Pigs In Art And Children’s Literature

Pigs are shaped like little kids. Their bodies are smaller than their heads. Pigs are supposed to be intelligent, smarter than dogs, but they’re a bit awkward. Their trotters are like little kids’ arms that don’t work very well yet.

Ian Falconer

“In the second place, I am not interested in pigs. Pigs mean less than nothing to me.”
“What do you mean, less than nothing?” replied Wilbur. “I don’t think there is any such thing as less than nothing. Nothing is absolutely the limit of nothingness. It’s the lowest you can go. It’s the end of the line. How can something be less than nothing? If there were something that was less than nothing, then nothing would not be nothing, it would be something – even though it’s just a very little bit of something. But if nothing is nothing, then nothing has nothing that is less than it is.”

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
Pigs without hind legs near trough, Jan Brandes, 1785
Pigs without hind legs near trough, Jan Brandes, 1785
The Puffin Book Of Nursery Rhymes,  Iona and Peter Opie, Ill. Pauline Baynes (Penguin Books Ltd, 1963) pigs dancing
The Puffin Book Of Nursery Rhymes, Iona and Peter Opie, Ill. Pauline Baynes (Penguin Books Ltd, 1963)
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The Storybook Police Archetype

Mary Petty (1899-1976) 1943

Australia has a uniquely trusting relationship with its police force. We might say the image of police here in Australia is based on a storybook image, one which is cultivated in white kids from the time we start reading children’s books.

The only feelings mankind has inspired in policemen are indifference and scorn.

UN FLIC (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1972)

Today I’ll look at some of the main ways writers and gatekeepers protect the image of the police officer as a patriarchal protector above reproach. This archetype is common in utopian stories for very young children and was especially prevalent in earlier Golden Ages of children’s literature.

The Storybook Policeman is just that — he is a man. Female officers are rarely seen in children’s stories. The trend towards avoiding police officers as saviours coincided with the reality of more female officers, which probably accounts for that. The number of female police officers in Australia has doubled over the last 20 years, but in America remains where Australia, New Zealand and England were back in the 1990s.

We can say “hire decent human beings as police officers” hoping to reduce police brutality, or “Hire decent people for executive roles in business” hoping to reduce brutality at work. The problem is that police recruits & junior execs may walk into the job as decent as anyone. We have to address the system, which is designed in both cases to turn regular people into machines that can’t see other people’s humanity. That’s why the conventional cop-out “My boss is just a jerk, that’s all – a horrible human being” has never helped anyone. The system turned a regular person into a cruel boss, something it does a thousand times a day, in stages. We have to see the systemic nature of both problems (brutality perpetrated on the public by law enforcement and on employees by employers) in order to solve them. Evil bosses are sad, fearful, powerless people. The only power they feel is the power conferred on them by the organization – that is, by the system. Folks are always shocked to meet people who know their evil boss socially and swear the boss is a great person outside of work.

The real-world percentage of female officers is irrelevant to the Storybook Image, just as it was irrelevant in America in the wake of September 11, 2001. Susan Faludi writes about this extensively in her book The Terror Dream, but media outlets exclusively chose images of men saving women, even though a significant proportion of the first responders that day were women.

I don’t think there was any task that was performed down there by men that were not performed by women.

Terri Tobin, Deputy Inspector of the New York Police Department

Another significant proportion of the public does not want to see women saving men, and won’t believe it even if they do see it. Faludi talks about ‘the myth of cowboy bluster and feminine frailty’, which must exist as a duo in order to make sense.

Not surprisingly, we see this dynamic play out in children’s books from earlier ages of children’s literature, in which children seek the help of kindly and trustworthy police men in times of need. These men stand omnisciently over proceedings and the children are free to roam, knowing that a strong man, the huntsman in Red Riding Hood’s woods, is only a scream away.

When we base our security on a mythical male strength that can only increase itself against a mythical female weakness — we should know that we are exhibiting the symptoms of a lethal, albeit curable, cultural affliction

Susan Faludi, The Terror Dream

In books for children, the policeman is never far away. Roald Dahl deals with this fact knowingly in Danny The Champion Of The World, while at the same time fully utilising the trope:

At this point, pedalling grandly towards us on his bicycle, came the arm of the law in the shape of Sergeant Enoch Samways, resplendent in his blue uniform and his shiny silver buttons. It was always a mystery to me how Sergeant Samways could sniff out trouble wherever it was.

Roald Dahl, Danny The Champion Of The World

The police car always at the ready is not limited to literature for the youngest audience. It’s a trope we see across all forms of storytelling. There are many police related tropes, and you can find them beautifully catalogued over at TV Tropes. In adult story we more often see the inversion — the useless or very human cop. Yet elements of the effective police force are there nonetheless — the willingness for cops to put rape tests forward for testing, the rapidity at which paperwork gets processed, calls returned. Though evil is rife in fictional adult policing, sheer ineptitude is vanishingly rare. Audiences do not enjoy watching ineptitude. We like our heroes and our villains to be agentic, to be motivated, to have a plan. We like to see them carry plans out.

It’s often said that the best cops would make the best criminals — by chance they’re working on the right side of the law. Crime drama makes the most of this. In The Wire, Jimmy McNulty is a good cop because he has an intuitive understanding of what motivates the criminals he’s working with. The audience sees Jimmy himself go against the rules and resisting the hierarchy that exists within the police force.

Carl Barks c.1948-1954.
Walter Crane 1845 - 1915 London Town The Night Watch 1883
Walter Crane 1845 – 1915 London Town The Night Watch 1883

The Storybook Policeman is also white. This trope is yet another way in which picture books serve white people and their children. A Black parent cannot afford to teach their children that police are the benevolent patriarchs to call in any emergency.

I’m reminded of the episode of British TV cartoon Peppa Pig about spiders. The message: Don’t be scared of spiders. Spiders won’t hurt you. This reassurance served its purpose for children who wouldn’t leave Britain, but did not serve Australian kids at all. Australian kids need to be scared of spiders. The episode was not aired on Australian television. Likewise, the Storybook Police Archetype only works for some kids and remains actively detrimental to others.

When the Storybook Police is made into an animal, we see the identifying features: The hat and the baton.

White parents have been heavily invested in protecting the image of the Storybook Police Archetype. At times, in America, it has reached ridiculous levels. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Stieg depicts police as pigs. For this reason the picture book has been banned intermittently.

HADDON HUBBARD SUNDBLOM (American, 1899-1976) The Man Next Door
HADDON HUBBARD SUNDBLOM (American, 1899-1976) The Man Next Door
The Mystery Of The Haunted Square by John Drummond, cover By Eric Parker, The Amalgamated Press Ltd, London 1950
Marius van Dokkum
Marius van Dokkum
DRURY HILL, NOTTINGHAM, a nostalgic look back to post WWII Britain by Rob Rowland police
DRURY HILL, NOTTINGHAM, a nostalgic look back to post WWII Britain by Rob Rowland police

How Do Contemporary Authors Deal With Police?

Apart from the very real political issues, there are some storytelling pitfalls to avoid when storytellers bring police into a children’s story which, by definition, should be about kids, with the action driven by kids, and problems solved by kids.

“Why don’t they just call the police?” That’s exactly what a children’s writer does not want the reader to think. Police therefore create a problem for writers similar to the problem of parents and caring adults in general: Why don’t these children tell a parent?

It’s easy enough to get parents out of the way, but aren’t police meant to be on call 24/7? Enid Blyton included numerous policemen in her stories and used them where it was convenient. But sometimes she tried to get rid of them.

Barney was previously was in a circus but now he’s traveling Great Britain with his monkey Miranda looking for his father. Roger & Diana, brother and sister, and their cousin Snubby, are sent to a quiet little village called Ring ‘O Bells to recover from the flu. There they discover that something suspicious is going on in the ancient hall there.

Although Blyton tried to get rid of the police, leaving it up to Julian to lead the other children to victory, she didn’t always manage this successfully:

The plot has some small holes, as often happens in these children adventures. For example, once they discover the kidnapped person, the children do not go straight to the police. A reason is given for that, but it did not seem very convincing.

from a consumer review of the Ring o Bells Mystery

Enid Blyton can hardly be called contemporary, so let’s take a look at how Kate DiCamillo deals with police in her Mercy Watson series. The Mercy Watson series is set in 1950s-esque suburbia, functioning as a spoof of domestic bliss. Kate DiCamillo avoids problematic police altogether, but she does it by replacing them with firefighters.

These two firefighters function identically to the policemen duos of Enid Blyton’s era and are called at the end of a story to finish off what has already been set in motion by the child and childlike characters.

To bring rescue teams too early to a children’s story would function unsuccessfully as deus ex machina, and agency removed from the child heroes. For various other examples of how police officers have been used in children’s stories see the following:

  • Walter The Farting Dog in which a dog farts really stinkily and knocks out two Storybook Burglars. The police arrive immediately to deal with the burglars.
  • The Tale of Pigling Bland or The Tale of Ginger and Pickles by Beatrix Potter from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature. In the first example the police officer is roaming the country roads waiting for crime to happen. In the second example, the police officer is a creepy doll.
  • “A Good Tip For Ghosts” by Paul Jennings uses the police officer as storyteller.
  • Junie B. Jones And The Stupid Smelly Bus, in which Junie gets a lecture from the police officer
  • “Lamb To The Slaughter” by Roald Dahl is regularly studied in high schools. In this story, the trickster murderer fools police officers, who are guided by their bellies. Though there are hints of bumbling policemen in children’s literature, by the time readers have hit the teenage years, their storybook cops are no longer the trustworthy archetypes who always know what’s what. Even in his children’s books, Dahl avoided the Storybook Police Archetype. See Matilda for an example in which police play a peripheral part — they exist to be avoided. Dahl had a mistrust of authority of all kinds, and was a large part of the movement towards subversive, darker middle grade fiction.
Austin Briggs (1908 - 1973) noir illustration. Probably from the 1950s as Briggs had started painting in colour at that time
Austin Briggs (1908 – 1973) noir illustration. Probably from the 1950s as Briggs had started painting in colour at that time
A lot of a policeman's time is taken up with controlling traffic. (1962) art by John Berry for Ladybird
A lot of a policeman’s time is taken up with controlling traffic. (1962) art by John Berry for Ladybird
The Joke Book compiled by Oscar Weigle, illustrated by Bill & Bonnie Rutherford (1963) police
The Joke Book compiled by Oscar Weigle, illustrated by Bill & Bonnie Rutherford (1963) police

Header illustration by Mary Petty (1899-1976), 1943

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Charlotte’s Web Novel Study Analysis

Charlotte's Web Cover

At almost 32,000 words, Charlotte’s Web (1952, 1963) is a middle grade novel rather than a chapter book. This is a story with many  hidden depths, which appeals to middle grade kids as well as their adult co-readers.

Below I’ll be getting into how this story appeals to both children and adults, the themes of death, the narration, characterisation and the overall story structure.

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The Tale Of Pigling Bland by Beatrix Potter Analysis

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?

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Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig by Kate diCamillo Analysis

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.

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Mercy Watson Fights Crime by Kate diCamillo Analysis

“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.

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Pig the Winner by Aaron Blabey Analysis

Pig The Winner eating kibble

Pig The Winner, written and illustrated by Aaron Blabey, is another picture book in the widely-loved Pig The Pug series. I suspect these will become Australian classics in the same way the Hairy Maclary books became New Zealand classics.

I pick and choose when it comes to Aaron Blabey books. Pig The Fibber, which felt rushed out after the success of Pig the Pug, seemed a voracious grab for publishing dollars. Pig The Star, which I flipped through in the shop, contains a running gag similar to the first Bad Guys book, in which a male character dresses in feminine accoutrements for laughs, but with serious ideological issues bubbling under the surface. I’ve written about this issue elsewhere.

Some might argue that Pig in Pig The Star has been guised specifically as Marilyn Monroe rather than as a generic woman. I don’t buy this as defence for several reasons: The target age group won’t get the reference to Monroe, and being ‘an attention whore’ (I’m using that term deliberately) is not in reality a specifically feminine shortcoming even though the dominant culture codes it as such. And when we code attention-seeking behaviours as specifically feminine, this narrative turns back on women when women attempt to step up into their fair share of limelight. Most sinister of all, women are regularly accused of making up stories for attention after reporting genuine crimes.

However, Pig The Winner is an excellent example of a funny, engaging picture book, probably because it contains no femininity to speak of.

ILLUSTRATIONS IN PIG THE WINNER

There’s a great trick used when illustrating stories about characters who chuck tantrums. Here it’s evident from the cover — Pig the Pug has scribbled over the ‘real’ text and replaced it with his own version of truth. This same technique was used to great effect in Z is for Moose.

What is it about pugs? They are inherently funny to look at. Sausage dogs, ditto. Blabey has picked two of the funniest dog breeds for this series.

There’s a lot of white space in these books, which means only the Chekhov’s guns make it onto the page. For instance, pay attention to when the rubbish bin is introduced. At first I wondered what the bin is doing there. Perhaps it is only meant to illustrate that Pig eats a whole lot of stinking rubbish? But turn the page and you’ll realise the plot reason: The bin is a vital part of the Battle sequence.

STORY STRUCTURE OF PIG THE WINNER

SHORTCOMING

Pig’s shortcoming is spelt out clearly on the opening spread. Each book in the series is an exhibit of another of Pig’s terrible qualities, which are a bottomless pit, it seems.

Pig was a cheat

DESIRE

Pig wants to win everything. This points to a deeper desire — we assume he wants to be admired and to wield power. Pig is the archetypal baddie, but he is a fun baddie, so we love his mischief.

OPPONENT

Trevor is Pig’s longtime opponent. Trevor sometimes wins things, which stands in direct opposition to Pig’s wish to win all the things.

PLAN

Blabey explains Pig’s modus operandi, which is a stand-in for a plan: He ‘throws a pink fit’ whenever he doesn’t win.

Apparently this is a British phrase but also used widely in Australia. Apparently you can also have a ‘blue fit’ and it means the same thing.

Pig The Pug having a pink fit

BIG STRUGGLE

stuffing his face

In the lead up to the Battle, the reader is asked to predict the story. Young readers who have read previous Pig the Pug books may even get it right.

But something went wrong.

Do you know?
Can you guess?

Pig’s shortcoming is so bad that the shortcoming is in itself enough to bring him down. In this particular story, Pig is so greedy that he gets his bowl stuck in his mouth and needs help from Trevor to get it out.

Trevor performs something like the Heimlich manoeuvre, which we’re now told not to do, apparently:

[T]he risks of the HM appear to outweigh the benefit- especially when there is a more effective way of dislodging the object with less risk of causing harm in the process. Reported injuries sustained as a direct result of the HM include gastric rupture, lacerated liver, fractured Xiphoid process/sternum, aspiration of stomach contents and other serious complications.

Accredited First Aid, Australia

The reader is highly encouraged to enjoy whatever mischief befalls Pig. We are treated to a number of close up shots of his face: stuffing it with (beautifully rendered) kibble, stuffing it some more, then the bowl:

stuffing his hole

It is funny when he gets the bowl stuck in Pig’s mouth; it would not be funny if he had the bowl stuck in his throat. (One is uncomfortable; the other would kill him dead.)

Blabey knows to take this revenge arc to its extreme end. It’s not enough for Pig to simply get the bowl stuck in his mouth for a few seconds: This despicably comic character deserves despicably comic punishment. For readers in need of mimesis, this may not work:

I’m confused. After the Pig falls in the bin, “These days it’s different . . .” Choking didn’t phase him, but falling in a trash can gave him a change of heart? Did he suffer memory loss from the fall and suddenly “plays to have fun.” Yet, at the end, he is still a cheater. This is one horrible dog.

— a reviewer on Goodreads

Ok, now according to the story, that one action— the bin, not the choking, has now caused Pig to relax and have fun and not have to always be the winner. If that’s not crazy enough, the last page shows Pig the pug cheating.

— from another reviewer on Goodreads

In comedy, an unlikely incident leading to Anagnorisis is a fairly common trope. It is used in Office Space, for instance, which is far more realism than the Pig the Pug books. In this case, Peter goes to see a hypnotist, but while he is under the hypnotist’s control, the hypnotist keels over and dies, which means Peter permanently doesn’t give a crap about anything anymore.

This is honestly where I may have come unstuck if I was trying to write this book, or something like it. If you’re writing a revenge plot with slapstick gags, take every opportunity afforded to you. Here, the bowl bounces into the rubbish bin and hits Pig. He gets hurt a little bit (indicated by the bandage on his head), which leads him to think twice…

ANAGNORISIS

Since this is now an established series, the ‘Anagnorisis’ in this book is different from the genuine lesson learned in the first: Here, Pig ostensibly learns not to be greedy and not to cheat. However, the final illustration shows the reader that he is secretly cheating at a card game against Trevor.

If Pig has had any revelation at all, he has learned that he should be a more sneaky kind of cheat.

TV Tropes has a name for this. It’s called The Ignored Epiphany:

The Ignored Epiphany is a moment where the Villain or morally gray character has a moment of clarity or revelation about themselves and their actions, seeing it in perspective for perhaps the first time and realizing exactly how useless and off base their various self-delusions and justifications were. It’s often a low moment for these characters, and may provoke sympathy from the audience. The character may acknowledge it various ways, with a sigh, a bitter laugh, muttering “What Have I Become?” or possibly saying to someone or themselves “I’ve really messed this one up”.

Then… there’s nothing. No Heel–Face Turn, no last minute redemption or even an attempt to undo the harm they’ve wrought. Nor is there any mental trauma equivalent to a Villainous BSoD or mental breakdown. There’s just… nothing.

NEW SITUATION

We extrapolate: Pig will continue to cheat but he’s a bit more subtle about it now. (Not really true for comedy series — Pig will start the next book just as greedy and self-centred as he began this one.)

Well, that’s my interpretation, anyway. But some readers believe Pig really has learned a lesson:

Aaron Blabey’s books bring a smile to this librarian’s face as well as to the faces of my teachers and students. Pig the pug is learning another lesson in this one and along the way will hopefully teach young readers/listeners to be good winners as well as gracious losers.

consumer review on Goodreads
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Poof and the Piglet

poof-and-the-piglet-24

Poof and the Piglet is a homemade picture book written and illustrated by a 10-year-old who was given the title as inspiration. The 10-year-old has also been taught universal story structure.

Poof is the star of an entire series of books. Sometimes she has a sidekick called Worm-hoop (an English owl). This time Worm-hoop is replaced by a pig. I think she may have been influenced by the Elephant and Piggie series.

She has played with lettering on the front cover, understanding that one of the stand out features of pigs is their curly tails.

poof-and-the-piglet-24
Inciting incident

A single tree is used to stand in for a larger setting. This is a story in the minimalist tradition.

The size of the tree suggests both Poof and the piglet came towards each other. They want to be friends.

Here they are not doing anything but their faces say it all.

Plan

Poof adopts the piglet so they can always be together. But she is wrong about that. The best plans in stories involve the main character being wrong about something at the beginning of the story.

Poof is treating the pig as one might a dog. She gives him a collar with his name on it. But in the next image she is feeding him a bottle of milk, showing that she has upped her relationship from ‘pet’ to ‘baby’.

Interesting intratext with ‘Pigs in Area’. I wonder if this is inspired by Baby On Board signs in cards.

BIG STRUGGLE

Now for the Battle. A feature of Poof is that her eyes are often wayward. This must be deliberate because the eyeballs of other characters are not wayward.

I love the body language. The mother takes her piglet away under her arm.

Poof now has slightly manga-ish eyes and she is crying. She faces the viewer so we can see she is crying.

ANAGNORISIS

This is the Anagnorisis phase of the story in which she remembers all the good times they had together. The illustrator is making use of comic convention with the thought bubble, and the juxtaposition between happy and sad emotions.

This is a bit of a twist ending, but unlike most twist endings, this one is nice. The pig is approaching Poof as if he is a dog. This is a more appropriate relationship. This will never be Poof’s baby and she has realised that now.

The writer has not yet learned to keep verb tenses in agreement.

Quite a few picture books end like this, with a sunset.

There were extra pages in the homemade booklet so she had the idea to fill them up with snapshots of Poof and Porky in their new life as friends.

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Elephant and Piggie Comedy Techniques Analysis

The Elephant and Piggie books, invented by Mo Willems, are favourites of my 9-year-old daughter, who is otherwise long past beginner readers. She has asked for more Elephant and Piggies for her tenth  birthday. She feels a lot of similar level stories are ‘too babyish’ for her but an enduring interest in the Elephant and Piggie series demonstrates the extraordinarily wide age appeal of these stories. As adult co-reader, I enjoy them as much as she does. These books are more than ‘dual audience’. Dual tends to refer to ‘one developmental phase of childhood plus the adults who read alongside’, but in this case the appeal is young childhood, middle childhood, right through.

I listened to an interview at The Yarn, with Travis Jonker and Colby Sharp, in which Willems says: There is no formula when it comes to writing picture books.

There is no ‘formula’, because ‘formula’ suggests ‘low quality’ a la R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series. But there is a certain structure that all good stories share. The Elephant and Piggie stories do conform to this structure. This structure provides a coat hanger for the originality that Willems and his writing team bring to each story in the series. Willems describes this structure as ‘a trellis’. He describes himself as a structuralist, ‘but more of a formalist than other people’  in the way he writes and constructs his stories. He says this comes from his time working in television. Television writers have to understand structure in order to get ideas out on time, and when your task is to create something exactly eleven minutes long it becomes even more important.

STORYTELLING NOTES FROM MO WILLEMS

  • The rule of ‘yes and…’ is really useful to writers, especially when writing first drafts. This is a concept from improv theatre. Whatever happens, the actors are obliged to build on that — immediately, in front of a live audience. I can see how this is useful, because with each Elephant and Piggie story I get three quarters of the way through it and I wonder how he’s going to end it. Anyone who has written a picture book knows that beginnings are relatively easy. It’s tying them up (and going that extra bit further) that distinguishes genius from mediocre.
  • You’ll learn what is ‘not funny’ rather than what is funny. So write and then edit out all the not funny stuff. Hopefully, what remains is funny.
  • When Mo Willems was working at Sesame Street the staff did a session on child development every week. I guess that means children’s writers would benefit from the same! (Lucky for me I did a university course on child development, but I wish I hadn’t gotten rid of my textbooks.)
  • Elephant came before Piggie. He’d been sketching elephants for a long time.
  • He’s a glass half full of poison misanthrope.
  • Willems wanted to do early readers because he’d been told it was the hardest.
  • He did a ‘casting cool’ — he considered a whole bunch of animals to be Elephant’s buddy. But when Piggie came she was a great foil, allowing them to work very well.
  • He knew he could write a lot of books with these two characters. The challenge was in keeping them as ‘open’ (universal?) as possible, to leave them room to grow.
  • There were gags about elephant’s glasses and trunks that he didn’t think he’d use.
  • Willems had only been published for two years before he came up with these characters.
  • He was told early readers don’t really sell but Willems felt strongly that early readers would be his life’s work. (He knew his strength obviously, and I’m glad he knew this rather than go with ‘what sells’.)
  • P.D. Eastman is an inspiration. Willems used to work with Eastman’s son and heard stories about how Eastman worked.
  • Unlike Eastman’s poodle, he wanted to create animals who had their own emotional lives. He wanted to show friendship on the rocks, then making up again. These are things that real kids go through often.
  • An inner emotional life was a guiding principle in the beginning, but as the series progressed he realised that every book was a question that he didn’t know the answer to. Why share? When share? What does it mean to be a friend? What happens when a new partner comes in? He realised the story was worth writing if he didn’t know the answer to his question, which meant the audience wouldn’t know either, and that would make for a worthwhile story. This is in line with what others have said regarding moral dilemmas. There should be no easy answers. Even in easy readers!
  • Easy and simple are opposites. Easy goes quickly, simple takes time. This plays a role in all his books. Willems is a minimalist. The less he puts in the more the audience has to put in. That way they have co-written the book with him.
  • If you read one of his manuscripts and it makes sense, it has too many words. If you look at his drawings and the drawings make sense on their own, it has too many drawings. I think this is why most of my favourite picture books are created by writer illustrators. The way publishing houses keep writers and illustrators separate from each other during the creation process makes this hard to achieve if you are just a writer or just an illustrator.
  • He aims for ‘one level away from abstraction‘.
  • The weaker the structure, the ‘truer’ the story is. This series requires the reader, in a very deep way. (By ‘structure’, I think Willems is talking about scaffolding here, or something other than ‘story structure’.)
  • Nowadays other creators collaborate to make Elephant and Piggie books. Mo Willems keeps creative control. He works on a new one every six to eight months.
  • How do you know which ideas to pursue? What is the thing that matters to you? And how can you create characters yelling about that in a funny way?
  • Willems finds that his ideas always sound terrible when presented at the idea stage. It’s only when the idea is presented in a semi-finished form that his team says, “Oh, now I get it!” Sounding terrible at the idea stage is how he knows he’s onto something.
  • Writers are often advised to keep abreast of what’s out there, being published in your category/genre. Willems doesn’t keep up with what others are producing, and refers to it as ‘noise’. “I just want to keep making weird stuff.” He doesn’t want to be influenced by other people’s ideas. (I do think you have to be at a certain stage of your career before you can do this. While we’re still learning, we have no choice but to look at what’s out there. I also find this admission strangely condescending and insular. Why not read what peers are doing for the pure enjoyment, if nothing else?)
  • Good picture books are all individual. Television doesn’t work like that. Television inevitably feels formulaic by its nature. A writer or illustrator can really be themselves when creating books.
  • While Mo Willems likes all of his Elephant and Piggie ideas, not all of them make it to book stage. (This was also true of Dr Seuss.)

Always start your illustrations in the middle (to kind of warm up) and save the cover and opening spreads for the end (when you’re in the zone and it’s flowing) – because those are the first ones people will read!

keynote summary at SCBWI

OVERALL OBSERVATIONS

  • Elephants are great to draw because they have expressive trunks. This made me wonder if elephants really do have expressive trunks, or if our personification of them is rather more, ahem, human in origin. Turns out this trunk quirk does come from elephants themselves:

Elephants “kind of wear their hearts on their trunks. Their trunks are extremely expressive of their mood,” says Caitlin O’Connell. She should know. By closely observing elephants at Etosha National Park in Namibia part of each year for the past 20 years, O’Connell has become bilingual in a way.

How To Speak Elephant

  • The Elephant and Piggie series is described by reviewers as ‘theatrical’. They make excellent ‘read-aloud-togethers’. My daughter likes to take the part of Piggie and she makes me do Elephant. (Probably because she doesn’t want to play the straight guy.) For the parts where they both say something together, the speech bubbles become a colour blend. Normally, elephant’s speech bubbles are grey and Piggie’s speech bubbles are pink, but when they say something together, the speech bubble is dusky pink. It was my daughter who pointed this out to me. It’s so subtle otherwise. I realised that these books have been designed for ease of shared reading, using colours as cues.
  • Elephant and Piggie are excellent physical comedians, often in action, sometimes in midair, defying physics.
  • Teeth are shown or hidden judiciously. Ditto with their tongues. When the tongue appears above the lip the character is concentrating — below the lip and they are tired or disgusted.
  • As is the case for almost every personified picture book animal, eyebrows are essential to their expressions, even though pigs and elephants don’t have eyebrows.
  • Elephant and Piggie don’t wear clothes. Elephant does wear glasses, in accordance with his know-it-all disposition. Lack of clothes contributes to the minimalist style. But according to the story, certain clothing is used as props. Piggie wears a chef’s hat in I Really Like Slop, which is just as expressive as Elephant’s trunk, bowing in disappointment.
  • Features from comic books are utilised where necessary — motion lines, dotted lines to show directionality. Diamond shaped lines to show a character has had an idea.
  • Onomatopoeia and mimesis is also used e.g. ‘Fling!’ and ‘Plop’ in Watch Me Throw The Ball, and ‘Sniff’, ‘Pop’ ‘Gulp’ and ‘Eek’ in I Really Like Slop.
  • Shadows are used only to show that the characters are in mid air. There’s not even a line to show where the ground is. (Except on the front covers.)
  • The colour palette is a shared by the Pigeon books, also by Mo Willems, and apart from the distinctive orange bands of colour (subconsciously indicating to the consumer that these are early readers), the illustrations are pastel colours with a slightly sketchy, dark black outline and a little shadow on the bodies. When something strange happens to the characters they can change colours (like when they try awful slop and keel over).

STORY STRUCTURE OF I REALLY LIKE SLOP

I Really Like Slop is the modern version of Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss.

I Really Like Slop Elephant and Piggie

SHORTCOMING

In order to do this exercise I need to pick one of the characters to be the ‘main’ one. In this story it is Elephant who has the more obvious anagnorisis so I’ll go with Elephant.

Elephant’s shortcoming is that he feels negatively towards his best friend’s slop. Slop is very important to Piggie because ‘It’s part of pig culture’. Unless Elephant is able to identify with this part of Piggie, their friendship is in peril.

DESIRE

Elephant is averse to trying the slop. He wants Piggie to take it away because it stinks.

OPPONENT

Piggie’s desire is in direct opposition — Piggie wants Elephant to try it. If he won’t try it, the friendship is over.

PLAN

The plan is for Elephant to try at least a little bit. If he still doesn’t like it, they will still be friends, but he has to at least give it a go.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle scene is the trying of the slop itself, depicted in a series of increasing close ups on Elephant’s face. Elephant is so bowled over by the spicy flavour that it really is as if he’s going through a physical big struggle, with a tiny bit of slop. (The tiny bit of slop is depicted as a green pea.)

ANAGNORISIS

“I do not really like slop. But I am glad I tried it. Because I really like you.”

NEW SITUATION

Pleased with her victory, Piggie now wants Elephant to try ‘dessert’ (a fish skeleton). At this point Elephant reclaims his boundaries and says, “Don’t push it, bub.” They will remain friends, but Elephant will continue to set limits and Piggie will continue to push them, as the playful personality.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WATCH ME THROW THE BALL!

Watch Me Throw The Ball Elephant and Piggie

SHORTCOMING

Because this is a series starring the same (mostly two) characters in every story, their basic characters remain the same. That said, each story is a slightly different take on the same shortcomings.

Piggie is very confident. Over confident. She thinks she rocks, even when she has failed. But this constant shortcoming is also her strength, because it allows her to enjoy whatever she tries. This makes for a carnivalesque story each time, in which the main point — the only point — is to have a bit of fun.

This contrasts directly with Elephant’s personality. He takes things very seriously. He worked very hard learning how to throw. He can’t enjoy Piggie’s experiment in throwing because he is worried. What is he worried about? That his ball will get lost? That she won’t throw correctly? This is never stated. Elephant’s exact worry is left to our imaginations, but is shown on his face.

DESIRE

Piggie wants to have fun with a ball she has found.

Gerald wants Piggie to make a good job of throwing his ball, since things must be done properly or not at all.

OPPONENT

Since their life philosophies are so different, they make good natural opponents. Piggie wants to have fun. Gerald wants the job done properly. In order to be opponents, you only need to put two characters in opposition. You don’t need a massive fight or an argument. At its most basic level, it comes down to opposition of values.

PLAN

Piggie will throw the ball. The thing about Piggie is, she’s not one for plans. She’s impetuous and spontaneous.

Elephant has obviously planned to deliver a mini lecture on how ball throwing is properly done.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle is the part where Gerald yells at Piggie that she has not thrown the ball all around the world — it landed right behind her with a splat.

ANAGNORISIS

This is the weakest part of the story, in my opinion, but still strong enough to work. Piggie says, “You are right, Gerald. I did not really throw the ball very far.” Now it seems that Piggie knew this all along, and perhaps she did. This does model good sportsmanship for children, but part of me wishes Piggie had a witty comeback.

NEW SITUATION

The New Situation phase of this story more than makes up for a hasty, unconvincing anagnorisis, because this is where we find out that the author has pulled off something very tricky in storytelling — both main character and opponent have their own character arc, including anagnorisis. (A recent film which does this very well is Lady Bird.)

When we see that Gerald has decided to throw like Piggie did, he has come around the idea that he can have fun by pretending that he, too, is a great thrower who can throw a ball all around the world.

From now on, Gerald will have a little more fun than before. Though he can’t really change permanently, because this is a series. Next time we see him he’ll need to be reminded, and learn the same lesson again, or a related one.

STORY STRUCTURE OF I’M A FROG!

I'm a Frog Elephant and Piggie

The plot of I Am A Frog is very similar to  Watch Me Throw The Ball!

SHORTCOMING

Piggie is having fun. The shortcoming here belongs to Gerald, who needs to learn to have fun. Gerald is more naive than Piggie, who doesn’t know the world ‘pretending’.

DESIRE

Piggie wants someone to join in her game of imagination. Gerald wants to remain being an Elephant. He is terrified at the idea that he might become a frog and eat flies.

OPPONENT

Once again, the fun/serious opposition is utilised.

PLAN

Piggie persuades Gerald to try pretending.

BIG STRUGGLE

They have an argument in which Gerald is adamant that he cannot pretend to be something he is not. This culminates in the double page spread with words tangled all across the page.

ANAGNORISIS

Gerald’s anagnorisis is that he can do this thing called pretending, and thereby learn to enjoy himself. The revelation to the young reader: It’s not that Gerald doesn’t understand the concept in the end — it’s that he wants to be a cow, not a frog.

NEW SITUATION

Piggie will continue to be a frog and Gerald will be a cow. They’ll play together like this (and then Gerald will forget how to have fun in time for the next book).

STORY STRUCTURE OF LET’S GO FOR A DRIVE!

Let's Go For A Drive Elephant and Piggie

In this story, Elephant and Piggie share a goal, but because they both have the same shortcoming (lack of foresight), their plan doesn’t work.

SHORTCOMING

Lack of planning ahead. Gerald tells us he is very good at planning ahead, which makes us laugh at him later.

DESIRE

Elephant and Piggie want to go for a drive.

OPPONENT

There is no human-esque opponent in this story but it still works, because each was relying on the other to come through with the goods. (The car)

PLAN

They’ll pack everything they could possibly need for a nice drive. Then they’ll go on their drive.

Kewpie postcard c.1910s Rose O'Neill
Kewpie postcard c.1910s Rose O’Neill

BIG STRUGGLE

There’s a revelation (but not a anagnorisis) that neither owns a car. This is an important point in understanding story structure, because ‘learning something big’ doesn’t equal ‘learning something about yourself’. The big struggle scene in an Elephant and Piggie book is easy to spot because Elephant will throw back his head and yell (in massive font). “What are we going to do now!” he yells.

ANAGNORISIS

The anagnorisis is that Elephant and Piggie can still have fun if they only modify their plans. This is not the same kind of ‘self revelation’ you get in a serious drama aimed at an adult audience, but better described as the part of the story where the childlike characters learn a valuable life lesson to put in their toolbox.

NEW SITUATION

Elephant and Piggie won’t go for a drive. They’ll use their equipment to play pirate instead.

STORY STRUCTURE OF MY FRIEND IS SAD

This story has a big reversal right in the middle, breaking it into two distinct parts, kind of similar to The Enormous Crocodile and The Gruffalo. The main character remains naive.

My Friend Is Sad Mo Willems

SHORTCOMING

Who is the main character in this story? Elephant, or Piggie. At first I thought it was Elephant, because he goes from sadness to happiness, but this is a simple change in emotional state.

Elephant is sad because he doesn’t have a friend, then he does have a friend.

But it’s Piggie (and the reader) who learn something.

DESIRE

He wants a friend to share experiences with and hang out with.

OPPONENT

In general, stories don’t work when the main character’s only opponent is ‘himself’. But in this story it does work, because this is comedic structure (which, by its very nature, can only be sustained for a few minutes). Piggie wants the same thing as Gerald — to hang out together, only Gerald doesn’t realise they ARE hanging out together.

PLAN

Gerald is too morose to concoct any sort of plan to have a friend, so it’s up to Piggie to be proactive. Piggie decides to cheer Gerald up by dressing up as different characters. She thinks Gerald is sad because of an absence of comedy in his life. Turns out she’s wrong about that — Gerald needs company more than he needs comedy.

BIG STRUGGLE

Rather than a big big struggle scene, the comedic equivalent of the big struggle is the turning point in which Piggie apologises to Elephant. “I’m sorry. I wanted to make you happy. But you are sad.” This sounds like the anagnorisis phase, but Piggie has not learned anything yet. She’s still in the dark about how she failed to cheer Elephant up. Now the story will take the readers past all the dress-up characters again.

ANAGNORISIS

Piggie (and the reader) learn that sometimes you just need to be with someone. If you go out of your way to cheer them up, you can fail miserably. This is a quite profound message, even though it’s presented here in a light-hearted way.

NEW SITUATION

Just when we think the story is over, there’s another double spread in which Piggie breaks the fourth wall (as she did at the beginning) and whispers to the reader that Gerald needs new glasses. Because this is a comedy series, I doubt Elephant will be visiting the optometrist anytime soon — his inability to correctly assess his situation may come in handy for subsequent stories.

STORY STRUCTURE OF PIGS MAKE ME SNEEZE!

This is one of the few Elephant and Piggie books where I was able to predict the ending. This isn’t a negative, by the way. Kids (and also adults) love to predict endings correctly. Surprise comes from the details.

Pigs Make Me Sneeze Mo Willems

SHORTCOMING

Elephant keeps sneezing.

His underlying psychological problem is that he jumps to conclusions. He’s self-diagnosed as ‘allergic to pigs’.

DESIRE

This is tough. What does Elephant want? I believe he wants to enjoy his own melodrama for a while. The melodrama comes through in his body language, in which he’s thrown his arm across his face. He declares that he and Piggie can no longer be friends.

OPPONENT

Elephant turns Piggie into his imaginary opponent.

Piggie is baffled by this. She wants something different. She wants them to remain friends. She also wants Gerald to not keep sneezing and knocking her over. The pair go through a physical big struggle in which Piggie ends up wearing a helmet with a plastic visor.

PLAN

There is no proactive plan but Elephant happens to meet a cat who is a doctor. In a less minimalistic picture book, Elephant would probably make a plan to go to the doctor. But we don’t see that here.

BIG STRUGGLE

Although we’ve seen a physical comedy in the sneeze big struggle earlier, the big struggle scene (in narrative terms) actually occurs after the medical examination. Notice how Elephant is flat on the floor. The ‘Battle’ involves a near-death experience. Although it’s psychosomatic, Elephant concludes that he is allergic to cats, too, and is basically therefore dead.

ANAGNORISIS

The big reveal, for both reader and Elephant, is that he is not allergic to anything. He has simply caught a cold.

NEW SITUATION

And now Piggie has caught the cold, too.

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The Amazing Bone by William Steig Analysis

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

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