.

This trick reminds me of an episode of The I.T. Crowd(Roy in the wheelchair). Not positive fake disability gags really fly in the year of our Lord 2019, however…

ANAGNORISIS & NEW SITUATION

By being co-operative [Anagnorisis], and with Pigling Bland faking a limp, the two pigs manage to gain time and, once the grocer is at a safe distance, flee to the county boundary and finally, over the hills and far away, where they dance to celebrate their new-found freedom.

The ending is more like The Three Little Pigs than like the most enduring versions of Hansel and Gretel because the pigs never go home again. They find a new home. Mythic journeys can go either way but they all end with some version of home. But we knew Pigling Bland was never returning to his original home, didn’t we? First we were told there’s not quite enough to eat. Then Potter the Narrator says “if you once cross the county boundary you cannot come back”.

I think these two are going to get on like a house on fire because they both love to sing and dance.

Pigling Bland is almost your classic Slavery > Greater Slavery > Freedom journey, except the story opened with quite a bit of frivolity and fun (Freedom) for the piglets.

Overall, I found the authorial insertion weird by today’s standards. And the mythic journey of Pigling Bland feels episodic. The modern reader wants a more integrated journey than is offered here. However, there is something fun about Pigling’s chaotic journey, and the randomness of events. We never really know why that psychopath Piperson goes from ‘let’s eat the pig’ to ‘let’s keep the pig for a pet’ to ‘I’m gonna skin the pig’ to ‘affable’, but that hardly matters, does it?

What about you? Did you enjoy it?

Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig by Kate diCamillo

Kate diCamillo’s Mercy Watson series are genius examples of funny, endearing, broad-audience picture books. There’s so much to learn. Today I take a deep dive into Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig.

Eugenia and Baby Lincoln may live next door to a pig, but that doesn’t stop them from living a gracious life. And the amiable Mercy Watson is equally determined to follow the delightful scent (and delicious taste) of the pansies her thoughtful neighbours are planting to beautify their yard. “Where have all the flowers gone?” shouts Eugenia, who is finally ready to take extreme measures — and dial Animal Control! Has Mercy’s swine song come at last? Or will her well-pampered instincts keep her in buttered toast?

marketing copy

Mercy’s appetite has got her into trouble again. When Eugenia Lincoln’s pansies go missing, Animal Control Officer Francine Poulet arrives on the scene. But as she soon discovers, not just anyone can think like a pig. Especially when that pig is porcine wonder Mercy Watson!

from the Teachers’ Notes issued by Candlewick Press



In common with Mercy Watson Fights Crime, the marketing copy centres Mercy’s opponent, Eugenia Lincoln. The educational notes centre the story-specific opponent. Either way, this story is about Mercy’s opposition, and I believe this is key to making these stories work. Mercy is too pig-like to make a sufficiently interesting character in her own right. Her Desires are basic; her Plan is always the same — to follow the joy. A character like this exists for her cute-appeal, but must be surrounded by very interesting opposition, and the opposition must make plans sufficient for a story.

NARRATION IN THE MERCY SERIES

This aspect of Mercy influences the narration, as well. The Mercy books are split into very short chapters (about 2000 words divided into 15 chapters = 133 words per chapter). Focal character changes with the chapter:

Chapter 1: Mercy and the Watsons sit happily at home doing something cosy together. In this case, they are drinking lemonade on the patio. There will be something not quite right in the world. In this case, Mrs Watson has put a lot of lemons in the lemonade and this makes Mr Watson’s lips pucker. This ‘something not quite right’ is comical but also foreshadows conflict to come.

Chapter 2: Switches to Eugenia and Baby Lincoln next door. Eugenia isn’t happy that she’s living next door to a pig. They’re all outside on this hot day, and the pig is very evident. To counteract the fact of living next door to a pig, Eugenia decides they will plant pansies. Each chapter is a gag in its own right, with set-up and punch.

A joke has two parts: setup and punch. The setup raises the tension in the audience, if only for a moment, through danger, sex, the scatological–a host of taboos–then the punch explodes laughter.
— Robert McKee, Story

In this chapter, the set-up is that Eugenia will plant petunias. The punch is that she will make Baby do the hard work of digging.

Chapter 3: We follow Mercy through a hole in the hedge into Eugenia’s yard. Mercy eats three pansies (The Rule of Three In Storytelling), with the full understanding that she goes on to eat every single pansy.

Another marketing image centers the ‘rule of three’ by foregrounding three pansy stalks.

Mercy is depicted as happy and oblivious, with her eyes closed for most of it. Mercy is more animal than human, akin to a very small child. She wants whatever good thing appears before her. First it is the violets. (Next it is the prospect of food at a children’s party.)

Chapter 4: As fully expected, Eugenia discovers Mercy has eaten all her pansies. The evidence is clear, as Mercy has pansy petals on her chin. This chapter ends with a chase scene. The look on Mercy’s face indicates Mercy thinks this is a game of chase. Eugenia’s hands are posed to look like she wants to strangle the pig.

Chapter 5: Mr and Mrs Watson wonder where Mercy has gone. Interestingly, Baby pops up to add something to the conversation. Previously she was witness to Eugenia’s chasing Mercy. Baby is very much ‘the reader’ — she turns up when the narration needs her to be there. She says what the reader would like to tell the other characters. And she appears to ‘float’ from one scene to another. The gag in this chapter is that Mr and Mrs Watson also believe Eugenia and Mercy are playing a game of tag. “They look so happy!” Baby gently tells them that Eugenia is not happy. (The reader already knows this, too.)

The point of view continues to switch like this. Then a new character comes into the fold — the wonderful Francine Poulet.

STORY STRUCTURE OF MERCY WATSON THINKS LIKE A PIG

SHORTCOMING

Mercy doesn’t have much in the way of executive functioning, so when Eugenia next door plants violets — with the express purpose of making her forget they are living next door to a pig — Mercy can’t help but eat them. But this isn’t all that interesting, so for the purposes of this story, the main character is the chicken-bodied Francine Poulet (whose last name means chicken in French.)

Francine is comically single-minded. She has grandiose notions, and she fancies herself a superhero. Her single-mindedness will be her downfall (literally).

DESIRE

Francine relishes the challenge of locating a pig. She exclaims that this is a ‘career expanding opportunity’.

A NOTE ON LANGUAGE

Notice how Kate diCamillo uses these multisyllabic words within very simple sentence structures. It’s important that she’s able to use the words she would like to — otherwise much of the humour would be sacrificed. Note, too, that there’s nothing in ‘career expanding opportunity’ that can’t be sounded out.

OPPONENT

A note on Mercy’s series-long opposition:

Eugenia Lincoln calls Animal Control on Mercy. Eugenia functions as the long-term nemesis of Mercy, though Mercy remains blissfully unaware of this. Eugenia’s sister Baby is constantly trying to talk Eugenia down. She functions as the child reader, trying to persuade Eugenia that Mercy isn’t so bad. Unfortunately for Mercy, but fortunately for the plot, Baby fails in this mission every time because she is lacking in fortitude, assertiveness and is inclined to self-doubt. So the two sisters next door are an Opponent/Ally combo. This makes them especially useful.

After Eugenia calls Animal Control, Francine Poulet steps in as the main ‘Opponent’. But unlike Eugenia, Francine is a likeable character, and she is now The Main Character.

diCamillo establishes Francine’s likeability first during the phone conversation, in which Francine plays a guessing game with Eugenia. Francine is thereby set up as someone who enjoys fun.

For Francine, everyone on Deckawoo Drive is opposition, because nobody helps her locate the pig:

  • The Watsons are so distraught they’re not making any sense.
  • The Lincoln sisters disappear — they were only involved in the inciting incident of calling Francine in the first place.
  • Stella is opposition because she has insisted Mercy wears a hat. This is the comedy mask trope, and prevents Francine from realising that Mercy is not a person (at first).

PLAN

Francine is depicted as the human version of a chicken, but her plan in this story is to ‘Think like a pig.’ This is Francine’s catch phrase. She repeats it to herself over and over.

Repetition is a basic building block of comedy. Lines which in themselves are not all that funny can become funny if repeated as part of a comedy. Stand-up comedians have lines/reactions that, when repeated, become even funnier.

Seinfeld’s Kramer — how he always has a dramatic way of coming through the door
The I.T. Crowd’s Roy — “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” (both repetition and mechanical behaviour)

We see Francine look increasingly animalistic v she really does look like a chicken as she leaps over the hedge. Next she’s down on her hands and knees sniffing about. Then her beaked-shape nose is in the air. Finally she is up a tree, like a roosting chook. Normally in stories, a human character is presented as a single animal. In Mercy Watson Fights Crime, the burglar is depicted as a weasel. Here we have an extra layer — a human depicted as a chicken pretending to be a pig. A veritable turducken.

And that’s why I love the titles of the Mercy series. The titles are especially apt — of course Mercy thinks like a pig. She IS a pig, and she’s a very piggy pig, too (unlike Olivia, for instance). It is actually the Animal Control woman who ends up thinking like a pig. The title both describes Mercy and subverts our expectations. (Too many titles ruin some of the fun by spoiling the plot.)

BIG STRUGGLE

The comedy mask comes off when Francine realises Mercy is wearing the blue hat. The reader has already realised this, if not from the preceding chapter, from the curly tail sticking out.

ANAGNORISIS

In lieu of a Anagnorisis we have the set-up and ‘punch’ — the big narrative punch is that Francine has caught Mercy after realising it was a pig wearing that hat.

NEW SITUATION

The books in the Mercy series always end in the same way — the characters come together on stage for a bow — they sit down and eat toast.

Mercy Watson Fights Crime by Kate diCamillo

“Mercy Watson Fights Crime” is book number three in the Mercy Watson series by Kate diCamillo, first published 2006. This series is beautifully illustrated by Chris Van Dusen.

SETTING OF MERCY WATSON FIGHTS CRIME

Where in America is this series set? Based only on fictional representations, this feels Southern to me. (Do Americans get that? I have to guess.)

ERA

This is archetypal, mythical 1950s America, in which happiness consists of a wife at home wearing an apron making everyone lots of delicious food. The houses are large, the gardens manicured.

What do I mean by ‘archetypal, mythical 1950s’? Picture books are not exact depictions of real homes. When it comes to picture books, illustrations will likely include:

  • wooden beds with sturdy bed beads and foot boards
  • a chair in the bedroom
  • a glass of water next to the bed, and a conically shaped bedside lamp
  • a large, warm kitchen with 1950s appliances (e.g. the chrome toaster, which has since come back into fashion, but has a retro feel)

It has become clear in 2019, with the publication of Mercy’s origin story, that this is not literally 1950s America. Chris Van Dusen was charged with the task of drawing a cute, young, highly loveable pig, and in one interview admits that he initially forgot to age-down Mr and Mrs Watson. He subsequently put sideburns on Mr Watson and gave Mrs Watson a fringe. This suggests it was the 1970s when Mercy was young, which actually makes this 1980s America. (How long do pigs live? This is getting depressing… Okay, I looked it up: 15-20 years. Could be the 1990s.)

Apart from all that, the following image is reminiscent of American TV shows from the 1950s and 60s, which made use of split screen. We rarely see split screen used today unless the filmmaker is deliberately evoking a mid-20th century vibe. (More correctly, the split screen has evolved. You could say we’re living in the age of the split screen — so often we are watching TV while simultaneously on the Internet.)

A split screen from Pillow Talk, 1959

Even the cartoon convention of ‘screech’ zig-zags emerging from the toaster is reminiscent of Superhero comics from the Cold War era.

A GENUINE UTOPIA

Even in a genuine utopia, something exciting must happen. The storyteller’s challenge is to create the frisson of excitement while preserving the cosy, safe environment.

How does Kate diCamillo achieve that? First, she opens with a cosy goodnight scene. You can’t get much more reassuring than this:

Mr. Watson and Mrs. Watson have a pig named Mercy.
Each night, they sing the pig to sleep.
Then they go to bed.
“Good night, my dear,” says Mr. Watson.
“Good night, my darling,” says Mrs. Watson.
“Oink,” says Mercy.

the opening to Mercy Watson Fights Crime

Chris Van Dusen’s illustration reinforces the love that the Watsons feel for their pig — they’ve even had Mercy’s initial inscribed into her bed head. But look again. Look at the shadows. You could argue that, well, of course the shadows must be there — if the illustration contains a light source, then there must be shadows. But every single thing in an illustration is on purpose. Nothing existed here before the blank page. That strong shadow which falls across the bed? That’s ‘The Other Parents’ a la Coraline. A shadow that strong and defined gives the illustration an exciting, menacing vibe. Van Dusen could easily have made that bedspread light orange and it would’ve looked fine. The addition of that shadow is a master stroke.

Compare with the next bedroom scene — a simple one-point perspective, which is a useful layout when the illustrator wants to avoid any scary art noir associations. In the illustration below, Mercy has heard a noise from downstairs. She’s not scared at all because she hears the toaster screech and thinks someone is making toast.

Notice how Van Dusen has avoided casting the bedroom in darkness. Yet no one has switched the light on. The brightly-lit bedroom is an outworking of Mercy’s state of mind ie. not worried one bit. And if Mercy’s not worried, readers needn’t worry either.

The shadow which does exist is of Mercy’s own head —comical rather than menacing.

STORY STRUCTURE OF MERCY WATSON FIGHTS CRIME

Marketing copy centers Opponent Leroy Ninker as the main character, with lots of fun onomatopoeia:

Leroy Ninker is a small man with a big dream: he wants to be a cowboy. But for now he’s just a thief. In fact, Leroy is robbing the Watsons’ kitchen right this minute! As he drags the toaster across the counter—screeeeeech—and drops it into his bag—clannngggg—little does he know that a certain large pig who loves toast with a great deal of butter is stirring from sleep. Soon a comedy of errors (not to mention the buttery sweets in his pocket) will lead this little man on the wild and raucous rodeo ride he’s always dreamed of!

from the Teacher’s Guide issued by Candlewick Press

I believe Leroy is the main character of this story, so will break down the structure accordingly. This is also a carnivalesque story, which has its own specific structure.

SHORTCOMING

Importantly, Leroy is not very smart. (Not sure how much he thinks toasters fetch on the black market.) He personifies objects and can’t work out how to get out of the house without disturbing a sleeping pig. More than that, he’s burgling someone’s house and doesn’t seem to realise he should leave the scene afterwards rather than ride around on a pig!

Leroy is also endearing because of his imaginative capacity. While riding Mercy, we are told he imagines riding a dangerous bucking horse. He’s a Walter Mitty character — harmless, with big ideas about himself. This ability to sink into a paracosm is also his downfall.

DESIRE

Ostensibly, Leroy wants to steal items from other people’s houses. This is the outworking of a deeper desire, which is to imagine himself a fearsome, respected and tough bandit, reminiscent of the fantasy of the Wild West.

OPPONENT

Let’s consider Leroy as Opponent here for a moment.

Leroy Ninker is introduced in an ominously tinted scene. This is the archetypal robber, with the eye mask, the sack flung over his back. These would make him generic, much like the robbers in Walter The Farting Dog, in which generic robbers are useful. But diCamillo is turning the robber himself into a comedic character, and a comedic character requires a distinguishing feature or two. Kate diCamillo has made use of a mash-up of archetypes to arrive at a unique man:

  • archetypal robber
  • archetypal child who wants to grow up to be a cowboy.

Leroy is basically a Cat In The Hat character, who turns up when he isn’t meant to and wreaks havoc. While wreaking havoc, the child viewpoint character (Mercy) has a lot of fun.

Before she lets Mercy have fun, diCamillo reveals Leroy as an unthreatening character, despite his sticky fingered ways. He contains several layers of comic irony:

  • A small man with a big hat (in which the hat symbolises his self-importance)
  • He makes plenty of noise himself while telling the toaster to be quiet
  • He has sticky fingers both literally and metaphorically, because his favourite food is butterscotch.

But what about the enduring opponent of Eugenia Lincoln next door? It’s a rule of this setting that the sisters must appear at one point, in which the narration switches point of view. It’s also necessary for the plot to work, because Leroy turns out to be Mercy’s comrade in fun.

PLAN

Leroy will break into Mercy’s house and see if he can get away with stealing things. He will wear his cowboy costume because this is basically cosplay.

His Plan looks set to fail when Mercy trots downstairs thinking someone is making toast. Instead, expectations are foiled, because Mercy doesn’t realise this guy is a burglar. How does diCamillo turn this into a comedic situation? First there’s the comedic obliviousness — characters who don’t realise what we realise are always laughable (dramatic irony). But on top of that, diCamillo slows the pacing right down. Narratologists would say the story is set to ‘pause’.

One way a writer can achieve that is by saying what is not happening. This was pointed out to by by Jane Alison in her book Meander, Spiral, Explode. Mercy sees that there is no toaster, no bread and no butter. But she wholly fails to see what IS there; she is single-mindedly fixated on buttered toast.

BIG STRUGGLE

In a carnivalesque story, the ‘Battle’ is an episode of extreme fun. Here it is the comedic sight of a tiny bandit cowboy riding a pig, all the while thinking he’s an actual cowboy.

Comedy is heightened when we are shown other characters enjoying the spectacle with us. Eugenia and Baby come in handy for that — they are functioning not so much as Opponents but as the two old men from The Muppet Show who make sardonic comments about everyone else in their vicinity.

ANAGNORISIS

The characters experience no anagnorisis because this is a comedic story in which the characters remain less knowledgeable about their situation than the readers, who have seen a broader picture. We’ve seen Mercy going to bed, the inside of Eugenia and Baby’s home, the arrival of the robber and the conversations between the police officers. This is true omniscient narration, and keeps the reader in audience superior position, feeling smart.

The revelation is simply a conclusion of fun. If we haven’t realised immediately we now know that Leroy’s penchant for butterscotch is going to be his downfall, because Mercy will accost him for it. Significantly, diCamillo made sure to ‘casually’ mention (twice) that Leroy enjoys butterscotch. (I was very slow on the uptake and didn’t even connect butterscotch sweets to Mercy’s love of buttered toast.) By the time we see Mercy on top of Leroy we’re wondering what she’s after. Then all is revealed: She’s sniffed out the treats!

NEW SITUATION

We might assume Leroy is taken to prison, though subsequent tales in the off-shoot series reveal that Leroy finds gainful employ at the cinema. The rule of this series is that everyone sits down to enjoy buttered toast. Order has been restored.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Some people enjoy wine and food pairing — I enjoy pairing children’s stories with stories for adults. Compare Mercy Watson Fights Crime with “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” by John Cheever.

The Amazing Bone by William Steig

The Amazing Bone cover

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of William Steig’s The Amazing Bone. This is remarkable because it feels, in some ways,  like a much more modern picture book than that. This is all to do with Steig’s voice.  Pearl is at no point mortally afraid. We know and she knows that this is a storybook world in which good will always triumph. Steig writes knowingly to the reader — we all know this is a modern fairytale. So when he writes of the baddie, ‘He wore a sprig of lilac in his lapel, he carried a cane, and he was grinning so the whole world could see his sharp teeth’, he is holding nothing back from the reader.

Steig’s distinctive voice is also achieved by his choice of vocabulary, which is by turns highly specific against ‘fairytale familiar’ (as above:

On Cobble Road she stopped at Maltby’s barn and stood gawking as the old gaffers pitched their ringing horseshoes and spat tobacco juice.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE AMAZING BONE



SHORTCOMING

Pearl the pig is an Anne of Green Gables character — dreamy and optimistic despite the hardships she endures.

Steig opens the story with, “It was a brilliant day, and instead of going straight home from school, Pearl dawdled.” This will remind you of Little Red Riding Hood, no doubt. The Grimm Brothers transcribed that tale at a time when, as properties of men, women and girls were required to be inside the house. If anything happened to them while they were enjoying the outdoors, it was their own damn fault.

As a pig, she is also delicious. Even in 2017 we’re getting a whole heap of ‘I Love Bacon’ memes through our feeds, so most people can relate to a pig’s predicament. Not that children will be thinking along these lines at all. But to this modern reader that is her main shortcoming in the story — she is delicious to foxes. She becomes a victim through no psychological or moral shortcoming of her own.

It does pay to remember, though, that this was not the intention in early iterations of the Red Riding Hood category of tales, which existed to punish girls for stepping outside, and blamed them for the evil predilections of men, while also being saved by them.

DESIRE

Pearl wants to enjoy her day outdoors. Steig gives us quite a lengthy introduction — longer than modern picture books allow for — in which we see her ‘dawdling home’ sequence.

Finally we see her at her most relaxed, sitting in the grass and dreaming.

Pearl in the forest The Amazing Bone

Note the pacing of this first section of the story (encompassing Pearl’s shortcoming and desire and her ‘normal life’ (which we know is about to be disrupted. We see one scene per page. In fact, this scene is a double spread. Later, as the excitement picks up Steig will put two pictures on each page. This is the illustration equivalent of using short sentences after long, languorous ones.

ALLY

Pearl’s ally is introduced before her opponent is introduced, which has the useful effect of creating tension in the audience, who will wonder if this amazing bone is really on her side or if it is a fake-ally opponent.

When we meet the bone we also meet the catch phrase of the story: “I don’t know, I didn’t make the world.” This is somewhat metafictive as Steig’s lampshading requires the reader to wonder about the origin of magic in the story. We are reminded not to worry about all that — Steig is taking overt artistic licence to do any unexpected thing he likes. This works very well because of the long history of fairytales. The ones which have survived are not all that ‘quirky’ — they are full of witches and forests and ogres and magic creatures, but not pieces of magic creatures. There is no logical reason for Steig to have written a story starring a magic talking bone and although readers will happily accept a magical witch or something, he gets quite a lot of mileage out of the fact that this bone can talk even though it doesn’t have lips.

PLAN

The bone explains that he has been dropped by a witch and would prefer to live with the youthful, optimistic Pearl, so they set off home. Pearl knows what her parents will say — they’ll say it’s ridiculous that she has a bone which can talk — more lampshading to humorous effect.

OPPONENT

Of course the opponents appear at this point from behind a rock. They are wearing masks from Japanese theatre, which I agree are the most freaky looking traditional masks out there.

The characters with the long  noses looks like tengu. They’re a kind of supernatural creature, part human, part bird or prey.

The middle creature in yellow might represent a hannya, This character is possibly the most ridiculously misogynistic of the Noh masks, expressing the fury of a woman turned demon through jealousy and anger and who revenges by attacking.

(These days I feel the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask has supplanted traditional Japanese masks in the West when it comes to freak value. Ghostface is also very scary — perhaps we will not be seeing these in a picture book anytime soon.)

These masked creatures are not the main opponent, however. They are just part of the landscape, reminding Pearl and reminding readers that even in an environment which looks beautiful and safe, evil can jump out from anywhere. These characters are easily scared off by the talking bone in Pearl’s handbag, which they are trying to steal from her, and although we never see their identities, if you look closely at the illustration you’ll probably agree with me that these ‘highway robbers’ are meant to be dogs. Dogs, compared to canines from the wild, are usually fairly hapless criminals, both in real life and in storybooks.

This is when the real opponent turns up. This time the bone’s talking won’t spook him. We know it won’t spook him because of Aesop. Foxes are smart, unlike dogs.

The wily fox was not as easily duped as the robbers. He saw no dangerous crocodile. He peered into Pearl’s purse, where the sounds seemed to be coming from, and pulled out the bone. “As I live and flourish!” he exclaimed. “A talking bone. I’ve always wanted to own something of this sort.”

(Note that Pearl herself is an ironic Aesopian character. Traditionally, we expect pigs to be dirty and gluttonous, but Pearl is delicate and refined. Dr Seuss does a similar thing with Horton the elephant, who would normally break a tree by sitting in a nest. We see Horton’s bulk and don’t immediately expect him to be timid. Young readers learn not to judge characters based on their appearance.)

The fox is a smartness proxy for the audience. Indeed, when I read this story to my daughter she exclaimed, “Oh, I wish I had a talking bone!” just as the wily fox had done in the story.

The fox takes Pearl home for dinner, where he plans to eat her of course. He locks Pearl and her bone in the basement.

At this point we wonder how on earth Pearl and the bone are going to get out of their dire predicament. Plotting-wise, this is the difficult part for the writer. The writer must come up with some ingenious plan which surprises the reader.

Humour wise, this is the highlight of the story. Pearl and the bone whisper to one another, which gives a read-aloud narrator some welcome variety — not enough picture books encourage stage whispering — and their conversation is alternately melodramatic versus reminiscent of two girls sitting outside the principal’s office rather than about to meet their death:

“I know how you feel,” the bone whispered.

“I’m only just beginning to live,” Pearl whispered back. “I don’t want it to end.”

“I know,” said the bone.

At this tense point Steig uses a technique called the dynamic frame. The dynamic frame is film-making terminology butis even more common in picturebooks than it is in film. Filmmakers who use dynamic frame change the size and shape of the image on the screen. It has gone out of fashion in filmmaking. You still see it in contemporary films when shooting through doorways, for example, so hat the lighted area seen by the audience is shaped, even though the shape of the screen itself doesn’t change.

An example of the dynamic frame in a picturebook

For another example of this technique in a picture book see Hyman’s Sleeping Beauty, with views through the arches. In Where The Wild Things Are, the pictures gradually grow in size and then become smaller.

This part of the story will probably remind you of Hansel and Gretel more than Little Red Riding Hood, as the fox cranks up the stove ready for Pearl to go in.

BIG STRUGGLE

Rather lazily, in storytelling terms, Steig’s amazing bone can do magic. It comes out with a number of magical phrases and the fox gradually shrinks to the size of a mouse, retreating into a hole in the wall.

However, it totally works. Steig gets away with ‘rescued by magic’ because of the dialogue. The bone is just as amazed as Pearl at his ability to get them out of trouble, and the joke has been set up earlier with the gag that bones couldn’t possibly talk because they don’t have mouths.

“Well, what made you say those words?”

“I wish I knew, “the bone said. “They just came to me. I had to say them. I must have picked them up somehow, hanging around with that witch.”

It’s the haplessness and the understatement which leads to the humour.

ANAGNORISIS

“You are an amazing bone,” said Pearl, “and this is a day I won’t ever forget!”

This is an uninspiring line but a necessary one. Sometimes you need those lines in stories. I’m going to call it the ‘overt revelation’, but it’s not a genuine one. The fact is, humorous picture books don’t actually need a anagnorisis. We hope that Pearl will not suffer from PTSD. We hope that she will go on just as before, frolicking in meadows and enjoying herself.

The audience does have a small revelation — Pearl was absolutely right about what her parents would say about her bringing home a talking bone. Naive as she is, Pearl does have insight into human behaviour, at least when it comes to her own parents.

NEW SITUATION

The bone stayed on and became part of the family. It was given an honored place in a silver tray on the mantelpiece. Pearl always took it to bed when she retired, and the two chatterboxes whispered together until late in the night. Sometimes the bone put Pearl to sleep by singing, or by imitating soft harp music.

Anyone who happened to be alone in the house always had the bone to converse with. And they all have music whenever they wanted it, and sometimes even when they didn’t.

SEE ALSO

The Amazing Bone: Scrabboonit! from We Read It Like This