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The Famous Five also reflects outdated views.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’.
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
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.)
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.
“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.
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.)
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.
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.
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:
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.
DURATION — Anthony Browne’s Zoo takes place over part of a day. A day trip.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — The zoo itself
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.
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
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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 (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.)
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.
Walter is immediately established as a character with several of the deadly sins:
This was peak low-fat era, so indulgence in something like a jam donut was considered indicative of an immoderate temperament.
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.
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:
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.
‘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).
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.
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.
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:
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?
The reading experience reason: In contrast, the full bleeds look more amazing
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).
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.
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.
This dream was clearly not ‘just a dream’.
Have you ever experienced a dream so powerful that you were morally affected?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A similar cover layout is used on the Judy Moody covers by Megan McDonald:
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:
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.
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.
Eric is similar to The Lost Thing (written and illustrated by the same author) in that:
The narrator is a first person character, though off stage in this story
It’s set a number years in the past, with the storyteller looking back
The main character is a strange creature who comes from another place/time/dimension, who disappears before the end.
The narrator wonders if this strange creature is happy.
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.)
Behind the doors, in the darkness, is a world full of interesting artifacts.
The narrator is encouraged at the end to wonder what it all means.
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.
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.
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 the exchange student, I believe, is a metonym for ‘foreign culture’.
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.
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.
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.
Another story with fetching illustrations of a very small character living in a human-scale world is Little Tom (1922).
“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.
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.
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.
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.
SETTING 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.)
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. “The Cahill Expressway” painting was influential in 1960s Australia. Forty years later Shaun Tan has used a pastiche of this picture to convey a sense of bleakness.
And here’s the 1959 Smart painting, called “The Cahill Expressway”:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.