A Fish Out Of Water by Helen Palmer

The story of Helen Palmer is — from the outside, certainly — a sad one.

Helen is ‘the woman behind the man’ in the Dr Seuss duo. It was Helen who encouraged her husband Theo to start writing picture books.

When the marriage ended and Theo embarked upon a second relationship, Helen suicided. It would be nice to think that her separation from Theo had nothing to do with it, because had been dealing with cancer for a long time. But the truth is, she left a note. So we know that had almost everything to do with the timing of it.

Helen was a much better editor than she was a writer, which I’d like to emphasise is no small skill in itself. (Roald Dahl’s editors, for example, had a MUCH bigger hand in making him look great than most people realise.)

The book A Fish Out Of Water is a story that Theo cast aside. He didn’t think it worked. Helen disagreed and made sure it was seen by the world. It’s still reasonably easy to get a hold of. I somehow ended up with two secondhand copies on my bookshelf, for instance. This is possibly a sign that it’s a picture book people decide not to keep.

If this had Dr Seuss’s name on the cover I would certainly agree that this is not him at his finest. I agree with him that it doesn’t work. Let’s take a closer look to try and find out precisely why it doesn’t work, and why Helen thought it still had merit.

Theo and Helen at home
Theo and Helen at home

The illustrations, by P.D. Eastman are as attractive as those done by Theo himself, if without the distinctive colour palette, so it must have something to do with the text or the plot. First, the plot:

STORY STRUCTURE

SHORTCOMING

A boy needs something to nurture and he is the sort of kid who does what he’s told not to do.

He needs to learn to be obedient.

DESIRE

A boy wants a goldfish. Not only that, he wants to nurture the fish.

So far so good. This is all established on the first couple of pages.

OPPONENT

This is a carnivalesque story, so the opponents are the circumstances themselves. The fish getting huge.

Again, so far, so good. It’s common and usually very successful to write a children’s book about something either very big or very small. The young reader enjoys seeing this fish getting bigger and bigger, and can probably predict that it will end up in the swimming pool, or perhaps the ocean.

PLAN

Unfortunately this is where the plot starts to unravel. The boy can’t solve this on his own — first he calls the police. This is kind of comical in itself because the police are depicted as being right on the end of the phone waiting for his call, and it is clear that they deal with the overfeeding of giant fish on a regular basis.

The problem with putting the fish into the pool is that the swimmers don’t like it, so the boy’s plan changes and he is forced to call the man who sold him the fish.

It’s never ideal to have adults step in and save the day. Not in a children’s book. Even if an adult technically saves the day, the child hero must show more initiative.

BIG STRUGGLE

The ‘big struggle’ in a carnivalesque book is a sequence of increasingly dire situations, and these keep going until the writer’s imagination is at a limit. Preferably, in the most successful stories of this type, the writer is able to go one or two steps further than the reader’s imagination. A great example of this is Stuck by Oliver Jeffers. Just when you think nothing more could happen, it does. This is where the surprise comes in, and carnivalesque stories in particular are all about fun and surprise.

There is no surprise here. All of us could imagine a giant fish being taken to the town swimming pool, and in fact I expected the fish to end up in the ocean.

The big struggle sequence does not surprise us enough.

ANAGNORISIS

This is where the book really fails.

The writer cheats. We see the fish seller dive into the pool and do something to the fish. The fish becomes small again. The boy (and reader) is told to not ask what was done.

This is the wrong way of using magic in stories. The audience must know the basic rules of the magic even though magic, by its very nature, is mysterious. 

NEW SITUATION

The boy takes the fish back home and will never feed it too much again.

In the end, this is a moralistic tale about the common childhood tendency to overfeed fish in bowls.

failed-magic

THE TEXT

The scansion and rhyme of this story is not up to the same standard as Theo’s other books. This is clear from the very first page:

“This little fish,”

I said to Mr Carp,

“I want him.

I like him.

And he likes me.

I will call him Otto.”

Reading that, you get the feeling it should rhyme but doesn’t quite. Overleaf, we do have some rhyme:

“When you feed a fish,

never feed him a lot.

So much and no more!

Never more than a spot!

This is why, when writing a picture book, decide whether you want it to rhyme or not and then stick with your decision.

In conclusion, Theodor Geisel put this book aside for good reason. But I’m glad it exists, as a lesson in what doesn’t work, and also to know that even the masters like Dr Seuss didn’t write a winner every single time.

Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd

Slinky Malinki cover

Slinky Malinki is a picture book by New Zealand author illustrator Lynley Dodd.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CATS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Sometimes it is difficult not to resent their apparent success, and they are good or evil according to their creator’s feelings. […] Perhaps Kipling was right, and cats are neither for nor against us, but both or neither, as they wish or feel*. As characters they have great possibilities and depths that few writers, with the possible exception of Paul Gallico, have made use of. Their long history of connection with witchcraft has suggested tales of magic cats such as Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel, 1955, or, in a more down to earth setting, Rosemary Weir’s Pyewacket, 1967; and their urbanised versatility (dog stories are more usually about country life) is categorised unforgettably in T.S. Eliot.

— Margaret Blount, Animal Land

* When creating the character of Slinky Malinki Lynley Dodd absolutely makes use of this historical duplicitousness: Slinky is one thing during the day, another thing altogether come nightfall. The werecat, in other words.

Writing in the 1970s, Blount, in the paragraph above, mentions some mid-century books I haven’t heard of. Here are their covers:

Carbonel Barbara Sleigh book covers
1955
Pyewacket cover
1967

JENNIE BY PAUL GALLICO (1950)

jennie

Jennie is regarded as one of the best cat stories of the 20th century. It makes use of the Black Beauty formula — a modified moral tale that’s both exciting and moving. Ideology: “How would you like if if you were the poor cat and a cruel boy teased you?” As in Black Beauty, the reader is to imagine that the cat is actually a human trapped inside a cat’s body.

See also The Guardian list of Top 10 Cats In Children’s Literature. Slinky Malinki is one. Can you guess the others?

THE ENDURING INFLUENCE OF OLD POSSUM’S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS (1939)

BookOfPracticalCats
1939

Most of the cats one knows are typecast in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, 1939. They are Gumbies, or Jellicles, Rum Tum Tuggers or Macavities or like one or other of his feline varieties: Criminal, Ole Thespian, Railway, Conjuror, Oldest Inhabitant, Pirate, or just the kind that sits about for ever. Their psychology is placed, wittily and firmly, among the humans whose lives the cats share; the only difference is one of size and shape, though even appearance is doubtful, from Growltiger, baggy at the knees, to Bustopher Jones with his well-cut trousers of impeccable black. The message is that these are cats we should be proud to know, described in verse so pleasing that it demands to be said, from the Rum Tum Tugger’s jogging perversities to Growltiger’s Kiplingesque ballad and the intricate jazz rhythms of Mungojerrie and Rumpeltazer*.

— Margaret Blount, Animal Land

*For a full list of cat tropes from this book, see the entry at TV Tropes.

The Criminal Cat Trope

TV tropes calls this character type the ‘Diabolical Mastermind‘.

Lynley Dodd, too, has created a cast of cat characters which closely align to the cat characters typecast by T.S. Eliot. You’ve got Growltiger with Scarface Claw — the other main cat, and a wonderful nemesis for Hairy. Slinky Malinki is, of course, a modern Criminal, related to the Macavity (who sneaks about) and Mungojerry (who plans naughty things) from T.S. Eliot.

This is a crime story for the very young.

Criminal cats are not a fantastic invention for the sake of literature, either. The siamese breed in particular is smart, and some of them seem to have evolved a collecting instinct, much like a butcher bird.

Slinky Malinky irl

Tonkinese cats can be ‘quite obsessive’ too, and here’s one who has a penchant for male underwear. (Tonkinese are a Siamese-Burmese cross.) There must be quite a history of cats thieving, or at least lurking about looking like they’re thieving: consider the English word ‘cat-burglar’.

THE STORY STRUCTURE OF SLINKY MALINKI

Shortcoming/Need

but at night he was wicked

Although Slinky is perfectly nice during the day, he is transformed by the ‘magic’ of night…

Desire

…by some primal instinct to hunt. But because he lives in the suburbs and not in a wild forest, his hunting ground is the domestic realm of human neighbours.

Opponent

There is an unseen opponent in this story — young readers know that Slinky is not supposed to be taking those things, and that the things belong to people. For the reader, the opponents are the owners of the stolen items, who will get him into trouble if he is caught. For Slinky, his opponent is probably some unseen creature of the night. Slinky is an adrenalin junkie.

Plan

This thieving is a habitual thing rather than a once-off, so I’d say his ‘habit’ is to wait until nightfall when all the humans are asleep, then break into people’s homes and drag stolen items to a hidden place at his owners’.

Battle

CRASH went the bottles,

BEE-BEEP went the clock,

RO-RO-RO-RO

went the dogs on the block.

These words are accompanied by an image of chaos — the legs of the human family members have caught him in a compromising position, tangled up all of his stolen gear. Here it looks like Slinky has been fighting with the stolen goods themselves; he is tangled up in wool and has a glove on his head. You could argue that the main opponent in this story are the alluring goods that he can’t help but steal. The items are almost personified.

Here we have a startled teddy bear face to contrast with Slinky’s malevolent eyes. The bear seems to be looking at the reader for help.

slinky malinki teddy bear

Anagnorisis

We see from his face that Slinky is feeling ashamed of himself.

This is a black and white shot from the app, but you can see the repentant look on his face.
This is a black and white shot from the app, but you can see the repentant look on his face.

New Situation

The final page: ‘NEVER again did he answer the call, when moon shadows danced over garden and wall. When whispers of wickedness stirred in his head, he adjusted his whiskers and stayed home instead.’

The image on the final page reminds me very much of the image from a now out-of-print book by Kenneth Grahame (of Wind In The Willows fame), in which Bertie the pig escapes from his sty, breaks into the farm house and eats all the Christmas goodies. He is found the following day in a state of overstuffed bliss.

Bertie's Escapade last page_700x877

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN SLINKY MALINKI

HORROR SYMBOLISM

More picturebooks than you might think start with the horror genre and modify the symbolism and tropes for little kids. Stories which manage to achieve this are surprisingly popular. Kids love happenings that take place at night — this is an opportunity for the carnivalesque. The horror genre is really great for making use of symbol, because it is one of the most highly symbolic genres (along with Westerns and sci-fi, which are less common in picturebooks.)

There is something reassuring about the perfect mixture of scary things and familiar: Here we have a dark, scary sky and a cat that’s ‘blacker than  black’ creeping about stealing familiar, and sometimes humorous, items.

slinky malinki milk bottles

On the front cover Slinky holds a glove in his maw. If this were a straight horror story, that glove would likely be a disembodied hand. Take as an example the 1963 movie The Crawling Hand. These days, the disembodied hand is more often seen in horror comedies, as it is here.

Bloody Knuckles 2014
Bloody Knuckles 2014

Shapeshifting

In Slinky Malinki we also have the trope of the Werebeast, which is associated with a number of subtropes. Slinky’s night-time personality shift comes with nightfall and is psychological rather than outwardly manifested.

Kinks and Curlicues

The illustrations make use of classically horrific line work, with the kink in the tail and the spindly branches on the trees. Even the native New Zealand flax seems sinister as it looks as if it might reach out and grab any passerby.

The Moon

Lynley Dodd has used the technique of connecting symbols to the setting, to great effect.

Sometimes a story is not actually magical, but something is infused with a supposed supernatural set of forces.

The moon plays a prominent role of course. First, the illustrator needs a light source, but more importantly, according to folklore (and modern hospital workers), strange things happen when there’s a full moon. In one image we even see Slinky carrying a perfectly round balloon (as well as a slipper and a sausage link), and the blood-red balloon partially obscures the moon. This makes Slinky seem as if he is at one with the moon, and like he might be carrying a moon replica in his very own mouth. The moon, we gather from this picture, is the reason for his personality transformation.

Other examples in which the moon is almost magical but not quite: Melancholia, Moonstruck, A Walk On The Moon, Once Upon A Time In The West.

LANGUAGE

One day I look forward to delving in deeply to Lynley Dodd’s perfect scansion, but for now I’ll point out the following techniques, also used by T.S. Eliot:

Added Alliterative Appeal: Lots of picture book authors make use of alliterative names, but Lynley Dodd’s names would have to have some of the best mouthfeel in the biz. They’re more like Awesome McCool Names.

 RELATED

It’s The Bear! by Jez Alborough

It's The Bear cover

It’s The Bear! by Jez Albrough  is one of our daughter’s favourite picture books. She loved it when she was three, and still loves it even though she is now seven. It’s The Bear! is the second of Jez Alborough’s three hugely successful bear books from the 1990s. Published in 1996, It’s The Bear came out two years after the first one, and two years before the final book in the series.

Published 1994
Published 1994

Published 1998
Published 1998

WHAT HAPPENS IN IT’S THE BEAR!



A boy learns not to trust his mum. At least, that’s what our seven-year-old concluded upon our most recent reading. “Eddy’s mum should listen to him!” she said. Basically, a mother takes her son for a picnic in the woods.

walking into the woods

They set out the picnic but mum has to duck back to the car to get a blueberry pie which she has forgotten. While she’s away, an enormous bear arrives, despite her earlier reassurances that there are ‘no bears around here’. The bear is a benevolent creature, however, who only wants to eat the picnic, not the humans. The mother gets a huge, comical fright when she turns around to find that her preschooler son is telling the truth about the existence of a bear.

WONDERFULNESS OF IT’S THE BEAR!

SUSPENSE AND TIMING

Like ancient tales such as Little Red Cap, in which the story is designed to be ‘performed’ rather than read, and in which the child audience grows deliciously scared at the point where the wolf eats the grandma up, this story has a theatre quality to it that will have young listeners cuddling up to their adult co-reader.

This is achieved, of course, by building up suspense. The marketing copy itself lets us know at exactly which point the turning point occurs:

The last time Eddie went for a walk in the woods, he had the biggest surprise of his life! There was a bear the size of a house in there! Now Eddie’s mom is in the mood to picnic in the wood—and she insists there aren’t any bears in there, (except Eddie’s teddy, Freddie). But when Mom forgets the blueberry pie, she runs home to get it while Eddie waits in the woods all alone! [TURNING POINT] What happens next? Just guess! Hold on to your teddies, because Jez Alborough is back with another hilarious story about little Eddie and that oversized bear—and this time he’s hungry!

First we have the set up, in which Mum denies the existence of a bear. Therefore, the experienced reader (and any young reader upon second reading) knows that a bear is definitely coming. This in itself builds suspense.

A BEAR? SAID MUM

Most of the story is spent on the build up. We see four images of Eddy sitting on the picnic hamper — by the fourth image he is climbing inside to hide.

The following page shows us the first glimpse of the bear. We see Eddy’s eyes as he looks in fright out of the hamper, and we’re sure the bear can see him too.

The page after that is mostly black, and we see Eddy inside the hamper — a top-down view. This mirrors an earlier page in which both Eddy and Mum are looking into the hamper together. We have the same framing of the hamper — the first time we were from the perspective of the food and the large frame was white. This time we see Eddy, and link him to food — Eddy IS the food.

The reader wonders if the bear is going to squash the hamper, but he doesn’t. He (or she) sets up their own teddy bear and ‘greedily gobbles up all of the food’. The small size of the sandwich and plate emphasise the hugeness of the bear.

bear_picnic

Take note how many separate illustrations depict the large bear’s realisation that there’s probably dessert in the hamper and actually opening it up. A more economical but far less suspenseful way to illustrate this would have been to show a single illustration (one of any of those shown here). What makes this a picture book rather than an illustrated story is the extra frames.

Notice also that the bear is, despite his size, a child character. We’re to assume he is scared of what’s inside the hamper as Eddy is scared of what’s outside it. One clue: the bear picks up his own teddy as comfort before looking inside — foreshadowing his reaction.

The next two spreads, which readers are to fully enjoy, include between 3 and 5 words each. “Help! shouted Eddy. I want my Mum!”

Adroit framing builds the story for the next big enjoyable surprise: Eddy and Bear have already had their confrontation, now it’s mum’s turn to jump out of her skin. We see her in the distance, but the illustration is framed by the bear’s massive furry leg. Another scene shows her walking closer, with a big smile on her face and a blueberry pie balanced for the taking on her hand, waiter-style. For visual interest, the big bear’s toy teddy is included in this frame.

The following illustration shows how smug and disbelieving the mother is, and allows the bear time to snatch the pie, which seems to be offered to him, after all:

behind_you

The denouement requires one double page spread, in which Mum and Eddy are sprinting back to the car, and a single page illustration of the very happy bear, who is enjoying the food thrown his way.

RHYMING TEXT

This is a story in which the rhyming text really works. There’s nothing fancy about what’s attempted — Teddy, Eddy, Freddy and ready are an example of words which rhyme; others are dear/here, long/gone, spread/bread, my/pie and so on. Much use is made of capitalisation to give clues about where emphasis should be placed.

IS IT ‘REAL’ OR IS IT ALL IMAGINED?

The detail which will have readers wondering about how much of this happened in ‘the world of the story’ is the detail of the toy bears. Eddy just happens to own the same teddy as the big bear, but in miniature. Readers of the previous book have already been treated to a story in which this coincidence makes the plot.

When adults are drawn into the story, witnessing bizarre events for themselves, then we are to assume that ‘there really is a bear in there’. So the question is answered for us.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF IT’S THE BEAR!

The details of the forest look genuinely pre-digital era and are lavishly detailed. This makes the forest seem alive. Our eyes are drawn into the woods just as Eddy’s are. We should be searching for something inside — just as Eddy does.

IT'S THE BEAR FOREST DETAIL

The wonderful detail has been lost in the screen adaptation, with its focus on movement rather than the gaze. However, I’m sure Hayao Miyazaki would have keep the detail and made the most of it.

IT'S THE BEAR ANIMATION

STORY SPECS OF IT’S THE BEAR!

32pp

Published by Candlewick Press

Written and illustrated by Jez Alborough. Alborough has also written picture books about mice, ducks and dogs.

…an English writer and illustrator of children’s picture books that have been translated into at least 15 languages and have been recognised for numerous awards. 

Wikipedia

COMPARE IT’S THE BEAR! WITH

When it comes to lavish illustrations of a scary forest, I’m reminded of the illustrations in Anthony Browne’s Hansel and Gretel. In Browne’s story, the reader is rewarded for close examination, because the trees reveal themselves to be ominous shapes.

Hansel and Gretel forest details

It’s The Bear is interesting also because it plays with scale and proportion — something that seems to appeal very much to young readers. Other things that appeal to young readers are the identification with characters who are separated from their parents, who have imaginations which scare them, and whose toys seem to come to life. Animated toys are common in tales for children.

Different Types Of Toy Stories

In toy stories […] we should probably distinguish between toys existing in a world of their own (notably, doll-house stories, and Winnie-the-Pooh) and toys in contact with a child protagonist. Toys coming alive together with a lonely child may act as substitutes for missing friends, siblings, or even parents.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

In the second type of story mentioned above, most toys in toy stories live only when the child is around, being played with. Most of them become worn out or broken and die, but a few go into suspended animation and may come to life generations later into changed worlds.

Moth Manor Martha Bacon cover
Written in 1978, present-day Monica saves a fine old doll’s-house and its inhabitants from destruction. When Monica finds hereself inside the house, it and its garden are “as real as Monica’s love for them.” The reader can’t tell if this book is about magic/dream/imagination (perhaps all three).

Animal Stories = Toy Stories

[…] There is no point distinguishing between animals stories and toy stories, since both have the same structure, and toy or animal characters share the same function, primarily representing the child. Clearly anthropomorphic animals (such as Beatrix Potter’s or Janosch’s) are especially hard to distinguish from animated toys. Paddington is another good example—the bear is something in-between an animal and a toy (in illustrations, he definitely looks like a teddy-bear) and has the unmistakable function of an “imaginary friend”. […]

There are many marginal cases, like Winnie-the-Pooh, where some characters seem to be more toys, while others are more animals. It is thus arguable whether Winnie-the-Pooh is a toy story or an animal story […] and this may also be a matter of child versus adult perception. For a child reader, the characters of the book are “real,” that is, animals, while adults probably tend to see them as toys.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

Why Toy Stories Are Not Their Own Genre

Let us, therefore, not be deceived by the superficial form. Both toys and animals in children’s texts must be seen as representations of children and the texts themselves are, in my text typology, in no way different from domestic stories. When writers present their characters disguised as animals or toys, it is merely a narrative device, which has little to do with genre. There are few similarities between The Jungle Book, Babar and Peter Rabbit, besides their portraying animals; on the other hand, each of them can be related to other books without animals. For instance, The Jungle Book to Robinsonnades, Babar to a sentimental story about an orphan who is finally taken care of (Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Foundling): Peter Rabbit to any didactic naughty-boy book.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

Nikolajeva explains that therefore, toy and animal stories are even more heterogenous than “realistic” domestic and school stories.

Animals no doubt are more like us than are dolls, since they are living creatures and dolls are not; but dolls are made in our own image, and in the field of anthropomorphic fantasy there seems no harm in giving them a place. To the children who own them, dolls are people; and often they are people who have a hard life. They are to children as children are to adults: small, powerless beings controlled by others.

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children

Older Examples Of Stories Featuring Toys

  • The Nutcracker
  • Pinnochio
  • Winnie-the-Pooh
  • Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey (1946)
  • Adventures of a Little Wooden Horse
  • The Dolls House
  • Rufty Tufty the Golliwog
  • Five Dolls in a House
  • The Mouse and His Child
  • The Mennyms series
  • Behind The Attic Wall by Sylvia Cassedy (1983)
  • Through The Dolls’ House Door by Jane Gardam (1987)

The Dolls House Rumer Godden Cover
Godden wrote a number of stories about dolls: The STory of Holly and Ivy, Impunity Jane etc. He also wrote about humanized mice. Mice, like children, are seen as stand-in children because of their small size and precarious status.

It is an anxious, sometimes a dangerous thing to be a doll. Dolls cannot choose; they can only be chosen; they cannot “do”; they can only be done by; children who do not understand this often do wrong things, and then the dolls are hurt and abused and lost; and when this happens dolls cannot speak, nor do anything except be hurt and abused and lost.

Rumer Godden, The Dolls’ House (1947)