Kurt Vonnegut famously advised writers: Characters must want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.
Desire is what the character thinks they want. According to Vonnegut, this could be something run-of-the-mill. But maybe that character who wants a glass of water really needs human interaction, which is why he has visited the corner shop to buy a bottle of water rather than drinking it out of his kitchen tap. This advice is so fundamental, every storytelling guru will tell you a version of the same thing.
Some authors don’t bother with such low stakes as a glass of water. Before Caroline Leavitt starts any novel, she asks herself the following questions about each of her characters.
What does she want at the beginning of the novel and why? And what’s at stake if she doesn’t get it? “There has to be something at stake. It has to be something really major. I mean, if she just wants a glass of water, that’s not really interesting.”
Note that ‘stakes’ is a concept closely related to ‘desire’. John Yorke prefers the term ‘active goal’ rather than ‘desire’:
All archetypal stories are defined by this one essential tenet: the central character has an active goal. They desire something. If characters don’t then it’s almost impossible to care for them, and care we must. They are our avatars and thus our entry point: they are the ones we most want to win or to find redemption — or indeed be punished if they’ve transgressed, for subconsciously we can be deeply masochistic in our desires. Effectively they’re us. […] If a character doesn’t want something, they’re passive. And if they’re passive, they’re effectively dead. Without a desire to animate the protagonist, the writer has no hope of bringing the character alive, no hope of telling a story and the work will almost always be boring. — John Yorke, Into The Woods
And for the concept of desire itself, some people use different terminology: motive, goal, want. Each genre of story has its own typical desire lines. In romantic comedies the main character wants to find love. In a crime thriller the detective wants to find the criminal. The ‘quest’ plot has a strong desire line built into its plot, which partly explains its enduring popularity over the last 3000 years. John Truby has given us a basic hierarchy of desire, which shows us the complete continuum of wants. As you can see, superheroes are at the top, underdogs are at the bottom. From highest level of desire to lowest:
Save the world
Save the republic
Bright justice and freedom
Find the truth
Catch a criminal
Explore a world
Win the battle
Survive or escape
We might quibble a little with the ordering of that list — some characters (and people) make it their absolute mission in life to exact revenge. But the takeaway point is this: Your main character doesn’t have to want to save the world in order for you to have a decent story in your hands.
Desire is the main reason almost all TV shows are set in the cop, lawyer, and doctor arenas. These jobs give their shows a simple and repeatable desire line that tracks the episode every week. Catch the criminal. Win the case. Save the life. But of course this is extremely limiting. Most people don’t spend their daily lives solving crimes, prosecuting bad guys, and saving lives.
— John Truby
Without desire, no story. This is so basic — at first glance what more could be to it? This comic strip by Poorly Drawn Lines takes a common desire line and spoofs it. Why does it work as a joke? Because of the juxtaposition between (noble) quest and the completely unremarkable character arc — the discovery that he can eat his roommate’s leftovers with basically no consequences. This flaunts the basic rules of storytelling which we all know intuitively: When a character has a strong desire they go on an important quest and undergo significant character change as a result. Achieving their goal must be hard. It can’t come easily or you don’t have a fully-fleshed story. Continue reading “Story Structure: Character Desire”
The rule of three in storytelling has several uses. The first works like this:
One tells us what the risk is.
Two confirms what wrong behavior is.
At three, we know the rules, and so can appreciate what the smart third person is doing differently, to break the un- successful pattern and win.
If that folk tale was about just one pig who built a house of bricks in the first place, and the wolf couldn’t get in no matter how he huffed and puffed, where would the story be? Conflict, but no drama, just stalemate. Success for the pig, but no suspense. Anticlimax. No story.
Three is suspense, pattern, and contrast, all in one nifty little technique as old as storytelling.
It’s the scientific technique of the variable, with third time lucky.
From Anson Dibell’s book on writing called Plot:
If somebody fails twice, in similar circumstances, there’s going to be more tension and drama when they try the third time because we’ve already seen them fail and know it can happen. We know what doesn’t work, we know the situation; now we’re focusing on what they’re doing differently this time. We’re aware of the pattern, the apparent rules, and are concentrating on the one thing that changes.
Instead of two repetitions, you can use the Rule of Three.
The first time the bell coincides with the painful electric shock, you’re too busy being shocked to notice.
The second time, you think uneasily that maybe it wasn’t a coincidence.
The third time, you’ve started jumping before the bell is even done ringing.
If you want your reader interested and involved in the scene before it’s fully begun to happen, there’s nothing like a triple set- up to get things rolling. It gives added drama. It directs the read- er’s attention where you want it directed. And it makes the scene’s meaning clear in a way it could not have been in isolation.
Choose and control the variable with care, keep the situations visibly comparable so the reader will be aware of the bell/ shock pairing and be anticipating the outcome, and all three scenes will gain in impact and effectiveness.
The second use is far more simple. Show a character doing something three times and we will assume they keep on going until the end.
An example of this occurs in Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig. Eugenia, the arch nemesis, plants pansies all around her house. Mercy makes a hole in the hedge and eats three pansies. Then the chapter ends. We deduce that she eats far more than three pansies. If left to her own devices, she will eat all of the pansies.
Lately I’ve been reading chapter books with my 8-year-old daughter. We’ve been reading realistic comedy dramas from various American eras, from Ramona Quimby to Junie B. Jones to Judy Moody to Clementine. We’re just starting to (re)delve into the work of Judy Blume.
We’ve also read similar books produced locally such as Philomena Wonderpen by Ian Bone, Billy B. Brown by Sally Rippin and the Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford.
Many of these stories are great. All of these stories have things to recommend them.
But there is a formula running throughout most chapter books aimed at girls which isn’t doing women any good at all. In fact, in this week heading into the American election, I’m getting pretty cranky about it, because this narrative is having a real world effect.
The chapter book formula concerns the character web, which looks like this:
There are variations on this basic plan, of course.
For instance, the girly-girl might actually be the fake opponent.
Considered together as a corpus, this kind of character in middle grade fiction is saying something quite damaging about a certain kind of girl — the young Hillary Clinton archetype. A non-sympathetic character.
The Mixed Message of Ivy + Bean
An example of that is the relationship between Ivy + Bean. In their case, ‘tomboyish’ viewpoint character Bean mistakes the girly-girl across the road for someone completely uninteresting. But when she takes the time to know her, Bean realises that Ivy is just as scheming as she is, and because of her good-girl appearance they are actually better equipped to carry out their often quite nasty — but always fun — plans. Various parent reviewers criticise this series for its unpunished bad behaviour, but one good thing about the Ivy + Bean series is that the girls learn in the very first book to look behind appearances.
A possibly quite damaging unintended message is that girly-girls are basically fake. And unless a girly-girl reveals a more masculine side, she remains unsympathetic.
The girly-girl opponent of the Philomena Wonderpen series is a girl called Sarah Sullivan, who the reader knows to hate due to her overtly feminine accoutrements. Her matching pink accessories and her pink bag. Then there’s the way she competes against our imperfect hero and ends up winning the literal ‘gold star’ at the end of camp, dished out by an unsympathetic Trunchbull-esque school principal.
Even though Philomena has all the advantages of a magic wand (her father’s Wonderpen), Sarah Sullivan still wins the gold star — mostly through her own hard work, I might add, though she is also a rich girl and dishes out store bought sweets.
The more successful a woman is, the more pleasure we take in demolishing her and turning her into a two-dimensional villain. Hillary Clinton’s extraordinary success may only be tempting the God of Trainwrecks to make her our biggest and best catastrophe yet.
To dwell upon the ‘fakeness’ of girly-girl opponents, Sarah Sullivan’s ‘store bought’ sweets are depicted by the author in opposition to Philomena’s home-baked treats, and once again, Sarah Sullivan is deemed a ‘fake’, in a way any modern mother should understand implicitly as coming straight from the ad-men trying to persuade us to buy this cookie over that, because it tastes just like a homebaked one, and women are therefore allowed to serve it up. (Because ideally, women are in the kitchen baking genuine cookies, but if we can’t manage that, we must at least make a good attempt at faking it.)
Even in the Clementine series, which I do love, overt markings of femininity are punished. This dynamic is set up in the very first paragraph of the first in the series:
I have had not so good of a week.
Well, Monday was a pretty good day, if you don’t count Hamburger Surprise at lunch and Margaret’s mother coming to get her. Or the stuff that happened in the principal’s office when I got sent there to explain that Margaret’s hair was not my fault and besides she looks okay without it, but I couldn’t because Principal Rice was gone, trying to calm down Margaret’s mother.
— Clementine, Sara Pennypacker
Since hair (and handbags and high-heels) are strong markers of femininity, Margaret the girly-girl opponent is immediately brought down to size, and the reader is encouraged to despise the hysterical mother who is upset about something so frivolous. Putting aside the fact that actually, cutting someone’s hair is a violation of personhood that women have been talking about for decades and which, from boys and men, is actually really unacceptable.
In the seventh book we see the girly-girl character cut down to size by breaking her ankle after insisting on wearing high heels. And so on and so forth. Not so subtle subtext: Clementine is adorable because she is not like one of those girly-girls. She is basically everything we are encouraged to love in a boyish trickster.
Judy’s girly-girl enemy is Jessica Finch who at least breaks the mould of blonde bitches by having dark hair.
Judy Moody marched into third grade on a plain old Thursday, in a plain old ordinary mood. That was before Judy got stung by the Queen Bee.
Judy sat down at her desk, in the front row next to Frank Pearl.
“Hey, did you see Jessica Finch?” asked Frank in a low voice.
“Yeah. So? I see her every day. She sits catty-cornered behind me.”
— Judy Moody Gets Famous! by Megan McDonald
‘Cater-cornered’ means to sit diagonally behind someone, but the common pronunciation gives me the feeling that ‘catty’ is supposed to be a sexist pun. (When women are compared to cats it’s because cats don’t ‘fight fair’. They hiss and spit and posture, and will scratch you with their long ‘nails’.)
We are encouraged to hate Jessica Finch because she is the Queen (Spelling) Bee. We are encouraged to root for Judy’s defeating her mostly because Judy is the viewpoint character but also because Jessica’s presentation is ‘perfect’ — she sits up straight in class and doesn’t have a single hair loose from her high ponytail.
We are also encouraged to hate Jessica Finch because she tries hard, much as Donald Trump criticised Hillary for preparing for the second 2016 presidential debate:
“I have spelling posters in my room at home,” said Jessica. “With all the rules. I even have a glow-in-the-dark one.”
“That would give me spelling nightmares. I’ll take my glow-in-the-dark skeleton poster any day. It shows all two hundred and six bones in the body!”
“Judy,” said Mr. Todd. “The back of your head is not nearly as interesting as the front. And so far I’ve seen more o fit today than I’d like.”
— Judy Moody Gets Famous! by Megan McDonald
Obviously, our siding with Judy is helped by the fact that both girls were talking but only Judy gets told off by the teacher authority figure.
A positive aspect of the Judy Moody series is that Judy is allowed to express a slightly wider range of emotions, including anger. But mostly she displays spite, and actually ‘moody’ itself is a highly gendered word. Boys are not called moody for displaying the exact same range of emotions. (And yes, I acknowledge there is also a — completely different but still sexist problem — concerning the narrow range of allowable emotions in boys and men.)
Junie B. Jones
Like Clementine, Junie B. Jones has a loving relationship with her school principal, owing to her pranks being adorable and the principal being a caring type. (In this post I make the case that Junie B. is a fictional representation of an ADHD phenotype child.)
Junie’s girly-girl enemy is Richie Lucille. The reader knows immediately that Lucille is horrible and unsympathetic because she has long blonde hair tied up in a perfect ponytail, whereas Junie B. looks rough and tumble and doesn’t care about neatness.
Billy B. Brown
By now it should be clear that messy hair is prerequisite for empathetic girl heroes.
Billie B. Brown has two messy pigtails, two pink ballet slippers and one new tutu.
— The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin, opening sentence
It’s almost as if the girliness of the ballet outfit has to be neutralised by the messy hair. The messy hair says, “I’m wearing ballet clothes because I’m doing ballet, but don’t let that fool you into thinking I care about what you think of me.”
Billie’s best friend is Jack. Billie and Jack live next door to each other. They do everything together. If Billie decides to play soccer, then Jack will play soccer too.
— The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin
Rippin avoids much of the ‘girl drama’ by making Billie a ‘guy’s gal’, basically. Billie’s close friendship with a boy elevates her social status.
The only real gender subversion here is that Jack learns ballet just as Billie plays soccer.
Because once again we have the horrible girly-girl enemy. She is called Lola. Once again she is drawn (by illustrator Aki Fukuoka) with her blonde hair in a perfect bun. She closes her eyes with her nose in the air.
The message for young readers is that being a girl is fine and girls can do anything they want … so long as they are not too much of a girl. This femme phobic message works in opposition to the feminist ‘girls can do anything’ intent.
Frenemies: A feature of girl fiction but not in books for and about boys
I have also read the Wimpy Kid books and others like it, and it seems the very concept of ‘frenemy’ is specific to books aimed at girls. There is no frenemy in Wimpy Kid — Rowley is a genuine WYSIWYG friend. Fregley is an out-and-out comedic archetype and the girls are somewhat complicated but one-dimensional opponents — these heterosexual boys don’t like the girls as people but they’re starting to feel inevitable adolescent attraction. The most popular books among boy readers are both reflecting and reinforcing a completely different but equally problematic dynamic — a discussion you can find elsewhere.
In fiction aimed specifically at girls, however, we often have frenemies. This is an outworking of a culture in which the allowable emotional spectrum for girls spans between friendly and neutral. Anger, distaste, disgust is not allowed from girls.
So we have these girls who trick the adults into thinking they’re perfect but actually they are horrible: a sexist variation on the trickster archetype. The reason this is sexist is because the prevalence of these girls suggests, to widely-read kids that:
Only girls are able to pull this off
Boys are all surface and no depth — boys speak their minds and you always know exactly what you’re going to get.
Girls are basically liars.
The worst girls are the prettiest ones. And by ‘pretty’ I mean the girls with the most feminine accoutrements. The more feminine a girl is, the more likely she is to be fake underneath.
Hillary Clinton has a unique talent to make people viscerally angry. Just look at the footage from Trump rallies: supporters carry “Lyin Hillary” dolls hung from miniature nooses, cry “Lock her up” and “Hang her in the streets”, and wear Trump That Bitch T-shirts.
There are plenty of boy tricksters but they are presented in a completely different way.
Boy opponents, for example, arrange to beat someone up, after school, behind the bike sheds, but we aren’t inclined to call him ‘scheming’ for arranging the fight outside the range of adult supervision.
Boys take girls’ dolls, attach them to kite tails and send them sailing into the air, but boys aren’t schemers — they are simply having fun.
The bully-boy characters in children’s stories are not raking in all the academic awards. The fact that girly-girls also know all the answers is one more reason for the reader to despise her. We don’t like women to have all the answers.
The lesson is clear, and has been reiterated in countless hacky comedies about cold, loveless career women ever since. Success and love are incompatible for women. For a woman, taking pride in her own talents – especially talents seen as “masculine” – is a sin that will perpetually cut her off from human relationships and social acceptance. She can be good, or liked, not both. The only answer is to let a man beat her, thereby accepting her proper feminine role.
Feminine Girl Opponents Are Always Brought Down A Peg
When the girly-girl gets water dumped all over her (accidentally on purpose), or her pretty dress covered in ink, the reader is encouraged to hate her even more. It’s not just that the girl hero manages to come out on top — punishment usually focuses on ruining the very thing that stands for femininity.
Don’t forget that punishing female characters in children’s stories has a long history. Below, the Wicked Witch melts. The Wicked Witch is truly wicked, not just an annoying perfectionist classmate with frilly dresses and bows in her hair:
I would argue that Clinton irritates people not just because of her gender, but because we simply can’t process her narrative. There are no stories that prepare us for her trajectory through life and, therefore, we react to her as if she’s a disruption in our reality, rather than a person. We love public women best when they are losers, when they’re humiliated, defeated, or (in some instances) just plain killed.
It Didn’t Start With Ramona Quimby And Susan Kushner
As Doyle explains, this view of femininity goes back as far as Greek mythology and perhaps even back into the Paleolithic era:
Aversion to successful or ambitious women is nothing new. It’s baked into our cultural DNA. Consider the myth of Atalanta. She was the fastest runner in her kingdom, forced men to race her for her hand, and defeated every one of them. She would have gotten away with it, too, if some man hadn’t booby-trapped the course with apples to slow her down, which is presented as a happy ending. By taking away her ability to excel, he also takes away her loneliness.
Then, there’s the story of Artemis and Orion: He’s the most handsome hunter in all Greece, and she’s the Virgin Goddess of the Hunt, who’s ready to get rid of the “virgin” portion for him. Until, that is, her jealous brother Apollo tricks her into an archery contest – she’s so proud of her aim that she lets Apollo taunt her into shooting at a barely visible speck on the horizon and, therefore, winds up shooting her lover in the head.
You see it again in the Bible and actually my high school classics teacher had this quote from Pericles on the wall as if it were a maxim to live by:
[I]njunctions against female self-expression or fame are everywhere in ancient history. The Christian New Testament “[suffers] not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man;”Pericles wrote that the greatest womanly virtue was “not to be talked of for good or evil among men”. In the colonial United States and Britain, women who talked too much and started fights were labelled“common scolds” – recommended punishments included making them wear gags or repeatedly dunking them in water to simulate drowning.
Boyish Tricksters Are Heroes; Girlish Tricksters Are Punished
[T]hough Clinton activates the darkest parts of her critics’ sexual imagination, our yearning for her downfall goes beyond even that. It’s not just that her success makes her unattractive or “unlikable”, it’s that, on some level, we cannot believe her success even exists.
You hear that disbelief in the frantic insistence of certain Sanders supporters that the primary was “rigged”, simply because Clinton won it. You hear it when Trump sputters that Clinton “should never have been allowed to run”, making her very presence in the race a violation of the accepted order. You can hear it when pundits such as Jonathan Walczak argue that even if Clinton is elected, she should voluntarily resign after one term “for her own good”. (Also, presumably, good for George Clooney, whom Walczak offers up as a plausible replacement.) Even when we imagine her winning, we can’t imagine her really winning. Unadulterated female success and power, on the level Clinton has experienced, is simply not in our shared playbook. So, even when a Clinton victory is right in front of our eyes, we react, not as if it’s undesirable, but as if it is simply not real. And the thing is, it might not be. Or at least, it might only be temporary: the rise before the big, spectacular, sexism-affirming fall.
The caveat in chapter books is that ‘tomboyish’ girls, like boys, can also get away with anything. It’s the particularly feminine way of being that is not acceptable.
This is where I give a shout out to the Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford.
Violet is kind, inquisitive, creative, understanding, thoughtful and loyal. The author avoids the girly-girl frenemy dynamics and instead focuses on Violet’s relationship with her hippie family and to the natural world around her. Her ‘opponent’ might be her mother, who meets a friend at the mall and bores Violet talking about the price of petrol, for instance. The conflict is not contrived. We do still have, though, a teenage girl snarker in Nicola, the older sister.
Admittedly, this makes for quieter plots with less Bestseller appeal.
Illustrator Elanna Allen dresses Violet in practical clothing and Violet sometimes has quite neat hair, other times quite messy. The covers of this series are not heavily pink, which I find ironic given the pinkness of all the other books implicitly criticising pinkness.
Fancy Nancy is another interesting case because this is a character who embraces all of those feminine accoutrements vilified in most chapter books.
For pedagogical reasons, I’m sure, these books also teach young readers ‘fancy words’, which Nancy uses with full explanations for the young readers. In other words, there are many ways of being fancy, and one of those ways is to be smart.
There are also lots of standalone books about different kind of girls, but it’s the bestselling series which are the most widely read and therefore the most influential.
Real World Consequences of the Female Maturity Formula In Storytelling
I have previously written about the way in which girls and women in popular stories are consistently portrayed as ‘the only sensible’ one in the room. Typically, the girl is more of a swot, more organised, more witty than the ‘everyday boy’. We see it all sorts of narrative for both adults and children:
Everybody Loves Raymond (the long-suffering wife)
Harry Potter (Hermione)
Calvin and Hobbes (Suzie)
Big Nate series (Gina, and also the female teacher Mrs Godfrey, who is far more studious about doing her actual job as teacher than the laid back Mr Rosa.)
At first glance, to the uninitiated, this might seem like sexism indeed… but against men. After all, isn’t it good for women’s rights that women are consistently smarter than the men?
These women are the sidekicks, not the heroes. They start and end the story as sensible; the character arcs happen to the men. You can’t be the hero of a story unless you undergo some sort of character arc. This makes men the main characters of the stories.
These women are motherly. When the only role for the girl is the motherly type, we end up thinking that’s the only role she’s good for.
While these motherly types are allowed smart comebacks (a la Suzie from Calvin and Hobbes), they are are often limited to sarcasm. As often as not they are in fact completely humourless, adding to the cultural stereotype that ‘women just aren’t funny’. This sensible, parental role suits the straight ‘man’ more than it suits the funny ‘guy’.
But more disturbing than any of these points are the very real political consequences, as described below at a feminism and linguistics blog, in a discussion about the recent English election:
One answer to that question invokes the concept of the ‘glass cliff’. In politics as in business, women are more likely to be chosen as leaders when an organization is in serious trouble and the risk of failure is high. In that connection it’s interesting to recall one of the phrases used about Nicola Sturgeon last week—‘the only grown-up in the room’. Since then, other women, including Theresa May and, in the wider European context, Angela Merkel, have also been described as ‘grown-up(s)’. Though the term itself isn’t gendered, I’m beginning to think the metaphor is: it’s a reference to the most culturally familiar and acceptable form of female authority, that of adult women over children. When the men are responding to a crisis by throwing their toys out of the pram, it’s time for Mummy to sweep in and clean up their mess.
So whenever the girl character swoops in to save the boys with her book learning and smart ideas (a la Monster House, Paranorman, Harry Potter), what we’re really seeing is the Glass Cliff effect.
We might also call it the Happy Housewife view of female politicians:
I have heard many women (and some men) say that they want to see more women in power because women would make the world a better place, lift the tone of parliaments and be all-round kinder to the planet. Some go all quasi-spiritual on me, wittering on about female energy and our goddess-given nurturing nature. This has always struck me as the happy housewife model of leadership, where female leaders whiz around cleaning up the men’s mess, leaving the world all sparkly, clean and sweet smelling. It sounds like it’s a compliment but, in fact, it is a burden.
— Jane Caro, after the first 2016 Trump-Clinton debate
This view dictates that women must be better than men before they can aspire to leadership, that they must offer something special and different or they have no right to take the top job. Frankly, it sets us up for failure because it sets a higher standard for female leaders than for their male counterparts.
Please don’t mistake this for ‘girl power’. And definitely look out for it in your own country’s politics.
A New Vision For Chapter Book Series Aimed At Girls
Could we change the character web template and still engage girls? Here’s what I’d love to see:
More imagination when it comes to dreaming up opponents. Perhaps this is where fantasy shines. Fantasy, unlike realistic drama, is open to all sorts of monsters, ghosts and ghouls and does not need the girly-girl frenemy/enemy. However, as number 2 in the Ivy + Bean series shows (The Ghost That Had To Go), fantastic imaginings can be included even in realistic fiction.
More complex boy characters. I’d like to kill the stereotype that girls are fake and wily while boys are shallow and simple and unencumbered by social difficulties. If writers think they’re reflecting realities, by exaggerating them for comedic effect they are also reinforcing them. Is it possible to model good relationships while still including sufficient tension between characters? (Don’t tell me that these stories shouldn’t be didactic, because they already are.)
In real life, girly girls are not usually the enemy. The girl with the neat hair is probably sitting quietly in the corner doing her work. I know it’s tempting to write only about the Clementine/Ramona/Junie B. wreckers of this world because these girls are propelled into action by their very nature, but there is an invisible majority of girl readers out there whose compliance and hard work are not only invisible, but actively punished throughout children’s literature. Let’s change that. Because it’s affecting how the actual world is being run.
According to Nancy Kress (author of the writing book Beginnings, Middles & Ends), every story makes two promises to the reader:
1. THE EMOTIONAL PROMISE
Read this and you’ll be
But always absorbed
2. THE INTELLECTUAL PROMISE
Read this and you’ll see the world from a different perspective
Read this and you’ll have confirmed what you already want to believe about the world
Read this and you’ll learn of a different, more interesting world than this. (This last promise can exist on its own or coexist with either of the first two.)
THE PROMISES OF PICTUREBOOKS
1. THE EMOTIONAL PROMISE
Almost all picture books aim to entertain. At the moment there’s a bit of a publishing boom going on with ‘single gag’ books. The best-seller lists are full of authors (almost all men, by pure coincidence??) such as Lemony Snicket, B.J. Novak, Jon Klassen, sometimes Oliver Jeffers, Mo Willems and here in Australia we have Nick Bland.
One of the most thrilling picture books for my daughter is one by Jez Alborough,It’s The Bear! The mother goes away to retrieve a forgotten picnic item from the car and while she’s away an enormous teddy bear turns up.
Some authors, such as Oliver Jeffers, often write stories with a touch of sadness, though I’d say ‘melancholy’ is a better word.
Titillation is off limits for young readers, though it’s well-known that in kid lit food basically equals sex. So there are a number of picture books which ‘titillate’ in respect to food. Perhaps The Biggest Sandwich Ever? I’m sure there are better examples — think of books with beautifully rendered food illustrations, in which food takes centre stage. The deluxe versions of the Faraway Tree books did this for me as a kid. The food at the top of the tree often looked delicious.
Are young readers too young to even experience the emotion of ‘nostalgia’? I’d say yes, although there are plenty of ‘retro’ picture books which aim to evoke nostalgia in the parent co-readers. For example, Mr Chicken Goes To Paris will evoke memories for adults who have holidayed in France. Mercer Mayer’s earlier books are set in an American 1950s era, and the setting hasn’t been vastly updated since.
The odd picture book for young readers manages to uplift the reader. (Though the vast majority seem to reassure rather than uplift.)
2. THE INTELLECTUAL PROMISE
Because of the young readership, ‘seeing the world from a different perspective’ is a big promise in picturebooks. But as underscored in the recent and ongoing talk of diversity, children ALSO need to see themselves and their own, familiar environs depicted in picturebooks as confirmation that they matter. In other words, they need the second promise, too.
When I think of ‘different, more interesting worlds’ I think first of science fiction, though fantasy is far more common in picture books than science fiction. In picture books we very often enter an interesting world not via some sort of portal (a wardrobe, a mirror) but simply via the young child’s imagination. We might be left to wonder how much of this fantasy is ‘real in the story’ and how much is conjured up. But often picturebooks are simply carnivalesque stories in which a child takes a hum drum situation and ‘lives it up’ for a while, Cat In The Hat style.
Concept books exist partly to teach young children basic concepts: ABCs, numbers, colours, opposites, time, size, and in this book, prepositions.
Concept books are most often unmemorable. I can tell you at various times our bookshelf has housed cardboard books with the name of a colour on each page, but I got rid of those. Where’s Spot on the other hand is memorable, and one of my 9-year-old daughter’s favourites. That’s not just because she loves dogs — Where’s Spot is a concept book with a complete narrative.
G.K. Chesterton pointed out that where a six-year-old is excited if someone opens a door in a story and finds a dragon on the other side, a two-year-old is excited enough if someone opens a door.
— The Child That Books Built, Frances Spufford
When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys [children] like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic.
— G.K. Chesterton
If you’re thinking of buying one of the Spot books for a young person in your life, make sure you pick one of the editions which actually has lift-the-flaps in it. There are more cheaply produced versions that don’t have this rather more expensive feature, and I don’t think that’s how these books were meant to be experienced. It makes me sad to think someone thought it was a good idea to produce non-flappy editions. (Likewise, stay away from the bound anthology of Beatrix Potter stories — those stories were designed to be read in miniature, and part of their charm is lost if the child can’t hold the book themselves.)
A no-flaps edition
STORY STRUCTURE OF WHERE’S SPOT
Spot, who is not at all like a real dog, hasn’t eaten his dinner. The mother Sally has eaten her dinner, but Spot has left his and walked off. “Naughty Spot.”
The sentence, “Where can he be?” elicits desire in the reader, to look for Spot.
Sally goes on a mythical journey and on the way comes across all sorts of creatures: a bear with a jar of honey, a snake, a hippo, a lion, a monkey, a croc. Three birds.
Sally looks everywhere Spot could be hiding.
The animals Sally encounters are all pretty fearsome, though not ordered in order of ascending scariness. However, when we get to the birds there are three of them, whereas there was only one bear.
When the narrator says, “There’s Spot! He’s under the rug” we find out he is not, and the stakes are raised; will we ever find Spot?
We see Sally running to the basket, rather than standing at the possible hiding place. This is Sally at the climax, in crisis, fretting.
Spot is hiding in the basket. (The narrator tells us that’s where he is.)
The three to one ratio is typical across all of children’s literature, in case you are thinking Geronimo Stilton is a standout example.This podcast from The Book Show on ABC, features Janice McCabe,
Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida, talking about her study on Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books. McCabe found that Little Golden Books, for which new stories were published between 1942 and 1993, depict an especially small proportion of female characters: 3.2 males for every 1 female.
When Floyd’s kite gets stuck in a tree, he tries to knock it down with increasingly larger and more outrageous things. A perfect picture book by Oliver Jeffers.
STORY STRUCTURE OF STUCK
There’s a long oral tradition of stories which get cumulatively more and more ridiculous until the most ridiculous idea ends the story. “The Three Lazy Sons” is from one of the earlier Grimm collections and demonstrates the tradition nicely. A king is trying to choose which of his three sons will be king after his death. For some illogical reason he decides that the laziest son shall be king. The sons plead their case:
The kingdom belongs to me, for I’m so lazy that when I’m lying on my back and want to sleep and a drop of rain falls on my eyes, I won’t even shut them so I can fall asleep.
I’m so lazy that when I’m sitting by the fire to warm myself, I’d sooner let my heels be burned than draw back my feet.
I’m so lazy that if I were about to be hanged and the noose were already around my neck and someone handed me a sharp knife to cut the rope, I’d rather let myself be hanged than lift my hand to cut the rope.
This may remind me of the Yo Mama category of boasting, in which (mostly) young men compete to come up with the most ridiculous insults about someone else’s mother. These, too, are oral. Picture books are meant to be read aloud, so it’s no surprise to find they borrow from the oral tradition.
Floyd is not a pro exactly with the kite. It has got stuck in a tree.
Floyd is not sensible.
Notice how the phrase “It all began…” puts us in mind of some great event from the past, something legendary and unforgettable.
CHARACTER NAME FLOYD
According to the Internet:
The name Floyd is a Welsh baby name. In Welsh the meaning of the name Floyd is
One with grey hair.
In common use as both a surname and first name.
I often look up children’s book character names in case they are somehow meaningful. I don’t think this one is. Little Floyd has bright red hair. (I am sure kids with red hair are way more common in books than in real life!)
He wants to remove the kite from the tree so he can have more fun.
The plan stage of this book comprises the bulk of the story and is a great source of humour, because everything Floyd throws into the tree gets stuck. His ideas for retrieval get more and more ridiculous. Floyd’s behaviour is funny because he just won’t learn. The young reader learns, though, and there is great dramatic irony when we see what he’s about to do, then he does it and… SURE ENOUGH! It doesn’t work.
There’s a particular kind of deus ex machina that is fine to use in humorous picture books (we also see this in Walter The Farting Dog) — a police car or a fire brigade just happens to be passing. The fact that they just happen to be passing at the exact right time is funny in its own right. In general, though, it pays not to have adults in authority stepping in to save the day, and here Jeffers subverts that by showing Floyd with the fireman in his arms as if he’s about to heave the fireman into the tree. (And by now we all know how that will turn out…) Turn the page and sure enough, Floyd has got the firemen AND the truck stuck in the tree.
In picture books, sometimes the self-revelation is signposted with a lightbulb above the head. (Oliver Jeffers likes lightbulbs.)
Then he had an idea, and went to find a saw.
But masterfully, even the self-revelation phase of the story is subverted by this master storyteller. The trick works — the saw indeed gets the kite down — but not in the way we expect.
That night Floyd fell asleep exhausted. Though before he did, he could have sworn there was something he was forgetting.
Through the window, we see everything, including the firemen, are still stuck in the tree.
This picture book is a ‘never-ending story’, because we already know that the firemen are going to go through their own, similar rigmarole trying to get themselves dislodged.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION
There doesn’t seem to be a reason why the character is named Floyd, but can there be a reason why Floyd’s hair is red, however? Or a reason why the kite is red? The kite is important to Floyd and they are linked by the colour red. When the kite gets stuck in the tree, to Floyd the situation is as dire as if he himself were stuck, irretrievably, in the tree.
I feel that Oliver Jeffers’ picture books, even more than other picture books, have been made to be shared with an adult co-reader. The big clue? Jeffers’ handwriting is pretty hard to read. In fact, my eight-year-old has trouble reading it. The ability to read individuals’ handwriting comes quite a long time after learning how to read common typefaces and their teacher’s perfect, slanting script. This book is similar to The Day The Crayons Quit, in that regard. (I like this book a lot less than I like this one.)
MOVEMENT FROM LEFT TO RIGHT
In Western picturebooks, the default movement through a story is from left to right, as the page turns. But illustrators can deliberately invert this convention, causing some sort of obstacle to the progression of story, by depicting the main character facing left, unable to move forward. We see this here, too:
We see it again when ‘Floyd fetched a ladder,’ and on the following page as well, which is mainly blue (symbolic of Floyd’s general mood). In short, Jeffers has used this trick three time, making use of the rule of threes.
Another interesting trick Jeffers uses is to do with colour. Often in a story like this, when an action is established and supposed to continue on and on, long after it has become interesting, you’ll find a double spread in which the actions are compressed into a series of thumbnail actions.
Here, too, we have the double spread which starts with ‘a duck to knock down the bucket of paint…’ Notice Jeffers has switched to a single dominant hue for each half of the page — a greeny-yellow for the left, orange-sepia for the right. Why did he do this?
Or, it may simply be because the reader is not meant to linger on this page, enjoying the artwork. Jeffers knows that the child is keen to know the outcome — does Floyd get his kite back? The limited palette means these pictures don’t draw attention to themselves.
COLOUR TO SIGNIFY A TALL TALE
But that’s not the only thing Jeffers did with colour — the tree is a different colour in every picture. We understand that it’s the same tree. Why change its colour?
This is a subtle clue that the story is a tall one, not to be taken seriously. Of course the whole thing is made up. It’s one of those stories that has been told over and over many times. Maybe, in Floyd’s (Oliver’s) youth, a kite did get stuck in a tree and maybe it required several shoes before it came down. Over the years, this story gets embellished and built upon until it reaches a ridiculous level. The tree itself changes colour to suit the mood of the storyteller.
The main requirement of a tall tale is exaggeration: There are unbelievable creatures, huge fish, large distances, huge volumes. But hyperbole alone does not mean ‘tallness’. In a tall tale, the listener must both accept and refute. The listener has to know enough of the environment in which the tale is told to realise this can’t be true. The line between fact and fiction is hazy, and the humour derives from pushing that boundary. Which parts of this story are true, and which aren’t?
STORY SPECIFICATIONS OF STUCK
Everything is about 400-500 words these days. This picturebook is no exception, coming in at 493 words.
The very first episode of The Narrative Breakdown podcast is about a plot device which helps to amp up the tension in a story: Sometimes it even comes with a ticking clock sound effect — more often it doesn’t — and it describes a story which has time as a pressing issue. If there’s a bomb in the story you have an especially clear example of a Ticking Clock Plot Device e.g. the movie Speed.
The ticking clock device has been used in storytelling to increase narrative drive for many generations. It is used in Cinderella, who must escape from the ball before midnight, before her carriage turns back into a pumpkin. Often, the device is implied rather than stated outright. In Hansel and Gretel, we know the witch will eventually eat the children. That could happen at any moment, though she’s waiting for them to fatten up.
Other Examples Of Ticking Clocks In Movies
Die Hard 2 — a plane running out of fuel
Speed — a bomb is set to go off if the bus goes under 50 miles per hour
Se7en — a cop must stop a serial killer before he kills his next victim
The Fugitive — an innocent man must prove his innocence before being caught again
Dumplin — Performances always give a story narrative drive because they provide a ticking clock. Without that, Dumplin would’ve been in great danger of losing momentum.
Ticking Clocks In Picture Books
Hilda Bewildered stars a petrified young princess, charged with the task of delivering a speech to open winter. As the live broadcast draws near, the princess concocts a story in her head to help her through the task.
Variations of the ticking clock device can be found in a wide variety of genres — not just in thrillers — such as in Little Miss Sunshine (a road trip with a beauty pageant as deadline) and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which a man wants to make it home in time for Thanksgiving with his family in his warm, cosy house.
On the podcast, Cheryl’s first example of this device happens to be a children’s book: The Cat In The Hat, in which an unwelcome visitor makes a mess of the place, which must be cleaned up again by the time the mother gets home.
In picture books with ticking clocks, it is often the parent(s) who have made some rule, and it is universally understood that if the rule is broken there will be terrible consequences.
Aside from our own Hilda Bewildered, another picturebook that combines ticking-clock and the snowy, dreamy atmosphere of a mood piece is Home By Five, byRuth Wallace-Brodeur, illustrated by Mark Graham.
As you can see, this is a gentle, dreamy book, beautifully illustrated in pastels.
But to contrast with the dreamy mood (and the dreamy Rosie), here on the first page a ticking-clock urgency is set up, as Papa instructs Rosie to be home by a certain time. He helps her to get ready for her ice-skating session. This is a handsome, nurturing dad who we don’t want to disappoint.
So we get a little antsy when we see Rosie dilly-dally along the way home, despite her best intentions. She stops to swing around the poll and to look inside the bakery window, and all the time the reader can see she’s not hurrying. But it’s a little frustrating because we aren’t given access to the time, either. This book sets out to be a mood piece, with evocation descriptions of the wintry landscape. But there’s that confounded ticking clock, ruining it for us as it’s ruined for Rosie…
We don’t know what time it is until Rosie arrives home. The clock tells us she’s pretty late. Her parents discuss what to do.
On the final page we see their decision: The 1992 option is to buy their daughter a wristwatch.
In two of our story apps I make use of the ticking clock device: In Midnight Feast we have Roya’s excitement of the lead up to Midnight, though I invert this device by drawing her evening out.
Jeff Kinney also makes use of the ticking clock in several of his Diary of a Wimpy Kid The Long Haulgags.
How do you go about the task of mocking up a picture book? Most picture book illustrators make a dummy of thumbnails, to check the story flows well. Many writers (who are not also illustrators) find this a helpful practice, too.
When composing a piece, decide first which part of the picture you would like the audience to see first.
To draw attention to something, make it bigger, and if it’s not actually bigger, position it closer to the camera.
We tend to look towards a vanishing point. So you can position important things there.
The audience tends to look in the same direction as the main character, assuming something relevant is going on in that direction.
For English-background readers, we are used to reading from left to right. If the action is going in that direction we’ll feel more at ease. If the action is going from right to left we’ll feel something’s not quite right: hard times and difficulty.
Decide on the emotion you want to evoke, and its intensity. (Sadness, happiness, action, suspense?)
The execution of the artwork — the style — must suitthe type of story being told.
In visual storytelling, looking great is not enough. Each work of art (frame) must help to propel the story along. Something which is simply beautiful may pull the viewer out of the story. [I think now of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, in which some scenes are not vital to the plot but exist only for world-building and atmosphere. This is important too.]
Is there anything that can be left out without changing what you want to say?
The first shots will establish the milieu and emotional landscape. This must remain consistent until the final frame.
To build atmosphere manipulate lighting, pacing and colour.
Give the audience the opportunity to create their own reality as much as possible, by creating a gap between the visuals and the text. When answering a question, raise another at the same time.
Simplicity, shadows and silences are sometimes more important than detail. Leave the reader wondering about something.
Where to position the ‘camera’? Looking up/straight on/from above/from some other weird angle?
Naturalistic perspective, flattened or exaggerated?
We look at things depending on what we’re focused on at the moment. [So if there was a hint of a gun in one frame, we’ll be expecting to see it, and therefore focused on it, in the following frame.]
Curved shapes = subtle/peaceful.
Diagonal lines = dynamic/aggressive.
Straight lines = assertiveness.
Avoid weird coincidences, like a tree growing out of a head just because someone happens to be standing in front of a tree.
When cutting in closer to a scene, there is a rule to be followed, to do with proportions. Keep the subject at the same position in both frames so the reader knows it’s the same subject and not a different one.
To make an image seem deeper, create an uneven balance of shapes — big to small.
To better convey the direction of action in action scenes, make the action follow the lines of perspective.
To establish intimacy between two characters, clear the space between them. To create antagonism, put obstacles between them. (Or make use of light and darkness/background shapes.)
High and low, right and left are all locations that can have significance. Figures positioned up high may be interpreted as in ecstatic or dream-like states, or may have high social status or a positive self-image.
On pages where pictures are mere vignettes or are only partially framed so that the words push in from the side, or where pictures are irregularly sequenced down or across the page in asymmetrical arrangements, then high and low, left and right have no significant value.
When studying picturebooks closely, positional codes are used relatively sparingly [when compared to comics and graphic novels].
More common in picturebooks: the convention that places figures in motion facing left to right. Any character attempting to move from right to left will be perceived as interfering with the natural course of events: they’ve returned from an adventure/blocking someone’s path/have sinister intentions etc.
Children are remarkably quick to take in a scene, even in cases where the illustration is not particularly ept, and interpreting that scene as intended, but there are certain features of visual images that are harder for children to understand: anything which has a meaning over and above what is represented. Children may or may not understand, for instance, that a red cross indicates medical assistance, depending on their age and cultural background.
Into The Forest by Anthony Browne is story book, part ‘toy book’. Young readers learn to look at pictures and search for intertextuality, as each illustration links to a well-known fairytale. This makes the book popular for classroom use, along with the Shrek films and modern stories with fairytales as ur-texts.
No work of literature stands entirely alone. Readers bring a lot to a story, including their entire lives until that point, but also every story they’ve ever been exposed to. When an author points the reader’s attention to another text, this technique is known as ‘intertextuality’.