Story Structure: The Big Struggle

Harry Brooker - The Tug of War

All complete narratives feature a big struggle scene. No, that doesn’t have to be a literal big struggle scene, Lord of the Rings style. In fact, we should be thinking outside that box altogether. One thing I love about Larry McMurtry’s anti-Western novels (especially Lonesome Dove) is that he condenses the gun big struggles and torture scenes in favour of character conflict.

I often feel the big struggle sequence in a movie goes on too long. I feel this way about the children’s animation Monster House and also about the Pixar animation Inside Out. The former happened because the plot was too thin in general, the latter because a big struggle-free myth structure should more naturally be shorter.

Struggle 1904 by Robert Demachy
Struggle 1904 by Robert Demachy


More commonly it’s known as the climax.

When your character reaches the climax, everything is stacked against them. They think fast, piecing together clues in their head. Usually, those clues are tidbits of knowledge you’ve placed earlier in the story, along with hints the main character observes in the moment. The protagonist assembles these clues into an important realisation. Then they use their newfound understanding to win the day.


I’ve also seen it called The Dark Moment.

Here it’s called a Black Moment:

Do you have a black moment—a point near the end of the manuscript where your character has lost something or someone extremely important to him/her and all appears to be lost and failure seems inevitable? This usually happens right before he/she has a revelation or a breakthrough of some sort and throws him/herself back into the intensified conflict with a new determination, leading into the climax.

Naomi Edits

I’ve also heard it called ‘The Big Doom‘. Whatever you call it, this part of a story looks like this:

  • The big struggle is the final conflict between main character and opponent and determines which of the two characters wins the goal.
  • Characters come close to death, spiritually or actually, depending on the genre.
  • So, how to portray a big struggle… metaphorically? Sometimes this involves playing with spatial perceptions in some way. For example, in her re-visioning of Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter makes use of mise en abyme. Other techniques include playing with scale, making use of The Overview Effect, or otherwise inducing some kind of spatial horror.
  • The big struggle sequence can also look like not much at all. As Captain Awkward says in a post about running into family after estrangement, “anticlimax  a good outcome on paper, since it means nothing escalated can hit some of us as hard emotionally as anything we feared would happen.” A non-big struggle, when expected, is also a ‘big struggle scene’.

The big struggle sequence looks quite different in the big struggle-free myth form. Namely, the fight will be internal, externalised as a representation of the main character’s psychology. These stories avoid sturm und drang.

Torture your protagonist.

The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t. This is your protagonist, not your kid.

Janet Fitch

[One] reason an ending may fail to satisfy is that the author is trying to spare the characters some hurt, this time the anguish of confrontation. Remember, you cannot protect your characters—the words protagonist and antagonist have agony built in.

Schaum’s quick guide to writing great short stories by Margaret Lucke
Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait - The Life of a Hunter-A Tight Fix bear
Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait – The Life of a Hunter-A Tight Fix bear



A child’s main shortcoming is that they are small and without power, so a lot of children’s stories have historically relied on an adult stepping in to help. The child’s main job was to find someone more powerful. Victorians preferred the version of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the adult male woodcutter saves the day, and alternatives of that era have basically been forgotten.

The hero or heroine of a fairy tale usually cannot kill the dragon or marry the princess without help. This, of course, is contrary to the American tradition that if you go it alone and work hard enough, you will get to the top. In fairy tales, characters who refuse help, or refuse to help others, end up covered with tar or talking frogs and snakes.

Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-up: The subversive power of children’s literature

Not all fairy tales follow this general rule, of course. That’s because the fairy tales which we read today have been edited by Victorian men who seemed to harbour their own fantasies of stepping in to save women and children. Fairy tales such as “The Gallant Tailor” and “Mollie Whuppie” feature protagonists who save themselves, but it’s unlikely you were exposed to those as a child.

In contemporary children’s fiction, children fight their own big struggles. However, they very often call in someone more powerful/older to help them in the pre-big struggle stage. That helper might be just a little bit older, or they might be eccentric (powerless in their own way).

Or the helper might be very old e.g. a grandparent, neighbour, wizard/witch or realistic equivalent.

These days help may come from the Internet. Courage the Cowardly Dog was one of the first children’s shows to do this — back when the Internet was very new and therefore novel. Courage would regularly consult the personified PC in the Bagge family attic. 25 years on, children’s writers seem less enthused about having The Web solve children’s problems. Now writers of realistic contemporary fiction might have to contrive ways to keep phones out of their characters’ hands all the time.

The people who regularly help children in real life rarely help them in stories. Therefore, you’ll rarely see a parent or a teacher helping a fictional child in any useful way. They may try to help, but inadvertently make the situation worse. This is to do with wish fulfilment — the wish to be independent. Or rather, the first step towards independence.


The Uncle Wiggly series was written by Howard Garis (1873-1962) for over 52 years and 70 books. Lansing Campell (1882-1937) illustrated many of the books. "Skillery Skallery Alligator". This is a classic fight scene in a children's story -- it would no doubt hurt, but provokes a laugh. An umbrella in the maw counts as slapstick.
The Uncle Wiggly series was written by Howard Garis (1873-1962) for over 52 years and 70 books. Lansing Campell (1882-1937) illustrated many of the books. “Skillery Skallery Alligator”. This is a classic fight scene in a children’s story — it would no doubt hurt, but provokes a laugh. An umbrella in the maw counts as slapstick.
MIERENSPROOKJE by Jaap Habold 1940s, tickling a spider to death.

In books for the very young, you’re not going to find many guns, bows and arrows, fisticuffs and arguments (though you will sometimes). Still, picture books definitely feature ‘big struggles’.

  • Oftentimes, the big struggle phase seems to comprise about half the entire book.
  • The big struggle scene may be a ‘culmination’ of ridiculousness (followed by calm after the page turn, perhaps with more white space and calming rhythm.)
  • Therefore, the ‘big struggle scene’ in a picture book might also be called the ‘Culmination’.
  • It might also be called ‘The Fright‘.
  • The big struggle isn’t necessarily between the child and the main opponent. Rather, another opponent will often step in.

Picture book author Katrina Moore thinks of picture book structure like this:

  • Set up
  • Escalation
  • Climax/Low Point
  • Resolution
  • Wink

Obviously, the climax/low point maps onto the big struggle. (I love the term ‘wink’. For me, the broad concepts of set up and escalation aren’t quite specific enough.)

What form does this so-called big struggle sequence take in picture books? I’ve been breaking down the story structure of picture books for some time now. Now it’s time to take a look at the picture books on my shelf and those studied on this blog.


Hunters with guns are switched out for the lesser opponents (the animals residing in Thidwick’s antlers) to create a more dramatic big struggle scene.

  • You can see an oversized bodily function in The Three Little Pigs in which the wolf huffs and puffs and blows the houses down. However, in The Three Little Pigs, the sneezing is not the main big struggle scene. The main big struggle scene (at least in less bowdlerized versions) is the wolf falling splash into the pot.
  • In Wake Up Do, Lydia Lou! by Julia Donaldson all the animals in the story sneeze together and wake up a sleeping toddler.
  • In Yertle the Turtle by Dr Seuss, the king turtle is toppled off his perch when the turtle on the bottom of the stack burps.
  • Our hero is a trickster archetype who challenges the opponent to perform things which will eventually lead to their own downfall. We see tricksters in classic tales such as The Emperor’s New Clothes.
  • In a mythically structured narrative our protagonist defeats a dragon as an archetypal trickster, tiring him out until he’s fast asleep by challenging him to perform tiring feats. (The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch)

This kind of story has its origins in oral narrative such as Little Red Riding Hood. The young listener/reader KNOWS what’s going to happen — the thrill is in the waiting.

  • In Wolf Won’t Bite by Emily Gravett wolf has enough of performing circus tricks for three show-off little pigs and eventually bites them.

This often happens in a tall tale or in a comic classic/carnivalesque plot.

  • In The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop a city tries to murder a man but they can’t do it because he has four brothers and each has a secret superpower. Battle scenes: an attempted drowning, an attempted execution, an attempted burning at the stake, an attempted burning in the oven.
  • In And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, Inside a boy’s imagination, a simple horse and cart becomes an entire procession of motley scenarios. The illustration starts simple then becomes more and more detailed until nothing more will fit on the page. The big struggle scene, in other words, is extreme chaos.
  • In Stuck by Oliver Jeffers there are so many things stuck in a tree that it’s impossible to imagine anything bigger or more ridiculous.

Most common in comedy picture books. The childlike character isn’t getting what they want so they just lose it. These stories work if the main character’s shortcoming includes impatience and treating others badly. Young readers will identify well with this particular shortcoming, as their frontal cortexes aren’t fully developed — they know exactly what it feels like to not get what you want and to lose control as a result.

  • The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter is perhaps the ur-picturebook for all modern stories involving loveable, main character tantrums.
  • Z is for Moose — Moose realises he’s not getting a part in the alphabet book, which is going to Mouse. He wreaks havoc on the illustrations in a very clever, meta kind of way.
  • Pig The Winner — Pig the Pug cheats at games but when Trevor wins he chucks a wobbly and ends up injuring himself with the bin.
  • Pigeon Wants A Puppy — When Pigeon doesn’t get his puppy he yells, “I want a puppy! Right here! Right now!”

This kind of big struggle happens when the character is ‘their own worst enemy’.

  • A brilliant example of this kind of inner big struggle occurs in This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers, in which a boy on a journey literally gets entangled in the yarn he draped about precisely to help him find his way home.
  • In Neil Gaiman’s middle grade book Coraline, the big struggle sequence is a chapter straight out of a gothic novel, in which the main character must work her way out of her imaginary household before it morphs into such a shape that it will somehow enfold her within its clutches.

During the climax of the story, your hero shows an astounding level of kindness to the enemy. It might come in the form of unconditional acceptance, unusual empathy and understanding, or an actual gift with a great deal of personal significance. The hero might even give away the very thing the villain was trying to steal. This gesture of goodwill causes a change of heart. The villain decides to stop doing harm, at least for now. In The Lego Movie, all the Lego realms are terrorized by Lord Business. He plans to glue all the Lego pieces permanently into place, freezing everyone exactly how he wants them. The main character, Emmet, is supposed to be a special person with the power to stop Lord Business, but toward the end, he discovers that he’s no more special than the next Lego. To stop the fighting and gluing, Emmet meets with Lord Business. Emmet explains that Lord Business is also special, and that he has something unique to contribute to the world. Because of this conversation, Lord Business abandons his evil plans. The gesture of goodwill is a good match for a character-focused story. But like other character-based conflicts, it’s important to set things up ahead. You’ll want a sympathetic villain with a motivation the audience understands. However, you don’t have to tell their whole backstory in a flashback. Your hero can piece together the villain’s backstory and motivation, and then use that information in making their gesture.

The animals have a dance-off in 'Johnny Crow's Garden', 1903. Illustrated by Leslie Brooke
The animals have a dance-off in ‘Johnny Crow’s Garden’, 1903. Illustrated by Leslie Brooke


If you think in terms of ‘climax’ rather than ‘big struggle’ followed by ‘anagnorisis’ and ‘new situation’ you may prefer to break climax into further parts:

The climax of a novel actually has four components:

  1. The run-up to the climactic moment (last-minute maneuvering to put the pieces in their final positions)
  2. The main character’s moment of truth (the inner journey point toward which the whole story has been moving)
  3. The climactic moment itself (in which the hero directly affects the outcome)
  4. The immediate results of the climactic moment (the villain might be vanquished, but the roof is still collapsing).

Writer’s Digest

Moment of truth = anagnorisis
Climatic moment itself = near-death big struggle moment

Matt Bird of Cockeyed Caravan breaks down the Battle stages according to which part of the main character is being challenged. I have noticed he’s right on the money for the vast majority of stories:

In the best stories, no matter what the genre, the hero is first challenged socially (often in the form of a humiliation at the beginning), then challenged physically (often in the form of a midpoint disaster), then challenged spiritually, as the hero is forced to either change or accept who he or she really is (often around the ¾ mark).

The pilot of Breaking Bad is exactly like this, starting with Walt’s humiliation as a lowly car washer serving his own students, followed by the diagnosis of lung cancer, then the moral dilemma — does he follow that idea to become a drug lord or doesn’t he?


For pantsers who haven’t decided on the big struggle beforehand, here’s some tips on how to come up with one.

N.C. Wyeth from The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Published by Scribner's 1940 The Fight at Volusia
N.C. Wyeth from The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Published by Scribner’s 1940 The Fight at Volusia


THREEFOLD DEATH: According to Dan Wiley’s entry in Duffy’s Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia, threefold death is a motif of the early Irish aideda in which a victim is killed by three different means in rapid succession, often wounding, drowning, and burning. Examples of this motif can also be found in literature of folklore of Wales, France, and Estonia. The widespread nature of the motif makes some scholars think it began in a hypothetical Indo-European tri-functional sacrifice in which human victims were offered to a triad of divinities. Two of the best examples are found in Aided Diarnmata meic Cerbaill (The Death of Diarmait mac Cerbaill) and Aided Muirchertaig meic Erca (The Death of Muirchertach mac Erca). The tales are typically set in the early Christian period between 500 and 699 CE. The narrative pattern typically is (a) a crime is committed against the church, (b) it is prophesied the offender will die a threefold death, (c) such a death does occur. See Duffy 10-11.

Literary Terms and Definitions

Header painting: Harry Brooker – The Tug of War

Lemon girl young adult novella


The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko Analysis

The Paper Bag Princess

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch is another feminist picturebook from the 1980s in which a scruffy princess does not end up marrying the prince. In fact, it must be one of the earliest of its kind. It’s published in 1980 and remains one of Munsch’s most popular books.

Like others of its kind:

  • the prince is an unlikeable fellow
  • the princess does not look like a princess (beautiful and coiffed)
  • the princess is a trickster rather than compliant
  • it’s still set in a fairytale world but with modern additions here and there — this setting has a medieval backdrop such as castles and dragons with modern details such as tennis rackets and sweaters.


Robert Munsch writes odd stories but they still follow classic story structure. Bear in mind that they’re meant to be told aloud. He plonks scenes together without  much in the way of transition as a part of the humour itself. This borrows from the tradition of the Shaggy Dog story. (And is probably more of a Shaggy Frog story.)

This story is classic mythic structure with a protagonist who goes out of the house, along a road and meets various characters along the way (here just one character: the dragon). At the end of the mythic journey she is back home, but she is a changed person and now knows her own true desires.

The reason this is a ‘feminist’ story is because for the past 3000 years or so until quite recently, the heroes of mythic stories have all been male. The Paper Bag Princess is a classic feminine re-visioning of mythic structure: our girl hero doesn’t rely on weaponry but rather on her wits. We’re seeing more big struggle-free myth stories now, with Pixar’s Inside Out being the most recent high-profile example.

For more on the big struggle-free myth see this post.


The princess is set on a path to get married to a horrible prince. She needs to go outside the castle to learn more about herself and the wider world.


“She was going to marry a prince called Ronald.”


The dragon is a false opponent who saves the princess from herself. by smashing her castle and burning all of her clothes with his fiery breath.


Related: Dragons In Children’s Literature

The real opponent is the prince, and the society that requires her to marry him. The dragon carries him off.


“Elizabeth decided to chase the dragon and get Ronald back.” She is forced to wear a paper bag — a symbol of her ordinariness. She no longer has her royal powers to help her.

A mythic journey requires a road. Here it is, winding out of sight, far into the distance, littered with perils.


We see Elizabeth trick the dragon into tiring itself out, showing off in a stereotypically masculine way girls in fiction seem immune to.



Although Elizabeth manages to save Ronald, he is not grateful. Instead he criticises her for looking like a mess. She realises that even though he looks the part of a prince, he is really just a ‘bum’.



“They don’t get married after all.”

The final image shows Elizabeth running for joy towards a sunset. The sunset is basically “And she lived happily ever after” in image form.



Lemon girl young adult novella


The History And Influence Of Cinderella Fairy Tale Analysis

“Cinderella” is a classic rags-to-riches tale and can be found, written straight or subverted, throughout the history of literature. It’s worth pointing out that Cinderella wasn’t truly from ‘rags’. She was related to middle class people, so was at least middle class herself. No one wants to hear about actual starvation, rickets and whatnot at bedtime. This is a middle-class-to-rags-to-aristocrat tale.


Cinderella Is From China

Although we think of Cinderella as a quintessential European fairytale, it originates from China. If you’ve ever read the novel Chinese Cinderella, this renders the title a little moot!

Chinese Cinderella
Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Ma is a memoir, but uses the term ‘Cinderella’ because the English speaking audience would be familiar. The reader knows the archetype. We immediately presume her step-mother is wicked. (Of course we’re only getting one side of the story.)

The Chinese title is Ye Xian (English speakers can approximate the sound by saying ‘Ye Shen’). The plot originated in the 5th century, which makes it about 1500 years old. This is a tale from the end of the ancient world, and marks the very beginning of when stories began to be written down. (Known also as the early modern era.)

What happens in Ye Xian?

  • Cinderella has a golden fish in a pond.
  • She likes to go to the pond and talk to this fish, imagining it’s her dead mother.
  • Her tears mingle with the water in the pond.
  • She lives with a wicked stepmother who hates her, and as an act of cruelty the mother kills the beloved fish/spirit mother, cooks it and serves it up to Cinderella who is made to eat it.
  • An old travelling man happens by and says, “Do not fear, the bones of the fish have great power.” He tells her to take them and use them at a time of great need.
  • The rest of the story is as we know it today in the West: Cinderella ends up asking for help from the bones (rather than from a fairy godmother). The dress she wears to the ball is golden like fish scales.

It’s no real surprise to learn that Cinderella comes from China when you consider the degree to which (small) feet have traditionally been fetishised on the Chinese continent. The Chinese story does continue past Cinderella’s marriage to the handsome prince. Unlike European stories, Chinese fairytales have tended to continue past the happily ever after = marriage. In the Chinese Cinderella, there are problems in the marriage because the king is jealous of those magical fish bones. He ends up throwing the bones away so he can have his wife to himself. He is coercively controlling, in other words. Not a happy ending at all. (At least, not for women.)

How did Ye Xian make it to Europe?

The story which later became Cinderella makes its way from China across to Europe along the silk roads, together with the silks, spices and diseases. Marco Polo was famously one of the first Europeans to penetrate China. He returned to Venice in 1290. We can see the beginnings of the earliest Cinderella stories in Europe from the early 1300s.

The Neapolitan Cinderella

The tale was written down by Giambatissa Basile in Italy in the 1500s. There is now no mention of the golden slipper. Italians didn’t share the small-foot fetish with China so that part of the tale didn’t resonate and wasn’t retained. That’s not to say that footwear wasn’t associated with women’s sexuality. Basile’s heroine does wear very high heels to keep her skirts from being muddied. Basile wrote down his tales in Neapolitan, a very rare dialect. This is why his versions weren’t translated into other languages until the 19th century.

Perrault’s Cinderella

Because of the dialect thing, Charles Perrault’s French version of Cinderella is the more famous. No one knows exactly how French storytellers were able to get their hands on the Neapolitan tale. There must have been someone who could both read Neapolitan and speak French, but that storyteller has been lost in history. (Perhaps because she was a woman.)

Perrault’s tongue-in-cheek attitude makes it clear that he himself was sophisticated enough to find the story of Cinderella a little silly, but many popular versions of the story simply disregard Perrault’s tone and focus on the cheerful optimism of the events themselves.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

To read Perrault’s version online, see Project Gutenberg.

Romanian Cinderella

In Romania there’s a version called Fairy White. The mistreated main character has only a cow. (The cow is called Fairy White). The stepmother serves the cow meat to the Cinderella character. Remembering the older Chinese tale, Romanians kept the part of the story in which the girl must cannibalise her fairy spirit.

Italian Cinderella

In Italy the story becomes eroticised. Oftentimes the violence and cruelty in Cinderella tales was more akin to horror comedy such as we see coming mainly out of America today, notably in TV series like Dexter and Santa Clarita Diet.

Grimm Brothers’ Cinderella

The Grimm Brothers’ version was transcribed from an oral retelling delivered by a very old, very poor woman. It was written down October 1810. Theirs is a far more vivid, dark and wicked tale than the version by Perrault — is this because the woman who told it was herself living in dire circumstances?  The Grimm title translates to “Ash Fool” (Aschenputtel). In this version the girl has golden slippers. The Grimms’ oral source was not the French tale but came from China, bypassing Europe altogether. This shows that there are different streams and tracks for the migration of fairytales — following the various silk roads.

The Shoes

Richard Redgrave (English artist) 1804 - 1888, Cinderella About To Try On The Glass Slipper c1842
Richard Redgrave (English artist) 1804 – 1888, Cinderella About To Try On The Glass Slipper c1842

This tale is also sometimes known as The Little Glass Slipper.

The glass slipper in the French retelling makes the story so memorable. Glass was always extremely rare, fragile and expensive. It really came from Venice, just as the story did. Venice was the hub of the world’s trade and also of storytelling. Stories came from places like Persia via Venice and disseminated elsewhere. The glass makes the girl perfect and rare.

Glass slippers would break easily, so anyone wearing them is clearly of a class who cannot labour. For Cinderella, who labours all day, to wear such things is the ultimate makeover.

The shoes are status symbols but also have an element of cruelty/fetishism to them. This is especially true in the Grimm version, with emphasis on how tiny the shoe is. When the prince arrives at Cinderella’s house and tries to put the step sisters’ feet into it the feet won’t fit. The mother tells the first step sister to chop off her toes. Gruesomely, she does. The other follows suit. The doves that had helped Cinderella say at this crucial point, ‘Too wit too woo, there’s blood in the shoe!” thereby ruining the step-sisters’ attempts to pass as more naturally dainty and good.

Why glass? It’s an especially resonant image. Like the milk finger in a The Electric Grandmother, we remember this detail. As a storytelling hook it works beautifully, but it was probably accidental. Glass is widely thought to have been a mistranslation of ‘fur’ from French.

See also: The Symbolism of Shoes.

Gustave Doré, Cinderella, 1862
Gustave Doré, Cinderella, 1862. This scene from Cinderella reminds me more broadly of other scenes in which villages examine young women’s bodies. I’m put in mind of the Witch Burning times, in which young women’s bodies were examined for ‘evidence’ of witch marks. Any blemish might be seen as a nipple for feeding demons or familiars.

Why Does The Tale Of Cinderella Survive?

This is a story of justice being served. We have a large appetite for revenge plots. We also like underdog stories. Cinderella’s journey towards being loved and having a happy home of her own tunes into a universal longing, hitting on the base layer of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Cinderella paints some of the worst passions that can enter into the human breast, and of which little children should if possible be totally ignorant; such as envy, jealousy, a dislike to mothers-in-law and half-sisters, vanity, a love of dress, etc., etc. — a lady who wrote to Mrs Trimmer’s Guardian of Education in the 18th century

In the real world, underdogs don’t often win, for the simple reason that those who are powerful use their power to control things. But the magical elements in fairy tales allow events to take place that couldn’t easily happen in real life. […] the magic in fairy tales isn’t capricious. In fact, the laws of physics or logic are suspended only to get the ‘good’ characters into trouble or to help them get out of trouble, or both. Pumpkins become coaches only when underdogs like Cinderella are in enough trouble to need a suspension of reality; the magic allows her to triumph, and then it stops.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer
Jack & The Beanstalk Nursery Stories chosen and edited by Kathleen Lines and illustrated by Harold Jones (Oxford UP, 1960)
Eric Winter’s illustration of Cinderella running to be home before midnight.


There is something immensely attractive in living through a character who does obtain revenge, who is proved to have value or — like the Danish detective — is finally proved right. The attraction of wish-fulfilment, benevolent or masochistic, can’t be underestimated — what else can explain the ubiquity of Cinderella or the current global dominance of the Marvel franchise? Isn’t there a Peter Parker in most of us longing to turn into Spider-Man? Our favourite characters are the ones who, at some silent level, embody what we all want for ourselves: the good, the bad and the ugly too.

John Yorke, Into The Woods
Disney's Cinderella Big Golden Book, illustrated by Retta Scott, 1950
Disney’s Cinderella Big Golden Book, illustrated by Retta Scott, 1950


The passivity and stupidity of fairytale heroes and heroines may be a wise ability to accept that which transcends the limitations of ordinary reason and logic. Cinderella is passive and stupid enough—or wise enough?—to accept the help of her fairy godmother without question. Following this reading, it would appear that European fairy tales express the paradoxes central to the Christian culture they emerged from; the fool in his folly is wise, and the meek do inherit the earth. This, indeed, is the conclusion of J.R.R. Tolkien, who understands the ‘joy’ of the happy ending in fairy tales, what he called the ‘eucatastrophe’, as permitting readers a taste of the ultimate joy of resurrection that Christians hope for.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

Is Cinderella really that good?

We might speculate that, if there were a sequel to ‘Cinderella’ that fulfilled the expectations of fairy tales, Cinderella herself would probably have to be the villain. Her marriage has given her the sort of status and power audiences knowledgeable about the world of the fairy tale expect to be a source of evil. Her marriage has given her the sort of status and power audiences knowledgeable about the world of the fairy tale expect to  be a source of evil.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

Cinderella and her fairy godmother can also be coded as models for modern consumerism, exhibiting ideals which are rapidly losing tract as we head further into a climate crisis:

Now that Cinderella is dressed for the part, she can be the part. The recent film version of Cinderella, Ever After, made this even clearer by showing that court dress was actually a kind of disguise. And this modern Cinders isn’t ‘really an upstart; she deserves to get on because she is kind and good. The fairy godmother is a means of obtaining all this largesse without evil consumption; indeed, from Perrault onwards, Cinderella’s prudent housewifery is routinely contrasted with the doomed and fashion-conscious consumption of her stepmother and stepsisters. If the fairy godmother is simply replaced with an American Express Platinum Card, the fear that anyone might simply buy status is aroused. The story gets around this by delegating the bills to someone for whom they have no meaning.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories

The Screenprism video below depicts Cinderella as a trauma victim, focusing on the Disney version.


Some stories are overt retellings and re-visionings of the Cinderella fairy-tale; these are easy to spot because they often have Cinderella in their title or in their marketing blurb. There are many other stories which make use not of the Cinderella plot per so, but of the typical ‘Cinderella story structure’. Many other stories use a basic Cinderella story structure. They’re also known as ‘rags-to-riches’ stories. A few examples:

  • Pretty Woman — one of the only rom-coms which has gained wide popularity and attention outside rom-com circles
  • Arthur
  • Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier is a blend of the Bluebeard/Cinderella traditional tales
  • Suspicion
  • Charlie And The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl — A genuinely poor boy finds wealth after proving his goodness, not with the aristocratic class but with the wealthy industrial class, of which Roald Dahl was himself a member.
  • Maid In Manhattan has a fairytale title when you think about it
  • Slumdog Millionaire – a film set in India about a destitute man who wins a lot of money in a game show
  • Notting Hill — the Cinderella character is actually a man with floppy hair, or is it the Julia Roberts character, in a sort of inverse riches-to-rags settlement?
  • Piper by Emma Chichester Clark is a rags-to-riches tale starring a mistreated dog
  • Jane Eyre The most classic nineteenth-century Cinderella story is probably Jane Eyre. The beginning of the book especially conforms to the pattern: Jane’s aunt, Mrs. Reed, and her three cousins are as awful as any stepmother and stepsisters. The theme is repeated when Jane goes away to school and is persecuted by teachers and students alike. The fairy godmother who helps her is also a teacher, Miss Temple, and her further adventures have fairytale parallels.” (Alison Lurie)
  •  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen also has a mad mother and some ditzy sisters. She is also disadvantaged, and finds her way out by finding Mr Darcy. So this makes use of the same basic template as Cinderella.
  • Boston Adventure by Jean Stafford — Alison Lurie marks this book the last true Cinderella story by a first rate modern writer. Published in 1944, this basically coincides with the end of the war. Interestingly, we haven’t seen a straight-up Western since the end of the second world war, either. The second world war marked a new era of genre subversions. Everything everyone thought they knew about the world must have been marked out as wrong. Stafford’s story contains an impressive fairy godmother character who turns out to be a kind of witch. Boston Adventure is a fairy tale because the heroine gets her wish. However, Sonia never gets to marry the prince. As you can see, this is the beginning of the subversion.


Cinderella has a typical initial situation in a fairy tale: the hero loses his/her identity and becomes a ‘nobody’. The motif is found in fairy tales all over the world, and also in the Bible story of Moses. The Cinderella-structure is a linear story in which the boy becomes a man/girl becomes a woman. There’s no going back to where the hero started from.

  • The hero is subject to a series of trials: The first trial is loss of home. Maybe the hero is sold or the parents die or the family doesn’t have enough money to survive. The hero may come back, but the home, as it was, is lost forever.
  • The hero often finds affinity with animals or similar.
  • The trials that follow are as a result of losing the home — sleeping rough, being tired/cold and otherwise physically uncomfortable. Eating basic food and not enough of it. The hero is thrown into utmost misery but each time ascends. (This is also the basic pattern of an initiation rite.)
  • Each temporary ascension anticipates the hero’s final reward, but each descent must remind the hero that they’re not yet a fully accepted member of the community. Each descent is a symbolic death. Each recovery is a resurrection.
  • The hero will probably be left alone, and feels lonely.
  • But help comes exactly when it is needed. In Cinderella it’s the fairy godmother. It might equally be a rich/kind benefactor or finding something magical within the setting.
  • The characters in a fairy tale are fairy tale archetypes. (Heroes, Helpers, Villains, Prizes, Antogonists/Failures)
  • There is often a false happy ending — at this point the plot won’t have been satisfactorily resolved.
  • A dramatic but quick complication will follow.
  • The hero will be re-established in his/her ‘true identity’ — in fairy tales this is with the help of some sort of token (a lock of hair, a ring, a dragon’s tongue… a shoe that fits or pretty much anything)
  • The true happy ending comes about when everyone knows how wonderful and special the hero really is (from circumstance of birth) and they are returned to their privileged position in society. ‘And they all lived happily ever after’.


The hero is Marjery Two-Shoes. May have been written by Newbery himself, or perhaps one of the others who worked with him.
The hero is Marjery Two-Shoes. May have been written by Newbery himself, or perhaps one of the others who worked with him.

The plot of Goody Two-Shoes seems to quite closely follow the bullet-points above. Though most of us know the term ‘Goody Two-Shoes’, the plot of the story is less well-known. As outlined by John Rowe Townsend in Written For Children:

  • Goody Two-Shoes’ parents are turned off their farm by a grasping landlord and soon afterward die: her father from a fever untreated by the vital powder and her mother from a broken heart.
  • She and her brother Tommy wander the hedgerows living on berries. Tommy goes to sea; Goody Two-Shoes (so nicknamed because of her delight on becoming the owner of a pair of shoes) manages to learn the alphabet from children who go to school, then sets up as a tutor, and eventually becomes principal of a dame-school.
  • There is a good deal about her work as a teacher and her efforts to stop cruelty to animals.
  • Eventually she marries a squire, and at the wedding a mysterious gentleman turns up. “This Gentleman, so richly dressed and bedizened with Lace, was that identical little Boy whom you before saw in the Sailor’s Habit.” In other words it is brother Tommy, who has of course made his fortune at sea.
  • And so Goody Two-Shoes, now rich, becomes a benefactor to the poor, helps those who have oppressed her, and at last dies, universally mourned.



Little Lord Fauntleroy has been called “the best version of the Cinderella story in the modern idiom that exists.” (Laski.) It has also been discussed in the general terms of a fairy tale and as a Cinderella tale in particular. Much as the idea of the three sons, the first tow being good-for-nothing, and the youngest the most handsome, kind and worthy, is a fairy-tale pattern, Little Lord Fauntleroy […] is definitely not a Cinderella plot. Cedric has in fact not done anything to deserve his sudden happiness; he has not gone through any trials nor endured any hardships, he has not had any quest nor gained any experience. His tremendous goodness alone does not qualify him to be a Cinderella. The Cinderella (or Ugly Duckling) plot moves from ashes to diamonds, from nothing to everything, from humiliation to highest reward; Cedric at most exchanges spiritual wealth for material.

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


When I began to look for a modern Cinderella, I had more difficulty. The story is still being written, but not for an intellectual audience. The women’s magazines and the contemporary gothic novel are full of it, and (if we are to judge from the newspapers) it occurs frequently in real life. But serious women writers apparently no longer believe in upwardly mobile marriage as a happy ending. Even Edith Wharton, seventy or eighty years ago, didn’t believe in it: The House of Mirth is a devastating account of a Cinderella who doesn’t catch the prince and finally can’t even marry a toad; and in The Custom of the Country the prince goes off with the ugly sister.

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s literature, writing in the 1990s


He’s not nearly as attractive as he seemed the other night. / So I think I’ll just pretend that this glass slipper feels too tight.

by Judith Viorst, who also wrote Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
The Paper Bag Princess By Robert Munsch, Illustrated by Michael Martchenko
published 1980, just as the second-wave feminist movement was winding down. This is the year Judy Blume books started getting challenged big time.
published 1980, just as the second-wave feminist movement was winding down. This is the year Judy Blume books started getting challenged big time.

In a discussion of feminist retellings of popular fairytales, Nodelman and Reimer point out that although adults like these tales for modern children, unless children have been exposed to the earlier tales as written down by Grimm and Perrault, feminist retellings fall flat:

Such stories often strike adult readers as both enjoyable and useful. They are funny, and they present worthwhile role models. What adults often forget to consider is the degree to which their pleasure in these stories depends on their knowledge of all those other stories in which the princes rescue the princesses. Without the outmoded, sexist schema of those stories to compare it with, The Paperbag Princess loses much of its humor and almost all of its point. If adults assume that such stories are good for children, then they must believe one of the following:

  • Children should first be taught the outmoded, traditional role models so that they can then be untaught them.
  • Children already know these role models:
    • It is natural for children to assume that women are weak and men strong; or
    • They learn the notion so early in life that it’s firmly established by the time they’re old enough to hear simple stories like The Paperbag Princess.

In fact, this last possibility seems the most likely one. In interviews with children about The Paperbag Princess, Bronwyn Davies discovered that they interpreted—we adults might say, misinterpreted—the story to make it fit into their already established ideas about appropriate behaviour for males and females. When Ronald thanks Elizabeth for rescuing him from the dragon by telling her she looks awful and that she should go away and come back only when she looks more like a princess, these children were convinced that he’s only doing what needs to be done. Elizabeth needs to be warned about the danger of behaving in such an unfeminine manner because her actions are a threat both to her and to Ronald. According to Davies, these children understood Ronald’s cruel words as what she calls ‘category maintenance work’: behaviour ‘aimed at maintaining the category as a meaningful category in the face of individual deviation which is threatening the category’. In this case, the category is gender roles, and the children Davies interviewed knew and believed traditional ideas about them thoroughly enough to reinvent the meaning of Munsch’s story. Not surprisingly, they had serious trouble making sense of Elizabeth’s apparent happiness at the end of it. Davies concludes, ‘Certainly the idea that children learn through stories what the world is about or that they use the characters in stories as ‘role models’ is not only too simplistic but it entirely misses the interactive dimension between the real and the imaginary’.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature
published 1974, now a hard-to-source out-of-print book

In any case, all stories reflect the ideologies of their tellers. If those tellers aren’t yet as liberated as we might wish they were, then the stories they tell, despite their good intentions, won’t be any more liberated. In ‘Cinderelma’ from Dr. Gardner’s Fairy Tales for Today’s Children by Richard A. Gardner, MD, and in Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, a liberated woman still achieves happiness by marrying the man of her dreams. Indeed, marriage is the happy ending.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature
first published 1998, later turned into a movie and therefore still widely ‘read’
Cinderella and the Hot Air Balloon by Ann Jungman and Russell Ayto

In this 2004 retelling, Cinderella is a ‘tomboy’ (my quote marks mean I really don’t like implied established gender roles) who insists that Prince Charming changes his name to something sensible like Bill. Instead of the whole slipper saga, they both take off in a hot air balloon. In other words, you still get the Happy Ever After. I don’t think this story is sufficiently different to warrant a retelling. (I thought the same after watching Tim Burton’s Alice.) There are so many fairytales out there — even if we just stick to those collected by the Grimm Brothers — that I doubt it’s possible to tire of them before the Fairytale Phase has been outgrown. If we’re going to rewrite any, I think that one, they need to be significantly different and two, they need to have an original spin (e.g. a modern setting which affects the characterisation).


Jerry Lewis starred in a movie called Cinderfella, about a male character in the same situation. He needs to be rescued.

Cinderella Dressed In Yella

See also: Cinderella Dressed In Yella by Ian Turner (Australian — Monash University). Turner taught Australian History and talked about football all the time. This second year lecture was so popular that people needed to be booked in advance. He gave a sexual interpretation to the egg shaped ball being passed around a field, passed around pies etc. He also talked about the tradition of folklore.


Clearly this picture book would be called Crab Cinderella.

Jack & The Beanstalk Nursery Stories chosen and edited by Kathleen Lines and illustrated by Harold Jones (Oxford UP, 1960)
Jack & The Beanstalk Nursery Stories chosen and edited by Kathleen Lines and illustrated by Harold Jones (Oxford UP, 1960)
Jack & The Beanstalk Nursery Stories chosen and edited by Kathleen Lines and illustrated by Harold Jones (Oxford UP, 1960)
Jack & The Beanstalk Nursery Stories chosen and edited by Kathleen Lines and illustrated by Harold Jones (Oxford UP, 1960)
Jack & The Beanstalk Nursery Stories chosen and edited by Kathleen Lines and illustrated by Harold Jones (Oxford UP, 1960)
Eric Winter (1905 - 1981) 1964 illustration for the Ladybird edition of Cinderella
Eric Winter (1905 – 1981) 1964 illustration for the Ladybird edition of Cinderella
Ilse Wende-Lungershausen, Cinderella (German, 1900-1991)
Ilse Wende-Lungershausen, Cinderella (German, 1900-1991)
Annie French, 1872-1965, Woman in a Garden, Possibly Cinderella
Lemon girl young adult novella


Aaron’s Hair by Robert Munsch Analysis

Aaron’s Hair is not Munsch’s most popular book. That would be Love You Forever, which Munsch wrote just as a family story for a long time, after two of their babies were born dead. That book has sold 20 million copies, even though the publisher only hoped for 30,000 to break even. This book hits the sweet spot between charming and smarmy.

The most discussed of Munsch’s books among critics is undoubtedly The Paper Bag Princess, which is remarkable for a relatively early inversion of gender stereotypes in a picture book:

Robert Munsch is a word-of-mouth storyteller, and his books cannot capture his brilliance in that capacity; but they have been highly successful all the same. The Paper Bag Princess (1980), made into a picture book by Michael Mortchenko, is about a princess called Elizabeth who is going to marry Prince Ronald. Elizabeth reverses the traditional order of things by rescuing her prince from a dragon. Her reward is to be told after all her exertions that she looks a mess.

Written For Children by John Rowe Townsend

As Rowe Townsend says, Robert Munsch is first and foremost an oral storyteller, and it’s for this reason that if you look up Robert Munsch on the Internet, you’ll find him photographed only in animated moments:

author of aaron's hair

Robert’s Hair might be described as the picture book equivalent of a Tall Tale, a form which evolved among working men in various English speaking countries, particularly in Canada and Australia. Indeed, Robert Munsch lives in Canada as an adult, and has probably been influenced by this same tradition. You may have noticed that a lot of the most popular humorous,  performative  books have been written/illustrated by men rather than by women. There are of course exceptions to this, but I have wondered why men seem to dominate in the gross-out, slapstick, performance arena. There is no single answer for this, but the history of such storytelling is gendered male, and there’s no real wonder that male creators are dominating this particular form of picture book.

That said, tall tales have their origins in folklore, with stories such as Little Red Riding Hood originally being performed rather than read, with storytellers pouncing on their listeners as the wolf eats the grandmother, for example. And Little Red Riding Hood started out as a tale for women and girls, to tell each other as they sewed. (Hence the original ‘path of needles and pins’ wending through the forest.)



aaron's hair cover

Aaron’s hair gives him problems: it always does exactly the opposite of what he wants it to do. One day, Aaron gets so mad he yells, “Hair! I hate you!” Proving that even bad hair can have hurt feelings, Aaron’s hair jumps off his head and out the door. A hilarious chase follows, as Aaron’s hair runs all over town. It leaves chaos in its wake, attaching itself to different parts of people’s bodies, and even to a statue! It causes an enormous traffic jam, all with Aaron in hot pursuit. At the end of the bad hair day, Aaron realizes that he really does like his hair, and the runaway hair forgives him and comes home.

marketing copy


This story absolutely benefits from an animated storyteller, preferably wielding a wig.

It is not considered by critics to be one of Munsch’s finest books at all. It’s pretty far from a mentor text. You’ll be left scratching your head if you’re looking for a moral, or for a way to link it to the CCSS. This from Publishers Weekly:

The creators of Get Out of Bed! here offer a rather rootless tale about what happens when a boy, frustrated with his unruly tresses, yesll, “”Hair, I hate you!”” The phrase becomes a refrain as Aaron’s hair, its feelings hurt, jumps off his head and affixes itself to various people’s body parts, beginning with the head of his baby sibling and including a woman’s navel with a man’s behind, and finally proceeds to a policeman who can’t see to direct traffic when the hair flies onto his face. When each victim yells, “”Hair, I hate you!”” the hair heads on its way. Though this repetitive refrain and the story’s broad humor may attract a few kids, most will find this feckless fare. The illustrators exploit the tale’s outlandish visual potential to the level of slapstick sitcom, creating cartoon-style watercolors of Aaron’s 1960s-holdover family as well as a Deadhead motorcyclies and a hippie on inline skates. Far from one of this storyteller’s glossiest performances. Ages 3-6. (Sept.)

On the other hand, children do seem to go through a phase of personifying things (in this case hair), and this story plays into the tendency.

Children do enjoy slapstick humour. And they especially enjoy slapstick humour when the butt of the joke is someone in authority, such as a traffic officer directing traffic.

Children also find humour in misplaced objects. Put glasses on a dog and children will find it hilarious; likewise, put a boy’s hair on a baby and they’ll find that funny too.

Aaron's Hair03


The best illustrators of picture books tend to draw people in motion. It’s relatively easy to draw a family sitting at a table, but expect the illustrator to depict a mother dropping her coffee, a father wiping his baby’s chin, one child mid-gulp and another jumping down from the table and it seems you’re calling on a different set of skills. Munch’s books have been illustrated by a number of different artists, and this one has been illustrated by the duo of Alan and Lea Daniel. They each bring slightly different art backgrounds:

Fine artist and Illustrator Alan Daniel creates works of art in watercolour, oil and illustration and offers instruction in a variety of mediums. His original paintings and reproductions are for sale and also available for licensing.

Writer, artist and playwright Lea Daniel writes and illustrates for children and also creates dramatic works for the stage.

Alan and Lea Daniel’s Website

I’m not sure how two artists collaborate on a project, but I’m guessing Alan did the watercolour fill. Unlike other styles of caricatures and cartoons often found in picturebooks, the Daniels have brought traditional art training to this work. I’m not sure if the coupling between realistic tones and caricature is a particularly comfortable one for critics of this style of book! There is actually something a little disarming about it.

Aaron's Hair02

There aren’t many pictures of bald children in picture books, either. Just like you don’t see hairy legs on mums, or nipples on anyone. So simply depicting a bald boy is somewhat confronting, perhaps because it is reminiscent of child cancer, without being about child cancer.


32 pp

First published 2000 by Cartwheel


A more recent entry into the realm of Picture Books To Be Performed is comedian celebrity B.J. Novak, whose best-selling The Book With No Pictures proves that when it comes to this genre of picture books, illustrations may indeed be beside the point. I do wonder, however, if Novak has a conscious grasp on all of his own influences, and is aware that there are many picture books apart from his own which are designed to be performed:

Novak has suggested that The Book With No Pictures “could be a whole new way to introduce the children to the idea of what a book can do”.

The Guardian

The sense of humour of children is quite different from that of adults, and changes rapidly every few years as children pass through various developmental stages. There has been talk lately about how the best-selling picture books are overwhelmingly meta now, with questions about who picture books are really for: the children or the adult co-readers who pay for them? But there’s no doubt that books such as Novak’s and Munch’s appeal to a genuine child audience, possibly alienating a lot of adult co-readers a little (though there is still joy to be had in watching your child reading a book — much like watching them open presents on Christmas morning).

Also from the review of Novak’s Book With No Pictures:

Compared to the extraordinary ingenuity and engagement of, say, Viviane Schwarz’s There Are Cats in This Book series, it’s a one-trick pony that I, as an adult, am quite happy to put out to grass. Then again, had I been surrounded by children rocking with laughter and squealing with delight as I was forced to say sillier and sillier things, my attitude might well have been different.

Though, as one commenter noted on YouTube, this book is still meta.

Meta comment
I've Seen It Done Better

An Australian children’s author who specialises in the Tall Tale is Paul Jennings. He writes short stories for emergent readers.


“With first graders you can get them to laugh just be saying ‘underwear’. They go crazy! You can’t do that with older kids. They don’t think the same way.”

Robert Munsch

Is it really as easy as all that to get kids to laugh, or is Munsch underestimating the gift of comedy?

Where is that sweet spot of taboo, loved by kids and tolerated by parents, which Munsch describes as ‘middle of the road’? (He wouldn’t use the word ‘goddamn’ for example, though in this book he uses the word ‘hate’, in a world where a lot of parents ban the word ‘hate’.)

Lemon girl young adult novella