Whimsy: What does it mean for a book to be whimsical?

Milo Winter (1888 – 1956)

What are the common features of popular works commonly described as ‘whimsical’? A long while ago I swapped a middle grade critique with someone who had used ‘whimsical’ in the title of their work, yet the story itself did not feel whimsical. I started to wonder about the unspoken rules of ‘whimsical’. But could I be wrong about ‘whimsical’? What what does whimsy mean? Is it possible to list the attributes of this aesthetic?

Here are some examples of how ‘whimsical’ is often used in the marketing copy of books:

Suki’s favorite possession is her blue cotton kimono. A gift from her obachan, it holds special memories of her grandmother’s visit last summer. And Suki is going to wear it on her first day back to school — no matter what anyone says.

When it’s Suki’s turn to share with her classmates what she did during the summer, she tells them about the street festival she attended with her obachan and the circle dance that they took part in. In fact, she gets so carried away reminiscing that she’s soon humming the music and dancing away, much to the delight of her entire class!

Filled with gentle enthusiasm and a touch of whimsy, Suki’s Kimono is the joyful story of a little girl whose spirit leads her to march — and dance — to her own drumbeat.

MARKETING COPY

Magic and whimsy meet in this Howl’s Moving Castle for a new generation from the critically adored Sophie Anderson, author of The House with Chicken Legs.

Twelve-year-old Olia knows a thing or two about secrets. Her parents are the caretakers of Castle Mila, a soaring palace with golden domes, lush gardens, and countless room. Literally countless rooms. There are rooms that appear and disappear, and rooms that have been hiding themselves for centuries. The only person who can access them is Olia. She has a special bond with the castle, and it seems to trust her with its secrets.

But then a violent storm rolls in . . . a storm that skips over the village and surrounds the castle, threatening to tear it apart. While taking cover in a rarely-used room, Olia stumbles down a secret passage that leads to a part of Castle Mila she’s never seen before. A strange network of rooms that hide the secret to the castle’s past . . . and the truth about who’s trying to destroy it.

A heartfelt middle-grade novel from New York Times bestselling author Barbara O’Connor about a boy whose life is upended after the loss of his older brother–timeless, classic, and whimsical.

Walter Tipple is looking for adventure. He keeps having a dream that his big brother, Tank, appears before him and says, “Let’s you and me go see my world, little man.” But Tank went to the army and never came home, and Walter doesn’t know how to see the world without him.

Then he meets Posey, the brash new girl from next door, and an eccentric man named Banjo, who’s off on a bodacious adventure of his own. What follows is a summer of taking chances, becoming braver, and making friends–and maybe Walter can learn who he wants to be without the brother he always wanted to be like.

Halfway to Harmony is an utterly charming story about change and growing up.

This French book by Camille Jourdy is part of a series described as ‘whimsical’ in French about a girl who goes into the forest and encounters fantastic creatures called Les Vermeilles.

Continue reading “Whimsy: What does it mean for a book to be whimsical?”

My Shadow Is Pink by Scott Stuart Analysis

My Shadow Is Pink is a rhyming picture book by Australian author/illustrator Scott Stuart, perfect for Rainbow Storytime, or at any time in fact.

I’d encourage readers to compare and contrast this book with The Day The Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers. The Crayons picture book is a mega bestseller, and I am therefore happy to hold it up as an example of gender messaging done badly, by creators (and publishers, and marketing teams) who clearly didn’t know what they were doing in the gender identity arena. Unfortunately, the creative team of The DayThe Crayons Quit do try to smash links between colour and gender… then end up reinforcing them. I’ll be generous and say it was by accident. I’ll be extra generous and point out that The Crayons (2016) is quite old now, in this rapidly changing aspect of culture.

In contrast, the creator of My Shadow Is Pink (2020) has secondary experience of gender expansiveness, observed in his own son. Stuart successfully achieves what others have tried and failed to do: to disentangle colour, clothing and play choices from gender. This is a vital first step in accepting variations on the gender binary.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF SHADOWS

Elves catching the Shadow Goblin 1908 Theodor Kittelsen
Elves catching the Shadow Goblin 1908 by Theodor Kittelsen

The plot of My Shadow Is Pink makes use of the shadow as a separate part of oneself. Humans have long been thinking about the shadow and its motivations:

FOLLOW a shadow, it still flies you;
⁠Seem to fly it, it will pursue:
So court a mistress, she denies you;
⁠Let her alone, she will court you.
⁠Say, are not women truly, then,
⁠Styled but the shadows of us men?

At morn and even, shades are longest;
⁠At noon they are or short or none:
So men at weakest, they are strongest,
⁠But grant us perfect, they’re not known.
⁠Say, are not women truly, then,
⁠Styled but the shadows of us men?

The Shadow by Ben Johnson (from the Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900)
Bring your lovelies out of the shadow, Woman and Home, May 1958
“Bring your lovelies out of the shadow”, Woman and Home, May 1958. Here, the shadow as separate entity is utilised in a humorous way by advertisers. But it does remind me of the current problematic marketing campaign being carried out by the British NHS, encouring women in a cutesy way to suddenly not have shame (around pubic hair and cervical test attendance), when everything else in the culture shames women for what’s under women’s clothes.
THE SHADOW IN THE HERO

In some cultures across history, the shadow-as-separate-being is an ancient and surprisingly fleshed-out idea. Though few of us these days give much thought to the shadow we cast, the idea of The Shadow In The Hero is well-known among writers. In The Hero of a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell wrote about various character archetypes in the mythic story. The ‘Shadow’ is the opponent, and represents the dark weakness in the hero, hence “Shadow In The Hero”. When heroes battle their opponents outwardly, they are actually battling their inner demons. Inner demons are the scariest demons of all.

Frank Cadogan Cowper - Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor 1920
Frank Cadogan Cowper – Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor 1920
THE HORROR SHADOW

Shadows, like personal weaknesses, are inherently scary. Film noir makes the most of this, but shadows are utilised in every genre. Chris Van Allsburg utilises shadows to ominous effect in his picture books, notably in The Garden of Abdul Asazi.

Filmmakers frequently use shadows because the human imagination conjures up what is most terrifying to each person. This is an intelligent method because if they had to create a monster, they would be isolating the audience that isn’t scared by that monster. It is a simple, yet high effective way to evoke fear.

“Shadows in Horror Films: Fear of the Unknown,” Brogan O’Callaghan (2017)

Because the shadow has an inherent scariness, the idea of this scariness transfers into a picture book and allows the author to leave most of the scary incidents off the page. In My Shadow Is Pink, it’s important to leave the worst things off the page, for the same reason the creators of Schitt’s Creek avoided homophobia in their show. There are too few stories celebrating gender difference without the trauma. However, exposing the most secret and unusual part of yourself is always scary. To use the metaphor of a shadow is an excellent way of conveying the scariness while avoiding the trauma.

SHADOWS IN ANCIENT EGYPT

Now to the concept of the coloured shadow. This is based on a very old, religious or supernatural idea: That your shadow is a part of you.

We see it in Ancient Egyptian culture. First, the Ancient Egyptians believed the soul comprised five separate parts:

  • The Ren: the name given to a person at birth. Egyptians believed it would live for as long as that name was spoken or the person remembered.
  • The Sheut: the person’s shadow or silhouette. Egyptians believed that the shadow contained part of the essence of the person.
  • The Ib: a metaphysical heart. To ancient Egyptians it was the focus of emotion, thought, will and intention. They understood it as the seat for the soul.
  • The Ba: personality. Everything that makes a person themselves.
  • The Ka: the vital fire or spark which distinguishes living people from dead (makes sense: warm living bodies vs. cold dead bodies).

A person’s shadow or silhouette, šwt (sheut), is always present. Because of this, Egyptians surmised that a shadow contains something of the person it represents. Through this association, statues of people and deities were sometimes referred to as shadows.

The shadow was … representative to Egyptians of a figure of death, or servant of Anubis, and was depicted graphically as a small human figure painted completely black. In some cases the šwt represented the impact a person had on the earth. Sometimes people (usually pharaohs) had a shadow box in which part of their šwt was stored.

Wikipedia

I heard Jodi Picoult speak succinctly about the Ancient Egyptians and souls in a Radio New Zealand interview she did promoting her new novel, The Book Of Two Ways.

John Bauer, (1882-1918), was a Swedish artist and illustrator, mainly of Scandinavian fairytales. The Prince Without A Shadow 1910
John Bauer, (1882-1918), was a Swedish artist and illustrator, mainly of Scandinavian fairytales. The Prince Without A Shadow 1910.
SHADOW WORK

In psychology and spirituality, “shadow work” is the practice of investigating parts of ourselves that we’d normally keep hidden. This often involves looking at what we perceive as our “negative,” “unattractive,” or “undesirable” impulses and traits. Shadow work is a concept popularised by Carl Jung.

Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.

Psychology and religion: West and East (ed. 1958), Carl Jung

STORY STRUCTURE OF MY SHADOW IS PINK

PARATEXT

My Shadow is Pink is a beautifully written rhyming story that touches on the subjects of gender identity, self acceptance, equality and diversity.

MARKETING COPY

SHORTCOMING

We all need to feel a part of something. When we feel different from our tribe, peer group or family, that can be a problem. “I cannot fit in when my shadow stands out.”

What I like about the set up of this story: The father is coded as ‘blue’, which contemporary readers will associate with ‘boys’. But then the entire family tree is described as blue. Since families don’t exist without women in them somewhere, this is a nice touch.

That said, I’d have liked to see some photos of women in the wall, to cement the idea that blue (the colour) is not a gender. (Later in the story, the father does bring out the photo album ‘of parents and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and others.) I wonder if there is a narrative reason why no women appear on the opening spread: Before his character arc, his misogyny means he dismisses and invisibilises women? By the way, there is no mother in this story, adding to the corpus of children’s stories with absent mothers. It’s interesting to think about why the mother may have been left out of this one.

DESIRE

At a plot level, the child wants to wear a dress to school despite being assigned male at birth.

At a psychological level, the child wants to both be themselves and also to “fit in”.

OPPONENT

There exist two distinct ways of fitting in. You can either pretend to be like everyone else, or everyone else can accept you for who you are. This particular story starts off with the father hoping to go down the first route. The father assures his child that this is “just a phase”.

Therefore, the child and the child’s father are in opposition. The father’s attitude is the dominant one in society. But it is impossible to repress that part of yourself which is elemental. In that story, this elemental part of the self is represented by the shadow.

PLAN

The child is too young to concoct plans and whatnot, but the five- or six-year-old version of a plan goes like this: I like to wear dresses, I will wear a dress to school.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

As is the case in many picture books, the battle comprises most of the story. We see the child looking sad and scared as they go out into the world (starting school) as a boy-coded kid in a dress.

To reiterate, I like that there’s no on-the-page insulting or bullying in this book. Sometimes parents are more fearful than they need to be, especially when it comes to Gen Z kids, who are the most accepting generation we’ve seen in memorable history. (Yes, you can thank their parents for that, and also probably ubiquity of the Internet.)

At the climax of My Shadow Is Pink, the child throws off the dress, determined never to wear it again. (We can assume bad things happened off the page.)

In the picture, the shadow is now separated from the child’s body; an abject rejection.

The word ‘abject’ is key here. This story is about abjection in Julia Kristeva’s sense of the word, explained in her 1980 work Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.

ANAGNORISIS

The (hoped-for) revelation to the reader: If a big, manly man like this kid’s dad can wear a dress, then dresses, pageantry, kikis and all forms of camp expression are not the same thing as gender identity and sexual orientation. Ergo, pageantry should be for everyone.

Camp: A preference for reversal and rejection of sincerity….camp involves both a sense of doubleness — things are not merely what they seem to the naive viewer … camp involves  a preference for reversal — the very bad now reinterpreted as good.

The double page spread which happens at this point in the story, with the spot illustrations of various people with various shadows is what makes this story shine. Until this point, the author/illustrator has had little choice but to run with the culturally dominant view that blue is connected to masculinity and pink is connected to femininity. At this point he subverts it, successfully with:

  • A masculo- coded character with a cis-coloured shadow and a dual masculo-femme coded activity (businessman and painting)
  • A femme- coded character with a cis-coloured shadow and a dual masculo-femme coded activity (fixing cars and cheerleading)
  • A masculo- coded character with a masculo-coded shadow and a dual masculo-femme coded activity (weight-lifting and dancing)

The message on the verso is clear: Cis people don’t need to limit their passions in order to prove to the world that they’re cis.

On the recto side of the page we have another two examples, and in the mix:

  • A cis girl who likes girls

Until this point, the story has been about gender expression, and possibly about gender identity. Now the story sneaks in some gay acceptance, which is very nicely done.

ON OFF-THE-PAGE CHARACTER ARCS

This is an example of a story in which the parent has the character arc, not the kid. The kid was always fine. The father started out scared of his kid’s identity, then morphs into the perfect, supportive parent.

I’ve started to notice something about stories structured in this way:

The first is that they do work. There’s something really heartwarming about seeing a burly father change. This conects to my theory about heartwarming stories about kindness: The less kind the character in the first place, the more heartwarming an audience will find their change of attitude. We absolutely crave stories about characters who ‘come good’. The bigger the character arc, the better we like it.

Here’s the strange thing: In such stories, the storyteller is under zero obligation to show why the unkind character changed their mind. We simply would not accept this if the father of this story were the focalising character. We’d go, hang on, why the sudden change of heart?

This is a feature of all forms of storytelling, not just of children’s picture books. Another example can be found in episode one of the TV series Lovecraft Country. A woman is required to stay at home for safety while her husband goes off on a trip to write a guide book for Black travellers. It is established at the beginning of the story that it is the wife who does a lot of the work of writing. She asks, “Why can’t I go with you?” Because safety, explains the husband, who ends up taking another woman along with him — a woman who nearly loses her life. But as episode one closes, we see the husband pick up the phone from a hotel room and tell his wife that she should join him next time. We haven’t been shown why he has had a change of heart.

So why does this work? Why do readers simply accept the father’s off-stage character arc without asking, “why”? I posit two reasons:

  1. The character arc happens off-stage. We therefore assume things have been ticking over with the dad — things we simply don’t know about. Maybe he’s been on the Internet reading up about LGBTQI+ issues. Maybe someone’s had a quiet word with him. Maybe he remembered a time in his own youth when he wore a dress and got teased and realises now that this was wrong… Any number of things could’ve happened, but the reader doesn’t need to know about them.
  2. We were always on the less empowered character’s side, right from the get-go. In My Shadow Is Pink we don’t need reasons for the dad’s character change explicated, because it was obvious from the start that the father was in the wrong, the kid was in the right, so it was a natural progression that the father would join us all on the right side, ie. the side of the viewpoint character. In Lovecraft Country, a modern audience with modern views on gender equality will be on the side of the wife who is required to stay at home despite doing the bulk of the writing work. This is why we accept character arcs when they happen from ‘wrong’ to ‘correct’ even when we don’t see the thing that spurred the shift in thinking. Whenever someone agrees with us in real life, we don’t need to know why, right? We only need to know their thought processes when they disagree.

In any case, here is a real world father who underwent the same character arc as this fictional father, explaining his epiphany:

“And that was when it hit me. My daughter was equating being good with being someone else.” This is a real world example of an epiphany about a mask. So many fictional stories are also about the removal of a mask.

NEW SITUATION

The advice this father gives to his child: “stand up with your shadow and yell THIS IS ME!” If the advice ended there, I’d criticise it for being insufficiently nuanced. But this is followed with “And some they will love you… and some they will not.. But those that do love you, they’ll love you a lot”.

This is the perfect way to end a book about gender identity in a world where trans rights are clearly still very much needing to be fought for.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Although this story is specifically about the acceptance of gender non-conformity, the message has a wider application: We must all accept ourselves, no matter who we are. It’s great to see a specifically gender non-conformity example added to what is already a massive corpus of ‘Be Yourself’ picture books of the non-controversial Elmer variety, about a fantasy elephant with patchwork skin.

RESONANCE

I hope that one day, a picture book such as My Shadow is Pink becomes wholly unnecessary, considered a strange artefact from a bigoted past. But for now, affirming stories such as My Shadow Is Pink are sorely needed, and I’m delighted that this one exists.

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

On Rhyming Picturebooks and Children’s Poetry Analysis

Examine the work of rhyming masters like Jane Yolen, Jack Prelutsky, Karma Wilson, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and Corey Rosen Schwartz.

Tara Lazar, How To Write Children’s Picturebooks

“If it’s going to rhyme, it’s just terribly important that there’s some repeated phrase, some sort of chorus-y bit.”

Julia Donaldson, The Guardian interview

In 1991 an editor in the children’s department at Methuen contacted Donaldson to ask if she would be interested in turning one of her BBC songs into a book. A Squash and a Squeeze was published in 1993, when Donaldson was 44. It was not expected to be a big seller. For one thing, it was in rhyme, which publishers at the time largely avoided because of difficulties with translation. “In order for a picture book to be profitable, you more or less have to glue some foreign editions on, so you can do a bigger print run,” Donaldson said.

“It was a rule we held to be self-evident that you couldn’t afford to do rhyming books,” [Kate] Wilson, who then worked in Methuen’s rights department, told me, somewhat sheepishly. (The book has since sold more than 1.5m copies, and Donaldson’s work has been translated into more than 50 languages.) Today, a significant proportion of picture books are written in verse, somewhat to Donaldson’s bemusement. “I think there’s far too many rhyming books. And a lot of them – I don’t want to sound vain or anything – a lot of them make me cringe.”

Julia Donaldson, The Guardian interview
https://twitter.com/kthorning/status/1354274917949255688?s=20
The book From Cover To Cover by Kathleen T Horning is recommended in this thread, because it has a section on rhyming and rhyme adjacent devices.

What poets do is to encourage our inclination to credit the prompting of our intuitive being. They help us to say in the recesses of ourselves… ‘Yes, I know something like that, too. Yes, that’s right. Thank you for putting words on it and making it more or less official’.

Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue, Faber, 1998

“I fucking hate guys who quote poetry to girls. Since we are being honest. Also, wisdom is a better fat than the vast majority of kisses. Wisdom is certainly a better fate than kissing douches who only read poetry so they can use it to get in girls’ pants.”

from Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Duke Bunthorne is a character from an opera called Patience. Bunthorne is a poet who frolics around saying poetic things, followed by a hoard of women. [This reminds me of the eerie and inappropriate Canadian-born lecturer of poetry I had at university, who would approach young women in the library, sidle up closely and start reciting poetry at them creepily. He then tricked us all in the poetry exam by letting an entire lecture theatre full of people believe the exam would involve the interpretation of poetry, when in fact we were tested on how well we’d memorised, line for line, the poems of dead white men. We all failed and were all graded up, all of this doing nothing more than demonstrating one of the huge limitations of exams.]

Bunthorne’s lines are a parody of poets who despair at a world in which nothing is special. But there is nothing mysterious about poetry. It uses the same words that we use when making shopping lists or having conversations about football.

Iona Opie and her husband did a lot of work collecting rhymes and games and verse and the literature of play. They focus on the oral tradition.

Beagley mentions a number of good books but I can’t catch them from the podcast. He also mentions a particularly good website by poet Lorraine Marwood. Look especially at the vodcasts in which she works with secondary and primary school aged students.

What is poetry?

In Australia, the bush ballad is distinctive. (The Man From Snowy River is perhaps the most famous example.)

Nursery rhymes can be political parodies, such as Humpty Dumpty. So poetry can parse from one area of the community to another, ending up as a children’s poem.

Tongue twisters are for play.

Most school children and most adults as well have an aversion to poetry. Where does the yuck response come from? Many teachers present poetry to children in an inept way, misunderstanding children’s use and appreciation of poetic forms. What causes the strong reaction to the concept of poetry? Is it technical or about the meaning of the poems?

I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.

Robert Frost

Poetry’s Form and Structure

Sound, especially end-rhyme, has been popular of late but this wasn’t always the case. Alliteration was a more popular poetic technique several centuries ago. Onomatopoeia describes words such as ‘bang’ and ‘slosh’, which are meant to sound like the real-world sound. In blank verse, the enjambment becomes important (where the lines end). Then you’ve got assonance and consonance and different types of rhymes.  Because of the stress-timed nature of English, the meter is important. Or the number of syllables. A haiku is the poetic equivalent of taking a photograph. Or the number of lines might be the defining thing, e.g. a sonnet, the limerick.

Other literary devices in poems have to do with meaning, particularly the metaphor. Similes, allusions are other examples. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is a good example of metaphor, simile and allusion. The allusion is Biblical — King David is from the Old Testament, the Book of Samuel. Rhythm, rhyme and structure help poems to be memorable.

Plot can be overrated. What I strive for more is rhythm.

Jim Harrison

These techniques compress far more meaning into a short space than would otherwise be possible.

The Difference Between Prose and Poetry

Poetic techniques convey impression, emotion, feeling, idea and other abstractions from meaning, rather than instruction and shopping-list type information. Poets aim to use as few words as possible to convey the most. “The best words in the best order.” G.K. Chesterton said that the aim of prose is for the words to mean what they say, but the aim of poetic words is for them to mean what they do not say. However, writers of prose still have poetic techniques available to them.

The Poetry of A.A. Milne

Disobedience: The last verse is meant to be whispered.

Happiness: A lovely structure of sound and that’s the point of it.

Vespers: Is a breakaway from the other poems. This is a very adult, gushy view of childhood and children were forced to learn it. Parents are just as much an audience of children’s lit as the children, but the meaning is only intended for them. This contrasts with the ‘hoppity hop’ poem which exists as language play.

Other Important Poems

Some poems are very sensual, making use of all the senses. For example Fog by Carl Saunders. There are no harsh consonants, and instead is full of consonants which can be said continuously such as the sibilant ‘sss’, but no plosives. Eleanor Farjeon’s The Tide In The River is similar in this respect: soft sounds repeated, long ‘i’, almost like a nursery rhyme. It also uses the adult image of the tide turning.

Analysis of poetry can draw our attention right away from its beauty. Having said that, you do need to understand the technicalities of a poet’s craft. [This might destroy the poems you study but will help you to appreciate the poems you don’t. It’s a trade-off.]

Beagley then goes on to ruin a war poem. [haha]

Many wonderful poets are writing for children in the UK. However, if you go searching for children’s poetry in a UK library or bookshop, you’ll find it on a shelf labelled ‘Children’s Poetry and Joke Books’. Children deserve access to the same range of subjects and styles as adults. What public art gallery would fill its children’s’ section with cartoons only? Yes we love cartoons, yes we love humour, but perhaps adult insecurity (about poetry we don’t immediately ‘get’) has narrowed this market to a sub-genre of joke books.” 

Manchester Children’s Book Festival

The following are notes from David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U.

Hehe

Poetry is spread through cultures all throughout the world. But children’s poetry is not necessarily a distinct thing — it goes hand in hand with cultures which consider the child different from the adult. What exactly is it that distinguishes children’s poetry from the rest of society’s poetry?

Of all the things I wish I were I wish I were a sparrow

Spoetry

Spoetry is a poem comprising phrases from your spam email folder.

Here’s one from me:

GOOD DAY MY DEAR FRIEND
Black Friday is coming! Prepare yourself!
You’ll never find THIS on a shelf.
USE IT FOR THE CHILDREN.

References

Websites useful for finding poems

Poemhunter.com 

Searchpoetry.com is a search engine

Those two allow you to search by poet’s name/titles/individual lines. Many of the poems are out of copyright, so older poems.

Bartleby reprints texts out of copyright — old encyclopedias, magazines, classic poems etc.

What Makes For Good Poetry?

Rebecca Lukens (of A Critical Handbook Of Children’s Literature): Simple rhyming and construction of words into a pattern may have a long history, but this is not poetry. Greeting card limericks, advertising jingles etc. are not poems. They are verse, they are games, rhymes, wordplay… but not poetry. Lukens says that poetry as a definition has very specific boundaries. T.S. Eliot also took up this issue: If you’re just playing with structure then you’re not writing poetry. There must be sensitivity of thought that is worth conveying to others. While Lukens does make a case for a continuum, with ‘doggerel’ at one end and ‘high art’ at the other, Eliot is very particular. He says poetry is only at the high art end. Eliot’s own poetry fits at that end — it’s easy to wonder what the hell his poems are about, until you’ve really studied it. That sort of poetry was very popular in the 20th century.

Is this an elitist view? Is this why for a lot of people poetry is meaningless, to be avoided like the plague? You get meaning a lot more quickly from a novel or a movie, or even dance.

According to Lukens and Eliot’s definition of poetry, verse is inferior to poetry.

Poems need to say something about our state of living/human beings/the natural world which adds to our sense of living. What’s more important in poetry: How something is said or what is actually said? It’s insulting to children to say that poetry has to be some elevated form and that they need something different and that children’s verse is somehow inferior.

See Give Them Wings, ed. Maurice Saxby

So those are two opposing views about what makes poetry.

Very often, children’s first introduction to literature (constructed literary works) is rhyme — Round and round the garden, This little piggy etc. Even when the child does not understand the words, they learn the rhythm, they learn that it is comforting, they learn about their relationships with the important people in their lives.

Although nursery rhymes are passed orally from generation to generation, someone must have constructed them. But we have no idea who. (Though we do know who wrote Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – Jane Taylor.)

After a while the child starts to memorise these rhymes and join in. It becomes a shared activity. Actions accompany the rhymes (e.g. Incy Wincy Spider).  This is children’s literature. So how can one say that this is lesser literature than T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets? To the child, this is the complete, greatest thing. Mastering the movements that go along with rhymes is a major achievement.

The very first Simpsons cartoon (a Tracy Ulman show skit) depicts Homer and Marge saying goodnight to the three children. ‘Night night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.’ Lisa is mortified, wondering about the bedbugs. ‘Rock a bye baby…. when the bough breaks the cradle will fall….’ Maggie is imagining herself falling from the top of the tree. Homer and Marge go off to bed and say to each other ‘Aren’t we wonderful parents.’ This skit shows that if children actually understood the words in some famous sayings and lullabies, they’d probably be disturbed. It’s not about the words, it’s about the rhythm and song.

Is it meant to be ‘read’ or is it meant to be ‘said’? This is the question that defines children’s literature.

We’re Going On A Bear Hunt is a very old poetry game. Probably the best known version these days comes via Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury’s book published by Walker Books. Publishing can fix a piece of children’s literature into one well-known form, whereas before publishing, rhymes evolved in the playground.

THE IMPACT OF TV

People who study playground lore have found that, despite worries, TV hasn’t replaced rhymes, chasing, skipping and singing games etc., instead, T.V. has simply added content.

It’s unlikely TV or screens would ever lead to the demise of this kind of play, because playground rhymes offer a safeish space to use taboo language. [Demonstrated in the Australian book series edited by Peter and Virginia Ferguson Durkin.) The rhymes might be about putting someone else down/teasing, or deflates authority and establishes hierarchies. There’s a lot about inclusion and exclusion.

There is quite deliberate parody e.g. Felicia Hemans looking back on the Battle of the Nile, writing the poem Casabianca. The poem was a very didactic one about dying nobly. So the poem had its words replaced in the playground. [We did the same at school with the New Zealand national anthem: Hear our voices tweet tweet tweet/God defend the toilet seat. I remember the joyous terror of singing this in assembly, looking at the teachers trying to work out who was singing it.]

Shirley Hughes’ book is full of things that adults would like, and compared to what the children are using in the playground, it’s not especially memorable.

Walter De La Mare’s poems are deceptively simple and have therefore mainly been published for children. As I Was Walking is a good example of a serious poem which has been hijacked (personalised) by children.

WORDPLAY

Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Spike Milligan all wrote poems which made playthings out of words. Some of the words from these famous poets have since entered the English language. (Lear’s ‘chortle’, for instance.)

Sound is very important. Rhyme helps new generations of children to remember the chants.

Related: How To Enjoy Poetry from Brainpickings

Embedded image permalink

FURTHER READING

Schoolroom Poets: Childhood, Performance, and the Place of American Poetry, 1865-1917 by Angela Sorby (2005)

When I’m writing, I’m more conscious of the sound, actually, than the meaning. I know what the rhythm of the sentence is going to be before I know what the words are going to be in it. … Silence? Yes. Pneumatic drills? Fine. Traffic noise? No problem. But music is an absolute killer. So I have to have silence, so I can hear the rhythm.

Philip Pullman: Rules of writing from man behind His Dark Materials

When he wrote poems, he felt as free as the Passaic River as it rushed to the falls. Willie’s notebooks filled up, one after another. Willie’s words gave him freedom and peace, but he also knew he needed to earn a living. So he went off to medical school and became a doctor — one of the busiest men in town! Yet he never stopped writing poetry. In this picture book biography of William Carlos Williams, Jen Bryant’s engaging prose and Melissa Sweet’s stunning mixed-media illustrations celebrate the amazing man who found a way to earn a living and to honor his calling to be a poet.

Don DeLillo once said that when he was writing, all that interested him was the sound. He said something like “I’ll happily change the subject of the sentence for the sake of how it sounds. And I will let the sound dictate the story.

Kevin Barry
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Header illustration: Carlos Marchiori Illustrations for Edith Fowke – Sally Go Round The Sun 300 Songs, Rhymes and Games of Canadian Children (1969), “Farmer in the Dell”.

The Annotated Night Before Christmas

“The Night Before Christmas” is an alternative title of the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (controversially) by a guy called Clement Clarke Moore. The poem was first published anonymously in 1823 and only later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, who claimed authorship in 1837, the start of the Victorian era. A Dutch migrant called Henry Livingston might be the true author. We don’t know.

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In A Dark, Dark Room And Other Scary Stories

In A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories

In A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories written by Alvin Schwartz was first published in 1971 for emergent readers ready for scary… but not too scary. I recently looked closely at a modern picture book called Creepy Carrots, another excellent example of a ‘scary’ story perfectly pitched at 4-6 year olds. This collection is for emergent readers and is a bit more creepy than that. The adult reader is unlikely to be scared by any of these, but many adults today have wonderful memories of A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories.

Table of contents illustrated by Victor Rivas
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Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Aardema and Vidal Analysis

Bringing The Rain To Kapiti Plain cover

Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain (1981) is a cumulative picture book written by Verna Aardema and illustrated by and Beatriz Vidal. The rhyming scheme borrows from the well-known childhood rhyme, “This is the house that Jack built“.

Vidal’s illustrations have a folktale vibe about them, partly due to those nice white outlines reminiscent of a woodcut.

I don’t know how Kapiti is meant to be pronounced —  semi-arid lands in Kenya with a 550mm average rainfall — but my pronunciation is influenced by the name of the south-western North Island of New Zealand, called Kapiti Coast, in which the first syllable is stressed.

This picture book is subtitled “A Nandi Tale”.

Here is a PDF of a book written by a white person about the Nandi people in 1909, so you can guess what to expect, but it does include a collection of Nandi folktales. On page 123, I was interested to find a Nandi equivalent of “The House That Jack Built” cumulative tales, because this style of story can be found all over the world. However, it’s not this one. It’s a story about an old woman and her pig. This rhyme is clearly meant to be shared between two or more people, each taking a part. That is the joy of cumulative tales.

STORY STRUCTURE OF BRINGING THE RAIN TO KAPITI PLAIN

PARATEXT

A cumulative rhyme relating how Ki-pat brought rain to the drought-stricken Kapiti Plain. Verna Aardema has brought the original story closer to the English nursery rhyme by putting in a cumulative refrain and giving the tale the rhythm of “The House That Jack Built.”

MARKTING COPY

Why the cumulative story structure? These can be tedious to read for tired parents, especially if you’re reading at bedtime; in my experience I start yawning uncontrollably. However, a cumulative tale that builds on itself is a good narrative choice for an environmental story, because cumulative tales emphasise connections between things.

This particular story is mythic rather than scientific. But still.

SHORTCOMING

Focusing on the main character, Kipat, his big problem is that a drought affects Kapiti Plain, and his cows can’t get enough to eat and drink.

DESIRE

There are big rain clouds in the sky. Kipat wants the clouds to release the rain!

OPPONENT

Nature

PLAN

When a bird drops its feather, Kipat makes a bow and arrow

THE BIG STRUGGLE

Kipat shoots the arrow at the cloud. Then the cloud releases the rain.

ANAGNORISIS

Kipat has worked out how to make it rain. Honestly, I kind of wish this is how it worked.

NEW SITUATION

Like many old tales about young men who solve a problem and become successful, Kipat is rewarded with a wife. Woman as chattel, treated as about as important as the cows.

How Nandi folklore thinks of cattle… and human mothers.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Well, I’m guessing there wil be another drought in Kipat’s lifetime. At some point he’s going to learn that him shooting that arrow into the sky was coincidental rather than causal. Until then, I’m sure he’s properly full of himself.

RESONANCE

Rain (too much and too little) is a growing problem as the climate changes.

When humans attempt to control where and when it rains, this is known as cloud seeding. Listen to The Seeded Cloud” episode of The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry to get an overview of efforts that have been made so far (not very successfully) and problems that will arise if some scientists do work out how to seed clouds really well.

WHO GETS BLAMED FOR DROUGHTS IN FOLKLORE?

The nuckelavee is a horse-like demon. British folklorist Katharine Briggs called it the nastiest of all the demons of Scotland’s Northern Isles. It was held responsible for droughts and epidemics.
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Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss Analysis

Green Eggs And Ham

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at another Dr Seuss early reader, Green Eggs and Ham.

Green Eggs and Ham is buddy comedy from the late 1950s with aspects of the carnivalesque. It also makes use of a mythic journey to beef up the word count and ends in a clear character arc.

Hard to believe, but this book was banned in China, for promoting Marxism. (They lifted the ban after Dr Seuss died.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF GREEN EGGS AND HAM

If Green Eggs and Ham were a movie and not an early reader, it would be called an ‘odd couple’ or ‘buddy comedy’ film.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is an odd couple film. So is Baby Mama, in which two very different women are thrown together. In both of these films, the very-different characters end up friends. That’s the case with Green Eggs and Ham, too. This is why odd-couple stories are emotionally satisfying.

Sometimes the odd couple never get to be good friends, but by any measure they are best friends anyway. In Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Greg and Rowley are very different and Greg doesn’t even really like Rowley that much, but they spend a lot of time together. The cynical main guy with the optimistic and babyish best friend is also seen in Monster House.  Go back to the late eighties, early nineties and we saw this dynamic in The Wonder Years. The late nineties gave us Freaks and Geeks, in which Sam seems very different from his geeky friends. He’s thrown in with them because he’s so small for his age.

These are also called ‘buddy comedies’. The guys are buddies, but the difference between them leads to lots of humour. I say ‘guys’, because there are fewer stories about female friendships in general, unless they’re of the Mean Girls variety. (This is why the film Baby Mama stands out as unusual.) That said, the female buddy story is becoming more popular.

In Green Eggs and Ham we have a cranky, pessimistic guy juxtaposed against an enthusiastic guy. This might as well be Greg Heffley and Rowley, where Rowley is all over something, singing its praises. (But Wimpy Kid is an ongoing series, so Greg Heffley’s character never changes.)

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

In a buddy comedy/odd-couple comedy, both characters change. Usually. They take a little bit from each other and become more rounded individuals. In a typical buddy comedy, it’s ‘the relationship’ that changes.

Typical Characters In A Buddy Comedy

A Buddy Love story consists of an “incomplete hero,” who does not know what or who he is missing to make his life whole. The contrast between the two main characters promises entertaining sparks and is therefore appealing.

Usually you fill out the character web with at least one outside, dangerous, ongoing opponent. And because most buddy stories use a mythic journey, the buddies encounter a number of secondary opponents on the road. These characters are usually strangers to the buddies, and they are dispatched in quick succession. Each of these opponents should represent a negative aspect of the society that hates the buddies or wants to break them up.

There will be a snag in the relationship that keeps interfering. This allows an ongoing opposition between the two leads in a traveling story where most of the other opponents are strangers who quickly come and go. In any Buddy Picture Comedy, the buddy is the first opponent.

As in the love story, one of the buddies should be more central than the other. Usually it’s the thinker, the schemer, or the strategist of the two, because this character comes up with the plan and starts them off on the desire line.

Often one’s a cop, the other’s a fed, or one’s a cop the other’s a crook, or one’s a by-the-book detective and the other’s the precinct’s resident loose cannon. They have to work together to get something done (like solve a crime). Buddy cop movies are a slightly different genre mashup: Action+Love+Crime (without the comedy).

In Green Eggs and Ham, Sam-I-Am is a green eggs and ham enthusiast at the beginning and remains the same throughout. There’s no character arc for Sam-I-Am. It is Joey (the cat thing in the hat) who changes. If you’re ever wondering who the main character is in a story, the best question to ask is, ‘Who changes the most?’ That doesn’t mean ‘Who changes in circumstance’. It means ‘Who learns something about themselves’.

Joey is therefore the main character.

What’s wrong with Joey?

Once you’ve created a main character, always ask this question.

He won’t try new foods. This is a recognisable problem for the target audience, who are learning to read.

Stock Yuck

Five-year-olds are usually pretty fussy about green foods. In a clever twist, Dr Seuss avoids the stock yuck of green vegetables (broccoli is the usual stand-in for ‘horrible foods’ in the West), and turns an unlikely thing green. This makes it even more disgusting. In real life you wouldn’t touch green eggs and ham, because it would be rotten and mouldy. When writing our own stories, we can use this trick too: Take a common item and change its attributes.

WHAT DOES JOEY WANT?

Sometimes a story is about what a character does not want.

Joey wants Sam-I-Am to leave him alone. He does not want to eat the green eggs and ham.

When your main character is on the defensive, and the plot is about what they don’t want, the opponent needs to have a strong desire to compensate. (In a story, if no one really wants anything, you don’t have a story.)

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Sam-I-Am is the opponent, not because he wants to kill Joey or anything like that, but because he wants something different from what Joey wants.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Joey’s plan is to run away from Joey so Joey will quit bugging him.

Expressed entirely in the pictures, the pair end up going on a mythic journey which involves hills, the tops of trees, trains, a tunnel and eventually a boat.

BIG STRUGGLE

They end up under the sea. In a mythic structure, the big struggles increase in intensity, leading to a life-or-death situation.

The big struggle of words does not increase in intensity — it remains the same. What happens in this picture book is that the situations get increasingly ridiculous. The ultimate in ridiculous is arguing under water.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

We see from Joey’s face when he pops up from the sea that he is defeated.

dr seuss green eggs and ham

This marks a change in his attitude. He realises Sam-I-Am won’t leave him alone until he tries the green eggs and ham. So he tries it. And he learns that he loves it.

Notice how this part of the story connects directly to the ‘What’s wrong with Joey’ part of the story? Dr Seuss set up Joey’s great shortcoming right at the beginning and if you’ve read plenty of stories, it’s inevitable that Joey changes his mind about the green eggs and ham.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

We might assume Joey will be less frightened of new foods in future. But this is a comedy, so it’s just as likely Joey does not apply his newfound love of green eggs and ham to the next unfamiliar thing. He’s just as likely to hate that, too. In comedy, characters never really change. Or if they do change, the change is not applied generally.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST GREEN EGGS AND HAM

I Really Like Slop Elephant and Piggie

Green Eggs and Ham was first published in 1957. A much newer (2015) early reader with an almost identical odd couple and character arc is I Really Like Slop, an Elephant and Piggy story from the Mo Willems franchise.

Green Eggs and Ham is longer, at 225 words. I Really Like Slop is only 182 words. This reflects a modern trend in picture books — new stories are shorter than retro classics. (Notably, Green Eggs and Ham contains only 50 different words.)

a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you

Both Green Eggs and Ham and I Really Like Slop are 100 per cent dialogue.

Unlike Mo Willems, Dr Seuss rhymed his stories, using the classic nursery rhyme rhyming scheme, otherwise known as trochaic tetrameter. Dr Seuss was such a cultural influencer that any writer making use of this rhyming scheme ends up compared to Dr Seuss.

Elephant and Piggy stories rely entirely on comedic structure (rather than mythic structure). Comedic structure can only be sustained over a short length of time before spilling the gag at the end. So unless Mo Willems were to take Elephant and Piggie somewhere, placing them in a particular setting (they’re always suspended in space, against a blank background), he wouldn’t be able to sustain more words. Dr Seuss was able to sustain a longer gag by taking his characters on that road trip/mythic journey.

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The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler Analysis

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson to show how universal structure exists behind all good stories. The Gruffalo is an example of mythic structure, which has been super successful as a story structure across cultures for the last 3000 years.

Julia Donaldson is a master at taking old folktales and rewriting them in rhyme for a contemporary audience. The Gruffalo draws heavily from Alexandra the Rock-eater: An old Rumanian tale, retold by Dorothy Van Woerkom and published in picture book form in 1978. Julia Donaldson uses the same device of tricking a formidable creature into thinking you’re much stronger than you are.

In the Romanian tale, an underdog hero convinces a dragon of her own considerable might. This is a familiar device in many folk tales. (For example, you might squeeze cheese but persuade a formidable opponent that you’re really squeezing buttermilk from a stone.) She’s trying to get rid of the local dragon in return for a gift of animals. She needs animals because she has 100 children to feed (all magic results from having wished for them.)

[The Gruffalo] was in her head for a year before she sat down to write. “Normally there’s a long time between germination and the writing.”

The Guardian

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE GRUFFALO

For more on mythic structure, see this post. Basically, a character goes on a journey, meets friends and foes, changes as a person (or animal, in this case), and returns home. Sometimes they find a new home. In any case, they’ll be different for their experiences than they were at the beginning. This is called a ‘character arc’.

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

The mouse.

What’s wrong with Mouse? They’re small and therefore vulnerable.

But Mouse’s great strength is that they are a trickster character. The trickster is a super popular archetype in stories from every era. For a successful story (or scene), a trickster character is your absolute best bet. Go ahead and create characters who play tricks to get what they want. You may not approve of what your characters do morally, but readers love tricksters and their tricks.

What is she wrong about?

She thinks monsters aren’t real.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

Mouse is off on a journey. We don’t know where s/he is going, but Mouse tells everyone along the way that they are off to see the Gruffalo. Obviously, this is not the mouse’s real desire. Mouse doesn’t think Gruffalos really exist. We’ll never know where Mouse is really going. I’d say they’re off to find nuts, with no particular destination in mind.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Mouse encounters only baddies on this trip — no true helpers/mentors. Mice tend to have a lot of enemies because they are small. That puts them near the bottom of the mammalian food chain. Mice are popular characters in children’s stories because both mice and children are small. So the mouse is a natural stand-in for the child.

Because Mouse is a trickster, s/he quickly turns the Gruffalo into an ally, even though s/he didn’t even believe in Gruffalos until meeting one.

Gruffalo and Mouse

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

The plan is to walk through the forest freely by telling opponents that s/he’s off to meet a Gruffalo, scaring everyone off.

In lots of stories, the initial plan doesn’t work and has to be changed. Our quick-thinking Mouse does not disappoint. When she realises the Gruffalo is real she decides to trick the Gruffalo into thinking s/he herself is fearsome by having Gruffalo walk behind.

Julia Donaldson has done something masterful here, pulling off what writers call a reversal. The reader now knows that the reason all those other animals were scared of the Gruffalo isn’t just because they’re easily duped — it’s because the Gruffalo really does exist. Perhaps Mouse heard about the Gruffalo but didn’t believe it was real… until this story.

BIG STRUGGLE

In stories with mythic structure, there won’t be just the one big struggle. There will be a series of them, increasing in intensity until the final showdown. There is a minor standoff every time Mouse meets a creature who wants to eat them. When Mouse is surprised to see the Gruffalo, that’s another. Then the story works in reverse, very similar to what Roald Dahl did with The Great Big Enormous Crocodile. With The Gruffalo right behind them, Mouse meets all of those animal opponents again, this time scaring them.

So what’s the Big Struggle? It doesn’t consist of much — it’s that ending scene — we might call it the climax. Mouse doesn’t need The Gruffalo anymore, so talks about Gruffalo Crumble, scaring The Gruffalo away.

Mouse has won.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

At a surface level, Mouse has learned that Gruffalos really do exist.

At a deeper level, Mouse has learned that wits can overcome size in any big struggle. Pessimistically, the reader is reminded that size really does equal scary, and if you’re not big enough yourself, you can use your wits to rope in someone bigger.

At an even deeper level, we might posit all sorts of psychological theories about how if you pretend for long enough, pretence will become your reality. Bluster over substance can work. Fake it til you make it…

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

The final page shows Mouse eating nuts and everything is good. For Mouse, life will continue as before.

WHAT I BRING TO THE STORY

I imagine Mouse is a little more confident about their abilities as a trickster now, and even when hearing scary stories, will know that scary situations can be turned to her benefit.

SETTING OF THE GRUFFALO

Axel Scheffler’s illustrations are well-suited to Julia Donaldson’s stories because although many of the stories feature scary characters in forests, over boggy marshes (Room On The Broom) and on lonesome highways (The Highway Rat), the colour palette Scheffler uses is colourful and bright even when the atmosphere is raining and dark.

Forests and fairytales go together. If you want to add danger and intrigue to your story, you can place your cast in the middle of a forest, or if they live in a town, put that town right next to a forest. That way, there’s always the threat that something will come out of the forest. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Doesn’t matter if you use the forest in this way. The existence of a nearby forest is enough.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

A picture book writer very similar to Julia Donaldson is New Zealand’s Joy Cowley, who also writes rhyming picture books using ancient tales as inspiration. If I told you Nickety Nakkety Noo Noo had been written by Joy Cowley, or that Joy Cowley had written The Gruffalo, you’d probably believe me.

FURTHER READING


The Gruffalo was released in 1999, and met with immediate success. The book won the prestigious Smarties prize, which Donaldson accepted wearing a Gruffalo hand puppet. At the time she was working as a writer in residence at a school in Easterhouse, a deprived area of Glasgow. When Donaldson returned from the ceremony, the children gave her a gold star.

The Gruffalo sparked a surge of creativity and a run of bestsellers. But away from books, Donaldson’s home life was fraught with difficulty. Hamish, the eldest of her three sons, suffered from depression and psychosis, and was hospitalised. He was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. In 2003, Donaldson’s nephew Gaius, who also suffered from depression, died by suicide. A month later, Hamish killed himself. He was 25.

The Guardian
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A Fish Out Of Water by Helen Palmer Analysis

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.

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The Biggest Sandwich Ever Analysis

The Biggest Sandwich Ever is a book from 1980. It was my first “Lucky Book Club” purchase, and I loved it. (I don’t agree with my husband either, who says there should also be an “Unlucky Book Club”.)

What makes it great? It’s not especially original, but it does follow a successful formula. Although the plot feels quite Dr Seuss-ish, Rita Golden Gelman didn’t fall into the trap of trying to rhyme like only Theodor Geisel can. Instead, she sticks to simple rhyme. There are no special tricks in the rhyming scheme but it is easy to read aloud.

An earlier version of a very similar story was written and illustrated by John Vernon Lord and Janet Burroway in 1972 on the other side of the Atlantic. It was called The Giant Jam Sandwich.

A descendent of this kind of picture book is the bear series by Jez Alborough, also featuring simple rhyme, playing with scale (a massive teddy bear) and a circular ending.

Why are stories of excess and outsize so memorable? I don’t know, but they are. In fact, people who specialise in training others to have good memories recommend making use of this trick of the brain. We’re more likely to remember to buy lemons at the supermarket if we imagine a massive lemon beforehand, squirting juice painfully into the eye.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE BIGGEST SANDWICH EVER

SHORTCOMING

Although it’s a rule for main characters to have a psychological and moral shortcoming, the rule doesn’t necessarily apply to stories for children. More specifically, it doesn’t seem to apply to carnivalesque children’s stories.

Instead, the story begins:

We were having

a picnic.

Just Tammy and I.

In other words, these kids were just fine as they were. Like a Cat In The Hat plot template, a character arrives unbidden and the purpose of that character is simply to liven up the day.

The general rules of story are quite different in a carnivalesque tale. This becomes apparent when I take a closer look,

DESIRE

In any carnivalesque story the children crave a fun time.

Ostensibly, however, they don’t seem to want anything at all. Adventure seems to find them.

OPPONENT ALLY

The man with the pot

PLAN FUN

Watching an enormous sandwich being built in the countryside

BIG STRUGGLE

The eating of the sandwich. In a carnivalesque story, instead of a sandwich we have a culmination of fun.

ANAGNORISIS

Self revelation is perhaps replaced by an achievement: the finishing of the sandwich.

NEW SITUATION

This is a circular story. The reader predicts the same story will happen over again, but this time with a pie. In other words, this was a moment of fun, and there will be many more such moments for these children.

OTHER TALES OF ABUNDANCE

Many, if not most, children’s picturebooks include an element of fantastic excess. The Biggest Sandwich Ever is not even the first children’s picture book featuring a massive sandwich.

The Giant Jam Sandwich Story & Pictures by John Vernon Lord, Verses by Janet Burroway 1972
The Giant Jam Sandwich Story & Pictures by John Vernon Lord, Verses by Janet Burroway 1972

Some of those stories are veritable tall tales, in which the excess is so exaggerated that the excess is the story.

Thirty Thousand Watermelons
30,000 Watermelons by Aki Bingo
Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag
Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag
avocado-baby-cover
Avocado Baby by John Burningham
vintage-ladybird-book-the-magic-porridge-pot-well-loved-tales-606d-gloss-hardback-1989-6030-p
The Magic Porridge Pot — a classic fairytale
enormous-turnip-scene_1000x747
The Enormous Turnip from a Ladybird edition

FURTHER READING

The inverse of a tale of excess is the miniature — memorable, again, for its playing with scale.

Thumbelina, Tom Thumb and Other Miniature Tales

Lemon girl young adult novella

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