Queen of the Falls by Chris Van Allsburg

“Queen of the Falls” is a picture book written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg. Some years ago, Van Allsburg gave a TED talk on this book and the history behind it. This post will focus on the storytelling techniques.

On Amazon, Chris Van Allsburg shared some of his roughs, when he thought the trim was going to be horizontal format. It’s interesting to see how different illustrators create drafts. Van Allsburg’s drafts look something closer to other illustrators’ finals. If Van Allsburg stuck with this rougher style of art, with the hand of the artist clearly evident, the mood of the book would be different. The realism of Van Allsburg’s final illustrators achieve a photographic realism which makes the story all the more harrowing.

SETTING OF QUEEN OF THE FALLS

PERIOD — 1901 and the years following

DURATION — The drama plays out around the preparation for the event and pace slows down for the dangerous event itself. We don’t find out what Annie was like as a child or as a young woman via backstory, or even if she had children of her own. I find myself craving this information, trying to work her out, but this is a pleasant kind of unsatisfied craving, similar to a shadow which promises something sinister happening just off the page.

LOCATION — Niagara Falls, United States of America

MANMADE SPACES — We see a view of Annie’s charm school. I had to look up what a ‘charm school’ even is: As I’d deduced, it’s basically an American word for ‘finishing school’. It exists to teach children social graces. This juxtaposition is fascinating, because what Annie ends up doing is the opposite of what we might expect from the trope of the charm school ma’am: A stiff, unyielding, conservative woman who has no time for nonsense, frivolities and dare-devilry. Annie defies categorisation.

NATURAL SETTINGS — The Niagara Falls; magnificent waterfalls which attract many tourists. In English words don’t carry gender, but many things do carry symbolic gender. Waterfalls are generally gendered feminine. The illustrations below may partly explain why; the fall of water is reminiscent of a young woman’s cascading hair.

The Maid of the Mist is a sightseeing boat tour of Niagara Falls, and is also a feminisation of waterfalls.

"Legend of the White Canoe", Indian Postcard, 1909, created just 8 years after Annie tumbled over Niagara Falls.
Legend of the White Canoe“, 1909, created just 8 years after Annie tumbled over Niagara Falls. Illustration is for a postcard, I think by Frank Vincent DuMond.

TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Annie’s techinical knowledge was “modest at best” and the best vehicle she could think of was a barrel lined with pillows.

LEVEL OF CONFLICT — As explained clearly in the book itself, older women were in a vulnerable economic position. No one was going to care for Annie in her old age. The life she could expect without income was no life worth living. Van Allsburg suggests on the page and in his talk that Annie could have done something else. I’m not quite so confident about that. Could she really have chosen to be a domestic laborer? The labour of a housewife or domestic servant in 1901 was hard, hard physical work, akin to the physical labouring job typically done by men today (with twice the upper body strength). A 62 year old woman was an elderly woman, who possibly needed her teeth fixing, who possibly needed better glasses, hearing aids, and didn’t have those advantages.

THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — The most amazing thing to me (and clearly also to the author) is that Annie was the first to ever pull this stunt. Three men went down before (half a century before) and plunged to their deaths. Many who came after were younger, fitter and had the huge psychological advantage of knowing that it had been done before.

…it is well known that a vital ingredient of success is not knowing that what you’re attempting can’t be done. 

Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites

Annie had no such reassurance, and although it’s impossible to know what was going on in the mind of someone who decided to do something I can’t imagine doing myself, I do suspect there was a suicidality to Annie’s decision.

Annie may also have been influenced by a strong belief in an interventionist God, and in an afterlife. She may have thought that she’d put God to the test; if she was meant to live, she would. If not, that was God’s plan. Perhaps.

An estimated 5,000 bodies were found at the foot of the falls between 1850 and 2011. On average, between 20 and 30 people die going over the falls each year. The majority of deaths are suicides—and most take place from the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, and many are not publicized by officials.

List of people who have gone over Niagara Falls

Of those who we assume attempted the navigate the falls without dying, there have been 13 fatalities and 17 survivals. To say nothing of injuries, this isn’t great odds.

STORY STRUCTURE OF QUEEN OF THE FALLS

Researching Mrs. Taylor’s life provided details that made it clear that her story was not one that fit into a conventional narrative of the determined underdog who triumphs over the challenges and obstacles placed before him or her, and emerges with admiration and rich rewards. Annie’s story was more complicated than that—and, to me, more interesting.

Chris Van Allsburg

PARATEXT

Chris Van Allsburg himself has spoken frequently about his interest in the life of Annie Taylor and this provides some of the paratext.

The shape of the picture book is also significant:

My initial design for the book was horizontal, partly to accommodate longer text in a thirty-two-page format. I ultimately changed to a vertical shape when it became clear a forty-page format would allow for a more effective balance of text and pictures. (I was also persuaded by my colleagues at the publisher that a vertical format was more appropriate for a book about a monumental fall.)

Chris Van Allsburg

SHORTCOMING

Annie’s stunt, and the pragmatic way in which she went about preparations for it, paint the picture of a woman with a definitive, black-and-white, dualistic world view. Once she’d decided to do this, nothing would stop her. She would either live in abject poverty, or be wealthy beyond her wildest dreams. There was no in-between with Annie.

Writers are often told to give a character both a psychological and a moral shortcoming when writing. Van Allsburg decides that Annie was ‘proud’. Like Walter White in Breaking Bad, who ends up washing his students’ cars over summer, Annie is assumed to be too proud to do domestic work. But as I said, I think there’s more to it than that. Interestingly, when it comes time to get inside the barrel, Annie is described as ‘modest’ when she requires the men to turn away. ‘Modest’ is in some ways the inverse of ‘proud’. But perhaps you can be both. Also, sometimes ‘modest’ refers only to the wish not to display yourself in an exposing manner, which might be another outworking of ‘proud’.

DESIRE

What did Annie really want, deep down?

It’s well-known that when turning about 50 or 60, society makes women feel invisible. Over and above financial security, I suspect Annie wanted to feel seen.

OPPONENT

The opposition is a natural one; the Falls. There are also human opponents, for example the man who refused to have any part of Annie building a suitable barrel.

PLAN

Annie plans to end her poverty by tumbling over the Niagara Falls in a cushioned barrel then finding fame and fortune. Unfortunately her plan has a hole in it. Aside from the obvious threat of death, it is a strange decision to try and pass yourself off as 20 years younger. Surely it would have been more impressive had she revealed her true age. We are impressed by unusual combinations. The combination of a grandmotherly figure performing a stunt would have drawn the crowds. I feel she should have tried instead to pass herself off as 82 rather than 42.

But I can understand why she did it. Annie would not have felt invisible at the age of 42. She was running her charm school and had a place in the world. By pretending to the world that she was 42, she was proabably trying to reclaim some of the contentedness she felt at age 42.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

Annie’s journey down the falls is clearly the climax of this story.

It’s interesting to note what Van Allsburg left out. What he did not include: That a cat was sent down in a barrel a few days previously, and survived. Kids like cats, cats do well in picture books; why would Chris Van Allsburg leave this interesting detail out?

Because it’s grim, I guess. They were sacrificing the cat.

SOVIET SPACE DOGS

During the 1950s and 1960s the Soviet space program used dogs for sub-orbital and orbital space flights to determine whether human spaceflight was feasible. In this period, the Soviet Union launched missions with passenger slots for at least 57 dogs. The number of dogs in space is smaller, as some dogs flew more than once. Most survived; the few that died were lost mostly through technical failures, according to the parameters of the test.

A notable exception is Laika, the first dog to be sent into orbit, whose death during the 3 November, 1957 Sputnik 2 mission was expected from its outset.

Soviet Space Dogs

Sad as these stories are, picture books do cover the topic of animals sacrificed for the sake of science.

There is probably a narrative reason why Chris Van Allsburg did not include the cat. A cat in a picture book is as important as a human character. Readers will be as anxious about the cat as they are about the woman, leading to a double climax in which the first survival inevitably saps emotion away from the second.

ANAGNORISIS

Sure, she survived. But she was somewhat injured, and I wonder if she lived with some pain for the rest of her life. (Get injured at that age and it’s likely.) So even her ‘survival’ wasn’t binary; she could have broken her neck, sustained significant head injury and lived out the rest of her life incapacitated rather than dead. I’d be interested to know if she considered that inbetween possibility.

NEW SITUATION

But the riches did not follow.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Then as now, you need a platform and a fanbase before you can turn stunts into cash.

RESONANCE

By creating this book, Chris Van Allsburg has made many people aware of a character from American history which we would never have known about otherwise.

There’s a much wider issue here worth delving into. It applies here in Australia as much as in America; the historical figures we celebrate are white and they are men. As often as not, the ‘adventures’ of these men were as stupid as they were brave.

Other types of braveries from other demographics are less celebrated, if not entirely forgotten.

Annie’s fall from the top of Niagara Falls is nonetheless the sort of bravery you’d find in young men. We don’t celebrate the bravery of a woman giving breach birth in the Australian Outback in 1901, but to my mind, the forgotten woman is equally ‘brave’.

WATERFALLS IN ART

James Dickson Innes The Waterfall 1910 rocks
James Dickson Innes The Waterfall 1910
Landscape with Waterfall, Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael, c. 1668
Landscape with Waterfall, Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael, c. 1668
Dugald Stewart Walker illustrator, Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) writer, 'Rainbow gold; poems old and new selected for boys and girls' 1922-6
Dugald Stewart Walker illustrator, Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) writer, ‘Rainbow gold; poems old and new selected for boys and girls’ 1922-6
Nautical Roller Coaster, said to be Niagara Falls (1895)
Nautical Roller Coaster, said to be Niagara Falls (1895)
Edwin John Prittie, Washer the Raccoon written by George Ethelbert Walsh, 1922
Edwin John Prittie, Washer the Raccoon written by George Ethelbert Walsh, 1922
Remigius Adrianus Haanen, (1812 - 1894) Stream in the Moonlight, 1840

FURTHER READING

It’s usually not a good idea to get into a box, hoping it’ll take you somewhere. Another near death experience was had by a Welsh man who airmailed himself home from Australia in a crate in the 1960s.

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The Tunnel by Anthony Browne

The Tunnel Anthony Browne

The Tunnel is a picture book written and illustrated by British author/illustrator Anthony Browne. The Tunnel was first published in 1989.

SETTING OF THE TUNNEL

In the 1980s it was far more common for kids to be sent out of the house because their mothers were sick of them (and it was almost always the mothers doing the caregiving). “Get out of the house, you kids! I don’t want to see you again til dinnertime!” The mother in this story is a little kinder than that, but I’m reminded of the vibe.

So the kids go to a wasteland which just so happens to have a fantasy portal in the shape of a tunnel. The tunnel appears to be manmade. Tunnels are an inherently scary feature of the urbanised landscape. Stephen King made the most of this in the 1980s with IT (you know, with the clown and the red balloon.) Australia’s own Paul Jennings also wrote a tunnel/sewer story. See “There’s No Such Thing” in his Unbelievable collection.

The tunnel/sewer is, symbolically, the man-made equivalent of the forest cave. It makes sense that humans have developed a fear of caves. Wild creatures tend to sleep in there, and if not wild creatures, perhaps other humans. Humans have always been the most dangerous ‘creatures’ to humans. We’re called super predators for a reason.

There’s a strong Narnia vibe to this one, though I guess all portal fantasies which start in the normal world and land kids in a wooded area are going to remind me of Narnia. On top of that, we’ve got the boy who is turned into stone, a trope utilised by C.S. Lewis, and which can be found in fairytales much older than C.S. Lewis.

Illustration by Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941). …and the next moment he was turned to stone and lay there immovable…” Story illustration for “The Golden Lads” published in The Green Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang (London: Longmans Green and Co., 1892)

Anthony Browne’s fantasy world offers nothing by way of explanation. We are never told what, how or who turned the boy into stone. Readers are left to create that part of the story for ourselves. Anthony Browne’s books expect the reader to craft at least half of the narrative, which is part of the Surrealist, postmodern experience.

As you read Anthony Browne’s books, look carefully at the skyline. In this story, as well as in Zoo, Browne lines the horizon with industrial buildings to convey a fearful, repressed emotion in the young characters. In this particular story, the skyline buildings change as the characters start to view them differently.

The painting below is by a Russian artist, and features a similar line of industrial buildings between landscape and sky.

Andrey Surnov, Russian digital artist
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Movements In Children’s Literature

When looking at the development of children’s literature over the past two and a half centuries (which is about all you get, because children’s literature is a distinct and recent entity) two major movements have been influential:

  • Romanticism and Modernism in the 18th and 19th centuries
  • Postmodernism, Surrealism and a bunch of other -isms came later (post-colonialism, feminism, modernism…)

When we give serious attention to children’s literature, we find children’s literature (especially young adult literature) often anticipates movements in adult literature. As one example, The Lovely Bones is YAL started the huge dead narrator trend which eventually found its way into literary adult fiction. Certainly, literature reflects what is happening in broader society as well.

CHILDREN’S LITERATURE IS IMPORTANT LITERATURE

Children’s literature offers valuable insights into how culture changes.

In 1894 Helen Bannerman wrote a book called Little Black Sambo. This is now seen as offensive. At Bannerman’s time it was not [offensive to white people, that is]. The main character outwits the tigers and becomes a hero, so was seen as a positive representation of people of colour.

The Famous Five also reflects outdated views. In a dualistic view of humanity, good people catch ‘bad people’ and send them to prison, because that is what good people do. An interesting feminist subtext runs through the character of George, who is annoyed that the boys are allowed to do things she is not. George became one of the first pin-ups of the feminist movement. In contrast, Anne is confined to the home domain, making cakes, cleaning etc.

A contemporary book such as Sonya Hartnett’s Sleeping Dogs looks at incest and issues which were not covered in children’s literature of earlier golden ages. Children’s literature is immensely powerful because it gets to readers first. Children’s literature shapes who we are.

Peter Hunt is one of the leading commentators on children’s literature today. He is one scholar saying consistently that children’s books are immensely powerful.

Precisely because children’s books are so powerful, they are likely to be very specifically ‘directive’. They might be encouraging a certain behaviour in young readers. Generally speaking, children’s literature is less open to interpretation than adult literature. To balance the vulnerability of children, children’s literature can become didactic.

What does didactic mean?

Teaching in an open and direct way. Moralistic.

While a few dual audience texts do make their way into lists of great literature (e.g. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland), little else ever does. Children’s literature is not traditionally studied in university English courses.

People seen as The Major Writers — William Makepeace Thackeray, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde — all wrote children’s books as well as books for adults. But those books are largely ignored. Their serious adult books are the ones considered great.

Even today, children’s literature has been seen as the less than. This is where women writers were at in the 18th and 19th centuries — not yet considered worthy of our full attention. [No coincidence that children’s literature has until recently been considered women’s work, alongside anything to do with children.]

The comparison works for volume of output as well. Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, women were writing just as many if not more books than the men. Today, children’s literature is a booming industry but doesn’t enjoy proportional coverage by professional reviewers in major news outlets. The dead white male who writes books for adults is who you’ll mostly be studying.

Peter Hunt concludes that if we can shake free of the idea that children’s literature is intrinsically inferior, we can start looking at the literature properly.

The History Of Thought Which Influences Literature

18th Century thought

The basis of modern science rests on the idea that humans can observe and understand. (Humanism and individualism.)

19th Century thought

A slight change occurred. People realised that amidst this mechanical theory of the world there was no place for emotion in all of this (beauty, hate, horror). So romanticism came about and gave us wonderful music — Mozart, Beethoven etc. — human experience and human emotion provided a balance.

20th Century thought

A couple of things happened. People realised that actually we don’t have all the answers. (The Titanic was a great example of thought prior to this — people actually thought it was unsinkable.) We realised that humanity wasn’t as all-powerful and all-knowing as we thought. Millions of people were killed in WW1, which shattered a lot of views. Then came the Great Depression, followed by the second World War, even worse. And so all the certainties about what the human could do were shattered.

Throw in nuclear weapons and we realised we could destroy the entire planet. We craved a complete change in how we view our world. This led to movements which questioned ‘certainty’.

Surrealism is a good example of such a movement.

By the 1960s, various 20th century movements came together to form what we now call ‘postmodernism’. After the certainty and hubris of modernism, we now have postmodern literature.

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The Stranger by Chris Van Allsburg

The Stranger by Chris Van Allsburg cover

The Stranger (1986) is the seventh picture book written and illustrated by popular American storyteller Chris Van Allsburg.

This picture book provokes as many questions as it answers, and reminds me of the Australian picture book written and illustrated by Shaun Tan in which a tiny ‘exchange student’ arrives in an Australian home, he admires his new surroundings, and then he departs. The Stranger utilises a similar plot, though it asks us to consider different things. Eric asks us to question what we consider normal about our own culture. The Stranger encourages us to take a closer look at our surroundings, and in aid of that, teaches audiences to close-read a text. This picture book is therefore popular with teachers working on inference skills.

The inciting incident happens on the first page when a young girl’s father runs over a man on the road. At first the father thinks he’s hit a deer, then he is worried he’s killed a human. The pictures reveal that the stranger and the father look almost identical; the man has come face to face with his own mortality, and that’s just for starters.

Running someone over on the highway, meeting yourself face to face… this feels like the fodder of American urban legend; many of those are set on highways. The story gets even more urban-legendy when the doctor’s broken thermometer suggests the man may be a ghost.

PRE-TEACHING THE STRANGER

QUESTIONS
  • When you were little did you used to think objects (or toys) were alive?
  • In stories, what is it called when an object comes to life?
  • List stories about strangers who come into the house. Did the strangers of these stories turn out to be good, bad or somewhere inbetween?
What is the difference between anthropomorphism and personification?

Both personification and anthropomorphization assert intangible human characteristics.  anthropomorphization imposes physical or tangible human characteristics onto the subject to suggest an embodiment of the human form.

(See here for more on anthropomorphism and personification.)

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The Garden of Abdul Gasazi by Chris Van Allsburg

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (1979) was the first picture book by American author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, who himself admits astonishment at the book’s immediate success. This was helped by reviews in America-wide publications. Such attention has always been unusual for children’s stories, and perhaps says something about how this story appeals to all ages. Like Australia’s Shaun Tan, the picture books of Chris Van Allsburg work as coffee table displays, and you could easily hang these illustrations on a wall as fine art.

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The Widow’s Broom by Chris Van Allsburg

The Widow's Broom Chris Van Allsburg cover

“The Widow’s Broom” is a 1992 picture book by American author illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. Like many of Van Allsburg’s books, this one remains popular with teachers, partly because this is a storyteller who requires the reader to do a little work. Students can practise their inference skills in class.

Like all good stories which rely on reader imagination, this picture book can be interpreted in a number of ways.

THE DUAL AUDIENCE OF THE WIDOW’S BROOM

This is an example of a story which will be used one way in the infant classroom and quite differently in the senior Language Arts classroom.

A broom which ‘walks’, feeds chickens and plays piano will appeal to children at an early stage of development, which Piaget described as spatial egocentrism. He also talked about child development and animism, the worldview that non-human entities possess consciousness and a life of its own. In modern picture books animism tends to finds an outworking in animals who walk and talk like humans.

[A]nimism…is the belief that everything in nature has consciousness and life…. When Christopher Robin, the child in Winnie-the-Pooh, talks to his woodland friends, a donkey, a tiger, an owl, a pig, and a bear, he is engaged in what Jean Piaget has called ‘animism’. As do the majority of picture books that feature animal characters, a child engaged in animism, readily accepts that animals can and do behave as humans. An example is Olivia, Ian Falconer’s character who has resonated with adults and children alike and is the protagonist of [more than] five titles.

A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books

Go back in time, to the early 1900s and before, and you’ll find plenty of children’s stories in which household objects come alive. This trend mostly seems to have gone away. (Likewise you won’t find so many moons with actual faces on them in contemporary picture books.)

Hey Diddle Diddle and Baby Bunting - 1882 Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886)
Hey Diddle Diddle and Baby Bunting – 1882 Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886)

When picture book storytellers do utilise animism to bring household objects alive, it’s generally to hark back to an earlier time. Here, to the pre-Christian world of superstition, modern ideas about Paganism, and fairytale. Therein lies the historical interest for older readers, culminating in a quite sophisticated message about humankind.

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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.

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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.)

SETTING

Each age has its own version of ‘save the environment’. In future scholars will look back on the current corpus of children’s literature and place it easily in time.

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
illustration of a childhood dream of 1874 from Ladies' flower cabinet vol. 3 No. 33
illustration of a childhood dream of 1874 from Ladies’ flower cabinet vol. 3 No. 33

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?

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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 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.
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