Perspective In Art and Picture Books

We can divide picture books roughly into two types:

  1. Stage Perspective
  2. Cinematic Perspective

The Stage Perspective books look almost as if we are looking at a story acted out on a stage. Cinematic picture books are influenced by film, and make use of various camera angles: high angle, low angle, worm’s eye view, establishing shot and so on.

Stage perspective is more common in picture books, I think. The art styles loved in picture books is well-suited to stage perspective: naïve, collage-y, folk arty.

Continue reading “Perspective In Art and Picture Books”

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter Short Story Analysis

Rebecca Whiteman's illustration inspired by Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber

“The Bloody Chamber” is a feminist-leftie re-visioning of Bluebeard, written in the gothic tradition, set in a French castle with clear-cut goodies and baddies.

The title story of The Bloody Chamber, first published in 1979, was directly inspired by Charles Perrault’s fairy tales of 1697: his “Barbebleue” (Bluebeard) shapes Angela Carter’s retelling, as she lingers voluptuously on its sexual inferences, and springs a happy surprise in a masterly comic twist on the traditional happy ending. Within a spirited exposé of marriage as sadistic ritual, she shapes a bright parable of maternal love.

Marina Warner

The tale of Bluebeard’s Wife—the story of a young woman who discovers that her mysterious blue-bearded husband has murdered his former spouses—no longer squares with what most parents consider good bedtime reading for their children. But the story has remained alive for adults, allowing it to lead a rich subterranean existence in novels ranging from Jane Eyre to Lolita and in films as diverse as Hitchcock’s Notorious and Jane Campion’s The Piano.

description of a different book, Secrets Beyond the Door : The Story of Bluebeard and His Wives

The descriptions of setting are evocative and eerie; the reader knows something terrible is about to happen — it’s almost given away in the title, after all — what we don’t know is how the girl is going to escape. This is a fairytale for adults, utilising the contrivances and coincidences of the fairytale tradition to tell a story which is otherwise modern in resolution: There is no white knight in shining armour. Who is really the most likely to save a girl from harm?

In the 1970s, Angela Carter was translating Charles Perrault from French, and she compiled two volumes of fairy tales from all over the world for Virago. So there you have it: French language, fairy tale and feminist expertise in one writer, which is all evident in this story…


In France somewhere around the turn of the 20th Century, a 17-year-old girl is chosen to marry a wealthy Marquis. Immensely lonely, the unnamed narrator one day goes exploring her new castle while her husband is away on business only to find a torture chamber, housing the recently dead body of the Marquis’ recently deceased former wife. The Marquis returns, knowing that his new wife has discovered the torture chamber. (He gave her the keys, after all.)

In many Gothic romances, an older man brings a young wife into his family mansion. The imposing house contains a terrible secret, but the wife must promise not to explore it. In finally giving in to curiosity, she, however, acts according to the husband’s covert script, for he never intended the requirement of obedience to be fulfilled. His goal, Anne Williams explains, is to make her realize the extent of his wealth and power and to see her (reflected) place in it. The dead women in Bluebeard’s forbidden chamber, she argues, represent, “patriarchy’s secret, founding ‘truth’ about the female: woman as mortal, expendable matter/mater” (43). We are dealing here with what I call Bluebeard Gothic, a specific variant of the Gothic romance that uses the “Bluebeard” fairy tale as its key intertext. Many women authors have used it in order to explore patriarchal power structures. Examples include Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle, Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, to name a few.

Bluebeard’s Accomplice: Rebecca as a Masochistic Fantasy

He leads her down to the Bloody Chamber and is about to kill her when the narrator’s mother turns up, having galloped on horseback to save her daughter. She has intuited something wrong during a brief phone call. The mother, with a valiant background of her own, shoots the Marquis dead. A few postscript-sort-of paragraphs explain that the musically talented narrator inherited the castle, gave most of the wealth away, married the kind and blind piano tuner and started up a school of music.



The narrator makes reference to Paul Poiret (20 April 1879, Paris, France – 30 April 1944, Paris), who was a leading French fashion designer during the first two decades of the 20th century. This is one detail that tells us when the story was set. This is an era when ancient customs have not been forgotten by the aristocracy — strange customs linger ominously: ‘‘The maid will have changed our sheets already,’ he said. ‘We do not hang the bloody sheets out of the window to prove to the whole of Brittany you are a virgin, not in these civilized times.’ These were times when French women were expected to abide by ‘rules for hair’, long and flowing while a virgin, pinned up after marriage (cut shorter in middle age, close cropped for the elderly): ‘he would not let me take off my ruby choker, although it was growing very uncomfortable, nor fasten up my descending hair, the sign of a virginity so recently ruptured that still remained a wounded presence between us.’


A young woman moving to an old house has been a staple of gothic literature ever since the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, was published in 1764. Today that trope has unmoored itself a bit from being strictly gothic, with modern authors employing it to lend an air of nostalgia, romance, or intrigue to their stories. These three books probably couldn’t be more different, aside from the fact that they thrust their heroines into strange old houses and see what happens when the dust shakes off. After 250-ish years, it’s hard to say this isn’t a useful plot device!

Young Women, Old Houses from Book Riot

A stand-out feature of this short story is the portrait of an ominous castle where you just know something terrible is happening. It is cold, but the cold juxtaposes with the odd image of warmth. The landscape is lonely, as is the narrator. (Notice also, the narrator describes herself as a flower):

As soon as my husband handed me down from the high step of the train, I smelled the amniotic salinity of the ocean. It was November; the trees, stunted by the Atlantic gales, were bare and the lonely halt was deserted but for his leather-gaitered chauffeur waiting meekly beside the sleek black motor car. It was cold; I drew my furs about me, a wrap of white and black, broad stripes of ermine and sable, with a collar from which my head rose like the calyx of a wildflower.

With the extended metaphor of the lily, even the sky is ‘streaked’ with the colours of flowers:

And we drove towards the widening dawn, that now streaked half the sky with a wintry bouquet of pink of roses, orange of tiger-lilies, as if my husband had ordered me a sky from a florist. The day broke around me like a cool dream.

The castle, in its misty blues, greens and purples, is the colour of the sea and as explained by the author, is almost of the sea itself. Although cut off from land by tide, it’s important that it be reachable by horse (for the plot to conclude successfully). Still, the half-day isolation exudes the feelings of solitude. Why does the narrator describe the castle as ‘amphibious’ (able to live/operate on both land and water)? At its most basic meaning ‘amphibious’ means ‘two-fold in nature’ or ‘duplicitous’, or ‘not what it seems’. A magnificent abode such as this nevertheless houses great sorrow.

And, ah! his castle. The faery solitude of the place; with its turrets of misty blue, its courtyard, its spiked gate, his castle that lay on the very bosom of the sea with seabirds mewing about its attics, the casements opening on to the green and purple, evanescent departures of the ocean, cut off by the tide from land for half a day … that castle, at home neither on the land nor on the water, a mysterious, amphibious place, contravening the materiality of both earth and the waves, with the melancholy of a mermaiden who perches on her rock and waits, endlessly, for a lover who had drowned far away, long ago. That lovely, sad, sea-siren of a place!

Later, the narrator finds the Bloody Chamber:

Not a narrow, dusty little passage at all; why had he lied to me? But an ill-lit one, certainly; the electricity, for some reason, did not extend here, so I retreated to the still-room and found a bundle of waxed tapers in a cupboard, stored there with matches to light the oak board at grand dinners. I put a match to my little taper and advanced with it in my hand, like a penitent, along the corridor hung with heavy, I think Venetian, tapestries. The flame picked out, here, the head of a man, there, the rich breast of a woman spilling through a rent in her dressthe Rape of the Sabines, perhaps? The naked swords and immolated horses suggested some grisly mythological subject. The corridor wound downwards; there was an almost imperceptible ramp to the thickly carpeted floor. The heavy hangings on the wall muffled my footsteps, even my breathing. For some reason, it grew very warm; the sweat sprang out in beads on my brow. I could no longer hear the sound of the sea.

Though set in modern(ish) times, this story is of the middle ages. So of course it is devoid of modern conveniences such as electricity. ‘Like a penitent’ puts the reader in mind of a religious ceremony, since religion cannot be disentangled from a time before separation of church and state. ‘Naked swords’ suggests vulnerability, though it is not the swords themselves that are vulnerable. The author points out that the objects ‘suggest some grisly mythological subject’. Notice the change in temperature; all around is cold, but here in the torture chamber there is only heat — the heat of hell, perhaps, but also to show the reader that this is another world, separate from the cold surrounding landscape. Things happen down here that would never happen up there.

As far as engaging all the senses, the above paragraph is a case-study in writing: We are given plenty of texture (the wall-hangings, the carpet) but rather than go through all of the five senses, including smell, as beginner writers are often told to do, a master writer such as Angela Carter is able to weave the senses in an almost synesthesic way: ‘The heavy hangings on the wall muffled my footsteps, even my breathing.’


The young chatelaine has grown up poor due to her mother marrying a poor soldier who then got killed in the war. But since the mother married down, she brings up her daughter with the middle to upper-class attitudes she herself harbours; this young woman is very knowledgeable about art and music, with a perfect musical ear. The mother spent everything she had on her daughter’s education. This explains how she was then able to marry up herself. Yet our narrator is not entirely naive — she is naive only in relation to her much older self. She knows that her husband’s business dealings in poppies are connected to dealings in opium. The marquis calls her ‘Saint Cecilia’ (the patroness of musicians) presumably because of her musical talents.

The Marquis ‘was rich as Croesus.’ He has a black beard and red lips — red and black symbolism of blood and death, drawing attention to the ‘snout’ area. He smells of leather — his cologne, his clothing, his books, his sofa. He has dead eyes. This creature is borderline supernatural. He is the werewolf/vampire of folklore.

His face was as still as ever I’d seen it, still as a pond iced thickly over, yet his lips, that always looked so strangely red and naked between the black fringes of his beard, now curved a little. He smiled; he welcomed his bride home.

The Marquis is surrounded by equally ominous characters. The chauffeur eyes the young bride ‘invidiously’ (invidious – tending to cause discontent, animosity, or envy). Even the housekeeper ‘had a bland, pale, impassive, dislikeable face beneath the impeccably starched white linen head-dress of the region. Her greeting, correct but lifeless, chilled me.‘ This feels like a house of ghosts, except for the blind piano-tuner, whose very blindness makes him innocent. He therefore is immune to corruption, unable to see the torture chamber, as other members of the household presumably can.

Less information is given about the mother, but at the end we realise we’ve been given more than enough. We know that this is a mother who will miss her daughter dearly:

[Mother] would linger over this torn ribbon and that faded photograph with all the half-joyous, half-sorrowful emotions of a woman on her daughter’s wedding day.

We also know that she has bravery and adventure in her past:

Are you sure you love him? There was a dress for her, too; black silk, with the dull, prismatic sheen of oil on water, finer than anything she’d worn since that adventurous girlhood in Indo-China, daughter of a rich tea planter. My eagle-featured, indomitable mother; what other student at the Conservatoire could boast that her mother had outfaced a junkful of Chinese pirates, nursed a village through a visitation of the plague, shot a man-eating tiger with her own hand and all before she was as old as I?

We are given this information near the beginning of the story and are almost encouraged to forget about it as, like the new bride, we are forced to confront immediate and present danger; the ominous intentions of the monstrous Marquis. Yet when the mother saves the day we are both surprised and not surprised.


For me, a narrative is an argument stated in fictional terms.

Angela Carter

Angela Carter writes with a left-wing feminist ideology (which is why I enjoy her stories), and anyone who is moderately well-read in feminism will recognise phrases such as ‘And, as at the opera, when I had first seen my flesh in his eyes, I was aghast to feel myself stirring’ from books such as Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, in which Wolf explains that women are acculturated to view women’s bodies as sexual objects just as men are, and therefore derive pleasure from sex by imagining themselves from their male partner’s point of view. The entire story is about the young women as sexual object, with the narrator herself cognisant of the fact that was an item to be purchased then consumed as a dish.

The narrator’s left-leaning politics are made apparent in the ending, when she gives most of the wealth away to the poor. She is uncomfortable with wealth made from others’ poverty and addictions.

As Frances Spufford points out, the original intended message for the Bluebeard story was that women shouldn’t be curious.

Astonishingly, the moral traditionally tacked on to the story was that curiosity is dangerous — as if Bluebeard’s murderous rage were the wife’s fault for looking inside the chamber. Can anyone really have believed that if she hadn’t, they would have lived happily ever after, the plot flipping over into Beauty and the Beast despite the butchery in the  basement? Even more astonishingly, Bruno Bettelheim, concentration-camp survivor, effectively concurred. Leaping past the issue of who did what to whom in the chamber, and taking it as a symbol of forbidden knowledge in a general, sexual sense, he interpreted Bluebeard as a story about a woman’s infidelity and — twisting time strangely — her husband’s anger over it. Bettelheim’s moral: ‘Women, don’t give in to your sexual curiosity; men, don’t permit yourself to be carried away by your anger at being sexually betrayed.’

The Child That Books Built

The movement in the 1970s, of which Angela Carter was a big part, was in response to people like Bettelheim, still interpreting traditional tales in horribly sexist fashion. Bettelheim was an asshole who set psychology back a couple of decades. Look up his theories on the causes of autism. (tl;dr: Refrigerator Mothers)


Many of Carter’s figures and motifs appear in the Grimms’ collection of Children’s and Household Tales (1812–57). Carter was also a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe.


This first person narrator is retelling a story from a time when she was much younger: ‘My satin nightdress had just been shaken from its wrappings; it had slipped over my young girl’s pointed breasts and shoulders.’ So we know from the outset that she has survived the tale. She has also gained the insight that only comes with hindsight, which is a good technique to use when writing in the first person because it allows certain advantages of the third-person narrator. The story is written as a kind of confession/setting the record straight. The reader feels as if we are being let in on a community secret.


There is plenty of foreshadowing about the ominous, animalistic nature of the husband:

  • I could see the dark, leonine shape of his head
  • though he was a big man, he moved as softly as if all his shoes had soles of velvet, as if his footfall turned the carpet into snow. (He creeps around silently, as a dog can, with the coldness of a ghost.)
  • there were streaks of pure silver in his dark mane.

The Romanian countess who died in the boating accident is also described by the narrator in animalistic terms: ‘The sharp muzzle of a pretty, witty, naughty monkey; such potent and bizarre charm, of a dark, bright, wild yet worldly thing whose natural habitat must have been some luxurious interior decorator’s jungle filled with potted palms and tame, squawking parakeets.’ Use of the word muzzle is particularly apt, since a muzzle can also refer to a device placed over the nose area to stop an animal from eating/biting etc.

Other vocabulary choices and images foreshadow an ominous event with hints of the supernatural:

  • the ‘ribbon made up in rubies’ which ‘bites into‘ her neck (an animal metaphor so common you almost don’t notice it)
  • the way the narrator’s new husband regards her as if ‘eyeing up horseflesh
  • an eldritch half-light seeped into the railway carriage (eldritch – weird and sinister or ghostly)
  • There is an uncomfortable overlap of sex and violence: ‘He lay beside me, felled like an oak, breathing stertorously, as if he had been fighting with me (stertorous – [of breathing] noisy and laboured.) ‘I had heard him shriek and blaspheme at the orgasm; I had bled.‘ Also: ‘There is a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer,’ opined my husband’s favourite poet.’ 

A truth about supernatural stories is that the reader must be sort of expecting it. No one likes to think they’re reading a realist story and suddenly have a ghost sprung on them. The genre has certain markers. For instance, the formal language. Rather than the equally correct ‘than me’ ending a sentence, the author chooses ‘than I’. Is this story truly supernatural? Was the phone call enough, or is there some telepathy involved? The way sparks seem to fly out of the opal ring at certain times makes this feel like a supernatural story to me. I get the feeling the castle is peopled mainly by ghosts.

In this way, Angela Carter makes use of fairytale techniques. When you read the Grimms’ version of fairytales you’ll find disturbing analogies about girls and women compared to food, and oftentimes eaten. Here too we have, ‘He stripped me, gourmand that he was, as if he were stripping the leaves off an artichoke’. Carter underscores this by comparing food itself to a woman, using a word reserved for women ‘voluptuous’: ‘A Mexican dish of pheasant with hazelnuts and chocolate; salad; white, voluptuous cheese

Arum Lily
Arum Lily

The arum lily has wonderfully ominous uses in fiction because all parts of the plants are poisonous, containing significant amounts of calcium oxalate as raphides. Not only that, the arum lily is not closely related to the real lily (lilium), and has an aura of ‘imposter’ about it — a signal that not all is as it appears.

In another short story ‘The Garden Party’ by Katherine Mansfield, Mansfield writes ‘People of that class are so impressed by arum lilies.’ Again, the arum lily signifies something terrible is about to happen, despite the glorious setting of the party at the top of the hill. It’s handy that arum lilies are often used in funerals, too. Mansfield knew her flower symbolism. In her short story “Poison” she uses lilies of the valley — symbolically sweeter and more innocent, but also poisonous.

Angela Carter puts her own spin on the lily imagery however, as all original writers must: ‘…with the heavy pollen that powders your fingers as if you had dipped them in turmeric. The lilies I always associate with him; that are white. And stain you….My husband. My husband, who, with so much love, filled my bedroom with lilies until it looked like an embalming parlour. Those somnolent lilies, that wave their heavy heads, distributing their lush, insolent incense reminiscent of pampered flesh….But the last thing I remembered, before I slept, was the tall jar of lilies beside the bed, how the thick glass distorted their fat stems so they looked like arms, dismembered arms, drifting drowned in greenish water.’ It eventually becomes clear that the lily is a metaphor for the young narrator herself, with her white skin, sometimes due to fear: ‘In spite of my fear of him, that made me whiter than my wrap, I felt there emanate from him, at that moment, a stench of absolute despair, rank and ghastly, as if the lilies that surrounded him had all at once begun to fester…The mass of lilies that surrounded me exhaled, now, the odour of their withering. They looked like the trumpets of the angels of death.


I gathered myself together, reached into the cloisonne cupboard beside the bed that concealed the telephone and addressed the mouthpiece. His agent in New York. Urgent.

Sentence fragments are used to convey information quickly, especially mundane information such as answering a telephone, but have the added effect of producing tension, especially when surrounded by longer sentences.


As in the TV series Six Feet Under and many other stories about death, the juxtapositions serve to highlight the difference between the living and the dead.

‘And this absence of the evidence of his real life began to impress me strangely; there must, I thought, be a great deal to conceal if he takes such pains to hide it.’

I looked at the precious little clock made from hypocritically innocent flowers long ago

Time was his servant, too; it would trap me, here, in a night that would last until he came back to me, like a black sun on a hopeless morning.

And still the bloodstain mocked the fresh water that spilled from the mouth of the leering dolphin. (Dolphins are usually thought to be smiling.)


Unfamiliar myself with much gothic literature, I found myself looking up quite a few words:

  • wagon-lit — a sleeping car on a continental railway
  • reticule — A woman’s small handbag, originally netted and typically having a drawstring and decorated with embroidery or beading.
  • marrons glacés — a confection, originating in southern France and northern Italy consisting of a chestnut candied in sugar syrup and glazed. Marrons glacés are an ingredient in many desserts and are also eaten on their own.
  • vellum — Fine parchment made originally from the skin of a calf.
  • Catherine de’ Medici was an Italian noblewoman who was Queen of France from 1547 until 1559, as the wife of King Henry II.
  • pellucid — transparently clear
  • parure — a set of jewels intended to be worn together
  • immolated — killed or offered as a sacrifice, especially by burning
  • sacerdotal — related to priests; priestly
  • catafalque — a decorated wooden framework supporting the coffin of a distinguished person during a funeral or while lying in state.
  • nacreous — relating to nacre, which is mother-of-pearl
  • gendarmerie — a body of soldiers, especially in France, serving in an army group acting as armed police with authority over civilians.
  • pentacle = pentagram, a five-pointed, star-shaped figure made by extending the sides of aregular pentagon until they meet, used as an occult symbol by the Pythagoreans and later philosophers, by magicians, etc.
  • Iron maiden — I know these guys as a heavy metal band but an iron maiden is a torture device, probably just fictional, consisting of an iron cabinet with a hinged front and spike-covered interior, sufficiently tall to enclose a human being. Earlier the narrator thinks of herself as a ‘mermaiden‘ — a Middle English term for ‘mermaid’.
  • to prefigure — to be an early indication or version of (something)
  • scullion — a servant assigned the most menial kitchen tasks
  • vassal — a person or country in a subordinate position to another
  • lustratory — lustral, purificatory (I think this may be a very unusual word, or made up by the author)
  • auto-da-fé — the burning of a heretic
  • widow’s weeds — clothes worn by a widow during a period of mourning for her spouse (from the Old English “Waed” meaning “garment”)
  • dolorous — feeling or expressing great sorrow or distress
  • lisle — a fine, smooth cotton thread used especially for stockings
  • centime — French for ‘cent’
  • Nice turns of phrase such as, ‘He raised the sword and cut bright segments from the air with it‘ tells the reader that the air is thick with tension.


Frankenstein, Pandora’s Box, Cain and Abel, the Arthurian Tristan and Iseult story, Medusa, hypotext being Bluebeard


There have been many reprintings of this short story collection — some with retro looking covers straight out of the seventies, with the newer ones looking decidedly more modern with their darker palette and silhouette graphic design.

In 1979, the year that The Bloody Chamber was first published, Carter was not the first writer to tackle revisionist takes of fairy tales. Others, most notably Isak Dinisen (an acknowledged influence of Carter’s), Robert Coover and Anne Sexton, had published acclaimed retellings. What made The Bloody Chamber groundbreaking and singular, however, was the way it centred female sexuality and selfhood with an unapologetic, robust gusto, back when society wasn’t quite as commercially and critically embracing as it is now of feminist narratives. In a time when second-wave feminists were derided as bra-burning harpies, Carter’s openly gynocentric fiction was revelatory and iconoclastic.

On Angela Carter by Sharlene Teo

Each of the stories is a re-visioning of a classic tale:


The Bloody Chamber — Bluebeard (Barbebleue, 1697) written down famously by Charles Perrault
The Courtship of Mr Lyon — Beauty and the Beast
The Tiger’s Bride — Beauty and the Beast
Puss-in-Boots — Carter hasn’t changed the name from earlier versions.
The Erl-King —The Erl-King takes his name from a folklore persona. An erlking is a mischievous sprite or elf that lures young people with the intent of killing them.
The Snow Child — Snow White
The Lady of the House of Love — which began as a radio play, Vampirella, for BBC Radio 3 in the summer of 1976 is about a beast of the courtly south who meets the ravenous wolf of more northerly folklore. The original Vampirella had a lot of footnote-like material about vampires. Because it was produced for radio, this explains why the voice speaks directly to the reader.
The WerewolfLittle Red Riding Hood (Le Petit Chaperon rouge)
The Company of Wolves — The Grandmother’s Tale, an oral fairytale related to later versions of Little Red Riding Hood
Wolf-Alice — Again, the beast of the courtly south meets the ravenous wolf of more northerly folklore

In The Company Of Wolves is a long short story, perhaps more of a novella, at 16,400 words.


To get the very most out of “The Bloody Chamber”, apparently you’re best to read it alongside Carter’s essay The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, which she published in 1979.

For a story with a similar plot, see Rebecca, a novel by Daphne du Maurier, which turns the typical Gothic relations of dominance upside down: the romantic hero turns out to be a masochist, while his wife is allotted the role of the beating woman.

Rebecca Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca is also movie, and miniseries and like “The Bloody Chamber” is about a very young woman who marries an aristocratic, much older man whose previous wife has gone missing in mysterious circumstances, also a boating accident. Rebecca was first published in 1938, so shares a similar time period.

As the blind piano tuner says in the Angela Carter story, ‘I can scarcely believe it,’ he said, wondering. ‘That man … so rich; so well-born.’ That is what made Rebecca successful, though I feel the story is lost on modern audiences because its intrigue relies upon the reader’s incredulity that such a well-born person could do something so heinous. The modern audience knows that the rich (or especially the rich) do heinous things.


Horrible things tend to happen in magnificent castles. Likewise, lovely things happen in the most dire of accommodations. Is it possible to foreshadow happiness?

That wonderful header image is an illustration by Rebecca Whiteman, inspired by Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”

How Appearances Deceive

Good Housekeeping illustrated by J Frederick Smith November 1950

Hilda Bewildered Pre-reading Questions

  1. What does the publication of this kind of article hope to achieve? Before and after images of women transformed by impressive (makeup only) makeovers by Russian hair and makeup artist Vadim Andreev. Does it work?
  2. Can you think of a time when you were judged (wrongly) on your appearance?
  3. What were the consequences?
  4. How did the mismatch between appearance and reality come about?
  5. Have you ever been surprised after getting to know someone better?
  6. Can you think of any classic tales whose plots rely on the deception of appearances?
  7. In stories which feature deceptive appearances, what sorts of messages is the reader supposed to consider/take away?
  8. Is everyone a fraud to some degree?
  9. Do we have an essential self, which has different personae overlaid depending on the situation, or are we simply a series of altered selves, with no ‘core essence’?
  10. Are some people better at acting a part than others?
  11. Do you think you’re good at acting a part that’s expected of you?
  12. What about your family? Friends?
  13. ‘Reality TV’ is often criticised for being contrived and sometimes outright fictional. Why, when we know this deep down, is the genre so popular? Or do viewers not realise the extent of the editing? Is reality TV more real than most critics think it is?

Post-reading Discussion

In Hilda Bewildered, list the ways in which outside appearances do not match what’s inside or underneath.

Highlight below for some answers:

The taxi that Hilda gets into looks like a Citroen from the 1960s, but once inside, the dashboard indicates that this is an ordinary modern vehicle.

The Princess is dressed up by many people, photographed, preened and published in magazines, yet underneath her boots she has a hole in her sock.

When giving her speech, Princess Hilda looks confident on the outside but underneath she is terrified of giving a speech in front of a large audience.

The Other Hilda looks as if she has dressed down as a ‘gypsy’ to fit in at the pre-speech masquerade party but this is not the gentry dressing down; this is who she really is.

Out in the world, The Other Hilda looks plain and unremarkable, yet she is an expert pick-pocket. Her social invisibility is deceptive.

The burgers at Best Backstreet Burgers look fantastic in the pictures but inside there is a rat.

Princess Hilda is covered in make up, presenting a completely different skin to the world, but underneath, her skin is real (conveyed by the freckles).

The cakes at the pre-speech masquerade party look wonderful, but after they’ve been eaten, the crumbs and the crumpled serviette and the glove look as dishevelled as at any post-cake do.

The castle looks opulent to the outsider but Princess Hilda sees it as a kind of prison. The windows are latticed. She is surrounded by people. 

The ‘Tropical Palace’ is completely at odds with its environs. For one, it is winter, and the hotel is located in the middle of some dark forest rather than beside a beach on a tropical island. Although decked out in kitschy splendour, this is no ‘Palace’ in the traditional sense. The dark exterior is at odds with the fluorescence of the interior decor.


In stories such as Snow White, in which a wicked step-mother is able to dress up as a harmless peddler selling apples, the message to readers is often ‘don’t take anything at face value’.

In this story, I hope the reader will go further than that, and consider the nature of modern celebrity — its constraints and limitations as well as its privilege. I would like the reader to wonder whether there really are two Hildas, and in the process of deciding whose story this is, I hope they will notice that there really isn’t anything to separate them, apart from accident of birth.


Some people have lead extraordinary lives by living fraudulently. Many are living fraudulent lives as we speak, and many may never be found out. Others have been busted, and their true stories have been told. The following movies are suitable for older viewers.

The Great Hip-Hop Hoax is a movie-length documentary which tells the tale of two young men from Scotland who in the early 2000s wanted to be rappers. After rapping in their natural Scottish accents they were laughed out of the room, and quickly realised that by putting on an American accent and saying they were from California they were being taken seriously. The boys were so good at acting American that they were signed by Sony and were earning a big income. After some time, the fraud started to affect their relationship and mental health. Sony merged with BMG and their act lost backers. Everything fell apart. One guy got married, moved back to Scotland and had a couple of kids. The other remains in London, still hoping to live the dream, this time as himself.

Catfish is another movie-length documentary, this time about a couple of young men, one who meets an attractive woman on the Internet. After ‘dating’ online, things start to seem too good to be true, so the young man and his friend go on a road trip to meet the virtual love interest. Is this a real documentary, or is it fake? Might it fall somewhere between the extremes of ‘real’ versus ‘fake’? Morgan Spurlock called it the best fakeumentary he’d ever seen. If the entire story is made up, then this is a fake documentary about a fake story, which is kind of meta in its own way, and says something about the human capacity to suspend disbelief.

The Imposter is the movie length documentary film about a man who managed to convince the family of a missing American boy that he was their missing son. He managed this feat even though he looked nothing like the missing boy, was 6 years older than him and spoke English with a strong French accent.


Do you know the feeling of imposter syndrome?

How common do you think it is?

I’ve felt the head of a man with his skull partially removed (squishy) and I’ve seen a man with burns so bad to his face that, if the poor bastard survived he faced living his new life looking like Lord Voldemort. I want to tell people that I’ve seen people die; not always quickly and peacefully. That I, as a bloody 23 year old with minimal life experience myself, have had to hold the hand of distraught husbands, wives, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers and try to think of something comforting to say.

– from a nurse

Do you have imposter syndrome? from The Hairpin is a collection of people’s experiences with this feeling.


Marilyn Monroe – iconic make-up look tutorial on Youtube

The pizza spoof

The burger spoof
The burger spoof

At Beauty Redefined, they take the issue seriously.

About the ‘ugly’ work of Lynda Barry. The characters have spots and the drawings are not ‘pretty’.

Header illustration: Good Housekeeping illustrated by J Frederick Smith November 1950

Why so many orphans in children’s literature?

Thomas Benjamin Kennington - Orphans

Orphans in modern literature evolved from orphans of folk and fairytales. There are many orphans in American and British children’s literature, but also in literature from around the world. Some communities have always been set up with strong social networks. Even if parents die, there are no true orphans because the extended family will care for them.

Henry Nelson O'Neil - Mother Depositing Her Child in the Foundling Hospital in Paris
Henry Nelson O’Neil – Mother Depositing Her Child in the Foundling Hospital in Paris
Walter Crane London Town
Walter Crane London Town

There are no orphans in traditional Hopi society. It would be culturally impossible for a child to fall right through their densely failsafe weave of family, no matter who died. If there was no father or mother, there would be an aunt; if there were no aunts or uncles, there would be a cousin; if there were no cousins, there would still be someone. But even for Hopis, the situation of abandonment seems to be a necessary one to imagine, to hug to oneself in the form of a story. It focuses a self-pity that everyone wants to feel sometimes, and that perhaps helps a child or an adolescent to think through their fundamental separateness. The situation expresses the solitude humans discover as we grow up no matter how well our kinship systems work.

The Child That Books Built

Yet stories of abandonment seem to be a universal, no matter the culture.

Augustus Edwin Mulready - Uncared For 1871 orphan
Augustus Edwin Mulready – Uncared For 1871


American children’s literature has a particularly strong tradition of orphaned — or ‘functionally’ orphaned — child protagonists.

  • The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen does have a father at home, but since she’s in charge of financing her own life, she is functionally an orphan.
  • Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
  • Little Lord Fauntleroy
  • Tarzan of the Apes
  • The Prince and the Pauper
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — It’s commonly said that Jim is a surrogate father who replaces inadequate Pap. Others have said that Huck is having an oedipal crisis, and Jim and Huck are a homoerotic archetype rather than father and son archetype.
  • Toby Tyler
  • Hans Brinker
  • The Secret Garden
  • Pollyanna
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • Max of the Wild Things
  • Peter Rabbit
  • Tom from Tom’s Midnight Garden
  • Stuart Little
  • Weetzie Bat
  • Harry Potter
  • Lyra and Will from Pullman’s Northern Lights
  • Dorothy who went on a mythical journey to see The Wizard Of Oz lived with her aunt and uncle in Kansas
  • Kira of Gathering Blue
  • Mowgli of Kipling’s Jungle Book
  • Jim Hawkins of Treasure Island
  • The children of Swallows and Amazons
  • Brian from Hatchet
  • Jerry Renault from The Chocolate War
  • In modern middle grade fiction, Crow in Lauren Wolk’s Beyond The Bright Sea wants to find out who she really is, especially in relation to where she comes from. The ideology behind such stories is that you can’t possibly find out where you’re going until you find out where you’ve come from. But in the end she realises that her real family is her found family.
  • Bye Bye Baby is a fairly rare example of an orphaned picture book character — perhaps quite disturbing for actual toddlers, but funny for adult co-readers who are (over-) familiar with the orphaned child sob story. This picture book ends as a found-family narrative.


Stories in the 1960s and 1970s of the stories children themselves tell at two and three found a relationship between how ‘socially acceptable’ the actions in them were, and how much they took place in the recognisable everyday world of the child’s own experience. If they included taboo behaviour like hitting a parent or wetting yourself, or major reversals of emotional security, like having a parent die or being abandoned by parents, they were less likely to have a realistic setting (69 percent versus 94 per cent), less likely to feature the teller as a character (13 per cent versus 39 per cent), and much less likely to be told in the present tense (19 per cent versus 56  per cent.) Dangerous things were moved further away in place and in time, and were not allowed to happen even to a proxy with the same name as the child. Children a year or two older no longer varied the present tense and past tense, because they consistently told all stories in the past tense; but they used settings in the same way, moving the troubling material outward into fantasy, into the zones where a story event reflected a real event less directly… To castles pirate ships, space; to the forest. There, the terrible things you might do, and the terrible things that might happen to you — not always easy to separate — can be explored without them jostling the images you most want to guard, the precious representations of your essential security.

The Child That Books Built, Frances Spufford

Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and diagnosing medical conditions, who finds it comforting to count by 7s. It has never been easy for her to connect with anyone other than her adoptive parents, but that hasn’t kept her from leading a quietly happy life…until now.

Suddenly Willow’s world is tragically changed when her parents both die in a car crash, leaving her alone in a baffling world. The triumph of this book is that it is not a tragedy. This extraordinarily odd, but extraordinarily endearing, girl manages to push through her grief. Her journey to find a fascinatingly diverse and fully believable surrogate family is a joy and a revelation to read.

It’s 1936, in Flint, Michigan. Times may be hard, and ten-year-old Bud may be a motherless boy on the run, but Bud’s got a few things going for him:

He has his own suitcase full of special things.

He’s the author of Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself.

His momma never told him who his father was, but she left a clue: flyers advertising Herman E. Calloway and his famous band, the Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!!!!

Bud’s got an idea that those flyers will lead him to his father. Once he decides to hit the road and find this mystery man, nothing can stop him–not hunger, not fear, not vampires, not even Herman E. Calloway himself.

Nine is an orphan pickpocket determined to escape her life in the Nest of a Thousand Treasures. When she steals a house-shaped ornament from a mysterious woman’s purse, she knocks on its tiny door and watches it grow into a huge, higgledy-piggeldy house. Inside she finds a host of magical and brilliantly funny characters, including Flabberghast – a young wizard who’s particularly competitive at hopscotch – and a hideous troll housekeeper who’s emotionally attached to his feather duster. They have been placed under an extraordinary spell, which they are desperate for Nine to break. If she can, maybe they can offer her a new life in return…

illustration of Little Orphan Annie from 'The Golden Book of Poetry, 85 Childhood Favorites, art by Gertrude Elliott
illustration of Little Orphan Annie from ‘The Golden Book of Poetry, 85 Childhood Favorites, art by Gertrude Elliott


This is almost too obvious to mention, but in earlier times there were, literally, a lot more orphans. People died younger. Women frequently died in childbirth.

So, why do so many mothers die in fairytales and other stories? I could be wrong, but I have pondered it, and had even before I was asked the question.

If stories are told and re-told because they contain survival information, as I and others have argued, then why so many stories with deceased moms?

Because, I think, for most of human history this was not an uncommon occurrence. Mothers did die, often in childbirth. But children need to know that life goes on and that they can survive even this ordeal. In Bruno Bettelheim’s* book on the subject of fairytales, The Uses of Enchantment, he points out that often there is fairy godmother or some such figure that is a kind of ghost of the mother looking after her child even after death.

Why Don’t People Ask Why?
*Bettelheim was an asshole who probably set psychology back a couple of decades. Look up his theories on the causes of autism. (tl;dr: Refrigerator Mothers)

Less obvious to modern readers are social customs which meant children were quite frequently without their mothers even if the mothers hadn’t died. When women and children are treated as chattels, the importance of the woman, even as mother, is not necessarily honoured. A woman’s place was especially tenuous before the custom of the eldest son inheriting everything. (Problematic as that was in its own right.)

The chronicles of the Anglo-Saxon and Merovingian dynasties, before the establishment of primogeniture, are bespattered with the blood of possible herbs, done away with by consorts ambitious for their own progeny — the true wicked stepmothers of history, who become embedded in stories as eternal truths. Moreover, children whose fathers had died often stayed in the paternal house, to be raised by their grandparents or uncles and their wives. Their mothers were made to return to their natal homes, and to forge another, advantageous alliance for their own parents’ future. Widows remarried less frequently than widowers.

From The Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner

In other words, children belonged to the household (their father), and the women were required as vessels, but after that, frequently disposed of.

Apart from the culture of primogeniture, there was also:

  • general patrilineage (in which children belong to the father)
  • dotal obligations (ie. the customs around dowries, in which the woman’s family is required to give resources to the man’s family in exchange for ostensibly looking after here. There are many knock-on effects from these customs, which is why it has been banned in countries such as India.)
  • female exogamy (in which women are required to marry outside their own social group, often moving far away with no more support from her natal family or childhood friends. In this case, if the marriage breaks up, the woman is sent far from her children.)
  • polygamy (in which fathers had more than one wife, each competing for scarce resources, and in which sister wives shared the childcare, inheriting children if one of them dies)
Walter Langley - The Orphan
Walter Langley – The Orphan


Why is there still a disproportionate number of kids without parents, even in contemporary literature?

First, an unexpected answer. Alison Lurie has noticed that authors of classic children’s literature may have been disproportionately orphaned themselves:

The classic makers of children’s literature are not usually men and women who had consistently happy childhoods — or consistently unhappy ones. Rather they are those whose early happiness ended suddenly and often disastrously. Characteristically, they lost one or both parents early. They were abruptly shunted from one home to another, like Louisa May Alcott, Kenneth Grahame, and Mark Twain — or even, like Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and J.R.R. Tolkien, from one continent to another. L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll were sent away to harsh and bullying schools; Rudyard Kipling was taken from India to England by his affectionate but ill-advised parents and left in the care of stupid and brutal strangers. Cheated of their full share of childhood, these men and women later re-created, and transfigured, their lost worlds. Though she was primarily an artist rather than a writer, Kate Greenaway belongs in this category.

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

In Audacious Kids, Jerry Griswold puts the large numbers of orphans in children’s literature down (partly) to intertextuality — in other words, authors were borrowing from each other, and this led to a whole bunch of orphans.

Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer (1876), for example, clearly inspired the story of Rebecca Sawyer when Kate Douglas Wiggin decided to write about a tomboy in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903). In the same way, the subplot of Laurie and his grandfather in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) seems to me to have been enlarged and become the story of Cedric and his grandfather in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885) — a novel that served, in turn, as the basis for Eleanor Porter’s Pollyanna (1913).

But perhaps this is the most important reason for the prevalence of orphans throughout children’s literature: It gets adults out of the way, allows for psychological growth and ‘an equally exciting and disturbing idea’:

The prevalence of orphans in children’s fiction seems to relate to a central concern adults have with children’s independence and security. Orphans are of necessity independent, free to have adventures without the constraints of protective adults. At the same time, they automatically are faced with the danger and discomfort of lack of parental love. Childhood is usually understood as that time of life when one needs parental love and control. As a result, it seems, adults tend to believe that the possibility of being orphaned—of having the independence one wants and yet having to do without the love one needs—is an exciting and disturbing idea for children who are not in fact orphans, and a matter of immediate interest for those who are. In depicting orphans, writers can focus on children’s desire for independence, or on their fear of loss of security. In some cases, they offer interesting combinations of the two, as in Wolff’s Make Lemonade: one young girl teachers another independence by offering comfort and security. In doing so, she herself must learn, first, to compromise her own desire for independence and then, eventually, to give up the comfort of the relationship and become independent again.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Reimer and Nodelman

(There are other ways of getting adults out of the way of child heroes in children’s stories. It’s not entirely necessary to kill the mother off.)


Far fewer modern children have lost their mothers, though many are estranged from a parent or a grandparent. Still others fear losing their mother. Marina Warner makes the case that a dead mother in a story is, paradoxically, a comfort to a child:

[Dead mother fantasy] can also comfort bereaved children, who, however irrationally, feel themselves abandoned by their dead mothers, and even guilty for their disappearance. One English Cinderella story, called ‘Tattercoats’, perceptively focusses on this type of grief: the king figure mistreats his granddaughter ‘because at her birth, his favourite daughter died’. In this case, her ragged, starving, neglected state reflects his excess of mourning and her anguished guilt, and neither of them can be healed of the wound — the story has an unhappy ending.

FromThe Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner

Warner also points out how the Grimms had a huge influence on storytelling for children, and they had their own reasons for getting rid of mothers:

Paradoxically, the best possible intentions can also contribute to the absence of mothers from the tales. In the case of ‘Schneewittchen’ (Snow White), for instance, the Grimm altered the earlier versions they had taken down in which Snow White’s own mother suffered murderous jealousy of her and persecuted her. The 1819 edition is the first to introduce a stepmother in her place; the manuscript and the editions of 1810 and 1812 place Snow White’s natural mother at the pivot of the violent plot. But it was altered so that a mother should not be seen to torment a daughter. […]

Wilhelm [Grimm] in particular [infused] the new editions [of the Grimm fairy tales] with his Christian fervour, emboldening the moral strokes of the plot, meting out penalties to the wicked and rewards to the just, to conform with prevailing Christian and social values. They also softened the harshness — especially in family dramas. They could not make it disappear altogether, but in ‘Hansel and Gretel’, for example, they added the father’s miserable reluctance to an earlier version in which both parents had proposed the abandonment of their children, and turned the mother into wicked stepmother. On the whole, they tended towards sparing the father’s villainy, and substituting another wife for the natural mother, who had figured as the villain in the versions they had been told: they felt obliged to deal less harshly with mothers than the female storytellers whose material they were setting down.

The disappearance here of the original mothers forms a response to the harshness of the material: in their romantic idealism, the Grimms literally could not bear a maternal presence to be equivocal, or dangerous, and preferred to banish her altogether.r Fro them, the bad mother had to disappear in order for the ideal to survive and allow Mother to flourish as symbol of the eternal feminine, the motherland, and the family itself as the highest social desideratum.

From The Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner


Writing about American children’s literature, Griswold explains what turns up again and again in the ‘basic plot’, or the ‘ur-story’ of the orphaned child:

  • A child is born to parents who married despite the objections of others.
  • For a time, the family is well-to-do, members of the nobility or otherwise happy and prosperous.
  • Then the child’s parents die/The child is separated from its parents and effectively orphaned.
  • Without their protection, the child suffers from poverty and neglect and (if nobly born) dispossessed.
  • The hero/ine makes a journey to another place and is adopted into a second family.
  • In these new circumstances the child is treated harshly by an adult guardian of the same sex but sometimes has help from an adult of the opposite sex.
  • Eventually, however, the child triumphs over its antagonist and is acknowledged.
  • Finally, some accommodation is reached between the two discordant phases of the child’s past: life in the original or biological family and life in the second or adoptive family.

Maria Nikolajeva has also outlined these points and attributes the pattern to the fairytale family of Cinderella.

Maria Nikolajeva also makes a distinction between sad death and emotionless death when writing about the orphans in The Secret Garden. Death of the parents is sometimes just a plot device rather than something that leads to psychological growth:

A great number of fairy tales begin with the death of one or both parents, which sets in motion all the further events and complications of the plot. […] Just as we do not feel sorry for the death of the fairy-tale hero’s parents, because it is an indispensable part of the plot, we do not feel sorry for the death of Mary [Lennox’s] parents or Colin’s mother (especially since we do not feel much empathy with either of the children on the whole). Neither do the children grieve their dead, for different reasons. Colin has never met his mother, and the servants are forbidden to speak of her (ritual taboo!). […] while death certainly has a ritual function in the novel, it is not the kind of death that brings about the characters’ insight about their own mortality. On the contrary, the most important part of Colin’s development implies the change from his firm belief that he will soon die to an equally firm belief that he will not die at all, from “No one believes I shall live to grow up to “I shall live forever and ever and ever!”

Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

Marina Warner makes the same point but uses Beauty and the Beast as an example:

The absence of the mother from the tale is often declared at the start, without explanation, as if none were required; Beauty appears before us, in the opening paragraph of the earliest written version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ with that title, in 1740, as a daughter to her father, a sister to her six elders, a biblical seventh child, the cadette, the favourite: nothing is spoken about her father’s wife. Later, it will turn out that Beauty is a foundling, and was left by the fairies, after her fairy mother was disgraced by union with a mortal — not the father Beauty knows, but another, higher in rank, more powerful.

From The Beast To The Blonde by Marina Warner

The City was built on a sharp mountain that jutted improbably from the sea, and the sea kept trying to claim it back. That grey morning, once the tide had retreated, a whale was found on a rooftop.

When a mysterious boy washes in with the tide, the citizens believe he’s the Enemy – the god who drowned the world – come again to cause untold chaos.

Only Ellie, a fearless young inventor living in a workshop crammed with curiosities, believes he’s innocent.

But the Enemy can take possession of any human body and the ruthless Inquisition are determined to destroy it forever.

To save the boy, Ellie must prove who he really is – even if that means revealing her own dangerous secret . . .

Believing that her French guardian is about to abandon her to an orphanage in the city, ten-year-old Lucky runs away from her small town with her beloved dog by her side in order to trek across the Mojave Desert in this Newbery Medal–winning novel from Susan Patron.

Lucky, age ten, can’t wait another day. The meanness gland in her heart and the crevices full of questions in her brain make running away from Hard Pan, California (population 43), the rock-bottom only choice she has.

It’s all Brigitte’s fault — for wanting to go back to France. Guardians are supposed to stay put and look after girls in their care! Instead Lucky is sure that she’ll be abandoned to some orphanage in Los Angeles where her beloved dog, HMS Beagle, won’t be allowed. She’ll have to lose her friends Miles, who lives on cookies, and Lincoln, future U.S. president (maybe) and member of the International Guild of Knot Tyers. Just as bad, she’ll have to give up eavesdropping on twelve-step anonymous programs where the interesting talk is all about Higher Powers. Lucky needs her own — and quick.

But she hadn’t planned on a dust storm.

Or needing to lug the world’s heaviest survival-kit backpack into the desert.

The Higher Power Of Lucky by Susan Patron is a good crossover novel. There’s a musicality in the writing and the most endearing of characters.

There was controversy around this book and it has been banned by certain libraries. The reason becomes apparent after reading the first two paragraphs which is about something overheard at an alcoholics anonymous meeting and includes the word ‘scrotum’, which is what got it banned.

We are thus planted firmly in the world of reality. This is a book peopled with true-to-life characters. Yet the writer brilliantly channels her idea and possibly her memory of a nine-year-old’s worldview. The author has achieved a highwire act in balancing the informed worldview of an adult writer but making it seem totally through the eyes of a nine-year-old.

The premise of the story is that Lucky has misunderstood something her foster/stepmother has said and thinks she’s going to be abandoned.

Tree-ear, an orphan, lives under a bridge in Ch’ulp’o, a potters’ village famed for delicate celadon ware. He has become fascinated with the potter’s craft; he wants nothing more than to watch master potter Min at work, and he dreams of making a pot of his own someday. When Min takes Tree-ear on as his helper, Tree-ear is elated–until he finds obstacles in his path: the backbreaking labor of digging and hauling clay, Min’s irascible temper, and his own ignorance. But Tree-ear is determined to prove himself–even if it means taking a long, solitary journey on foot to present Min’s work in the hope of a royal commission . . . even if it means arriving at the royal court with nothing to show but a single celadon shard.


Traditional orphan stories often borrow the linear ‘Cinderella structure’ in which the hero loses his/her home, becomes a nobody, suffers trials and is helped out of a bad situation at just the right moment by a ‘helper’ archetype. In these stories, the true specialness of the hero is finally made apparent to everyone in the setting, and they live happily ever after.

A modern orphan story tends to dispense with so many of those Cinderella story beats. An example is The Great Gilly Hopkins, which has an open ending by contrast. For modern orphans, there is not necessarily a ‘happy ever after’.

There are some basic guidelines to crafting modern stories for children: One is that you must not be overtly didactic; another is that you must have the children solve any problems for themselves. That means, in short, that the teachers and parents need to stay right out of it. This is the kidlit version of deus ex machina, in which ‘god’ descends from the sky to resolve the problem for the hero. Let’s call it ‘parentis ex machina’.

What sort of setting is often used for keeping adults at bay?

1. Boarding schools: Harry Potter, Mallory Towers etc

2. Fantasy portals into adult-free realms: Narnia etc

3. Tragic real-world circumstances, in which parents have died or been posted abroad etc.


Modern children’s stories are full of compromised parents (most often busy, sometimes stupid, sometimes neglectful or drug addled) and so modern child characters are ‘functional’ orphans:

We live in a culture that refers constantly to helicopter parents, yet there are many young adult books with self-absorbed, negligent parents who can’t be bothered to attend to their children’s needs. In children’s literature you need a certain degree of parental incompetence and absence to enable the child’s “triumphant rise.” An earlier age depicted cruel, abusive parents or simply killed off the biological mother and father, but in a very different genre–fairy tales and fantasy. Is the parent problem in YA fiction symptomatic of a new hands-off attitude among parents today?

Maria Tatar

A good example of a functional orphan is The Little Match Girl, whose mother appears to be dead, but who technically has a father at home. But because she is out in the world earning a ‘living’, he’s hardly a parental figure — more of an absent threat.

The child who angrily wishes his mother to drop dead for not having gratified his needs will be traumatized greatly by the actual death of his mother — even if this event is not linked closely in time with his destructive wishes. He will always take part or the whole blame for the loss of his mother. He will always say to himself — rarely to others — “I did it, I am responsible, I was bad, therefore Mommy left me.” It is well to remember that the child will react in the same manner if he loses a parent by divorce, separation, or desertion. Death is often seen by a child as an impermanent thing and has therefore little distinction from a divorce in which he may have an opportunity to see a parent again.

On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Harriet The Spy is another good example of a functional orphan.

Harriet The Spy orphans

One pleasant result of the disappearance of old assumptions about the infallibility of parents and the duty of children to toe the line has been the arrival of a number of highly-individual child characters — usually girls — whose personalities have been allowed by their authors to develop without too much regard for what constitutes a proper example. Harriet, in Harriet the Spy (1964) by Louise Fizhugh (1928-74), lives in Manhattan, is eleven, and intends to be Harriet M. Welsch the famous writer when she grows up.

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children
From The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

…another heroine who is her own child and nobody else’s. Claudia has decided, coolly, to run away from home, returning only when everyone has learned a lesson in Claudia-appreciation. Since she believes in beauty, education, and comfort, and lives within commuting distance of New York City, where better to run away to than the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children


In picture books, the artist can help ‘orphan’ the child character but also offer the reassuring presence of parents by cutting off the parent’s head.

functional orphan in a picture book
Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary by Beverly Donofrio & Barbara McClintock (2007)

This was a trick used in the cartoon series Muppet Babies (1984—), in which we never see the nanny’s head — only her green and white striped stockings. “The caregiver is here but not important to the story.” That’s the clear message.

scene from actual muppet babies

Naturally, this lead to a meme in which we imagine Nanny has no actual head.

Muppet Babies nanny


Despite all these dead parents, Roberta Seelinger Trites noticed something about orphans in young adult literature in particular: ‘the propensity of adolescents with neither actual nor effective surrogate parents to create imaginary parents against whom to rebel.’ This is apparently a Lacanian principle, for those familiar with that (not me). Trites offers the following examples of YA characters who create imaginary parents and then rebel against them:

  • Judy Abbott, the main character of Daddy-Long Legs
  • Junior Brown, The Planet of Junior Brown
  • Gilly in The Great Gilly Hopkins, in which the mental construction of her mother is nothing like the reality
  • Ellen Conford, of To All my Fans, with Love, from Sylvie

Trites coined her own term to describe these parents who are parents in name only: in logo parentis. (In loco parentis, logos.)


There has been a conversation lately about something like ‘symbolic annihilation’ of parents in young adult literature.

I legit don’t understand the parents in YA convo. Why does it matter if your book has parents or not? Make it a good book. I hope I’m not alone in this. It just feels like every other month we’re debating why books need more parents or saying that parents have no place in YA


Set in the late Middle Ages, a quick-witted orphan, abused by his grandfather, risks his life to care for a wounded knight who is on a quest but can’t remember what he is searching for. Exciting, engrossing, enchanting!

Reading Level: Ages 11-13.

Widge is an orphan with a rare talent for shorthand. His fearsome master has just one demand: steal Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet”–or else. Widge has no choice but to follow orders, so he works his way into the heart of the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s players perform. As full of twists and turns as a London alleyway, this entertaining novel is rich in period details, colorful characters, villainy, and drama.”A fast-moving historical novel that introduces an important era with casual familiarity.” —School Library Journal, starred review (1998)


List of Orphan related tropes from TV Tropes

Best Books About Orphans, a Goodreads list, in which you’ll see that the list is heavily populated with children’s literature

In this moving talk, British playwright and poet Lemn Sissay opens up about his experience of being a fostered child and child in care in the 1960s and 70s in the UK. This talk is of interest for kid-lit fans not just because Sissay has written for children (“The Emperor’s Watchmaker”), but also because he references lots of cared-for, fostered and orphaned children in children’s literature at the start of his talk.

Playing By The Book

An “elder orphan” is someone who is aging alone, without parents, a spouse, siblings, children, or grandchildren. Its population is growing—and America is terribly unprepared.

Judy Colbert
Lemon girl young adult novella


Header painting: Thomas Benjamin Kennington – Orphans

In order to critique it, we’re going to have to show it

I am always saddened to hear that some teacher or librarian is in trouble because of something I have written. They are the true heroes in my mind. But I have come to believe that if a book has power, it will always have the power to offend someone. I don’t want to write books that have no power to move or inspire the reader. 

Katherine Paterson



Attitudes are changing, and children’s literature is an excellent barometer with which to measure these changes.

Rowling’s Harry Potter series has been so popular it has attracted plenty of academic critique over the past 20 years. (Academics fail to come up with any inherent reason why this series took off while others didn’t.) With a long-running series like Harry Potter, Rowling seemed to accommodate societal changes as she wrote.

A good example of this is in her ‘alimentary racism’, a term proposed by Elspeth Probyn, quoted below by Carolyn Daniel:

Elspeth Probyn refers to Westerners’ unquestioning derision of the food choices of other cultures as ‘alimentary racism’. J.K. Rowling promises an alimentary racist discourse in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Ron Weasley views food that is not British with suspicion:

“What’s that?” said Ron, pointing at a large dish of some sort of shellfish stew that stood beside a large steak-and-kidney pudding.

“Bouillabaisse,” said Hermione.

“Bless you,” said Ron.

“It’s French,” said Hermione. “I had it on holiday, summer before last, it’s very nice.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” said Ron, helping himself to black pudding.

Ron’s closed-mindedness is crushing. He dismisses the bouillabaisse as other along with those who eat it, including Hermione. Her experience is dismissed within the subtext as it is within the larger context of the Harry Potter series … Humor is evoked (mainly for adult readers) by the irony of Ron’s unsophisticated dismissal of bouillabaisse in favour of “black pudding”, a sausage made with pig’s blood. Within Rowling’s narrative even the name of the French dish is constructed as the sign of a disease.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Carolyn Daniel clearly has no time for Ron’s distaste for French food. Here’s the problem faced by contemporary children’s writers: If storytellers give a character a moral shortcoming (in this case, distaste for foreign things, or perhaps for unfamiliar things in general), will this blow back onto the author? Will the audience assume the creator of this character shares their moral shortcomings?

Criticism of authors creating unpleasant characters seems to depend on a few factors, and I’ve noticed authors distance themselves as much as possible from wrong worldviews:

  • It depends if the character has been deliberately written as sympathetic. Writers sometimes weasel their way out of this one (e.g. Vince Gilligan) by saying that if the audience sides with an unpleasant character, that’s on the audience, not on the writer. But there is such a well-worn stable of tricks that storytellers use to create audience empathy that I don’t believe writers get a free pass on that one, even if we do think the best of our audience and hope they make up their own minds.
  • It depends also on whether a character is punished for their wrong (racist/sexist/ableist views). Punishment in the old-fashioned corporal sense is out. However, punishment still happens in any story when a character does not get what they want.
  • It depends on whether there is narrative complicity. This is my biggest problem with Ron’s distaste for French food: It is played for laughs. This scene uses similar comedy to the jellybean scene on the train, in which disgusting food is presented, and we watch the characters’ reactions to it. The reader is therefore invited, alongside Ron, to despise French food.

Yet Catherine Tate, creating a skit for adults, is clearly mocking the same attitude:

Are the rules different for children’s writers? Perhaps. But there’s more going on here. This couple exist as flat characters. We only see them in this particular scenario. There hasn’t been a build-up in which the audience is invited to empathise.

So the rule may be this: Empathetic characters in children’s stories are flawed, but that flaw cannot be racism, sexism, ableism or anything else serious like that. I suspect this is a rule because I fail to think of a single example of a deliberately written racist, sexist or ableist main character in contemporary children’s stories.

Then again, who’s to say which characters have been deliberately written in that way? Only an author knows that, and no one is likely to admit on record that they accidentally wrote a racist character because they themselves were unconsciously racist while writing him.


I’ll offer the Twitter thread without further comment. Except to say this discussion is interesting because it’s a discussion that never happened (at least publicly) until recently.


Let’s more now from unconcious racism to sexism.

Referring to “feminism” in the singular implies erroneously that what is actually a polymorphous and polyvocal set of theories, movements, and political actions has a unified number of principles. This is far from the case, but because referring to those sets of principles that advocate women’s issues as “feminisms” is stylistically cumbersome, [let’s] use the term “feminism” herein.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, notes to the preface of Waking Sleeping Beauty

There are many views on how to make the world a better place. This also applies to children’s stories. You’d be hard-pressed to find a children’s writer who deliberately aims to write a gender repressive story. Children’s writers are a left-leaning crew, and so are publishing industry professionals.

What makes for a feminist children’s story?

Here’s the short answer:

Genuinely feminist writers create genuinely feminist children’s stories.

If you are a woke feminist this is going to show in your work. That’s all you need to do.

Or is it?

The answer gets more complex than that, because like building a computer program, like editing a piece of writing — like making any changes to any big project — if you go out of your way to be feminist, unintended consequences can arise.

Here are my reading, writing and critiquing experiences lately:

  1. Certain popular stories widely hailed as feminist triumphs look to me to be no such thing. I often feel quite alone in my response to a text, reading through other people’s reviews online. I often find myself thinking, “How can everyone not see how terrible this is? How?”
  2. The concept of ‘the strong female character’ has become increasingly problematic (though it never wasn’t).
  3. If you’ve ever tried writing a non-sexist story, you may have noticed that your right-minded wish to address certain anti-woman ideas causes fresh problems.


If you’re writing a story set in earlier times, girls and women normally didn’t go anywhere or do anything because they weren’t afforded that freedom. Writers can either write disproportionately about the few who went forth regardless, or they can rely on tricks like dressing girls up as boys.


@Bhvide asks:

Is the girl hides her gender to become a knight/mage/falconer etc” story one that kids/teens are interested in anymore? I found them freeing — being able to see myself fighting actively against traditional gender roles. But maybe those stories are too old fashioned now? As a publisher of SFF, I do not have skin in this particular game. But I am VERY curious.

Replies brought up the following problems:

It would be nice for the girl to become a knight without having to hide her gender and in a dress even.

I think it depends on how it addresses the inherent possibilities of trans/homophobia in it (i.e. I feel like there’s traditionally that element of the “reveal” where the love interest is all OH THAT EXPLAINS THINGS)?

Plus also how the whole “not like other girls” thing is addressed — one thing I remember always loving about the Alanna books was how she found friendship with other women & learned to appreciate their traditional femininity even if it wasn’t what she wanted.

It always made me super uncomfortable, esp. when framed as “oh yay I DON’T like men” — I think in general those stories are still relevant tho when they’re less “must disguise to succeed” & more “exploring traditional femininity/masculinity & gender identity, especially in gendered roles”

Honestly, it usually feels very contrived and I feel the stories would have more impact if ‘fighting gender roles’  didn’t mean ‘imitating another gender to fit in.’ Also echoing what others have said about trans/homophobic content— I’ve seen that done badly more often than well.


An excellent case study can be found in feminist responses to Disney movies such as Snow White and Cinderella.

By real world standards, Cinderella is an abused victim. The ScreenPrism video below argues that Cinderella is a role model in overcoming extreme adversity, and that it is victim-blaming to criticise her for being weak.

Moving now to Snow White.

Camp One: Snow White is a frustrating character because she is so nice and good and kind to the male characters, unable to see past the restrictions of her gender and therefore a poor role model for contemporary girls.

Camp Two: Snow White is an excellent role model because she is so nice and good and kind and good at work that really does need doing, like needle work and cleaning the house. Girls aren’t going to be using her as that kind of role model. Both boys and girls can learn from her kindness.

Those camps don’t exactly cancel each other out, either. We’ve now got a landscape of literature which includes a disproportionate number of girl characters who love archery and soccer, which is fine, okay, but they also tend to despise anything pink and purple, girl toys, helping their mother in the kitchen, or anything associated with girldom. These characters are basically femme phobic. The most recent crop of girl heroes tend to have a few typically masculine interests alongside some girly ones, to off-set this accusation. Fancy Nancy is one of the few popular  characters who embraces her fully feminine side, and I expect very few boys are reading those. Which raises the question: Is that okay, actually?

In effect, if writers want decent sales of their work, and they choose to write female main characters, those characters are not allowed to be too girly. In fact, if any boys are going to be reading books about girls at all, she’s probably a ‘tom boy’. She’s also likely to be very smart, and perhaps better at archery than your typical boy, in a role with Northrop Frye would call high mimetic — just a little more superhero than your average child. Low mimetic girls are unusual.

A good recent example of the high mimetic ‘dream girl’ is Bella from the latest Beauty and the Beast from Disney. Bella is very talented mechanically:

I do, however, feel bound to point out that Belle’s invention is a washing machine, a contraption she rigs up to a horse, to do her domestic work while she teaches another, miniature feminist how to read. The underlying message baked into this pie is that laundry is women’s work, which the superbly clever woman will delegate to a horse while she spreads literacy. It would be better if she had used her considerable intellect to question why she had to wash anything at all, while her father did nothing more useful than mend clocks. It’s unclear to me why anyone in this small family needs to know the time.

So, you take a classic heroine and you strip her of her stereotypes: she is no longer weak and pliable, pleasing and emollient, cute and girly. But now you have to put some other stuff in there and – presto! – she is an adventurer and a bookworm, a dreamer, a nurturer, a person who may not be able to pick a lock on her own but can definitely put her hands on a tool for when a man wants to pick a lock. The problem is that all her new traits are pretty saccharine, so she still reads as a traditional heroine, just with bits missing. 

The opposite of a damsel in distress is not a damsel with a plan, it’s a damsel with a sense of humour.

Review of Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson


‘Strong’ is meant to be a shorthand for ‘well-rounded’. ‘Strong’ means to give a girl her own character arc rather than bolster that of a boy. But too often the word is taken literally, in which we take a classic male action hero and give him secondary sex characteristics. Voila, now we have a character who… continues to appeal to a typically male sensibility, and does nothing to add to a corpus of literature in which the female perspective is represented.

The idea that girls and women must be depicted as ‘strong’ as in good, moral, upstanding, caring and as models for young readers was perhaps at its height in the late 1990s:

The Sea Witch, in the Disney cartoon film of The Little Mermaid, takes the form of a tentacular polyp. Serpentine she-monsters also appear in comics—but mostly those with an adult or at least young-adult readership. They are not, however, susceptible to reform to the same utopian degree as male beasts but tend to a static,  indeed archetypal fixity, as in the case of the wicked stepmother and the wicked witch. Yet sensitivity to obvious misogyny has helped to tilt monstrosity’s gender from female to male. Anxiety about negative representations of women and girls has rolled them back from recent mainstream entertainments—Disney’s Sea Witch and Cruella de Vil from The Hundred and One Dalmatians being alluring exceptions. [I’d also add Ruby Deagle from Gremlins.] The reflex of these recent blockbuster movies, which have been and will be seen by several millions of children, clearly results from the women’s movement of the 1960s, whose members have grown up and as mothers and grandmothers have decisive spending power. (The wicked stepmother of ‘Cinderella’ or the wicked queen in ‘Snow White’ would be sent back for a rewrite, and Milton’s baroque glorying in his vision of Sin as a foul mother would not pass the Disney Corporation’s rules of representation today.) But this account of feminist achievement fails to take the temperature of contemporary misogyny accurately. ‘Adult Only’ material does not offer such a reassuringly sensitive picture: the siren, harpy and gorgon still prowl, inwardly monstrous even if outwardly lovely, through many successful movies like Fatal Attraction (1987) and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1991), as well as thriving in lurid corners of the horror and porn video industry, where cannibal schoolgirls and vampires rampage. It is nevertheless a symptom of the changing face of monsters that the Disney cartoon Hercules (1997) does not draw attention to the indisputable femaleness of the Hydra in Greek but refers to her as ‘it’ and dubs her voice with bestial snarls, hisses and blasts. (In the accompanying merchandise, ‘Terrifying Hydra’ comes Jabberwocky-like, with ‘Pop-up Evil Heads!’ and ‘Biting Jaws!'”: ‘Chop off head and 3 Grow back!’ urges the selling line.) Megara, the film’s siren-like heroine, is given the name of a sinister Greek Fate, portrayed as the spellbound daughter of Hades and sent to do her father’s fatal work on earth. But she becomes subject to a benevolent metamorphosis, and is cured of wickedness by love: the redemptive promise of fairy tale turning decisively against the Greek myth that cast sea monsters’ female bodies as the engines of perpetual death.

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman, which was published 1998


Feminine silence is a huge problem, from picture books up: Girl characters don’t get to talk as often as boy characters, and that’s on top of the fact there are way more male-coded characters in the first place. There is a long history of the silencing of women, but when I talk about a 1:3 ratio of girls to boys, I’m talking about 2018.

As antidote, there are plenty of female characters in middle grade fiction who have a lot to say. You’ll find them described in reviews as ‘feisty’, even though a male equivalent would not be marked that way. These girls tend to be the granddaughters of Ramona Quimby.

But these girls tend to get into trouble precisely because of their voice, and by the time they reach adolescence they’ve learned to shut up entirely. Well, the middle grade characters themselves never age, but these characters are all but absent from young adult fiction. I have seen literary agents asking for them, wondering where they are.

Why aren’t writers writing these girls? There must be a good reason. Vocal teenage girls are not ‘likeable’. They’re not ’empathetic’. They stop being funny and start to irritate. That feeling of irritation, by the way, is a description of our reactions to them — it’s not inherent in the girls themselves. These characters are also, frankly, a little unrealistic. A far more common experience for girls is that they do learn to keep quiet by the time they’re in senior high school.  Also, learning when to speak and when to keep quiet is part of everyone’s cycle of maturity. And vocal silence does not mean someone is powerless — they might have a powerful inner voice or imagination or creative life:

‘Silence’ as a noun is not necessarily a bad thing. Patricia Laurence notes that women sometimes adopt ‘a stance of silence’ through which they are able to find their voices. Moreover, ‘…women’s silence, viewed from the outside, is a mark of absence and powerlessness’; however, if ‘the same silence is viewed from the inside, and women’s experiences and disposition of mind inform the standard of what is real, then women’s silence can be viewed as a presence, and as a text, waiting to be read’.  Indeed, speech cannot not exist by itself; in order for a speaker to be effective, he/she must be heard. The speaker and listener come together, then, in creating this ‘ritual of truth,’ and ‘…there is a power in listening or in not listening, as well as in speaking or in not speaking’ as shown by Elinor’s transformation into a bear.

from a paper on Pixar’s Brave

Trites makes an important distinction between ‘enforced’ and ‘chosen’ silence. In other words, agency is key:

While the capacity to embrace silence is certainly a necessary component of maturity, the difference between enforced and chosen silence is a monumental one. Self-imposed silence presumes the subject has access to speech. But those who are denied speech, denied language, are also denied their full potential as humans; they are denied community.  Language and its articulation provides [girl characters] with the strength they need to participate as full members of their communities so that in the future their silences will be self-affirming, not self-limiting.

Waking Sleeping Beauty, Roberta Seelinger Trites


But where are the stories about boys (aimed at boys) learning to move over and let girls speak? That would make for an excellent feminist story. Not enough male characters undergo their own feminist awakening. The work of feminism, even in fiction, is overwhelmingly the work of girls.


First, overt is the inverse of covert. Direct is the inverse of indirect. When talking about ideology, those are two separate axes.

When it comes to race, picture books such as The Snowy Day were groundbreaking in their depiction of a child of colour in a story that wasn’t about race. It was just a little boy, written in the universal, going about his day. Feminist writers face a similar issue — girls must often fight against the restrictions of their gender before getting on with their lives. In fact, their character arc may be specifically a gendered one: learning to get on in a world of boys and men; finding her voice though the culture wants to silence her. Boys get to face all sorts of problems, but girls disproportionately have to fight the patriarchy first.

FEMINIST DILEMMA: If we pretend everything’s equal from the get-go, if we ignore the reality of gendered treatment. We then risk writing a ‘strong female character’ (in a bad way).


I face this problem a lot, as a reader and viewer. Mad Men is a classic example: I recommended Mad Men to various female friends because it was a well-written show with an unusually wide array of varying story structures each episode. I recommended Breaking Bad, as well. But I learned about the significant proportion of women who can’t watch these shows as entertainment because of the misogyny. Mad Men showcased sexism as much as it raised awareness. Skyler White and her sister Marie were written to be unsympathetic (regardless of what the writers say they intended).

When we ask girls to read stories which showcase girls overcoming gender problems, we are also alerting them to gender problems. We’re trying to show them how to rise above it, right? Is this entertainment, really? It’s exhausting. No wonder girls turn to Twilight in large numbers. At no point does your typical paranormal romance ask you to consider how you’re going to rise above your station in the world.


Speaking of paranormal romance, to what extent can writers expect readers to bring their wokeness to the story?

Some stories rely on the readers’ ability to see characters’ bad behaviour for what it is. Do readers understand Edward Cullen’s pattern of coercive control? Do they enjoy it as a pure fantasy, or do they unconsciously yearn for it in their real relationships with real young men? Readers are individuals. Some are woke; some are not — many are not woke yet but will be by middle age. Some young readers will see Edward for who he really is; others won’t. Other readers are so traumatised by realworld realities of domestic homicides that Twilight could never function as pure entertainment, and we don’t quite understand how it could.

Are some readers better able to put realities aside and sink into fantasy? When we write terrible fantasy boyfriends, are we giving girls a gift, or are we perpetuating terrible patterns which indirectly contribute to the cycle of gendered violence?


Any female politician or CEO will say, sometimes after she’s stood down, that the balancing act between likeability and strength is absolutely exhausting for a woman. The same standards are applied to fictional female characters. Readers hold girls to higher standards. We therefore have disproportionately few female villains. The bad girls we do see tend to be stereotypes. There are plenty of mean-girls, plenty of witchy mothers, but we are missing that in-between character — the Greg Heffley. Could we ever have a female Greg Heffley? His girl counterparts in MG graphic novels tend to go out of their way to seem nice. They’re given Save the Cat moments, are well-intentioned and though they may struggle with emotional regulation they are people young readers might choose as fun friends. Greg Heffley is a terrible friend but this makes for a great comic character.

So do writers create likeable girls because otherwise readers will throw the book away in disgust, or do we just write boys if we’d like to write comedy? Look at the numbers and most writers are going the latter route.


Here’s something that’s been bothering me for ages. The so-called crisis in boy literacy. I call it a so-called crisis because there is no real crisis. After graduation, young men are finding better-paid work than young women. If boys aren’t going to university, it’s because they know they don’t have to. If there’s a crisis in reading, it’s because if boys aren’t reading they’re missing out on a prime opportunity to learn what it’s like to put yourself in someone else’s head. This is a crisis which falls back on girls, actually. Boys would benefit most from putting themselves in girls’ heads, and girls would benefit from boys doing that, too.

But how to get boys into reading? I’ve heard various opinions on that. Look at the best-seller charts to see these strategies in action:

  • Write books with mainly boy characters. Boys will only read if they can read about boys. Boys are naturally uninterested in girls and anything girls are likely to be doing.
  • When writing a book about a boy and a girl, alternate boy and girl points of view, and give the first chapter to the boy. This will reel boys in.
  • If you write children’s literature but you’ve been saddled with an unambiguously feminine name such as ‘Joanne’, go with your initials instead. Boys don’t want to be hearing from women. They hear enough from their mothers and teachers. Better if they can at least imagine you’re a man.

This is how we teach boys that girls are lesser. By trying to reel boys into reading, we’re symbolically annihilating the girls, making the entire situation turn in on itself, perpetuating a sexist culture.

Yet some writers who try these tricks are well-intentioned, in their own way. They might be trying to trick boys into reading what actually turns out to be a feminist text. Do writers go with firmly entrenched gendered reading culture, trying to overturn it sneakily, by tricking boys into reading stories which include a few girls, or do we reject this reality altogether?


An adult example of sexist characters who parody a certain mindset in the realworld: Silicon Valley. My husband works in IT and recognises the archetypes as depicted on this show. The characters are being satirised. In order to be satirised they need to be actively sexist. (The sexism on that show is complicated — often a gag starts out like it’s going to be sexist, and then the writers recapitulate, evading overt sexism altogether, or throwing it back on the viewer.)

A good example from the world of children’s literature is the Dogman series. I’ll take Lord of the Fleas as an example. The comic is metafictional — supposedly written by the two boys from Captain Underpants, an established franchise. The female characters in Dogman are tokenistic. There’s the reporter, who turns up to take notes mostly and as you can guess — writes about what the male characters have been up to. The fictional equivalent of a woman in a work meeting being asked to take notes. (Kids won’t interpret it like that, unless they’ve been asked to take notes in work meetings.) The doctor is coded as a man — which, fine, many doctors are men — and the nurse is referred to as ‘nurse lady’. (Don’t talk to me about how they’re actually animals and not really gendered at all. They’re gendered.) By referring to the nurse as ‘nurse lady’, the gender of the nurse is underscored — I would argue unnecessarily. But when writers create satire — or aim to — they have now created their own escape clause. This comic is being written by young boys who might well traditionally gendered roles in their stories, with little in the way of self-reflection and certainly with no mind to diversity. So any criticism of the narrow gender roles feels almost churlish and petty and ridiculous.

Paranorman is another good case study of that. Paranorman satirises the zombie genre, for adults, in which women are sexualised and terrified for our viewing pleasure. This aspect is a bit more subtle than watching an actual B-grade zombie flick, but it’s right there the whole time, under the surface and therefore — disturbingly, more insidious. The sexism then becomes ‘the water we’re swimming in’.

Where do you fall on this? Is satirical sexism fine, because all children are super smart and know satire every time they see it, because they’ve had enough life experience to pick every instance of it out? Or is satirical sexism just… sexism in a different costume?

Mothers In Children’s Literature

Benjamin Leader - The Young Mother hearth

Mothers are either held up as paragons of selflessness, or they’re discounted and parodied. We often don’t see them in all their complexity.

Novelist Edan Lepucki contemplates motherhood

The only time you truly become an adult is when you finally forgive your parents for being just as flawed as everyone else.

Douglas Kennedy

It is partly a children’s book convention that you write from the kids’ point of view, so you cannot be entirely fair to the parents as well. If you are going to write about children of twelve and thirteen who have totally understanding and marvellous parents, there’ll be nothing to write about.

Gillian Rubenstein
Continue reading “Mothers In Children’s Literature”

Death In Children’s Literature

Many people will probably tell you their first brush with death was watching Bambi. I can’t say the same because I never saw the animated Disney film. I thought I knew the story for the longest time, because my grandmother bought me a Little Golden Book called Bambi and Friends Of The Forest. I still have it, because Nana’s wobbly handwriting is in the front. Bambi and Friends is like an extended scene like that one out of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, where Snow White is frolicking with the animals in the forest. In this Little Golden Book there is no death.

The first literary death to really affect me came much later at age 11 when I read Anne of Green Gables. It was interesting to watch Anne With An E (the Netflix series) and see that Matthew does not die in this more modern revisioning. What was behind that decision? By keeping Matthew alive, Walley-Beckett refused to give him tragic hero status. Instead, she turns him into a more flawed human being, whose lack of communication to Marilla about their shared financial position posits him as a patriarchal (though kind) man of his time.

Back to Bambi…

Bambi death stare


I was first introduced to death by my older sister who took me to see the movie Bambi when I was a little girl. I’d barely dried my tears over the death of Bambi’s mother, when I was crying again while reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book By the Shores of Silver Lake. Not only did Laura’s sister Mary go blind, but their loyal bull dog, Jack, died. In high school I reached for the tissue again when Scarlet O’Hara’s elderly father dies in Gone with the Wind.

Even then, I wondered why did writers let people and beloved animals die? I didn’t think it was too much to ask those with the power of make believe to keep everyone alive.

Susanne Brent, WoW

Bambi could’ve been worse, ya’ll. Or maybe it would have been better..?

Graphic Novels, Anime and Manga

Lynd Ward’s Eerie, Early Graphic Novel, “Gods’ Man” is thought to be the precursor to the modern novel.

David Beagley, La Trobe University, Genres In Children’s Literature, available on iTunes U

Superman and Astroboy are well-known comics. Astroboy is a mix between man and machine which has given us Lego bionicles and Transformers, and which reaches its peak in Lego versions of Starwars, particularly in the games.

There is a perception that just because it’s a cartoon or a comic, children are the audience.

Ever since Disney’s version of Snow White in the 1940s this has been the case. There are very few animated movies for adults, yet so many of them carry adult themes.

Depression, destruction — all this comes through on the latest Batman movies

Art Spiegelman Maus (written in German) — father’s experience during Holocaust, WW2. This was incredibly influential. It came out in the late 80s. Spiegelman was working as a cartoon artist, so used this medium to tell this story. This was the first of its kind.

Picturebooks provide more reluctant readers with a more acceptable way to get their literature. ‘Spoonful of sugar’ helps the medicine go down. The downside of this is the presumption that literature is difficult and therefore not an enjoyable experience.

Just about every Shakespearian play has a graphic novel version — mostly in multiple versions, usually paying homage to the Japanese manga style. Others are realistic picture versions.

A lot of them make use of pop culture, to things outside the actual story. All of these things are there in picturebooks for older readers as well as in graphic novels.

Woolves in the Sitee, Way Home, Rose Blanche — graphic novels use the same things as these picturebooks. The visual vocabulary is shared — how pictures and symbols tell their stories (explained previously in The Drover’s Boy, with the sticky tape put as a cross over the lock of hair).

When stories go on for a long time in a series (e.g. Tomorrow When The War Began by John Marsden) you may start with a realistic story, but it ends up being a caricature of real life — more cartoon-like.

Generally, as soon as a character solves a crisis, someone else turns up to make it worse and worse and worse. Dr Who is probably the best British version of this kind of character, who is a live version of a cartoon character.

Take Batman. One concern about these types of movies, in which the hero is, in actions, not much different from the villain, is that a young audience won’t necessarily get that. There’s no clear morality — the message is that it’s all right to go out on a bike and blast anyone that’s in your way. The message is that ‘Your identity as a good guy makes you right, not your actions.’ [Side note: for more on this issue read Deconstructing The Hero, written by Marjery Hourihan.]

This is Alfred and Bruce talking about a fairly complex idea:

The ‘Dead White Male’ approach to literature — all great lit is hard, and written by this demographic. But there is probably more analysis going on of Harry Potter than anything else at the moment.

The graphic novels of classic works such as those by Shakespeare are abridged versions. How much subtlety is lost? Do they bring audiences to the classics, or are they diluting the classic away from whatever it was that made it a classic? In Shakespeare’s case it wasn’t the great events but the talking in between which makes it a classic.

Nicki Greenberg presents a certain version of Hamlet in her graphic novel.

Hamlet cover.jpg

When Tin Tin was reprinted, we realised how outdated it had become with the golliwog, little black sambo stereotype. This caused huge ructions when it was reprinted a few years ago.

Spiderman took one side in American politics.

Fashion can both reflect what is street fashion and often exaggerates it. There’s an exaggeration of the standard model type figure. It can also lead fashion. A lot of the Japanese fascination with the school girl does come from these cartoon representations as the epitome of sweetness and innocence. Then there’s cosplay, which is dressing up in the costumes of cartoon characters, which is now seen outside Japan.

Three distinct styles of graphic novels and comics around the world: (Beagley’s own names) 1. The Linear Narrative. The story is told as the continuous sequence of frames across the page as we go. 2. Action Packed Narrative, with a continuous series of big events and violence. 3. Manga-Meander. The soap operas — telephone book sized thing that run year after year without the story ever finishing. There are crosses between them. Dragonball-Z is both action packed and manga-meander. Most of the manga though are to do with personal relations, even though they might feature robots and monsters.

Gentleman Jim Raymond Briggs is about a man who wonders whether his job cleaning public toilets is as fulfilling as it ought to be. The emphasis is on the storyline, not so much the pictures. Asterix, Maus: the pictures are there to deliver the story. (When the Wind Blows, Fungus The Bogeyman, the same.) Marcia Williams does a lot of adaptations of classics, with emphasis on the storyline.

Then there are the action packed ones: out of space, SF e.g. Dan Dare Space Hero. The first was probably Flash Gordon, which became a movie very quickly as well. This is where we get a lot of cinema technique. There is a big crossover. Different size frames, explosions going across the page, big bold letters ‘pow’ ‘zam’.

Manga Meander: great scenery, nice clothing, not quite the pow zap explosive sort of story but there may be lots of action.

Anime is from ‘animation’. Manga is an aimless picture — doesn’t mean anything on its own, meant to be one of many. You could say Shaun Tan’s work fits the manga meander style.

Are these books literature? What is literature? If it is a created cultural aesthetic artifact, based in language and communicating something which uses all these devices in order to get an audience response well then, yes. Comics are literature. But are they good literature? That’s a different question.


Glossary of Picturebook Terminology For Review and Analysis

Carlton Alfred Smith - The Young Readers 1893

Is it picture book or picturebook? When commentators put the two words together, they do so mindfully:

The terminology we apply to books, texts and reading do not seem to attach to the picturebook so readily. For example, if we speak of ‘the text’ of a picturebook, do we mean the words or the words-and-pictures together? … And when we say ‘read’ a picturebook does the word — and the process — apply equally well to the visual images and to the sentences and paragraphs alongside, or do we need another term that better represents the special relationship of picture and beholder?

from the introduction to Reading Contemporary Picturebooks: Picturing texts by David Lewis

The more detail in the words, the less room there is for pictorial invention.

from Reading Contemporary Picturebooks by David Lewis

An ABC book, from Medieval Latin abecedarium (“alphabet, primer”).


when highly unlikely or impossible things happen it is called the absurd, most often used for comic effect. There is purposely no logic or continuity.

The Carnaval A Book Of Poems by Sef Roman Semenovich and Leonid Roshidaev 1994
The Carnaval A Book Of Poems by Sef Roman Semenovich and Leonid Roshidaev 1994
The Carnaval A Book Of Poems by Sef Roman Semenovich and Leonid Roshidaev 1994
Abstract Expressionism

Art that while abstract is also expressive or emotional. Abstract expressionists were inspired by the surrealist idea that art should come from the unconscious mind.


When the temporal deviation from the primary story cannot be placed in any given moment within the scope of the story. Rare outside purely experimental prose, but perhaps all pictures are achronical.


Retrospective adaptations reward audiences for any prior knowledge of the hypotext (or origin story). Retrospective adaptations offer a parallactic view of an older story.

Prospective adaptations can stand alone. Their relevance does not depend upon prior knowledge of earlier texts. Since the child readers of picturebooks have little life experience, when picturebooks come from adaptations, they are highly likely to be of this kind.


Describes the phenomenon of setting adults up as the norm. Can be a problem in children’s literature, which is written by adults but meant to be read by children.


In music, pertaining to or emphasizing slight variations in rhythm for the sake of dynamic expression.


a device in which characters or events represent or symbolise ideas and concepts. A message is communicated with symbols.


(adj. allusory) An allusion is a reference to another story, for example an illustrator might include a girl in a red riding hood in a modern story, alluding to the classic fairy tale. Allusions are good for creating new dimensions.


chronological misplacement of any kind. (You probably know the word ‘anachronistic’.)


another word for a ‘flashback’ or ‘switchback’. A secondary narrative precedes the primary one. For example, a grandparently figure looks back in time. This might be expressed pictorially with a thought bubble, or sepia tones, or other recognised devices for expressing retrogression. The plural is analepses.


Childhood according to Seuss is a perpetual zigzag between good sense and nonsense, between the anarchy of the Cat in the Hat and the selfless stoicism of Horton. They are like the ego and the id, not so much eternal antagonists as complementary poles. The books that he wrote, averaging one a year from the late 1930’s to the mid-1980’s, alternate between ever loopier (and sometimes forced) excursions into whimsy and ever more pointed (and sometimes forced) fables.

A.O. Scott, Sense and Nonsense, NYT Magazine

A poem or hymn which is divided into two parts. Each part responds to or echoes the other. [Much like words and pictures in a picturebook.] Antiphony: I Am The Great Sun

Backdrop Setting

(as opposed to integral setting) A setting exists, but it is separate from the story. The setting could be changed and the story would still exist, basically unchanged.


A board book is a picture book printed on stiff board, designed to be used by toddlers who may damage books made of paper.

The humble board book, with its cardboard-thick pages, gently rounded corners and simple concepts for babies, was once designed to be chewed as much as read.

But today’s babies and toddlers are treated to board books that are miniature works of literary art: classics like “Romeo and Juliet,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Les Misérables”; luxuriously produced counting primers with complex graphic elements; and even an “Art for Baby” book featuring images by the contemporary artists Damien Hirst and Paul Morrison.

A Library of Classics, Edited for the Teething Set, NYT

a call-out or callout is a short string of text connected by a line, arrow, or similar graphic to a feature of an illustration or technical drawing, and giving information about that feature (comic book speech bubbles)

Cautionary tale

A tale told in folklore, to warn its hearer of a danger, e.g. in “Little Red Riding Hood” children are warned not to dilly-dally on the path and talk to strangers. Cautionary Tales are now outdated and more often satirised, for example by Hilaire Belloc in Cautionary Tales For Children.


This is a linguistics term and refers to a word or expression whose meaning is dependent on the context in which it is used (such as hereyoumethat one there, or next Tuesday). When addressing a very young audience, certain words or expressions won’t be familiar to them due to life inexperience. This affects the vocabulary and situations storytellers use in stories for children, or affects how they are introduced (without the same presumption of prior knowledge).


the treatment of spatiality and temporality. A word to describe the way time and space are described by language, because time and space are impossible to depict via visual signs alone. Time can be indicated only by reference. In picturebooks time might be represented by changing light as the day fades, or with clocks and calendars or seasonal changes or ageing characters. But mostly in picturebooks, the passing of time is underscored by words. (Later, at ten o’clock that night, that afternoon, etc.)


Some illustrators work on a ‘stage’, while others are more ‘cinematic’, changing the camera around, including various angles and a mixture of close ups, medium shots and long shots.

The illustration below is literally bordered by some stage curtains, and therefore makes for an excellent example of ‘stage’ perspective on the page.

Barbara Cooney is a good example of an illustrator who works with stage perspective. We seem to view scenes from the distance of a chair in the audience.

A picture book illustrator who works with cinematic perspective is Chris Van Allsburg. The proportion of cinematic picture books has increased over time. This is down to the influence of television.

Co-author, Co-illustrator or Co-narrator

Words for ‘users’ when the apps require participation (or the illusion of participation) in order to complete the story.

Interactive engagement on a creative level is, indeed, what most apps promise but seldom offer in a meaningful way.


Why do children get different literature? Because adults think children are different. Childhood is ‘colonized’ by adults. (See article by Perry Nodelman: “The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children’s Literature.”.) This happens for two reasons: For education and for entertainment, to experience something vicariously. But we have this idea that kidlit must teach kids how to read and how to behave. Books can be too preachy or have lots of fun and these two things can have a tension in them. (Both of these two things do include a definition of a child.)

Colour Field Painting

Describes the work of abstract painters working in the 1950s and 1960s characterised by large areas of a more or less flat single colour


Texts often describe how places, people, or objects look or sound or smell. Readers can enrich their experience and increase their understanding by forming mental pictures: by imagining what is being described as exactly as the words of the text allow them to. This process is what theorists of reader-response call “concretization”. […] Concretization is a skill often possessed by children. In fact, imagining as literally and completely as possible the world and the people a text describes is the only way that many children know of building consistency from the texts they read. This seems to be the reason that so many children and other inexperienced readers worry about the logic and coherence of the worlds that texts enable them to concretize—why they so often get angry when there are inconsistent details in descriptions of places and people or confusions in the sequence of events.

On the other hand, concretization is a skill that many adults have forgetten. Many readers have been taught to focus so much on using texts’ potential for engendering sights and smells and sounds. That’s a pity. Not only does it deprive such readers of a source of pleasure, but it also prevents them from understanding the subtle richness of the texts they read.

The Pleasure of Children’s Literature by Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer
Continuous Narrative

Continuous narrative art gives clues, provided by the layout itself, about a sequence. Sequential narrative without the frames. Vignettes are often presented continuously, too.


On Nikolajeva and Scott’s scale of interanimation taxonomy we find ‘contradiction’, in which pictures and words do not match each other – one tells a different story from the other. This sort of picturebook demands more from the reader in terms of active synthesis, and may appeal to an older, more sophisticated audience, or to a dual audience, in which young readers understand one part of the story and the adult reader understands another. Of course, pictures and words can never be absolutely contradictory. It is a matter of degree. Stories with contradictory pictures and words are also called ‘twice-told tales’.


On Nikolajeva and Scott’s scale of interanimation taxonomy we find contrapuntal (the adjective form of ‘counterpoint’) This is a useful word when talking about words and illustrations which deviate from each other somewhat. Further along the scale comes ‘contradiction’, in which the pictures and words completely contradict each other.

Conventional Interaction

Unsurprising interaction in an interactive text, given what has come before. For example, the book app works like a digital version of a book, complete with ‘page turns’.


As defined by Aarseth: The cybertext is, literally, “a machine for the production of variety of expression”. Aarseth’s textonomy of the cybertext can only partially be applied to book apps. For example, the aspect of “transiency” (meaning that in a transient text “the mere passing of the user’s time causes scriptons to appear” (Aarseth 1997, 63)) is not very helpful since virtually all book apps for children are intransient text. If a book app is played in the “read-to-me” mode (the closest thing to a transient text I have encountered in a children’s book app), the reading can usually be stopped and modes switched.

Degrees Of Interactivity
  1. selective participation, in which the user chooses among the options offered by the program
  2. transformative participation, in which the user selects and transforms the contents proposed by the author
  3. constructive participation, in which the user can select, transform and build new proposals that are not planned by the author

Relating to dialogue. When literacy researchers use this word they’re talking about how children and adults talk together about a book before, while and after reading.


Didactic refers to a story with a clear pedagogical purpose. “Moralistic”.

Everything has a moral, if only you can find it.

Lewis Carroll, Alice In Wonderland

Adults often assume that all children’s stories are fables or should be read as fables […] Aesop’s fables usually end with an explicit statement of a moral. But these stories have been retold by many people, and Joanne Lynn points out that “those who retell the fables always manage to find ‘morals’ that mirror their own values”. When the printer Caxton first published the fables in English in the fifteenth century, he said that the story of the fox and the grapes showed that the fox was wise not to want what he couldn’t have.

In more recent versions the fox’s behaviour is neither wise nor admirable but shallowly self-deceptive; the moral is something like “It’s easy to despise what we can’t have” It seems that, if readers assume a story is a parable or a fable, the presence of a moral is so important that almost any one will do.

Anyone who expects a moral or a message is sure to find one. That this is the case reveals the degree to which messages or themes are separate from the texts readers relate them to.  In seeking messages, readers tend to confirm their own preconceived ideas and values: to take ideas from outside the text and assume that they are inside it. That prevents them from becoming conscious of ideas and values different from their own.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

Each reader has to find her or his own message within a book.

Laurie Halse Anderson

Communicates by telling. The flipside of mimetic. In a film, a soundtrack is ‘diegetic’ if it occurs naturally as part of the story, such as in the films of Quentin Tarantino, or on the TV series The Wire, in which any music must come from a radio, or from a CD that a character is playing in the background, rather than added later as part of the editing process. In picture books, verbal text is diegetic.

A phrase such as ‘the diegetic real’ is useful when making a distinction between what is meant to be understood as realism versus what is meant to be understood as ‘happening within the child’s imagination’.


Doggerel refers to comic verse composed in irregular rhythm. Bemelmans’ Madeline series is considered ‘doggerel’. The word also describes verse which is simply badly written.

Double Address

When an author intends adults to get things out of a story that children would not. (See also: single address). Some commentators have called the middle grade version of this The Mark Twain Wink, as he was well-known for it. E.B. White and A.A. Milne also used this technique. Note that all of these men also wrote for adults.


a graphic/illustration spreads across two open pages


“Droodle” is a nonsense word suggesting “doodle”, “drawing” and “riddle.” Their general form is minimal: a square box containing a few abstract pictorial elements with a caption (or several) giving a humorous explanation of the picture’s subject. For example, a Droodle depicting three concentric shapes — little circle, medium circle, big square — might have the caption “Aerial view of a cowboy in a Port-a-john.”

Dual audience

A ‘children’s book which appeals to both children and adults. Big budget stories (e.g. Pixar movies) are expected to appeal to both children and adults.

Picture books are synonymous with Children’s Literature. But is this is a necessary condition of the art form itself? Or is it just a cultural convention, more to do with existing expectations, marketing prejudices and literary discourse?

from an essay by Shaun Tan

With their violent excesses and winning magic, fairy tales once entertained adults and children together. As John Updike said, they were the television and pornography of an earlier age, and they rarely pulled punches, even when the young were listening in.

Maria Tatar, NYT

‘Children’s books’ in general must appeal to adult co-readers as much as to the child. Picture books in particular must have a ‘dual audience’.

What does this mean, exactly? It can mean one of two things:

  1. The material must be so universal that it transcends age.
  2. The story must operate on more than one level, with some things understood only by the adult co-readers.

Used primarily for the life sciences, this term has also been employed by sociolinguists and psychologists to describe the ways in which organisms interact with environment. The term ‘ecology’ might also come in handy for discussing picturebooks, and the ways in which words interanimate with pictures. The term ‘ecology’ may be especially appropriate because the ways in which words and pictures feed off each other are different from book to book and even from page to page. One moment words can step forward to occupy centre stage; next moment they return to the wings or comment like a chorus on some key point of action. Ecology is far more dynamic than any kind of taxonomy.

Emergent reader

describes readers who have not yet achieved fluency, and who may need a slightly different kind of picturebook from fluent readers


On Nikolajeva and Scott’s taxonomy of interanimation we have ‘enhancement’ somewhere in the middle, in which the pictures enhance the words without being contradictory. Agosto calls this ‘augmentation’.


Also called end pages. Peritextual parts of a hardback picturebook found on the flipside of the back and front of the cover. Endpapers have been a part of bookbinding since the mid 1600s. We have front endpapers and back endpapers. These pages are the first parts of the interior of the book seen when the book is opened, and the last to be seen after the story has been read and the book is about to be closed.


Gerard Ganette’s word for the creations that exist around an author’s work: interviews, publicity announcements, reviews by and addresses to critics, private letters and other authorial and editorial discussions. These exist ‘outside’ of the text in question but still influence how an audience will come to a work, and their reading of it.


As defined by Aarseth: Cybertexts are part of “ergodic literature,” that is, literature in which “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text”. The keyword in defining a text as ergodic is, of course, “nontrivial” which is vague enough. While swiping and tapping to navigate from one screen to another can clearly be defined as “trivial” (much like turning a page), gestures like tapping on a hotspot to trigger an animation should be regarded as alterations of the text, namely the story, and can thus not be qualified as trivial.

Extraliterary Experiences

The real-world experiences readers bring to the page, and that author/illustrators can assume of readers. For example, children know that some children go to school on a school bus, so this basic concept need not be explained.


In contradistinction to ‘story’: Fabula refers to “a series of logically and chronologically related events that are caused or experienced by actors”—thus answering the question “what happens?”—the term story indicates “a fabula that is presented in a certain manner” (answering the question “how is it told?”) In other words: “discourse for the analysis of hypertexts”

In relation to picturebook apps:

multiple fabula apps = in which user follows the concepts of “creating your own story” or “choosing your own adventure.” This type of app is most strongly affiliated with gaming and role-playing, sometimes to the extent that border lines become blurred. users can determine (to a certain extent) what happens in the narration. To evaluate multiple fabula apps, it is useful to consider the actual purpose of this narrative device. Is it to create a random text out of random fragments or is it to encourage users to explore narrative modes ? Does it give the user the opportunity to alter the fabula to produce aesthetically satisfying narratives that have been noticeably affected by the user in a purposeful way? Is randomness the result of the app’s mechanization or an aesthetic failure?

contrasted with:

alternative story apps = Basically, all apps that offer some kind of tap-triggered dialogue, sound or animation fall into this category.

Fairy painting

a genre of painting and illustration featuring fairies and fairy tale settings, often with extreme attention to detail. Fairy painting was popular in the Victorian era and made a comeback in the 1970s.


Remember that illustrations as well as textual narration can be described in terms of first (and third) person.

Funny animal

Funny animal is a cartooning term for the genre of comics and animated cartoons in which the main characters are humanoid or talking animals, with anthropomorphic personality traits. The characters themselves may also be called funny animals.

Graphic poetry

A category including acrostics, calligrams, concrete poetry and other kinds of visual poems. Also called ‘shape poems’.


A term referring to a style of drawing, associated with The Wall Street Journal half-column portrait illustrations. They use the stipple method of many small dots and the hatching method of small lines to create an image, and are designed to emulate the look of woodcuts from old-style newspapers, and engravings on certificates and currency.


Multiple voices. A diversity of voices, styles of discourse, or points of view in a literary work. Postmodern picture book authors like Wanda Gag and A.A. Milne utilised the space of children’s literature to play around with the interrelationship between words and images.

The term was introduced by the Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin in his “Discourse in the Novel” (1934). Adjective: heteroglossic.

He was talking about the presence of two or more expressed viewpoints in a text or other artistic work. In a novel, you might have the voice of the characters (dialogue) and the voice of the unseen narrator. These are two different voices, at least. We all speak differently to our friends, children, partners and work associates. This is heteroglossia.

Bakhtin was saying there is no such thing as a single, solitary language which exists in a linguistic, literary, or existential vacuum, untouched and unaffected.

Even young children do this. When they play, children appropriate social roles and rules in pretend scenarios and use a variety of ‘voices’ in role enactment.

During the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, picture book creators such as Wanda Gag and A.A. Milne were experimenting with children’s experience of heteroglossia. These authors were part of the Modernist art movement. One of the standout features of Modernism: The idea that there’s no such thing as a single, veridical truth. Everything depends on your viewpoint and where you happen to be standing.

Postmodern picture books continue to explore our heteroglossic human experience. A stand-out example is Voices In The Park by Anthony Browne.

Related word: Polyphony (multiple voices). This is another of Bakhtin’s words. He came up with polyphony before he came up with heteroglossia. The two words are now basically the same. If there’s a difference, it’s this, laid out by Morson and Emerson (1990): Heteroglossia describes the diversity of speech styles in a language while polyphony is to do with the position of the author in a text.


Chroma is another word for ‘saturation’ and describes the departure degree of a color from the neutral color of the same value.

Colors of low chroma are sometimes called “weak”. High chroma images (as shown below) are also called “highly saturated,” “strong,” or “vivid.”

Service for Everybody by Charles Relyea 1935 high chroma
I’ll Never Let You Go, Austin Briggs, 1948
Štěpán Zavřel (1932 - 1999) 1977 illustration for his own children's book 'The Last Tree'
Štěpán Zavřel (1932 – 1999) 1977 illustration for his own children’s book ‘The Last Tree’. In children’s stories which happen at night-time, the dark is regularly depicted as high key. This is less scary and also allows the artist more detail.

High chroma art can sometimes lend an atmosphere out of the first half of the 20th century.


High key images comprise a range of light value colors. (At the other end, a low key scheme contains a range of dark value colors.) More specifically, high key color describes the set of colors that range from mid-tone hues to white, while low key color spans the range from mid-tone to black.

In photography, high-key lighting results in brightly lit subjects with more fill light and softer shadows. Low-key is a photography term, but the art world had had its own word for ages: chiaroscuro. Technically, chiaroscuro is when an artist uses a high contrast between light and dark with the effect of creating a dramatic mood and also to draw the viewer’s eye to a particular part of the composition.

Basically, high key equals lighter. Low key equals darker, and probably with more shadows.

A picture book sometimes goes from one key to another over the course of the story, matching the main character’s mood.

Horror vacui

In visual art, horror vacui (Latin for ‘fear of empty space’) or kenophobia (from Greek for ‘fear of the empty’) is the filling of the entire surface of a space or an artwork with detail. In physics, horror vacui reflects Aristotle’s idea that “nature abhors an empty space.”

Italian art critic and scholar Mario Praz used this term to describe the excessive use of ornament in design during the Victorian age.

If something is so detailed it almost makes your brain hurt, you might describe it as horror vacui.


In a book app, a part of the screen which initiates an action when touched. The effect is said to be ‘tap-triggered’.


Hygge, meaning ‘snug’; is a Scandinavian concept that evokes “coziness”, particularly when relaxing with good friends or loved ones and while enjoying good food.

This word also describes a large number of picture books — those which aim to create a snug and cosy atmosphere for readers.


An extreme degree of imitative coloration or ornamentation not explainable on the ground of utility. (Adjective: hypertelic.)


The relationship between a given text (the ‘hypertext’) and an anterior text (the hypotext) that it transforms e.g. Snow White in New York is the hypertext of Snow White the traditional fairytale (the hypotext). This word relates to diegetic levels.

The concept of cybertext is neither limited to nor does it include all kinds of literary texts published in the digital medium. Hypertexts, on the other hand, are a specific type of fiction within this medium that is distinguished by certain technical characteristics, that is, “a text that […] will ‘branch or perform on request’ (by links or other means)” (Wardrip-Fruin 2010, 40). Even a cursory glance at children’s book apps reveals that only a limited number of them fall into either category. Therefore, a different framework must be used to assess this kind of media.


A genre in which neither image nor text is free from the other. A term (first?) used by Richard Wagner, who wrote the book Reading Iconotexts: From Swift To The French Revolution. Author/illustrator Jon Klassen discusses this ‘middle space’ between illustration and writing which the reader must fill for themselves, creating a much more expansive world than either the illustrations or words could achieve by themselves. The process in which the reader interacts with an iconotext and fills in the gaps is called interanimation.


An artform around a letter of the alphabet. Its origins lie in medieval illuminations, though the abecedarian connection was usually coincidental in the Middle Ages.

FOUR AND TWENTY BLACKBIRDS (1937) Robert Lawson alphabet
Illustrated fiction

A broad term encompassing not only picturebooks but also comics, graphic novels, illustrated magazine fiction and anything else in which words and picture work together to tell a story.

Illustrations do have a narrative purpose. They must show us not just beautiful patterns and evocative atmospheres but what people look like as stories happen to them; that is, as they move and talk and think and feel. So their faces and bodies usually have the simplicity, and consequently the expressiveness, of cartooning, a simplicity at variance from the frequent richness and detailed accuracy of their backgrounds, which give us a different sort of narrative information. When faces and bodies do have the same solidity and detail of shading and lines as their backgrounds, they may come to seem static and inexpressive…The extraordinary expressiveness of cartooning seems to make it a particularly appropriate means of communicating narrative information. To suggest that all picture-bo0k art is a sort of cartoon or caricature is no insult; it merely stresses the extent to which the purposes and pleasures of this art differ from those we assume of other kinds of visual art.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures:

A movement in art which can be seen in some picture books. Impressionistic paintings make it seem as if the viewer only caught the scene with a glance.


In medias res is a Latin phrase used by the poet Horace; it means “in the middle of things.” Poet Horace was describing the ideal epic poet.


In statu nascendi is a Latin phrase and means “in a state of being born”.

When a story begins in medias res (in the middle of things) and the character is given no backstory, we may say the character is presented to us in statu nascendi.

A good example of a picture book which begins in statu nascendi is Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, although modern picture books tend to begin this way in general. Older style picture books often have a short build up which describes what a character does regularly (the iterative), then switches to the singulative when describing what happens in this particular story.

Integral Setting

(As opposed to backdrop setting): Describes a setting which is an essential part of the story. It may even be considered a ‘character’ in its own right. If the setting were anything else, the story would not be the same or would not work at all.


An interrogative text has the force of a question.

In an interrogative text, authority is questioned. Harry The Dirty Dog is an example. Carnivalesque texts are interrogative by their function.

Intraiconic text

Writing that appears as part of an illustration, such as book titles on spines of books, writing on a computer screen, an addressed envelope. Slows down our ‘reading’ of the visual text and adds to the text-image tension.

The illustration below is especially interesting because the intraiconic ‘text’ is also a picture.

A Brand New Day: A Banana Split Story by A. S. Chung and Illustrated by Paula Bossio
A Brand New Day: A Banana Split Story by A. S. Chung and Illustrated by Paula Bossio
Cover by Saul Steinberg, 1963
Cover by Saul Steinberg, 1963
Leo Lionni

A rhetorical figure based on a deviation from the dictionary meaning of words. Irony cannot be expressed by pictures alone, but can be achieved when the words in a picturebook don’t match up with the pictures, creating an ironic counterpoint. In order to work, all stories everywhere need a certain degree of irony.

Picturebooks are ironic in ways specific to picturebooks.

In their book How Picturebooks Work Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott came up with a taxonomy to describe how words and text work together to tell a story. When picture and text do not line up, they say there is ‘ironic distance’ between them. The difference between a picturebook (one word) and another kind of illustrated text: Picture and text must be working together in some way to create something new.

Here is the taxonomy they came up with:

  1. SYMMETRY: Words and pictures are on an equal footing.
  2. COMPLEMENTARY: Words and pictures each provide information.
  3. ENHANCEMENT: Words and pictures each enhance the meaning of the other.
  4. COUNTERPOINT: Words and pictures tell different stories.
  5. CONTRADICTION: Beyond different narratives, words and pictures tell the opposite of each other.

Nikolajeva and Scott are talking about the ironic distance between words and pictures in terms of narrative.

There’s another layer of ironic distance which comes from mood (for lack of a better term).

In a NYT review of some illustrated fairytales, Maria Tatar says the following:

Though [Lisbeth] Zwerger’s watercolors are sometimes disturbing, the decorative beauty of her work also functions as an antidote to the violent content of the tales. This dynamic is reversed in Hague’s “Read-to-Me Book of Fairy Tales”: Allison Grace MacDonald’s gentle prose mitigates the ferocity of some of Hague’s illustrations.

A beautiful picture can moderate violent images in a horrific story. Likewise, a sweet, innocent story can be spiced up by ferocious and daring illustrations.


A story is isochronical if the timespan of the story and the time it takes to read the story (the discourse timespan) are the same. See also: Talking about story pacing.


Sometimes called birth stories, Jataka are accounts of the previous lives of the Buddha in vairous animal and human forms. They have been absorbed into the folklore of many countries. Jakata tales have many similarities to the Panchatantra and Aesop’s fables.

A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books by Denise I. Matulka

Picture book examples:

Buddha Stories (1997) illustrated by Demi
The Brave Little Parrot (1998) illustrated by Susan Gaber
Foolish Rabbit’s Big Mistake (1985) illustrated by Ed Young


Shirley Steinberg and Joe Kincheloe came up with the concept of ‘kinderculture’: a new form of children’s culture which emerged in the late 20th century. This culture was driven by “changing economic realities coupled with children’s access to information about the adult world.” The 1980s marked the beginning of the boom in children’s consumer culture. Before then, marketers didn’t target children directly.

People were feeling pretty anxious about this change. The horror film Child’s Play (1988) feels like horror comedy now, but is all about those very real 1980s anxieties. A doll literally talks directly to a vulnerable child without the safe go-between of the adult.

Child's Play 1988 movie poster

The main concern for parents of the 2020s is that children have direct access to the entire Internet without the safe go-between of the adult.


Chroma is another word for ‘saturation’ and describes the departure degree of a color from the neutral color of the same value.

Colors of low chroma are sometimes called “weak”.

Farm House and Field, Eric Ravilious, 1941. It depicts Ironbridge Farm, Shalford, Essex
Eric Ravilious, 1941

Most often, two distinct things:

  1. learning to read and write
  2. such things as drawing conclusions, making associations and connecting text to reality

There is another kind of literacy required for reading digital stories: technical literacy—knowing how to progress through a story. A higher level of literacy again involves creating meaning, understanding and at the same time being critical. There is no evidence that literacy, in and of itself, leads to the cognitive functioning of, for example, logical, analytical, and critical thinking that the ‘literacy myth’ prescribes.


In literature, style is paramount, the work is thematically integrated, character is rounded, originality at a premium. Contrast with genre fiction.


‘Ludic’ or ‘absorbed’ reading is a virtually trance-like state in which readers willingly become oblivious to the world around them. The term as used here comes from Hugh Crago and Victor Nell.

Magic realism

Some people think that ‘magic realism’ is an unnecessary term to describe a type of low fantasy, for people who don’t like using the word ‘fantasy’. Others believe we should be making more use of the word fabulism. A highly political term, magic realism generally describes a story which seems grounded in our real world but which contains fantastical elements.


‘Man Bites Dog’ describes inversion humour. I’ve also seen ‘hat on a dog’ describing the same category of joke, in which the audience laughs because the usual way of things is back to front.


Mark Twain is famous for a style of narration in which a narrator cracks jokes which tend to go over the heads of child readers and appeal to the adult co-reader. We also see E.B. White and A.A. Milne writing in this way. We might hypothetically see this in picturebooks, though contemporary writers usually mean something different when they’re talking about picturebooks and ‘winks’.

The wink commonly refers to the ending in which a careful observer notices there’s something more to the story. Commonly there’s a clue which tells the reader the story is about to repeat, or that magic is actually real.


This is Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s term. Picture books about the human body and its concerns with food and drink (commonly in hyperbolic forms of gluttony and deprivation) are stories about the material bodily principle.

Gross-out middle grade texts are often concerned with excretion (usually displaced into opportunities for getting dirty). Sometimes we get gross-out picturebooks, too. The Disgusting Sandwich is one example.

In stories for older readers this turns into concerns with sexuality (often displaced into questions of undress).

Harry The Dirty Dog (1956) is a good example of a picture book concerned with the body and the unfortunate need for maintenance.


Fiction which draws attention to the fact that it is fictional, not attempting verisimilitude. In children’s literature, directly addressing the reader (or ‘breaking the fourth wall’) is a common metafictive technique.


Beef vs. chicken’ is a classic example of what’s known as ‘metaphorical gender’, where the two items in a pair are judged to express a masculine/feminine contrast despite having no directly gendered meaning—other examples include ‘square vs. circle’ and ‘knife vs fork’

language: a feminist guide
  • dog vs. cat
  • blue thing vs. pink/purple thing
  • cottage cheese

Meta, meaning all, refers to the coming together of text and image. All elements of a picturebook must be seen in relationship to each other. One element may be dominant on first appearance, though all contribute to meaning.

I’ve also heard metatext to mean a secondary text which talks about a main text. (The person writing or talking has to first define which is the main text, in the same way they have to define diegetic levels.)


Communicates by showing. Illustrations are inherently mimetic. Mimetic is the flipside of diegetic.

Mise en scène

Mise en scène is a ‘grand, undefined term’ which in film refers to the arrangement of space and the objects within it. The following things all contribute:

  • sets
  • props
  • acting styles
  • lighting
  • camera angles
  • and other elements

The concept may also be useful when describing picturebooks.

On the one hand, mise en scène describes the limits of human experience by indicating the external boundaries and contexts in which people live. On the other, it reflects the powers of the characters and groups that inhabit it by showing how people can have an impact on the space in which they live. While the first set of values can be established without characters, the second requires the interaction of characters and mise en scène.

From The Film Experience: An Introduction

Mise en scène as an external condition indicates surfaces, objects, and exteriors that define the material possibilities in a place or space. One mise en scène may be a magical space full of active objects; another may be a barren landscape with no borders.

  • The interiors of trains and subways, with their long, narrow passageways and multiple windows and strange anonymous faces mean that a character’s movements are restricted as the world flies by outside (The Lady Vanishes, The American Friend).
  • Deserts and jungles can be threatening to visitors (King Solomon’s Mines, The African Queen)

Mise en scène as a measure of character dramatizes how an individual or group establishes an identity through interaction with (or control of) the surrounding setting and sets. The mise-en-scène and the character mutually define each other, although the mise-en-scène may be unresponsive to the needs and desires of the characters.

  • A forest can be a sympathetic and intimate place (Robin Hood) or it can be an environment fraught with psychological significance (“The Company Of Wolves“).
  • A wide open space can expand the characters’ horizons (Brokeback Mountain).
Monoscenic Narrative

Monoscenic art represents a single scene with no repetition of characters and only one action taking place.


A digital story is defined as a ‘multimodal narrative’ text comprising  pictures, music, speech, sound and script.


The creation of artificial myths; artificial mythology (see also: pourquoi story)


The theory and study of narrative structure.

Visual representation of setting is ‘nonnarrated’, and therefore nonmanipulative, allowing the reader considerable freedom of interpretation.

from How Picturebooks Work by Nikolajeva and Scott
Negative space

Most often white space, sometimes negative space comprises another colour such as black. In many ways, picturebooks are like film, but negative space is not an option in most kinds of films, where there has to be some kind of backdrop. Advantageous because lack of setting means a story may not date so much.

The Country Bunny and the Little Good Shoes, DuBose Hayward illustrated by Marjorie Flack
The Country Bunny and the Little Good Shoes, DuBose Hayward illustrated by Marjorie Flack
Nonce Words

Technically, nonce words are signifiers that lack the signified. In effect, these tend to be words used for the purposes of this story only. Also called ‘occasionalism’. Fictional coinages do not fill any lexical gap, nor do they enrich the lexicon. Thus, the ‘one off’ characteristic of fictional coinages is a predominant feature of such new words. In literature, the main motivation for new word formations is not to enrich the lexicon but to enrich the text itself. Since there is little chance for literary coinages to enter the language, they can be classified as nonce formations.

Note: The word ‘nonce’ is not related to the word ‘nonsense’. It means ‘for the once’.

That said, every now and then a nonce word from a very popular children’s book does enter the shared lexicon. Runcible probably comes from Edward Lear’s limerick The Owl and the Pussy-cat (1870). 

The difference between a neologism and a nonce word: Neologisms are young words which have occured naturally in our shared lexicon. Nonce words are performed for a work of art, and, generally, remain meaningful only within that work of art.

The popularity of Dr. Seuss has given rise to what we now call ‘The Seussian idiom’. See ”If I Ran the Circus” and ”Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book”, which initiate young readers into the enjoyment of language. When learning to speak, children learn to master the phonetic patterns of their mother tongue(s) by babbling streams of plausible but nonexistent words. This explains the popularity of made-up language with early readers.


Literary nonsense (or nonsense literature) is a broad categorization of literature that balances elements that make sense with some that do not, with the effect of subverting language conventions or logical reasoning. … The effect of nonsense is often caused by an excess of meaning, rather than a lack of it.

Gibberish, light verse, fantasy, and jokes and riddles are sometimes mistaken for literary nonsense, and the confusion is greater because nonsense can sometimes inhabit these (and many other) forms and genres.

Wikipedia (Literary Nonsense)

Anne Carroll Moore, superintendent of children’s work for the New York Public Library system, called Dr. Seuss the American counterpart to Edward Lear, the tentpole author of British nonsense. Lewis Carroll popularised nonsense literature further. But some (e.g. Leonard Marcus) say Dr Seuss is not really a nonsense writer. He uses nonsense as a device to hold the interest of the reader.

A picture book example of nonsense is Meal One by Ivor Cutler.

Laura E. Richards and New Zealand’s Margaret Mahy are rare female examples of nonsense writers. (Nonsense may be related to the Tall Tale tradition, which is also masculine.)

Oral Tradition

Some children’s authors write in the style of oral tradition. Enid Blyton is a good example, as is folklore, making use of formulaic language, schematic and derivative characters, stories which change to suit the circumstances of time and audience and an open form. (Contrast with ‘literature’.) Oral traditions are no less valid than literary works. Stories making use of the above conventions might be described as ‘written folklore’. This type of story has a low status, partly because of its popularity.

Panoptic Narrative Art

Panoptic narrative art depicts multiple scenes and actions without the repetition of characters. Think of the word ‘panorama’. ‘All-seeing’ (pan + optic)


Symmetry by another name.

Paralepsis (paralipsis)

In a word: omission. Also spelled paralipsis. The device of giving emphasis by professing to say little or nothing about a subject, as in not to mention their unpaid debts of several million. In picturebooks, too, a kind of paralipsis can happen when something mentioned in the text is left out of the picture, or vice versa. Negative space might be said to be the picturebook equivalent of paralipsis. For example, a page might be deliberately left blank because the character has disappeared for a time. An empty chair may draw attention to the fact that its usual occupant has died (See The Heart And The Bottle by Oliver Jeffers. Paralepsis can also be a secondary narrative in which time is independent of the primary story. For example, there’s a paralepsis in Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, when Max travels ‘through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year’. This kind of anachrony is common in picturebooks which describe an imaginary journey. For example, all the happenings of Narnia can’t possibly fit into the time the children would’ve spent at the country house.


Gerard Genette’s word for the sum of the peritext and epitext. Peritext is within a book aside from the author’s words whereas the epitext includes author interviews and other marketing materials.

Readers may make of my work whatever they please…The problem with my telling people what I think it means is that my interpretation seems to have some extra authority and that sometimes shuts down debate: if the author himself has said it means X, then it can’t mean Y. Believing as I do in the democracy of reading, I don’t like the sort of totalitarian silence that descends when there is one authoritative reading of any text.

Philip Pullman

Academics are distinguishing between the several possible meanings of the concept participation:

  1. conventional participation, such as letters decoding or the passing of pages or screens
  2. active participation, a complex interpretive demand related to a postmodern configuration of meanings
  3. interactive participation, or physical cooperation with the work
Pedagogical Applications

Used to describe parts of a story which encourage some sort of learning, for example via puzzles, counting things, finding objects.


All the physical features within a book aside from the author’s words. Front and back covers, dust jacket, endpapers, half-title and title pages, and dedication page all work together with the text and accompanying illustrations to produce a unified effect. These are known as a work’s peritext, a term first used by Gerard Genette in 1987.

An example of a picturebook in which the peritext starts the story is Rosie’s Walk. Virtually all of the story is on the title page of Rosie’s Walk, with one little exception. The fox exists only the pictures, never in the text, so immediately there is a tension between the text and the illustrations.


Short for application software: Software designed to accomplish specific user tasks (in contrast to “system software”).


While e-books are single files that require specific software (e-reader software), apps (being software) run by themselves.


In a picturebook, point-of-view might be conveyed via the text or via the perspective of the illustration.

The most common point of view in modern novels is ‘close third person’, which contemporary readers are used to. In children’s novels, introspective narrators are common. Picturebooks tend to be narrated (via the words), with the point of view expressed (via the illustrations) by facial expressions and body language, in particular. Pictures are very good at presenting an omniscient perspective via panoramic views of settings/various scenes of different characters doing different things.


In postmodern picturebooks: reality is presented as less certain than assumed, meaning is not inherent to the work, non-linear narratives are common, the voice is often sarcastic and self-mocking, it is frequently self-referential, metafictive and anti-authoritarian. The reader is required to complete the story themselves after thinking about it.

Pourquoi story

Also known as an origin story or an etiological tale, a pourquoi story is a fictional narrative that explains why something is the way it is, for example why a snake has no legs, or why a tiger has stripes. A classic example is Rudyard Kipling’s collection of Just So Stories. See also: mythopoeia.


A flashforward/anticipation. The opposite of analepsis. A secondary narrative that is moved ahead of the time of the primary narrative.

Reading event

Describes the ‘lived experience of reading — the experience of sitting down to read a picturebook — from cover to cover — as opposed to ‘studying’ a picturebook, or examining some part of it.

Recto and Verso

the front (recto) and back (verso) of a leaf of paper in a book


Reduction can make texts intended for both adults and children appear to have been written for children alone. For instance, the fairy tales of Hans Chritian Andersen have long been considered solely children’s stories in the English speaking world because of their translations into English…this was a reduction of multiple address.

from Comparative Children’s Literature by Emer O’Sullivan

A variety of a language or a level of usage, as determined by degree of formality and choice of vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax, according to the communicative purpose, social context, and social status of the user. In picturebooks the word ‘register’ describes a kind of atmosphere evoked by both words and pictures together e.g. grotesque, nostalgic, everyday registers.


Remediation is the act of remedying or correcting something that has been corrupted or that is deficient. But in the context of picture book media, the usage is difference.

Whereas books are ‘adapted’ for screen, books are ‘remediated’ as apps.


Picture books must stand up well to repeated reading. There are developmental reasons why children return to the same books time and again.

It may be that narrow input is much more efficient for second language acquisition. It may be much better if second language acquirers specialize early rather than late. This means reading several books by one author or about a single topic of interest.

from The Case for Narrow Reading by Stephen Krashen

What makes a picturebook re-readable?

Rhymed prose

a literary form and literary genre, written in unmetrical rhymes.


A love of looking. Film theorist Laura Mulvey uses it. Comes from Freud.

Simultaneous Succession

Widely used in medieval art (in ‘hagiographies’, depicting the life of a saint), this term implies a sequence of events. Think of those cave paintings showing a stick figure with a spear, hunting down an animal. The moments are disjunctive in time but imply a sequence. For example, a series of pictures in a picturebook might show a child getting ready for bed: pulling off her jumper, taking off her shoes, brushing her teeth, retrieving teddy bear, getting under the covers. This technique of showing the passing of time works better for slightly older children, because younger children may interpret a series of pictures of this girl getting ready for bed as five different girls. (However, adult co-reading is assumed.) The books of Sven Nordqvist make much use of simultaneous succession. This is most often a type of continuous narrative art.

Simultaneous Narrative Art

Not to be confused with ‘simultaneous succession’. In this kind of illustration, everything in a picture appears to be happening at once. This kind of illustration has very little visually discernible organisation unless the viewer is acquainted with its purpose. There’s an emphasis on repeatable patterns.

Simulative Participation

The user is given the illusion of doing something that actively moves the story along but in fact the user is not free but must adhere to the app programming.

Single Address

When an author intends only to write a picturebook for children, even if the picturebook ends up being enjoyed by adults anyway. (See double address. Not to be confused with ‘dual audience’) It may be useful instead to think of multiple addresses rather than an either/or.


When lots of tiny dots are used to fill a shape. Is still used today in manga, so if screentone is used in a modern picturebook, it’s likely to evoke a retro or comicbook feeling.


The philosophical idea that only one’s own mind is sure to exist.

Speed, Order and Frequency

These categories are helpful when applied to hypertextual structures and further distinguish between empirical and computed behaviour or strategies.

For example, the computed minimum or maximum speed for progressing from one page to the other might substantially differ from the empirical speed of a specific user at one specific running of the app.

Synoptic Narrative

A synoptic narrative depicts a single scene in which a character or characters are portrayed multiple times within a frame to convey that multiple actions are taking place. Synoptic is the adjective of synopsis.


A movement in art and literature that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images.


A poetic device, a type of zeugma. In picturebooks, this occurs when you see two or more parallel visual stories, either supported or unsupported by words. A fairly common example in picture books is when the pictures depict the lives of small creatures doing their own thing but who remain unmentioned in the main text. The plural of syllepsis is syllepses. See also: parallelism.

by Richard Scarry for 'What Do People Do All Day' (1968). Scarry's Lowly Worm was often seen doing something different from the other characters.
by Richard Scarry for ‘What Do People Do All Day’ (1968). Scarry’s Lowly Worm was often seen doing something different from the other characters.

Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott have created a sophisticated taxonomy of picturebook interactions (between words and pictures) and came up with a sliding scale. ‘Symmetry’ is at one end, in which the pictures pretty much repeat what the words have already explained. At the other end is ‘contradiction’, in which the pictures say something completely different from the words, often creating irony or humour. The problem with having ‘symmetry’ at the ‘extreme’ end is that pictures cannot help but say more than the words, since ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ (or thereabouts). So there will never exist a perfectly symmetrical picturebook.

Teaching stories

A term used by writer Idries Shah to describe narratives that have been deliberately created as vehicles for the transmission of wisdom. Teaching stories include folktales, fables and didactic fairytales.


In stories without pictures we talk simply of narrators, but in picture books with a meaningful gap between the story told by the words and the story told by the illustrations (e.g. Rosie’s Walk) we might specify the narration as told by the words, in which case I have heard ‘textual narrator’.


The concept of theme means different things in different settings. In high school literature class we are told that ‘theme’ is a word — a sort of abstract noun like ‘love’ or ‘independence’. This is okay — this gets most students passing year 11 English, but if you go on to study literature, or if you’re a writer, the single word example of theme isn’t enough.

THEME AS USED IN EVERYDAY ENGLISH: “Well, the theme of today’s meeting was definitely muffins.” In everyday usage, ‘theme’ can refer to any collection of ideas which are somehow connected.

DEFINITION FOR WRITERS: A theme is a sentence, not a single word.

Theme is a coherent sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning.

WAR is not a theme. War is a setting.

LOVE is not a theme. Love is a genre (Romance, love story)

TEEN DRUG ABUSE is not a theme. Teen drug abuse is subject matter.

That said, when people talk about theme in relation to picture books they are often talking about the tags given to picture books by library cataloguers: family, friendship, loneliness etc.


Titles (and headings) are a text-type in their own right. They serve a variety of functions and are of special interest to translators. Translated titles must fulfil the same functions in different markets. (This is why authors don’t often get a say in titles — it’s complicated!)

  1. DISTINCTIVE: A book’s title distinguishes it from other books. In some cultures (e.g. in Germany) there’s a law to protect book titles against unfair competition. Book titles must be unique.
  2. METATEXTUAL: Indicates information such as the genre of the book e.g. a funny, English language picture book
  3. PHATIC: Since titles are on the front covers, or appears on publisher’s lists and book recommendation sites, the title has a phatic function via first contact with the person looking at it. Length and memorability (mnemonic quality) is important here. If a title is too long and unmemorable the potential consumer won’t remember it, and the phatic function remains unfulfilled. (The word ‘phatic’ describes language used for general purposes of social interaction, rather than to convey information or ask questions.)
  4. REFERENTIAL: Offers information about the most important characteristics of the text regarding content/style. Information in a title must be comprehensible and acceptable for the recipients otherwise a title’s referential function remains unfulfilled. The title might say something about theme e.g. Pride and Prejudice. It might give us a clue about register Howe: The Day the Teacher Went Bananas. It might signal intertextuality e.g. William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury.
  5. EXPRESSIVE: Gives the author’s opinion on the text or any of its aspects. Basically, this means titles convey opinions. Titles have positive, negative and neutral connotations, make use of evaluating adjectives and adverbs and so on. The evaluation might apply to something in the book e.g. The Prettiest Love Letter In The World or it might refer to the readers themselves e.g. Hillaire Beloc: Bad Child’s Pop-Up Book of Beasts. This function is heavily culture specific.
  6. APPELLATIVE: Evokes the attention and interest of readers, including those with no previous interest in this kind of book, because the publishing team and author desire this book to be purchased and read. Basically, titles are meant to appeal. There’s a subfunction as well: to persuade. To guide readers’ interpretation.

For more on this see Text Functions In Translation Titles and Headings as a Case in Point.


A publishing industry term for the size of a printed book. Below, Leonard Marcus explains how trim size is important (in a conversation about ebooks and their limitations).

Barbara Basbanes Richter: You don’t sound like you are against the use of technology, rather in favour of its judicious employment.

Leonard Marcus: I’m not against technology, but it’s no substitute for a parent. And in certain respects, paper books function more effectively than e-books do. I think that these are two art forms that are going to both develop and each will put pressure on the other to do better at what it can do best. A Kindle, for example, can’t change its format. Every picture book has to be exactly the same size to fit in the screen, and that is a real problem for creator of picture books, whereas the trim size and other physical aspects of the book have always been considered expressive elements. But that’s not to say that some brilliant person couldn’t take an e-book – which is really a form of animation – and do something on an aesthetic level that someone working in a picture book format could only dream of doing.

from Book Chat Part One with Leonard Marcus at Literary Kids

Toy books were illustrated children’s books that became popular in England’s Victorian era. The earliest toy books were typically paperbound, with six illustrated pages and sold for sixpence; larger and more elaborate editions became popular later in the century. In the mid-19th century picture books began to be made for children, with illustrations dominating the text rather than supplementing the text.

User-Device Response Techniques

Describes the sort of interaction that happens between computer and user in games, but which is rarely seen in book apps. Book apps cannot offer the same narrative freedom of choice as role-play gaming where the user directs an avatar more or less freely through a virtual world.

  • character editing
  • various forms of multi-user experience which could be fruitfully applied to concepts of multiple fabula or alternative story apps to create alternative texts in interaction with other users.
  • the introduction of blanks, either literally in the interface as free space where the user can fill in words, drawings, or photos of their own choice or by using the possibilities of the device that allows users to make videos, take photos, or record their own words all of which can then be integrated into the app as forming part of the narrative.
Vanishing Art Style

Design created with large colour areas, enhanced in specific places with details only to suggest important features or clues

Verbal, Visual, and Sonic signs

The analysis of book apps calls for a broad use of the term “text.” The text of an app as I understand it comprises its totality of verbal, visual, sonic, and interactive elements, or the “surface” of the app as distinguished from the underlying structure of the source code.


A small illustration or portrait photograph that fades into its background without a definite border. In picturebooks vignettes are often used to show the passing of time e.g. a child getting ready for bed might be depicted by the same child brushing her teeth, pulling on a nightgown then getting into the bed.

Visual motifs

Decorative designs and patterns used in visual artwork, such as rabbits (to indicate various things in different cultures, such as rebirth or fertility); sunbursts, curlicues etc.

Vita activa and Vita passiva

Those who are active versus those who mindlessly consume.

World literature

Is sometimes used to refer to the sum total of the world’s national literatures, but usually it refers to the circulation of works into the wider world beyond their country of origin. Sometimes the German word ‘weltliteratur’ is used even in English to mean the same thing.


This list of art terms relates specifically to Vermeer, but includes many words that are useful when describing artwork in picture books.

Header painting: Carlton Alfred Smith – The Young Readers 1893

Lemon girl young adult novella