Come Away From The Water, Shirley by John Burningham 1977

Come Away From The Water, Shirley is a 1977 picture book written and illustrated by British storyteller, John Burningham. A number of adult readers talk about the “two different stories” going on in this book.

Continue reading “Come Away From The Water, Shirley by John Burningham 1977”

Zoo by Anthony Browne (1992)

Zoo is a postmodern picture book written and illustrated by Anthony Browne, first published in 1992. Browne’s story is not a pleasant or easy read, but it does the job it’s meant to. This is a critique of zoos as a fun day out (for children and animals alike), and subverts a long tradition in children’s literature as zoos as an arena for carnivalesque fun.

20th century children’s books set in zoos are not hard to find. Zoos also appear frequently in art aimed at an adult audience:

from Punch, 1867
from Punch, 1867 by Du Maurier
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) Gouache illustration for The New Yorker cover May 26 1945 zoo
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) Gouache illustration for The New Yorker cover May 26 1945 zoo
by Tibor Gergery (1900-1978), 1944 New Yorker Cover fair zoo noah's ark
by Tibor Gergery (1900-1978), 1944 New Yorker Cover
Norman Rockwell Zoo Keeper lion
Norman Rockwell Zoo Keeper lion

SETTING OF

  1. PERIOD — This picture book was published in 1992, a period in which traditional 20th century zoos were starting to reconsider their raison d’être. I’m of the generation who saw that change happen in real time. My early childhood experiences include visits to absolutely horrible zoos, which hadn’t quite gone by the time I was in my late teenage years. The most confronting zoo I visited was the Tokyo Zoo, in 1995 — a concrete establishment bereft of people. I went there with my fellow exchange student peers on a Sunday afternoon exploring central Tokyo and we left in a very dispirited mood. In my hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, I remember seeing a gorilla locked inside a cage about the size of a bedroom. He had nothing to do in there except masturbate, which he did frequently, looking visitors right in the eye. I feel he knew exactly how confronting this was. And I can’t quite fathom how adults felt it was okay to exhibit that gorilla as a spectacle in the very same environment in which talk of masturbation, let alone the spectacle of it, was utterly taboo.
Kabakun is a classic Japanese picture book published in 1962. Told by a boy who visits the zoo for fun, this is about a day in the life of two hippopotamuses. The illustrations make the hippos seem enormous on the page, so this picture book makes an excellent case study in how to achieve that effect. It is not, however, a critique of zoos.
  1. DURATION — Anthony Browne’s Zoo takes place over part of a day. A day trip.
  2. LOCATION — This fictional zoo is positioned in the middle of a busy city. Browne is clear about that — the family gets stuck in a traffic jam in order to get to this artificial wilderness.
  3. ARENA —But even once inside the zoo, Browne’s backdrops offer us glimpses of the surrounding arena, which is completely devoid of greenery. Instead we see the least beautiful parts of humanity.
  4. MANMADE SPACES — I’m talking about the power pylons and the tall buildings, shown to us only in silhouette, making them seem even more ominous.
  5. NATURAL SETTINGS — The story has no natural setting at all, which is entirely the point. Although Browne’s critique of the zoo experience as Not Fun was new to picture books in 1992, there is a lengthy history of children’s storytellers subtley and not so subtley conveying the message that the country is wholesome and the city is dangerous for children, and that cities stifle childhood itself.
  6. WEATHER — If Browne wanted to create a genuine utopia he’d have created a blue sky with plenty of greenery, but in Zoo he does the opposite. The sky is as grey as they concrete zoo inside the concrete jungle of humanity.
  7. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — The zoo itself
  8. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? Politically, animal rights activists were starting to gain traction and the a greater proportion of the general public was starting to think a bit more critically about how we treat animals, especially wild animals, especially endangered species. I’m confident that zoos (and circuses) will one day be no longer a thing that exist. Most zoos in the year 2020 are doing a better job of creating the illusion of nature, and some perhaps genuinely provide a decent life for some of their animals. But there’s still a lot going on behind the scenes that would shock visitors. For instance, the giraffe at our local zoo is a main exhibit, and if you turn up for the talk you’ll hear all about what he eats, how he spends his days, and he’ll come close enough for you to admire his beautiful long lashes. Left out of the child-friendly talk: how a new giraffe was murdered one night in a territory fight, because giraffes are a violent, territorial species, and one zoo ain’t big enough for two males.
  9. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — Here we are talking about the difference between what is real in the veridical world of the story and how a character perceives it — never exactly as it is, but rather influenced by their own preconceptions, biases, desires and personal histories. The characters in this particular story exist on a continuum between laughingly blasé (the father) and quiet, sober and concerned (the mother). The boy who narrates is noticing his parents’ reactions and, at the reflective time of retelling, seems to be making up his own about zoos. At this point he simply knows zoos are not fun. The details he tells us are centred on him, his own family and his own family’s experience of the zoo, not on the experience of the animals. The reader, however, with careful reading of the images, will see the exact ways in which this zoo is not fun: For the empathetic person, a zoo can’t be fun for humans if it’s not fun for animals.

STORY STRUCTURE OF ZOO

PARATEXT

Zoo Anthony Browne cover
Zoo Anthony Browne cover

Unusually for Goodreads, the publishers have said nothing about this book other than:

Winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal.

The most upvoted consumer reviewers fall on a narrow spectrum between ‘I did not like this book’ and ‘I did not like this book but it’s important’.

SHORTCOMING

Zoo by Anthony Browne is an especially good case study in meaningful framing. Illustrators make various use of frames — doorways, windows and arches make for naturalistic architectural divisions of a scene. Frames can be created in other ways, too, for example in the opening image below. This looks like a simple page of portraits but on a re-read you’ll notice that those boxes separate each family member from each other, and the white space between them is the psychological distance between them. This is the story of a family separated from each other by metaphorical bars and white space.

zoo characters introduction
There is a lot of ironic distance between words and pictures in this book. The words say the boys are excited; the facial expressions tell a different story.

Stripes are another symbolic feature of the illustrations, most obviously in the stripy shirt worn by the father, the character most responsible for splitting the family apart.

dad horn clouds
The symbolic stripes (meaning bars on a cage) may need to be pointed out to the youngest readers, but those clouds forming devil horns are not at all subtle, and should alert the most naive of readers to the idea that these pictures contain plenty of symbolic meaning. Seeing these obvious horns, the young reader is encouraged to find more clues in the pictures, in a Where’s Wally kind of way.

The mother doesn’t seem to have any power in this family. She does have a voice, though her observations don’t have any impact on her husband. This is an example of the well-established female maturity principle at work, in which female characters are the people in a story with extra insight, well-developed empathy. It is rare to find a gender inversion of this parental dynamic.

The boys might as well be zoo animals themselves because they are stuck in this family, forced to do whatever the adults require of them. At times they break out and rough and tumble with each other, much like monkeys.

DESIRE

The action is driven by the father, who is the only one in this family who thinks a trip to the zoo would be fun. We are shown this in the car, when the father is the only one to laugh at his own joke. Browne, in turn, makes this into a joke for the reader by saying ‘everyone laughed except’ (everyone else in the car). This solipsistic father has no empathy for the desires of the rest of his family.

However, Browne knows that children in children’s stories need their own desires in order for a story to work, so the boys do have wishes of their own: They want to see the monkeys and apes, not all the other ‘boring’ animals. When they do see the large ape, this will comprise the climax. (Subverted.)

OPPONENT

The parents have their own idea about how the day should pan out. It should be fun, dammit. Even though the boys are hungry, they are not allowed to eat until designated lunchtime. In this respect, the boys are like the animals, who must wait for their feeding time rather than hunting and eating according to their own rhythms.

Browne’s illustrations of the father emphasise his bulk, with worm’s eye views (rather, child-eye views) and in one disturbing picture he has his mouth wide open, similar to depictions of cannibalistic ogres.

The boys are depicted as monkeys. The father makes a joke about their monkey hats, and Browne has emphasised the boys’ faces to better resemble monkeys’ faces. In comparison to the gorilla, these small monkeys are helpless.

PLAN

The adults’ plan: To get value for money by visiting all of the animals. Browne shows us that the father doesn’t want to pay the entry fee because he lies about the son’s age to get a cheaper price. He also doesn’t pay for a map. (I deduce that’s why they don’t have one.) The family is therefore lost within the zoo, which is not at all like a wilderness but functions more like a labyrinth, in which the family are on this path and must walk around and around until allowing themselves a psychological out. No one has forced them into this labyrinth, but as in any mythological labyrinth, there will be a Minotaur at the centre, when the main character reaches the darkest depths of his soul.

THE BIG STRUGGLE/CLIMAX

So who is the Minotaur of this zoo-labyrinth? Is it the father? I believe it’s the father AND the gorilla, who is an absolutely pitiful creature. We don’t even see the gorilla’s face, just the hunched over, completely withdrawn, pathetic figure of a magnificent wild creature with beautiful reddish fur.

Anthony Browne uses the same illustrative trick in his retelling of Hansel and Gretel, in which the stepmother EQUALS the witch. Using illustrations, Browne melds a familiar (family) characater into the supernatural, mythical character, showing the reader that mythological creatures aren’t real, sure, but are even scarier than we thought; they walk among us. They live in our homes.

ANAGNORISIS

The boy narrator does not experience an “Oh my, zoos are horrible! I’m never visiting a zoo again!’ kind of epiphany. It would be unbelievable, and unlike a children’s story, if he did. Joycean epiphanies happen rarely in real life, and postmodern stories reflect that. This child’s naivety is established in the opening, when he uses ‘incorrect’ grammar ‘Me and my brother were really excited’. The introduction itself is naive, written in a ‘what I did on my holiday’ kind of way, as if required by his schoolteacher. One does not become all-seeing and wise over the course of a single outing.

Instead, the boy realises that zoos are not fun, which is just the first step towards full awareness of humans’ relationship to animals, and how far humans have become removed from our natural environments, of small communities, of ready access to nature, and everything that goes with that.

In a story like this this, the reader is supposed to have more of a revelation than the naive narrator. When developmentally reader to do so, the reader picks up the double meaning of the mother’s final observation:

“I don’t think the zoo really is for animals… I think it’s for people.”

First meaning: Zoos are no good for animals. They are good only for people.
Second meaning: Zoos are a type of cage for people, as well as for animals.

The illustration on the recto side of the spread encourages the second reading because now we see a close up of a gorilla not through bars, but through the archetypal storybook window frame, divided into four segments. This family is about to go home, and they talk about eating dinner, and what they will have. In a Magic Eye book kind of way, we can imagine seeing the family through that same frame, eating their burger and chips and beans — foods chosen by Browne specifically for being highly processed, removed from ‘nature’, not through the bars of a zoo, but through the equally restrictive ‘bars’ of a suburban window frame.

NEW SITUATION

That night I had a very strange dream.

Do you think animals have dreams?

The final sentence shows the reader that the boy narrator has finally started to think about the ‘humanity’ of the animals. He’s just starting to look outside the concerns of his own family.

The full-page recto imagery is a wide angle shot of a zoo in silhouette, but most of the page is sky and includes the moon. This functions as an outro shot seen frequently in film — big skies and oceans are commonly used to show the main character has achieved a wider view of the story situation. (Sometimes the storyteller elevates the main character by putting them on a hill or a roof.)

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

This boy could go either way. He could side with his wholly unempathetic same-gender parent and become a big, strong man who laughs and cracks dad jokes and impresses his own thoughts and desires upon everyone around him, using his bulk like a wild male gorilla. Or he could forge a more modern path, using his mother as cue. The final sentence has suggested he’ll take the second path, but sometimes characters in stories have a temporary (“phantasmagoric”) epiphany then go right back to how they were before. (The Literary Impressionists were a fan of this kind of ending.)

RESONANCE

In the 19th century, families used to visit asylums for the insane as family outings. We now call this Asylum Tourism.

Modern families would shudder at asylum tourism, which is why I think future families will, in time, shudder at zoos (and circuses), if not already.

Just A Dream By Chris Van Allsburg

Just A Dream Chris Van Allsburg

Just a Dream by Chris Van Allsburg (1990) is a picture book with an environmental message typical of its era. As part of the corpus of children’s literature with environmental messages, the 1990s offered many excellent children’s book examples of the now-outdated ‘personal responsibility’ message.

Around this time children received the ‘good people recycle’ message. This replaced the ‘good people don’t strew rubbish all over the ground’ message of the 1980s. This was all very comforting. I had a utopian childhood in this regard — I never worried about a dystopian future. So long as I put my own rubbish in the bin and helped sort the recycling, all was well with the world.

For today’s kids, plagued with legitimate fears for the future of the planet, this story must feel like ‘just a dream’.

As you read any picture book by Chris Van Allsburg, admire his versatility with points of view. The first image opens with a low angle (grass roots) shot. Next, we are level with Rose, looking over her shoulder. This encourages us to side with the morality of Rose. Walter is partially hidden behind a hedge fence. Flip the page and Van Allsburg gives us a high angle shot of Walter in the living room. We are now clearly looking down on him, morally as well as actually.

For more on composition in picture books see this post. (The language of film comes in handy.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF JUST A DREAM

The story launches straight into the continuous with just two words indicating the iterative:

As usual, Walter stopped at the bakery on his way home from school.

SHORTCOMING

Walter is immediately established as a character with several of the deadly sins:

  1. This was peak low-fat era, so indulgence in something like a jam donut was considered indicative of an immoderate temperament.
  2. Walter throws the donut rubbish at a fire hydrant rather than putting it in the bin, suggesting extreme negligence in an era when children had the ‘don’t litter’ message hammered into us.
  3. Walter is interested in futuristic dramas on the television. Nothing can disturb him from enjoying his show. Children’s literature of the late 20th collectively establishes that characters who spend a lot of time in front of a screen are bad children. Another example is Mike Teevee of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Thusly, Walter is established as a very specific type of children’s book villain, one I’d hope we see less of now. In books of this era, child villains tend to be:

  • Self-absorbed
  • Ignorant of the world around them
  • Including that of their own immediate environs

These are Walter’s moral shortcomings. We don’t see many highly flawed character for a picture book, which these days are mostly published for preschool readers and star adorable main characters. This is a picture book for older readers.

More modern picture books for older readers will likely flip this morality and point the finger at kids’ Gen X parents. For an example of that see Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing, in which the parents notice nothing of the fantasy steampunk world around them. They are too busy staring at the TV.

Is there some extra morality in there regarding the typical audience of science fiction shows? I’m not sure. Perhaps this is an ironic choice for Walter, who enjoys thinking about fictional futures but who can’t translate that skill into considering his own very real future, and the future of the actual planet. Does an interest in science fiction make someone better able to imagine a real future? Perhaps. Imagination is a muscle that requires workouts. But fantasy can be dangerous if we use it purely as an escape. This is a perhaps a cautionary tale about enjoying science fiction responsibly.

There is also a plot reason for the sci-fi interest — since reality influences dreams, we surmise Walter’s watching a sci-fi show before bed is what prompts the cheese dreams.

DESIRE

It’s pretty clear what Walter wants. He wants to be left alone to eat jam donuts and watch sci-fi on TV.

Walter is a fantasist. I believe this character is named Walter as a nod to the famous Walter Mitty short story.

Walter went to bed wishing he lived in the future. He couldn’t wait to have his own little plane, a robot to sort out the rubbish, and a machine that could make jam doughnuts by the thousands.

OPPONENT

‘The little girl next door’ is a phrase which dates this book. Unseen narrators in modern children’s books don’t talk down to children in this way. By saying ‘little’, the narrator is clearly much older. Compare and contrast with The Lost Thing, which has a first person narrator clearly older (because he tells us he’s older) but the voice is that of a young person.

There’s also probably a bit of benevolent sexism in the phrase ‘little girl’. Illustrations tell us she’s the same age as Walter (not described as little).

I get utterly sick of girls set up as opposition for boy main characters. Paul Jennings did it constantly. I’m probably sick of it because as a child of the 80s and 90s, I grew up on this trope. We didn’t necessarily see a problem with it, because these girl opponents were so often the ‘good’ characters — the voices of reason. But girls as accessories to the character arcs of flawed boy main characters is hugely problematic.

Rose is an opponent to Walter because she cares for the environment. Her name is clearly symbolic, as she is a nature lover.

I feel it’s become a bit naff to love trees. This is unfortunate, because trees remain the very best technology we have for keeping the ecosystem from collapse. We’re in danger of losing sight of his, hoping for some kind of Tech Jesus to come along and fix the climate crisis in one fell swoop. But no one is likely to design a better device than a tree for absorbing carbon dioxide and potentially harmful gases.

In this story though, Rose is presented earnestly. She is genuinely happy to have received a tree for her birthday.

PLAN

When a story stars a character who likes to sit around in front of the TV eating donuts, that character generally doesn’t ‘Plan’, as such, which makes these stories work a bit differently. (After all, every story needs some sort of plan, or proxy plan.)

Just A Dream is a close cousin of the carnivalesque narrative, in which a child -like character is drawn into this playful fantasy world with no other reason other than to have fun. In The Cat In The Hat, a mischievous animal visits two children at home. Here, the carnivalesque adventure happens in a dream. The atmosphere is less playful, more surreal.

Just A Dream Mount Everest

I urge caution with that word ‘surreal‘. In everyday English it’s generally not used how I’m using it here. ‘Surreal’ means ‘hyper real’ — more real than reality. The next level of reality. When Walter is drawn into this fantasy dream, he is being drawn into reality (into an understanding of his real future) rather than away from his day-to-day reality (watching science fiction uncritically).

The child’s bedroom with cutaway wall is a familiar illustrative technique:

Boy and Moon, 1907/ Edward Hopper; 1882-1967
From ‘Sleeping Beauty’ 1970 by Hans Arnold, Swiss emigre illustrator
From ‘Sleeping Beauty’ 1970 by Hans Arnold, Swiss emigre illustrator
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther
1930, illustration By Otto Kuebel
1930 illustration By Otto Kuebel

BIG STRUGGLE

Walter’s dream plays out like a dystopian movie. The disparate parts are connected by a flash back to Walter lying in his bed. Images of the bed are very small on the page, with plenty of white space. This gives out to full bleed double spreads. Why?

  1. The reading experience reason: In contrast, the full bleeds look more amazing
  2. The metaphorical reason: In his real life Walter’s world view is very narrow and constricted (like the bounding box). But in his dream he is able to see the bigger picture (literally).

ANAGNORISIS

Notice that as the story progresses, the image of the bed becomes more fully integrated into the dream world, with aspects of the dream world suffusing the real bed. This indicates that Walter’s world view is being changed by the dystopian dream.

He wakes up and feels terrible. He has realised that the science fiction gizmos of his awake-dreams are not important compared to the need to care for our planet.

This revelation (and guilt) leads to an action: He rushes downstairs and fixes the mess he made of the recycling bin yesterday.

And when he gets a tree for his birthday, he considers this tree the best gift, even beside his laser gun set, electric yo-yo and inflatable dinosaurs.

Some dream!

NEW SITUATION

There is a final plot revelation and it leads to a cosy ending. Walter again dreams of the future, but this time the future is fully grounded in the reality of home. His tree, alongside Rose’s tree, have grown into magnificent shady trees and provide a lot of comfort, not just for himself but for Rose’s great-grandchild.

All is well with the world.

Just A Dream final spread

This dream was clearly not ‘just a dream’.

Have you ever experienced a dream so powerful that you were morally affected?

The Really Ugly Duckling by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

Earlier this month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Earlier this week I looked closely at Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam and Dave Dig A Hole to show how this classic story structure can be turned upside down, ironically. Today ‘s story is The Really Ugly Duckling.

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is a metafictional picture book from 1992, by Jon Scieska and illustrated by Lane Smith. It’s a collection of very short stories, but I’m only going to look at one. Like other tales in the book, The Really Ugly Duckling is a re-visioning of the classic fairy tale The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. To get the gag, the reader is meant to know the original tale, otherwise it’s not so funny.

The Really Ugly Duckling shows writers can break the rules of narrative and create surprise. In this case, Jon Scieszka omits the bit that normally comes after the Big Battle. The fancy word for this part is ‘denouement’. In seven step story structure, the denouement is the final two steps.

If you aren’t going to write the last two steps, you need a good reason, other than, ‘I got sick of this story and called it quits’. Usually, these stories with an abrupt ending aim to make the reader laugh.

There are terms to describe these kinds of stories.

  • If the story ends right before the big big struggle, it’s called a Bolivian Army ending. (The name comes from classic movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. We never get to see the main characters die.)
  • If someone’s been spinning a long-winded, really boring story with lots of pointless detail and then refuses to finishes it off to make you groan, it’s called a Shaggy Dog story. These stories are pretty good and hold your attention. They’re designed to disappoint.
  • A Shaggy Dog story is also known as the Feghoot. A feghoot is described as a short-short story (300 words on average, although 500-word examples exist), ending in a pun or a punchline that is pretty obviously the only reason for the story’s existence. The telling detail in a Feghoot is the groan emitted by the reader/listener when he hits the punchline. A Shaggy Dog tale is more likely to be known as a Feghoot if it’s in written form.
  • Related to the Shaggy Dog story is the Shaggy Frog story. Unlike the Shaggy Dog story, the Shaggy Frog story goes absolutely nowhere.

The Really Ugly Duckling is too short to be a Shaggy Dog story, and there’s no expectation of a big big struggle, so it’s none of those exactly. Instead it simply has No Ending. If there’s a subcategory, it’s Aborted Arc. In other words, there’s no character arc. We expect one, of course, but it has been abandoned.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE REALLY UGLY DUCKLING



WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

At first we’re introduced to the entire family. If you read the really old fairytales, like those transcribed by Charles Perrault, you’ll find that before the story even starts we get a rundown of the main character’s family history, and it’s not even brief. The Charles Perrault version of Sleeping Beauty goes into a whole heap of family stuff we don’t need to know. This re-visioning uses the tradition, sticking pretty closely to it for the first paragraph. So far, so good. We have an ugly duckling, the most interesting character in this otherwise unremarkable family of ducks.

What’s wrong with them?

He’s ugly. Based on a human world, being ugly means you’ll be shunned in this community.

WHAT DOES THE UGLY DUCKLING WANT?

He’s looking forward to growing up. He’s obviously read the original fairytale (like us) so he is comforted by the fact that he’s only temporarily ugly. The illustration shows that he’s not worried about looking ugly. He’s smiling as everyone watches on.

really ugly duckling

But we want him to grow up to be beautiful. The Hans Christian Andersen original is basically a revenge tale. “I used to be ugly, but ha ha, look at me now!” The Ugly Duckling is the original makeover trope.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Ugliness in itself wouldn’t be a problem if peeps (and cheeps) weren’t so judgey.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

To grow up and become beautiful. In the meantime, don’t care. This subverts the characterisation of the original duckling, who cared a lot what others thought of him.

BIG BIG STRUGGLE

Turn the page and you get massive font, suggesting a shouty argument:

Well, as it turned out, he was just a really ugly duckling. And he grew up to be just a really ugly duck. The end.

There is no big struggle within the story itself.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

Nothing, but we readers learn we’ve been tricked. That’s the thing about postmodern picture books like this one. The reader is very much part of the story. The characters talk to us. It is likely us who changes rather than the fictional characters.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON

It won’t! It really won’t.

As you can see, Jon Scieszka created a gag by chopping off the last three steps of your typical story.

He subverted our expectations, using our ‘intertextual’ knowledge of the Hans Christian Andersen original.

It’s a decent gag.

The writers of SpongeBob Squarepants like it too:

spongebob parody humour
Here we have a parody of a fairytale such as The Ugly Duckling.

Eric by Shaun Tan Picture Book

Eric book cover

Eric is a miniature, post-modern picture book by Australian author illustrator Shaun Tan. This simple story says big things about cultural difference.

NOTES ON THE COVER OF ERIC

Eric’s cover is inviting; the embossed title and author are both prominently displayed, taking about a third of the already small space. Yet even here there is playfulness and subversion. There is no capitalisation on the page, and the dot of the ‘i’ in ‘eric’ has been displaced, appearing slightly to the left above the ‘r.’ Already, we have the implication that not all the rules will obeyed, and that Eric himself is a little different. This idea is reinforced by the image on the cover. Against the mottled green background suggestive of Eric’s jungle origins, Eric peeps up, dominating the lower half of the spread whilst remaining intriguing and inviting the reader to look further. 

Unlikely Normal  

A similar cover layout is used on the Judy Moody covers by Megan McDonald:  

judy-moody

  Another author whose books often avoid adult-like punctuation such as capitalisation is Lauren Child, whose own name is known for being lower case, like bell hooks:  

that-pesky-rat-lauren-child

  For artists who eschew capitalisation of their names, it’s often because they are making a statement against prescriptivism, and the rules set down by adults. The practice may also symbolise rejection of the ego.  

THE MINIATURE

Only in picture books do you regularly find the size and shape of the book itself has something to do with the content. This green version of Eric is only about as big as your hand.

Notice the peanut: Eric uses a peanut for suitcases. We see the peanut again at the end of the story, with a single peanut on a dinner plate. Surely the family isn’t suddenly eating peanuts for dinner? What is the significance of this?

Since the peanut was used as a suitcase, the peanut now stands in for travel and foreignness. The family’s own dinner may now feel foreign to them, now that they’ve had a glimpse of another culture. The peanut is of course used commonly in the West to symbolise the miniature, further linking the peanut to Eric. When set upon a dinner plate, its small size is emphasised. I don’t believe the family is really eating a peanut for dinner. I believe the peanut is a symbol.

Eric is included in the (full size) Shaun Tan collection: Tales From Outer Suburbia. However, just as an anthology of Beatrix Potter stories doesn’t do justice to the individual tales compared to the individual, child-sized editions, Eric is best experienced in miniature, as I’m sure it was designed to be read. Page breaks and publication size are more important than sometimes given credit.

Hannah Love explains the significance of the page breaks:

The first page has no picture, and indeed Tan never places words and pictures on the same side of the gutter; the spreads may be two images, two paragraphs of narration, or text on one page and image on the other. This separation fully emphasises the two different stories and the division between them, and even creates comic effect in places, such as the account of Eric studying displayed opposite a picture of the tiny Eric having to stand on the book in the middle of his page to read.

Unlikely Normal
Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan Cover

Eric is similar to The Lost Thing (written and illustrated by the same author) in that:

  1. The narrator is a first person character, though off stage in this story
  2. It’s set a number years in the past, with the storyteller looking back
  3. The main character is a strange creature who comes from another place/time/dimension, who disappears before the end.
  4. The narrator wonders if this strange creature is happy.
  5. The creature in this story is interested in small things whereas the boy in The Lost Thing is the one who is the noticer. (Noticing this creature is a noticer is itself a form of noticing… mise en abyme.)
  6. Behind the doors, in the darkness, is a world full of interesting artifacts.
  7. The narrator is encouraged at the end to wonder what it all means.

ERIC AS A POSTMODERN PICTUREBOOK

What is a postmodern picturebook?

Eric may not seem like a typical postmodern picture book. It is tiny (15cmx12cm) in comparison to many of its counterparts, lacking the large double spreads that allow for hugely detailed drawings. Yet on closer examination, the book’s inter-relationship of text and image is as complex as its contemporaries; being playful whilst simultaneously breaking boundaries. With the combination of a matter-of-fact narrative and endearing pencil drawings of the diminutive aspects of Eric which are never mentioned in the text, Tan effectively explores issues of identity and cultural difference. Grigg (2003) claims that visual images create bridges between cultures and languages, and Tan plays with this idea, showing how determination to appreciate our own culture can be detrimental to acknowledging the culture of others, a particular danger in a multicultural society. He defines Eric as being about a kind of misunderstanding and cultural miscommunication. According to Tan, the character of Eric is based on a combination of a foreign guest that Tan had to stay, and his own budgerigar. This creates a book that opposes … speculation that modern life undermines childhood as a time of play and engaging with the natural world. Eric and his fascination with the world around him show a childlike innocence compromised by an adult narrator who is baffled by and unable to fully interact with his/her guest.

Unlikely Normal

STORY STRUCTURE OF ERIC

The main character is the storyteller narrator.

SHORTCOMING

This kid (I assumed it is a boy, but she could just as easily be a girl) is overconfident about her ability to explain her world to a newcomer. She feels she knows her own world very well. But her Shortcoming is that she can’t possibly know her own world until she experiences someone else’s.

Because what is her point of reference?

DESIRE

She is looking forward to teaching an exchange student everything about her local environs. This will make her feel like an expert. She will feel heard. She will feel important and useful.

OPPONENT

Eric, however, is not on the same wavelength at all. He asks her questions that simply can’t be answered. This means she doesn’t get to feel like the expert anymore. She never predicted these questions. She didn’t realise there was anything odd about things which are, to her, banal.

eric-illustration

Eric the exchange student, I believe, is a metonym for ‘foreign culture’.

PLAN

Shaun Tan tends to be very specific about the plan part of his narratives:

I had planned for us to go on a number of weekly excursions together, as I was determined to show our visitor the best places in the city and its surrounds.

Despite the past participle, they did go on these excursions, but while the narrator wanted to show Eric the local landmarks, Eric was only interested in little things. For example, at the zoo, Eric sees only the elephant’s foot. This reminds me of the parable The Blind Men And The Elephant.

“The Blind Men And The Elephant” was published in 1873 as part of a collection of rhymes and poems by John Godfrey Saxe. Saxe (1816-87) baed his moral tale — more of a parable in the guise of a rhyme — upon a story of Indian origin that he called a ‘Hindoo Fable’. It is probably quite ancient in origin, as similar tales are told in other religions, including Buddhism, Sufism, Islam and Jainism. In each, the number of blind men varies and sometimes they are not blind at all, but men in a darkened room with an elephant (clearly the only elephant in a room not to be ignored). The Hindu version of the tale goes something like this:

One day three blind men met, as usual, and sat under their favourite tree, talking about many things. All of a sudden, one of them said, ‘I have heard that an elephant is a strange creature.’ Another replied, ‘Yes, it is too bad we are blind and do not have the good fortune to see this strange beast.’ But the third said, ‘Why do we need to see? Just to feel it would be wonderful.’ At that moment a passing merchant with a group of elephants came conveniently along and overheard their conversation. ‘You fellows,’ he called, ‘if you really want to feel an elephant then come with me.’ The three blind men were surprised but very happy. Taking each other by the hand, they quickly followed the merchant and began to speak excitedly about how the animal would feel and how they would form an image of it in their minds.

When they reached the elephants, the merchant told two of them to sit on the ground and wait while he led the first man to one of the beasts. With an outstretched arm, the man touched one of the elephant’s front legs and then the other, stroking each from top to bottom. ‘So’, he said, ‘the strange animal is just like that.’ Then the second man was led to the elephant. With an outstretched arm, he touched the creature on the trunk, stroking it up and down and from side to side. ‘Ah! So now I know, I truly know!’ he cried. The third man encountered the elephant’s tail and wagged it from side to side. ‘That’s it,’ he said, ‘now I know too.’

The three blind men thanked the merchant and returned to their spot under the tree, each one excited about what he had learned. The first man said, ‘This strange animal is just like two big trees, without any branches.’ Luckily, he was unable to see the expressions on his friends’ faces, for they were horrified. ‘No, no!’ they cried in disbelief at what they had just heard. The second man then said, ‘This animal is like a snake, long, strong and flexible.’ ‘What!’ exclaimed the third man. ‘You are both quite wrong. the elephant resembles a fly whisk, swishing from side to side.’

They argued about this for days, each insisting that he alone was correct, and of course, as Saxe points out in the conclusion to his rhyme — all three of them were partly in the right / and all of them were wrong. The moral is that nobody can claim to fully understand a subject until they have grasped — in this case, quite literally — the whole thing. Even then, it is never possible to know the full truth about something, simply because everyone, however knowledgeable or experienced will view it in a different way. Hence, on a deeper level, the elephant can be seen as reality, and we are all the blind men, each of us able to perceive only a tiny part of a much greater whole.

Pop Goes The Weasel: The secret meaning of nursery rhymes by Albert Jack

In short, I believe Shaun Tan has chosen the detail of the elephant’s foot in reference to this ancient parable, turning Tan’s contemporary story of Eric into a parable as well, though its moral is less clearly spelt out: Our own countries are our own separate pieces of the elephant.

This intertextual detail is followed by ordinary, more relatable ones: At the casino Eric gets onto the table and looks at a chip. At the movies he is taken by a dropped piece of popcorn.

BIG STRUGGLE

I might have found this a little exasperating, but I kept thinking about what Mum had said, about the cultural thing. Then I didn’t mind so much.

The Battle is with herself — between the self that wants to show Eric everything she knows, and the self that’s open to learning from the foreigner.

We see more of this psychological big struggle at the dinner table when ‘There was much speculation over dinner later that evening. Did Eric seem upset?’ and so on.

ANAGNORISIS

In Shaun Tan’s work, Anagnorisiss are often accompanied by images of doors and windows.

In this particular story we see Eric fly out the window on a leaf and flower sail.

It actually took us a while to realise he wasn’t coming back.

The window, however, comes before the Battle scene.

So in this case we have a door: the pantry door functioning as symbolic anagnorisis. Always look at whether a door is open or shut, because the meaning is highly dependent upon that.

NEW SITUATION

Although Eric has gone for good, he has left as a gift a different worldview for his host family. They will never see their own environs in quite the same way, ever again. They’ve seen another piece of the elephant.

This is the reason often cited for hosting exchange students. Other people think they’re doing an exchange student a favour by hosting them, without anticipating the benefits they’ll derive themselves.

Shaun Tan, in this picture book, has conveyed these two views with poignancy.

SEE ALSO

Another story with fetching illustrations of a very small character living in a human-scale world is Little Tom (1922).

Little Tom – 1922 Told by V. Tille Illustration by O. Stafl
Little Tom – 1922 Told by V. Tille Illustration by O. Stafl
Eric is a miniature, post-modern picture book by Australian author illustrator Shaun Tan. This simple story says big things about cultural difference.
Little Tom – 1922 Told by V. Tille Illustration by O. Stafl 03

The Lost Thing By Shaun Tan

“The Lost Thing” is an Australian postmodern picture book by Shaun Tan.

Interestingly, the flap copy manages to describe the theme in a metafictional kind of way:

I guess you want to know what this book is about, just by reading this cover flap. Fair enough too; time is short, lives are busy, and most smart, thinking people have better things to do than stand around looking at picture books about some big red thing being lost in a strange city…

This is basically a critique of people wandering through life not noticing things.

The narrator’s parents are too busy keeping up with current events. This reminds me of a Freakonomics podcast Why Do We Really Follow The News?

tl;dl: We follow the news to seem smart. We follow news for entertainment, treating politics like a kind of sport. But does following news really make you smarter, or do you just seem smarter? Are you following the right amount of news, or is your interest in current events perhaps leaving you without time for the small things in your immediate surrounds?

The final page is again metafictive: “And don’t ask me what the moral is.” This is a nod to the fact that children’s books are expected to have morals (even though the best and latest ones don’t at all.)

Readers will bring their own meanings to this story. I’m inclined to see stories as metaphors for autism. The boy’s massive collection of bottle tops is one clue, as is the fact that he is able to notice things others don’t. He’s offered a sign and “I can’t say I knew what it all meant.” There is a popular view of autism as illness, in which an autistic child is expected to learn to fit in with allistics in order to get on in life. Social skills can indeed be learned, but only at the expense of losing that highly individual part of yourself.

More widely, this could be a story about any child with an unusual worldview who, by social conditioning, is gradually forced into adult conformity.

CHARACTER

shaun-tan-lost-thing-characters

The first person narrator is ‘the every child’ — at the moment in children’s literature the every boy is white, and a boy, not a girl.

development-of-the-boy-shaun-tan_1000x1502

Unusually for children’s book narrators, this is a knowing adult looking back at an incident from his childhood with somewhat renewed insight. This kind of narrator is more often encountered in adult fiction (about childhood experiences) and is probably the thing that makes this story feel like a crossover book. Like other work from this artist, The Lost Thing is not a children’s book, per se. It’s more of an art artifact, or a coffee table book.

I say ‘somewhat renewed insight’ because the narrator admits on the very first page that he has forgotten a lot of stories so he’ll just tell this low-key one instead.

Pete is your stoner sage archetype who ‘has an opinion on everything’. (He seems a bit stoner because he puts ‘man’ at the ends of his sentence.) I’m thinking Harris Trinsky from Freaks and Geeks. TV Tropes calls this the Erudite Stoner.

Some stories subvert the trope. You might have some stoner dishing out advice that’s counterproductive. (E.g. Little Miss Sunshine.)

What’s Shaun Tan done here? While Pete’s advice isn’t total nonsense, it feels about as deep as a Facebook meme. Tan is definitely spoofing the archetype: “He paused for dramatic effect”.

The parents are a boring middle-aged couple who are depicted staring at the TV. The message here is that when we become absorbed in media we stop noticing things going on around us, even though they’re really obvious. And the red thing is, ironically, really obvious. It’s huge. It’s red. When you (the reader) look at that thing you can’t help but wonder what it’s for and what it does.

lost-thing

STORY WORLD OF THE LOST THING

This world is a bit steampunk. It’s full of contraptions that we don’t recognise (including the lost thing itself.)

lost-thing-steam-punk

This is a world from perhaps the 1980s, when intriguing people and advice could be garnered from the back pages of a newspaper. (I’m probably the last generation to know what sorts of things were found there.)

The television is the old cathode ray tube type which is way more fun to draw than a plasma screen, and which is dying a slow death in picture books. (For various reasons I chose to draw a CRT TV in my own picture book app Midnight Feast, even though it’s set in the near future. So I understand this completely.)

The following image is Tan’s re-imagining of a famous Australian painting by artist Jeffrey Smart:

shaun-tan-jeffrey-smart

And here’s the 1959 Smart painting, called “The Cahill Expressway”:

cahill-expressway-1959

The Cahill Expressway is in Sydney.

This painting has been the inspiration for many Australian artists, and there is even a collection of short stories, all inspired by the painting. (The book is called Expressway.)

I wonder if Smart’s painting was even influential for Colin Stimpson (though Stimpson is not Australian) when he wrote and illustrated Jack and The Baked Beanstalk.

stimpson_baked_beanstalk

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE LOST THING

SHORTCOMING

The boy as every child means that the shortcoming/need is cast upon the reader: We are all too busy fitting in to notice little things (and also, probably, very big things!) that are right under our noses. We need to stop and look at world. This is metafictive in a less obvious way; picture books require readers to slow down and study the pages in a way no other medium really does. You won’t be able to read this picture book properly unless you linger on the illustrations.

DESIRE

The boy wants to know more about this big red thing, and know that it’s happy and safe.

OPPONENT

The natural opponent is wider society, disinclined to look after the odd things that don’t fit anywhere. This ‘society’ is personified by the parents, who need the Lost Thing pointed out, and even when it’s pointed out, they take no real interest in it.

PLAN

He brings it home and houses it in the shed, but he’s worried his parents are going to find it.

So when he happens upon an advertisement in the back of the newspaper he goes on a mission to find out where this thing fits in.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle is the mythic journey that the boy must embark upon after he finds the sign with the squiggly arrow. It’s a battle finding out where the Lost Thing fits because he has to work it out himself.

ANAGNORISIS

The anagnorisis is symbolised with a literal door open, and a big red button. The boy learns that there is a whole other world full of non-conforming things right behind the boring veneer of society.

NEW SITUATION

The unhappy ending is that this boy is an adult now and can hardly remember any of the amazing things he knew of as a child.

RESONANCE

The idea that adults don’t pay enough attention once we monotropically become sophisticated workers with specialised skills is not new since the smartphone, in case you were wondering. It’s an old idea and I doubt it’s going anywhere soon.

The following illustration is from 1966.

Lift Up Thine Eyes Norman Rockwell 1966
Lift Up Thine Eyes Norman Rockwell 1966

Rules Of Summer by Shaun Tan Story Structure

On the surface, Shaun Tan’s award-winning picture book Rules Of Summer is simply a list of rules. Below I take a look at how Rules Of Summer is in fact a complete narrative.

There is also a message here. Readers are asked to wonder: What are the real rules of summer? Play together. Use your imaginations. Work out your differences.

STORY STRUCTURE OF RULES OF SUMMER

Does this picture book — more like a coffee table book of art in some ways — follow the universal seven steps of narrative? Yes, it does, though it requires the reader to provide some of that story. Shaun Tan doesn’t hand it to us on a plate.

Sure enough, Rules Of Summer  is a complete narrative, and this is what makes the book resonant.

SHORTCOMING

Two brothers are faced with a long summer and they must learn to entertain themselves and how to get along.

DESIRE

They want to have fun

OPPONENT

Each other

PLAN

They turn everyday situations into imaginary scenarios to fight the boredom of long, never-ending days of summer holidays.

BIG STRUGGLE

Notice the pictures get darker. Especially the skies.

They have a fist-fight. The older brother wins. The younger brother feels isolated as he waits for an apology.

ANAGNORISIS

If he waits long enough, the older brother will eventually come back to him. This emotional state is depicted as a snowy, cold landscape, juxtaposing against the summery backdrop of an Australian summer. (And summers here in Australia are pretty much the opposite of snowy and cold.)

The Symbolism of Seasons is important in Rules of Summer.

NEW SITUATION

The boys sit together on the couch looking at the TV.

What does it mean when characters in books watch TV, or perhaps their computers? It almost always means they have stopped noticing things going on around them, preferring to slip into the world of other people’s fantasy. In Shaun Tan’s “The Lost Thing”, the parents watch TV while failing to see the amazing things all around them.

What about these boys? Why have they decided to watch TV? Perhaps it is safer, because the fantasy world on the other side of the screen feels less real than the imaginary (or real-to-them) local environs — TV as safe escape.

But have they learned to get along?

Have they learned to entertain themselves?

Hansel and Gretel by Anthony Browne

Hansel and Gretel is one of the best-known fairytales. Almost everybody knows the basic story but, more than that, this tale is the ur-story for many seemingly unrelated modern ones. For example, whenever a character meets a character in a ‘forest’ (whether the forest is symbolic or not), the audience is put in mind of wicked cannibalistic witches.

Let’s face it: The tale itself is basically terrifying. Anthony Browne, with his postmodern approach to its retelling, does not shy away from the terror.

‘Sweetened’ Versions of Hansel and Gretel

Ladybird Hansel and Gretel

My kid does not like the Anthony Browne version of Hansel and Gretel. For her it is too scary. She doesn’t like the dark version illustrated by Lorenzo Mattoti, either, preferring the cheap Ladybird edition with its brighter colours. This might explain why many illustrators of Hansel and Gretel — and there have been many — are not interested in what the story is really about, because the original is just too horrible.

The sweetening of this tale started with the Grimm brothers, who needed to make money to support their collection hobby, so they rewrote some of the horrible tales into versions they considered appropriate for middle class children.

in the dark woods

The Grimm Brothers Made It Worse, As Usual

By that I mean, they made it horribly patriarchal. And we’ve been using their version ever since, sweetening it up a little, but the basic patriarchal message is the same:

The Grimm brothers rewrote and refined their version of the tale before it was published in 1857. It bears little resemblance to the original oral tale told to Wilhelm in 1810. While the mother figure is clearly demonized in this story, the father’s involvement in abandoning his children is carefully downplayed.

from Carolyn Daniel’s book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The main differences in the oral version:

  • The opponent was originally a mother, not a stepmother. The Grimm brothers obviously thought that having your blood mother turn on you was too scary. They did retain the shortened form of ‘mother’ in some passages though.
  • The mother/stepmother grows harsher.
  • The father grows more introspective and milder.
  • Wilhelm made the tale more dramatic, more literary, and more sentimental. For example, the children’s escape from the sinister woods across a large body of water, one at a time, on the back of a duck. In the original they simply run home.

Anthony Browne’s Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel Anthony Browne book cover

Anthony Browne is one writer/illustrator who does understand what this tale is really about, though he does go with something more like the Grimm modification rather than the original, oral tale.

This is no sweetened version. The fact that this is a modern setting, with a TV and a step-mother who smokes cigarettes, and that they live in a brownstone detached house mean that the child reader can no longer pretend abandonment and famine happen only in ‘fairytale land’.

dining room table
The mother does not consider herself a part of the family, based on her refusal to sit at the dinner table. Instead she gazes into the TV.
walking into the woods

Here’s the thing Browne underscores the most:

The mother and the witch are the same person.

In Hansel and Gretel, the mother figure is split … and clearly has cannibalistic desires.

from Carolyn Daniel’s book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Daniels further explains the double/duplicitous/split nature of the (step)mother/witch with the help of some 20th C psychoanalysis:

The witch locks Hansel up in a cage and wakes Gretel up by yelling: “Get up you lazybones! I want you to fetch some water and cook your brother something nice. He’s sitting outside in a pen, and we’ve got to fatten him up. Then, when he’s fat enough, I’m going to eat him.”

This is a portrait of a powerful cannibalistic woman, the bad mother, who is directly juxtaposed with the good mother figure. Two facets of the mother figure are represented in this fairy tale: the evil, threatening, cannibalistic one embodied by the witch/stepmother and the comforting, feeding persona initially presented by the old woman to lure the children. The link between the stepmother and the witch is made explicitly — they both wake the children with the phrase “Get up, you lazybones” and they are both dead by the end of the story: the stepmother is the facet of the bad mother/breast who denies the children nourishment and abandons them; the witch is the mother/breast who threatens to retaliate. The duplicitousness of the bad mother is also emphasized: in her manifestation as the stepmother she pretends to be as pleased when the children find their way home; as the witch she pretends to be a kind, generous, good mother in order to lure the children into her house.

stepmother and shadow
The mother equals the witch. The clue is in the way her shadow is cast, and the way the curtains form a witch’s hat in the perfect position.

Oral Aggression?

Bruno Bettelheim [who was a total asshole, by the way — I can’t write about him without slipping that in there] considers “Hansel and Gretel” to be a tale about a child’s inappropriate oral aggression, that “gives body to the anxieties and learning tasks of the young child who must overcome and sublimate his primitive incorporative and thus destructive desires.” But it is noteworthy that in this tale the children are orally nonaggressive. They do break off pieces of the house and “nibble” them but then they are about to “perish of hunger and exhaustion” (Grimms.) It is the witch who is aggressive and cannibalistic, but Bettelheim does not discuss this.

Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

the cottage made of sweets

Hansel and Gretel and Child Development

killing the witch
When children defeat a witch in a fairy tale this signifies separation from mother — a necessary stage in psychic development.

I’m no Freudian, but here’s some quoted psychoanalysis if you like.

freud's_psychosexual_stages

It is interesting to consider the ending of the tale in terms of psychoanalytic notions of child development. The children’s task is to escape the clutches of the devouring mother and to proceed from the oral phase to the oedipal stage and a meaningful relationship with their father. They live in her house for a month while she feeds Hansel on “the very best food” and waits for him to get fatter. Hansel, then, partakes of the good breast while Gretel, who “got nothing but grab shells” to eat, is denied it. They are clearly in the oral, pre-oedipal phase. By threatening to eat Hansel, the witch/bad mother clearly intends to incorporate and psychically obliterate him. Gretel kills the witch/bad mother by pushing her into the oven so that she is “miserably burned to death”. The threat of incorporation she poses is thus neutralized.

Since the children have now successfully separated from the witch/mother, they are able to reenter her house/domain “since they no longer had anything to fear.” There are children find “chests filled with pearls and jewels all over the place” and they fill pockets and apron with this treasure before leaving the house for good. Tracy Willard contends that while the good mother is not reclaimed literally or explicitly in this tale, she is symbolically reclaimed through the treasure the children find in her house. I suggest that this tale illustrates the process whereby children reconcile themselves to the duality of the mother; her presence and absence, her giving and withholding of food, and the gratification and frustration that result. The children in the tale not only kill off the bad mother but they also leave behind the oral phase. When they arrive at the house in the forest, all they are interested in is food (gratification from a maternal source), but when they leave the house/maternal domain they take treasure (economic wealth associated with the father) with them which enriches their lives, so that they can enter the paternal oedipal domain, and live with their father in “utmost joy”.

Willard […] sees the children’s home (or mother’s body) as a place that becomes hostile to them, expelling them into the forest and denying them food. They try to return but are rejected and thrust out to fend for themselves. The children find a house in the woods that appears to offer them what they desire (a return to the mother’s body) but it turns out to be a trap. Thus “the dangers of returning home are clearly outlined.” The children, Willard argues, must deal with the image of the split mother so that they can attain “a fully integrated image of the mother”. They do this by committing matricide, an act which Kristeva argues is the clearest path to autonomy. By killing the witch/bad mother, the children are free to return to their father, but they take with them the “best parts” of the split mother figure, symbolically represented by the jewels. […] The symbolism of food and the theme of eating (including cannabilism) in the story have profound psychic resonances with infantile anxieties relating to the mother which is arguably why the story continues to be popular.

Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The Role Of The Father and ‘Mothers In Fridges’?

But what of the role of the father in this tale? The Grimm brothers’ version celebrates the oedipal complex and reinforces patriarchal hegemony. As Zipes argues, this story twice demonizes the omnipotent mother figure but it also, significantly, was rewritten by the Grimms in order to rationalize the abandonment of the children by their father and to bolster phallocentric discourses.Hansel and Gretel must, Zipes argues, “seek solace and security in a father, who becomes their ultimate authority figure” while the mother is conveniently killed off. This situation marries with Jessica Benjamin’s theorization of object relations whereby the child identifies with the mother and maternal power and turns to the father for help in order to overcome the perceived negative aspects of the mother. However, once his help/authority has been accepted the father figure remains in control, continues to dictate the child’s life, and can be “benevolent or sadistic”. Patriarchal hegemony and phallocentric logic are thus reinforced in the Grimms’ narrative and the outcome is rendered natural or rational.

Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
reunited with dad
water from the well

SYMBOLISM IN “HANSEL AND GRETEL”

The Red Shoes

witch shape in curtains

What do you associate red shoes with? Perhaps you associate them with the film version of The Wizard of Oz, in which the bad witch is squished under the house, her ruby slippers poking out?

Ruby Slippers Oz

The Red Shoes is a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, so not of the Grimm variety, but ‘fairytale’ enough for readers to get the possible meaning in the picture above, in which red shoes sit next to the mirrored wardrobe door.

A peasant girl named Karen is adopted by a rich old lady after her mother’s death and grows up vain and spoiled. Before her adoption, Karen had a rough pair of red shoes; now she has her adoptive mother buy her a pair of red shoes fit for a princess. After Karen repeatedly wears them to church, they begin to move by themselves, but she is able to get them off. One day, when her adoptive mother becomes ill, Karen goes to a party in her red shoes. A mysterious soldier appears and makes strange remarks about what beautiful dancing shoes Karen has. Soon after, Karen’s shoes begin to move by themselves again, but this time they can’t come off. The shoes continue to dance, night and day, rain or shine, through fields and meadows, and through brambles and briers that tear at Karen’s limbs. She can’t even attend her adoptive mother’s funeral. An angel appears to her, bearing a sword, and condemns her to dance even after she dies, as a warning to vain children everywhere. Karen begs for mercy but the red shoes take her away before she hears the angel’s reply. Karen finds an executioner and asks him to chop off her feet. He does so but the shoes continue to dance, even with Karen’s amputated feet inside them. The executioner gives her a pair of wooden feet and crutches, and teaches her the criminals’ psalm. Thinking that she has suffered enough for the red shoes, Karen decides to go to church so people can see her. Yet her amputated feet, still in the red shoes, dance before her, barring the way. The following Sunday she tries again, thinking she is at least as good as the others in church, but again the dancing red shoes bar the way. Karen gets a job as a maid in the parsonage, but when Sunday comes she dares not go to church. Instead she sits alone at home and prays to God for help. The angel reappears, now bearing a spray of roses, and gives Karen the mercy she asked for: her heart becomes so filled with sunshine, peace, and joy that it bursts. Her soul flies on sunshine to Heaven, where no one mentions the red shoes.

Wikipedia summary
pink fripperies

The pink fripperies spilling out of the dresser drawers suggest several things about this step-mother:

  1. She is not a good housewife (when the implication is that a good housewife is also a good mother, and that being a good housekeeper is the job of the woman.
  2. That women who are over-the-top feminine — look at all the feminine accoutrements, signified by the colour pink — are over-the-top vain. The mirror adds to the impression of vanity, and we will subconsciously conjure up Snow White and the magic mirror in that tale.

Note that the step-mother has not one but two mirrors in her bedroom, which is considered excessively vain, but apart from that, there’s the whole ‘witch/mother’ mirroring going on.

CANNIBALISM

10 Historic Famines That Caused Cannibalism

Repulsive as it sounds in times of plenty, cannibalism in times of famine isn’t all that unusual.

George Devereaux, citing “Multatuli (1868),” pseudonym of novelist Edward Douwes Dekker, reports that during medieval famines and “even during the great postrevolutionary famine in Russia” the “actual eating of one’s children or the marketing of their flesh” occurred. He concludes that “the eating of children in times of food shortage is far from rare.”

Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Maria Tatar argues that although mothers did eat their children, it was generally only due to mental derangement caused by her own starvation. In medical/legal documents it was always a baby who was eaten rather than an older child.

In modern literature, there is a horrific scene in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in which the main characters happen across a baby being roasted on a spit. It seems McCarthy, also, understands that babies are more likely to be eaten than older children in times of famine.

Paternal cannibalism is of a different nature and can be seen in The Juniper Tree (sometimes called The Almond Tree). In cases where the father eats his child in a fairytale, Tatar sees it as an expression of ‘biological ownership through incorporation’. The child can (in a strange sort of way) live on via being made into the father’s own body. The father in the Juniper Tree is not cast as good or evil in the same way fairy tale mothers are.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH HANSEL AND GRETEL

Other fairytales that start in a time of famine:

  • Tom Thumb
  • The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn
  • God’s Food
  • The Sweet Porridge — better known in English speaking countries as The (Magic) Porridge Pot
  • The Children of Famine — exemplifies the plight of families unable to feed their kids. The mother becomes unhinged and desperate when she is unable to feed her own children.
  • Little Red Riding Hood also has cannibalistic elements which are sometimes sanitised. This tale is pretty much the only European tale in which a good — a good girl no less — is involved in cannibalism.

Anthony Browne wasn’t the first to take two separate women from “Hansel and Gretel” and merge them together as one. In her short story “Angel Maker” (1996), Sara Maitland Maitland rewrites ”Hansel and Gretel” from the perspective of the witch. Over her adult lifetime, Gretel regularly visits the witch for abortions. At the age of 38 she now wishes to become pregnant, and this time visits the witch for a different reason. The witch and Gretel are the same person.

Intertextuality of Into The Forest by Anthony Browne

Into The Forest by Anthony Browne is story book, part ‘toy book’. Young readers learn to look at pictures and search for intertextuality, as each illustration links to a well-known fairytale. This makes the book popular for classroom use, along with the Shrek films and modern stories with fairytales as ur-texts.

Anthony Browne writes postmodern picturebooks and Into The Forest is an excellent example of intertextuality.

WHAT IS INTERTEXTUALITY?

The relationship ‘between texts’.

No work of literature stands entirely alone. Readers bring a lot to a story, including their entire lives until that point, but also every story they’ve ever been exposed to. When an author points the reader’s attention to another text, this technique is known as ‘intertextuality’.

STORY STRUCTURE IN INTO THE FOREST BY ANTHONY BROWNE

Shortcoming/Need

The boy is lonely without his father.

Lightning scene from Into The Woods by Anthony Browne
Lightning as portrayed in picture books and comics is often a very different kind of zig-zagged yellow shape, but when an illustrator chooses realism, the lightning bolt takes on a different level of scary.
Daddy Come Home 1913 composed by Irving Berlin, art by John Frew
Daddy Come Home 1913 composed by Irving Berlin, art by John Frew

Desire

We get a hint about the desire before the story even starts, in fact, on the internal title page, where there’s a sign pasted to the window saying ‘Come home Dad’.

Opponent

In “Into The Woods” there is an unseen opponent. The boy’s own anxieties about his father at war are preventing his happiness.

Plan

To take his mind off the loneliness, the boy’s mother asks him to take a basket of goodies to his grandmother’s house. She tells him to go the long way round to avoid the forest. But the boy plans to ignore this advice for the first time ever, in case his father comes home early.

Big Struggle

This is a mythic journey through a forest in which a boy encounters a variety of characters then ends up back home, having changed fundamentally as a person. The big struggle is a psychological one, symbolised by the increasingly knotted and gnarly trees and the worsening weather.

Hansel and Gretel from Into The Forest by Anthony Browne
The tree looks as if a clawed hand waits at its base — at least, you think it might look like a clawed hand, but not quite. Can you trust your own imagination? Are you meant to think that?

The real life big struggle is off the page — only in the illustrations do we get hints that the father is a soldier off at war. There’s the soldier in the boy’s bedroom, missing one leg, and the light over the dinner table shaped like a hard helmet, with its bulb melting into the shape of a tear. The empty chair casts bar-like shadows against the wall suggesting lack of freedom and imprisonment. This is all postmodern stuff.

Anagnorisis

In this highly metaphorical story, the boy learns that although being lonely and worried about your father is scary, it is possible to make it through a forest of anxiety and come out all right at the other end.

New Situation

The boy is safe in the comfort of home, along with both parents there to protect him. The child reader is given not one but two reassuring images at the end — first the scene at grandma’s house, then again when the boy returns home with his father. This double reassurance compensates for the scary images on the previous pages.

INTERTEXTUALITY IN THE ILLUSTRATION OF INTO THE FOREST BY ANTHONY BROWNE

BLACK AND WHITE PALETTE

This particular book is a great look into how black and white mixed with vibrant colour can be used to create a certain effect.

Browne plays with different ambient effects in his Into The Forest, shifting from colour to black and white for the setting at the point where the protagonist enters ‘the woods’ of a fairytale world where he encounters characters from rhymes and tales. Browne incorporates many ‘hidden’ characters and objects in the shapes of the environment in these pictures, and the reader explores them in a different way from the emotionally compelling coloured pictures that open and close the story. […] In general then, picture book artists will only ignore the rich meaning of colour choices and their capacity to work on the reader’s emotions when they wish either to avoid that emotional engagement or else to invoke our feelings, particularly a sense of the uncanny or sinister, specifically by drawing attention to the ideational content of the images.

Reading Visual Narratives, Painter, Martin, Unsworth

Below, the goodies are wrapped up in a tea towel with the flag of England — a patriotic gesture in time of war?

Jack and the Beanstalk from Into The Forest by Anthony Browne
Little Red Riding Hood scene from Into The Forest by Anthony Browne
Red is a commonly utilised accent colour when illustrations are mostly black and white.
John Hilliard Red Coat, Blue Room, 1969
John Hilliard Red Coat, Blue Room, 1969
In the forest (1950)
In the forest (1950)

Blackdog by Levi Pinfold

Black Dog by Levi Pinfold, book jacket

Throughout history, folklore has included stories of dogs who roam towns at night, especially in Britain. There’s Wiltshire’s Wilton dog or the fierce mastiff that roamed the streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Anyone who has ever seen a huge unfriendly dog standing right outside their glass door will know how frightening it can be. Pinfold takes that fear and now we have Blackdog.

A black dog is the name given to an entity found primarily in the folklore of the British Isles. The black dog is essentially a nocturnal apparition, often said to be associated with the Devil or a hellhound. Its appearance was regarded as a portent of death. It is generally supposed to be larger than a normal dog, and often has large, glowing eyes. It is often associated with electrical storms (such as Black Shuck’s appearance at Bungay, Suffolk) and also with crossroads, places of execution and ancient pathways.

Black dog (ghost) – Wikipedia

The illustrations are so beautiful in this author/illustrator picture book I suspected the story wouldn’t quite reach the same level. Readers will have varied responses to this, but for me, the story is structurally fine but the message problematic: Readers are taught to face their fears head-on, using the metaphor of a big dog outside the house. The problem is, I’ve been trying to teach my kid the opposite when it comes to dogs, as there are a lot of dangerous ones in our neighbourhood: If a dog looks scary, it probably is! I’m therefore left wishing the dog could have been some mythical, non-existent creature. The final scene shows a young child hugging the dog in a way that dogs should never, ever be hugged, as it’s a sign of domination, and little kids tend to be right at eye-level too. Even when picture books are to be read at the metaphorical level, we can’t forget that the literal level doesn’t suddenly cease to exist. So for entirely practical/safety purposes I do have a couple of issues with this book.

ALLEGORY AND SYMBOL

There may be a good symbolic reason for using a black dog, however, as the black dog has been used as a metaphor for depression and other mental illness, i.e. The Black Dog Institute. I have absolutely no idea if this were intended by the author/illustrator, but because of the black dog connection I can’t read this book as anything other than an allegory for agoraphobia/anxiety. (Update: I’m more sure of the symbolism since happening across the history of black dogs as metaphors of mental illness.)

Let’s look at Blackdog through this lens and see if it holds up.

Agoraphobia isn’t contagious insofar as I know, so it would be unusual for an entire family to be simultaneously terrified of going outside. For this reason, I’m interpreting the family as ‘different aspects of the same individual’, in much the same way as the Winnie-the-Pooh characters are each different facets of a child’s single personality. Sometimes this person looks out of the window and is not quite so scared — other days the size of the menace is overwhelming. But there is one small part inside this individual which has sufficient bravery to face the world. This is the classic mouse tale trope, in which the smallest character is ironically the bravest. (And anyone who’s ever had a mouse infestation knows they’re not timid at all — mice are stupid brave for their size, relying on speed more than smarts!) This technique definitely lends the feel of ‘fable’ to this story, with thanks to Aesop and The Lion and the Mouse.

By going out into the world and practising exposure therapy the small child in this story shrinks the black dog down to size. Again, a metaphor for mental illness: mental illness is always a part of you, but it can be reduced to a manageable size.

A MINIATURE WORLD

blackdog levi pinfold

The presence of a massive dog temporarily turns this family into miniatures, of the type you’ve seen in The Borrowers and Stuart Little.

All three reasons are at play in Blackdog: We see the warm interior/foggy, cold exterior all at once; we see each member of the family react differently to the same event; we can easily imagine how scared we would be at this tyrannical creature outside our house.

JUXTAPOSITION OF SETTING

The snowy, ethereal setting of Blackdog is a brilliant choice, and is in stark contrast to the warm, but oddly grotesque interior:

Hope Family living room

There’s something steampunk about this house, and the scene of the bathroom and playground, with the rivets and steel, remind me very much of Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing.

blackdog bathroom
The bathroom from Levi Pinfold’s Blackdog
playground levi pinfold
The playground scene from Levi Pinfold’s Blackdog, in which the previously ‘elephant sized’ monster is now small enough to fit through an elephant’s trunk.
lost-thing
The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan

Though Pinfold has his own distinctive style, the colour choice, too, is very Shaun Tan, especially when you look at the accent colours. Pinfold makes use of inset thumbnails, too, and in this book we have tiny sepia drawings decorating the text. It’s tempting to skip over these thumbnails because the eye tends to linger on the full-colour spreads, but if you go back and examine them closely, these thumbnails offer the ‘alternative view’ of the story: While the full colour spreads in the first half of the story depict only the inside of the house and a little of what can be seen through the window, the thumbnails show us the massive dog outside in a long shot view of the tall, skinny house.

There’s something gothic about that house. It’s a three-storied structure with an attic which would never get approved by any local council, and must have therefore come from another era. This is the trope of the Terrifying House. But this house is both terrifying and warm.

It’s warm because it’s cosy, with the roaring fire and comfort of family. It’s cheery like a rainbow, in fact, with each room having its own dominant hue. This is more obvious when you view the various parts of this house together in a single image. Orange, yellow, green, pink…

each room different colour

But the accoutrements scattered around — the stone animals with their staring eyes, the cluttered chaos, the soap-holder that looks almost like a mechanical hand reaching into the dirty old bath, the red tricycle that will always scare anyone who ever watched Saw  — there’s something definitely spooky here. (The stone animals also remind me of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.) And of course your warm house is also spooky… when you can never leave. The mother looks a lot like a Marionette as she clutches the jug in the orange image above. This particular form of spookiness was utilised by Neil Gaiman in Coraline.

WEATHER SYMBOLISM

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing — as well as his other work — features industrial smoke and city smog, but here the outside world is shrouded in a clean, forest mist — a great choice given the accepted symbolism of fog and mist. In fiction, fog equals obfuscation and mystery. In Blackdog I think it also has connections to ‘mental fug’ and not being able to see more than a couple of metres ahead, but ploughing on anyway.

WEIRD THING I DON’T GET

What on earth is a Big Jeffy, though? I expected to be rewarded with the answer after looking closely at the pictures, and I did see much earlier in the story a child’s sketch of Jeffy on the sideboard, but in the end I resorted to the internet and learned that Big Jeffy is off Sesame Street. His inclusion in this story puzzles me. Big Jeffy is a member of Little Jerry and the Monotones, supplying bass back-up for the group. He is considered to be the fourth member of the band. Maybe the author is a particular fan of Sesame Street and will reference a muppet in every picture book?  Chris Van Allsburg puts a little white dog in all of his books. (It’s not even his own dog — it was his brother-in-law’s!) I haven’t read Pinfold’s other work so I can’t tell if they also include Sesame Street characters. Also, I wouldn’t be brave enough to try those guys on copyright. It’s possible that Pinfold’s Big Jeffy has no connection to the minor Sesame Street character at all.