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 neighbors 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!
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.
Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady is a British picture book written and illustrated by Mary Rayner in 1977. The story is part fairytale, part 1977 modernity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mary Rayner was born in 1933 in Mandalay, Burma of British parents. She was 8 years old when Japanese troops invaded Burma. Her mother and two siblings walked over the mountains into India. Her father had joined the army and was killed.
After the war, the Rayner family returned to the UK from India.
The sense of a family pulling together in dire circumstances is conveyed, though comically, in this story.
The illustrations are very much of England.
That’s because after a degree in English in England, Mary Rayner joined the publishing industry. Her first book was The Witch-Finder in 1976. This one came the year after, along with Mr and Mrs Pig’s Evening Out. She wrote and illustrated the pig books for her own three children, though by the time she’d finished them they’d themselves grown too old for them.
All of her children grew up to be writers themselves.
STORYWORLD OF GARTH PIG AND THE ICE CREAM LADY
This is very much a fairytale world, borrowing elements from:
The depiction of the village is very much a fairytale one, and decidedly English.
Whoosh Ice Creams
I wonder if English readers will know what a Whoosh ice cream is? I certainly can’t find out from my Internet research, though I thought it might be an abbreviation of the Whoosh! Cecil flavour. Apparently that is chocolate ice cream with salted caramel and cashews, but I doubt that’s what’s intended here because when the pigs finally get their whooshes they’re holding a rainbow coloured ice block type of thing.
(I believe the Whoosh! Cecil is American anyway, but even in 1977, English children were very much influenced by American culture. We see that in the second scene in fact, where all the brothers and sisters are playing cowboys and Indians.)
Apparent Utopia of Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady
This is an apparent utopia, in which everything looks homely and safe but in fact a child can be abducted by a stranger at any time. Fairytale worlds have always had the function of scaring children about strangers, and neglecting the cover the more sobering fact that adults most likely to hurt you are those you love and trust.
In any fairytale land you need a forest right next to the village/town. We have one here, and that’s where the wolf drives off to. It doesn’t matter for the purposes of a fairytale that there have been no forests in England since 1086 at the latest.
It’s fitting that the wolf drives a Volkswagen Kombi because those things were always breaking down.
STORY STRUCTURE OF GARTH PIG AND THE ICE CREAM LADY
It’s interesting that Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady opens with the mother pig scrubbing the floor because she is not the main character. We see her overleaf very much not coping with her ten children — she has her head buried in her hands. Most mothers in picture books are coping very nicely, in their aprons and clean, middle class homes, so it’s interesting to see this variation of motherhood. I wonder why the author decided to open with the mother — perhaps she’s saying that while the mother is busy with housework the children will get up to mischief.
The main character of Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady is Garth. He wants an ice cream. Not only does he want an ice cream, he wants an upgraded ice cream. While all the siblings are happy with whooshes, Garth hopes there will be enough change to buy himself a double cone with flakes coming out of it. This is obviously the luxury choice of the storyworld. At first it looks as if Garth is punished for being so greedy. But he gets his upgraded cone in the end, because the mother feels sorry for him after his ordeal. It is therefore left to the young reader to decide if being greedy was all worth it.
There is a problem with the plot in my opinion: It is decided that Garth, alone, will go to the ice-cream truck and get 10 ice creams for his brothers and sisters. But there is no way in hell a person with hands let alone a pig with hoofs could carry back the ice creams alone. Haha. This is what Hitchcock would have called a refrigerator moment.
While a good measure of suspended disbelief is necessary to enjoy picture books, this is one step too far. In real life I’m guessing children will be familiar with the difficulties of carrying multiple ice creams without help, and there is no good reason why several of the little pigs wouldn’t go along to help Garth. It’s necessary for the plot, however; Garth is vulnerable precisely because he is alone.
The wolf dressed as a nice lady.
Perhaps the wolf really is a female wolf — she remains ungendered. But the evil wolf dressing up as ‘grandma’ obviously has its roots in Little Red Riding Hood. I believe therefore that most readers will read the wolf as male underneath. (In cases where a female is revealed to be a male, this is playing on an instinctive human fear of mistaking something for something else. This trope continues today and is damaging to the trans community. See Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl.)
Just as happens in Dr Seuss’s And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, this story makes use of symbolic crossroads. When the ice cream trail runs out at the crossroads, the pigs are forced to change their plan from ‘following the trail’ to actively searching for Garth.
Meanwhile, in the van, Garth hears the wolf singing about chops and realises someone’s not quite right.
Even an abducted and therefore quite helpless child character must not be passive. We enjoy watching Garth try to get himself out of this difficulty of partly his own making. (If he hadn’t been so greedy about counting the money to see if he could upgrade his ice cream he might have noticed, as well all did, that the ice cream vendor was a wolf.)
There is a fairly lengthy action scene in which the reader enjoys seeing the wolf try to control a bicycle built for ten as it careens downhill. This eventually ends with him being thrown into the river.
Next there is a shot to Garth inside the van, realising he’s in trouble. The van breaks down. Garth breaks free.
In this comic tale there is no groundbreaking soulsearching revelation. Instead, the pigs — who live in fairytale land, after all — realise that they still haven’t had their ice creams, and that they can just go up the hill and get some for themselves now that the evil wolf has been taken care of.
All is fair in this story, because the mother points out that she’s already paid for them, after all. (There’ll be no promotion of thievery in picture books, thanks very much.)
It’s fitting that the final image we see is of the wolf’s old straw hat, caught in the branches which hang into the river.
In stories, hats have a special significance of denoting power or otherwise. A father will give his son a baseball cap, for instance, or a king will give a prince his crown to symbolise a transfer of power. Without the hat as disguise, the wolf is now rendered completely powerless. We can extrapolate from this image that he won’t be bothering this village again.
The Three Little Pigs is one of the handful of classic tales audiences are expected to know. Pigs are handy characters: They can be adorable or they can be evil. You can strip them butt naked and let the reader revel in their uncanny resemblance to humans. Or, you can dress them in jumpers and they’re as cute as kittens.
Bertie’s Escapade is a carnivalesque, adorable book which would be a great pre-reader if you’re wondering whether your child is ready for a Wind In The Willows read aloud. You’ll recognise the illustrator as the very same who depicted Winnie-the-Pooh.
That said, I can’t resist digging a little deeper into this story, because there is a character named Mr Grahame in here, and chances are that this refers to the author himself. The book was published posthumously, and I get the feeling it was a light story written for a couple of children in particular. My theory is bolstered by the fact that the children are referred to only by initials: Miss S and A.G.
It seems likely that A.G. refers to Grahame’s only son Alistair Grahame.
This light-hearted story becomes even more sobering once you learn that Alistair was found dead on some train tracks at the age of 20 in May of 1920, probably an act of suicide. In other words, this book was published not only after the author’s death, but also several decades after a real life human character had died.
The story becomes more disturbing when I realise Kenneth Grahame probably would have suffered from what we now call PTSD, due to a very strange incident in which he was held up at gunpoint in a bank robbery:
At around 11 o’clock on the morning of 24 November, 1903, a man called George Robinson, who in newspaper accounts of what followed would be referred to simply as ‘a Socialist Lunatic’, arrived at the Bank of England. There, Robinson asked to speak to the governor, Sir Augustus Prevost. Since Prevost had retired several years earlier, he was asked if he would like to see the bank secretary, Kenneth Grahame, instead.
When Grahame appeared, Robinson walked towards him, holding out a rolled up manuscript. It was tied at one end with a white ribbon and at the other, with a black one. He asked Grahame to choose which end to take. After some understandable hesitation, Grahame chose the end with the black ribbon, whereupon Robinson pulled out a gun and shot at him. He fired three shots; all of them missed.
Several bank employees managed to wrestle Robinson to the ground, aided by the Fire Brigade who turned a hose on him. Strapped into a straitjacket, he was bundled away and subsequently committed to Broadmoor.
This affects my reading of the dream sequence, in which Mr Grahame (of the story) wakes up after a bad dream in which he is asked to speak in front of a large crowd but can’t think of a single thing to say. While these kinds of dreams are familiar to almost everybody, only the sufferer of PTSD knows the true magnitude of terror that can come of dream sequences.
In old-style stories the storyworld is set up before we know much about the main character. This is a northern hemisphere Christmas story. The snowy landscape is a comforting blanket and Bertie is inexplicably drawn to it.
STORY STRUCTURE OF BERTIE’S ESCAPADE
Bertie needs adventure.
The whole house was sunk in slumber. “This is very slow,” yawned Bertie. “Why shouldn’t I do something?”
Bertie was a pig of action. “Deeds, not grunts,” was his motto.
We soon find out that Bertie wants to have the trappings of luxury, just like a human.
The humans, who don’t want the farm animals to eat all their food. After all, the farm animals are the food. (This inconvenient fact is skipped over.)
Bertie collects two friends (threatening to bite one of them who has no intention of ‘fagging up a hill’). If you’re anything like me, you’ll be a little perplexed at this use of ‘fag’:
Bertie takes them to Spring Lane via a magical underground elevator where they find themselves standing outside Mr Stone’s house. Bertie explains his plan to the friends, and to us at the same time:
“Now, we’ll go up to the house, and sing our bewitching carols under the drawing-room windows. And presently Mr Stone will come out, and praise us, and pat our heads, and say we’re dern clever animals, and ask us in. And that will mean supper in the dining-room, and champagne with it, and grand times!”
Obviously this doesn’t work, since the readers know animals can’t hold a tune!
The farmer sets the dogs onto them, at the wife’s suggestion.
Notice how the characters run backwards through the book during the battle scene. (In English language picture books characters generally move to the right, except when they come up against a hazard or road block… such as dogs.)
If this were of picture book length the story wouldn’t include this next sequence, but a chapter book is a bit more complicated.
The second sequence of the story involves a sit down, a smoke and a change of plans. Now they will go to back to his sty and he will ransack Mr Grahame’s house for the choicest food.
“I know where Mr Grahame keeps his keys — very careless man, Mr Grahame. Put your trust in me, and you shall have cold chicken, tongue, pressed beef, jellies, trifle, and champagne — at least; perhaps more, but that’s the least you’ll have!”
PSYCHOLOGICAL NEED: Here we learn that Bertie doesn’t want to be shown up in front of his friends. He initially promised a feast and he’ll go to great lengths to pull it off.
It’s not Bertie who has the revelation. It is Mr Grahame, via the disturbing dream. Bertie is a comical character, and comical characters don’t often have self-revelations.
The lack of self-revelation is depicted on the final page. He is a ‘pig in muck’.
After this adventure, Bertie is content, we assume, for at least a while. (Until the next adventure.)
Olivia and the Fairy Princesses is the third Olivia book I’m taking a close look at; the first was Olivia, which I really liked; the next was Olivia and the Missing Toy which I really didn’t and now for a story which has garnered Olivia a bit of a reputation among reviewers on social media for being a great feminist read.
The ideology in Olivia and the Fairy Princesses is clear: Little girls don’t need to ALL dress up as pretty pink fairytale princesses if they don’t want to . They don’t even have to be pretty. And if they do want to dress up as a princess, there are plenty of options from other cultures from which to choose.
I live in the Village in New York City, and it has become radically gentrified in the last 15 years. All of these little girls walk around with their wands and their tutus. There are squads of them roving the streets. And Olivia would want none of that.
The story came out of working with my sister, who is also my assistant, and doing the marketing. We oversee as best we can the kind of toys they produce. We kept running into this problem – they all wanted to do pink, pink, pink. I had to say, “No, no, everybody’s doing pink! How many pink tutus can you sell?” Marketing people just want to stick to something safe, I guess.
Olivia and the Missing Toy by Ian Falconer shows Olivia the Pig at her most bratty, and her parents at their most indulgent.
There are several versions of the book cover of Olivia and the Missing Toy, and the dark one is the scarier of the two.
The other is mostly white space, in keeping with most of the Olivia series. This book has a gothic episode in it — a definite spoof, with knowing use of the cliche “dark and stormy night”. Below, Margaret Blount explains one reason Olivia is a pig and not a little girl:
Even more suburbanised is Russell Hoban’s Frances where the child/animal substitution is so complete as to be unnoticeable. Frances the Badger is a small girl afraid of the dark, tucked up in bed but constantly annoying her parents by coming downstairs and interrupting the television. Why make her into an animal at all? The cosy delights of the Badger household — so like a human one — do remove the situation one or two degrees away from discomfort; some children are afraid of the dark, do dislike being alone.
— Margaret Blount, Animal Land
As for Olivia the pig, love her or hate her. Olivia is one popular children’s book character who pisses a lot of parents off, judging by reviews I have read online. While I don’t have a problem with some of the Olivia stories, this particular one annoys the hell out of me. That tends to happen when an adult reader sees a parenting style in a picture book with which we disagree. Here we have a demanding brat, an acquiescent mother and a father who is quick to say ‘I’ll buy you a new one’ after Olivia’s own carelessness with a toy.
I don’t think this is one of Falconer’s best. And it doesn’t just apply to the indulgent parents and bratty child character; the story structure is also a little odd and I don’t think it works. Why not? Let’s take a closer look.
If you’re looking for a chapter book to bridge the gap between beautifully illustrated picturebooks and pictureless novels, the Mercy Watson series is a great option, because the illustrations are just as enticing as any found in a high-production picture book.
STORYWORLD OF MERCY WATSON GOES FOR A RIDE
1960s American suburbia.
Children’s authors and illustrators seem to love this era — in hindsight it feels so safe, with the housewives cheerfully putting on endless spreads of food. For every happy housewife we probably had a Eugenia and a Baby, sisters forced to live together because there was no pay equality, a dearth of husbands after the world wars, and no freedom for a full life outside the confines of marriage. However! This image of suburbia, illustrated in bright, sunny pastel colours by Chris Van Dusen, is a genuine utopia. You’ll find nothing rotten in the basements here. This is a parody of the era, in which everything can be fixed with hot buttered toast.