No Roses For Harry! by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham

No Roses For Harry by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham is a sequel to Harry The Dirty Dog. I like this story less due to its increasingly outdated message about masculinity.


No Roses For Harry Cover

Human grandmother sends partly anthropomorphised pet dog a coat for the dog’s birthday. The coat has roses on it, and the dog does not like it. He goes to great lengths to lose the coat. It ends up being used by a bird to make a nest.

Harry gave his sweater to a bird



I feel I must preface this part by saying that the entire story is based on the ‘universal given’ that if a male character looks like a female character (ie wearing a sweater covered in roses) then this is an inherently shameful thing. This is an idea that you don’t see so much in modern picture books, and that’s a good thing. These days you’re more likely to end up with stories such as My Brother Bernadette (by Jacqueline Wilson), in which a boy or boy character dresses like a girl and manages to subvert reader expectations, with the message that everyone should be able to dress how they feel comfortable without judgement. In this way, the storyline of No More Roses For Harry is dated. A more generous, less feminist reading of this book has me believing that Harry dislikes the roses because he is a dog, and in my experience of dogs, they prefer the smell of cow dung and dead things found in the undergrowth. Then again, the degree of personification of Harry leads me inevitably back to the first reading.

As is Zion’s storyline, Margaret Bloy Graham’s illustrations are ‘genuinely retro’. There have been numerous artists since who emulate this retro style by restricting colour palette and using paper and ink rather than a computer to recreate the feel of the fifties. But if you’re looking for a genuinely 1950s book, you get it right here. In this story you have the nuclear family, with a little boy and girl; you have visits to a 1950s style American department store; you see middle-aged women wearing fur stoles and 1940s headscarves.

No Roses For Harry Grocery Section


If I had to pick, I’d say the illustrations of the Harry books are more masterful than the text. This observation is borne out by the fact that the illustrator went on to both write and illustrate many books, and two of her earlier books had won major awards. The writer ended his career after the Harry series. It would be interesting to know the extent to which the writer and illustrator collaborated on this project, because there are parts of the text which repeat information adequately provided by the illustrations. This of course is also an editorial thing, and leaves me wondering if it’s mainly modern picture books that have evolved to avoid this, because you don’t see it much in picture books published 2015.

Harry didn’t know it, but a bird was watching.

The reader can see from the picture that the bird is watching. Bloy Graham has positioned the bird in such a way that the reader can’t miss it, in fact. In modern picture books, I feel that sentence would have been edited out.

That said, there is some nice ironic counterpoint here and there:

When [Harry] got home, his friends were waiting to play with him. But Harry didn’t feel like playing so they left him alone.

This page shows three dogs sitting in close proximity to Harry, smiling at him and waiting for a response, showing that they didn’t exactly leave him alone at all.

Apart from black and white, the illustrations have been done with a very limited palette of — unusually — fluorescent orange and khaki green. I say ‘unusually’, because many picture books from this era, when ink was very expensive, have been printed in black and red, a more common colour combination. This modern edition, purchased 2015 in paperback form from HarperCollins, has been printed in off-white, yellowish paper, which makes the book seem retro, as if it’s been sitting on the shelf for a few generations already.

The drawings of the human characters remind me quite a lot of the Flintstones, and I believe it’s down to the black ovals for eyes.

For some strange reason, the eyes of Wilma and Barney are drawn as dots while the other characters get more realistic eyeballs.
For some strange reason, the eyes of Wilma and Barney are drawn as dots while the other characters get more realistic eyeballs.

When illustrators depict animals with human emotions, they often add eyebrows where there are none. Humans convey a surprising range of emotions via the eyebrows, and trying to draw a dog or a cat or a horse without them is very difficult.

Angry Harry

Then again, any illustrator who is going to create books with animal creatures had better be a good observer of animals. Below is a picture of Harry in typical shamed dog pose, with his ears down, looking up. Dogs don’t have so much whites in their eyes, so the eyeballs, too, have been personified.

Harry shame


The facial expressions on the dogs add humour to the story. The humour is amplified because Harry’s cranky expression juxtaposes with the delighted faces of both human and canine onlookers.

There is humour again on the final page, in which Harry is wearing a sweater that has exactly the same markings as the dog himself. This visual humour is used to great effect in the must later Z Is For Moose, in which the zebra wears a zebra-striped shirt.

One plot knot the writer had was: How to have Harry lose the coat when it was tied onto his body? I feel this part of the story is its weak point.

When [the children and Harry] went into a big store to shop, the children took off his sweater and let him carry it. This was just what Harry wanted.

Unfortunately, we never see a picture of Harry ‘carrying’ his sweater, which lead my seven-year-old daughter to ask, ‘How would Harry carry the sweater?’ When she thought about it, she said, ‘Oh, I know how he would have carried it,’ but she didn’t let on to me how it would have been achieved, and now that the question has been posed, I feel completely in the dark on this matter. (If you think kids don’t notice things in picture books, you’re wrong! They’ll be reading the pictures better than their adult co-readers, who are by necessity and training, focused mostly on the words.)

Another small hole in the plot is that Harry runs home and the children, who accompanied him on the outing, are nowhere in sight. The dog and the children make it home independently, and not a word is mentioned of Harry’s running away after the bird who unravelled his sweater. However! I think this is something child readers can accept without too many questions.



746 words

All editions are 32 pages.

First published 1958, this is the second in the Harry series. (Harry The Dirty Dog had been published two years earlier.) There came another two after this.

Margaret Bloy Graham grew up in Canada but moved to New York to be an artist.

Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham were a husband and wife team. There may well have been more Harry books had the couple not divorced.

After the divorce, Margaret Bloy Graham continued to illustrate and also to write. She came up with a new series of dog books. This time, the dog was called Benjy.

Benjy's Dog House cover
published 1973

Bloy Graham was also awarded two Caldecott honors early in her career: All Falling DownThe Storm Book.

As for Gene Zion, he published no more children’s books after his divorce from Bloy Graham. He had been trained as a graphic designer.

Bloy Graham’s obituary in The Guardian



Hairy Maclary From Donaldson's Dairy Cover

Zion and Bloy Graham’s Harry series is one of the ancestors of the very popular Hairy Maclary series by New Zealand author Lynley Dodd. Harry is similar to Hairy Maclary in that:

  • He, most obviously, is a beloved pet dog who lives with a family, trying his best to get along in what is essentially a human world.
  • He displays emotions which are identifiably human (though dog-lovers would argue that these are all emotions that are felt just as keenly by dogs!) Harry is a little more like a human than Hairy Maclary and friends, though not by much. For example, Harry looks into a mirror and recognises the reflection as his own. He feels self-conscious. This is not something Hairy Maclary would do, though Hairy Maclary does seem to feel some self-consciousness when he wins the prize for ‘scruffiest cat’ after barging into the local cat show.
  • Harry goes on trips out into the human world, having adventures that children themselves can rarely have simply because they are more closely supervised. This was true in 1958, but is even more true now.

My Brother Bernadette deals quite differently with a boy who dresses in stereotypically feminine clothing. No attempt is made to ‘cure him’ of this problem.

published 2001
published 2001


Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins

Rosie's Walk Picture Puffin

Rosie’s Walk is, on a pedagogical level, designed to teach young readers  dimensional prepositions, but this is very much subordinated to the interesting story.

See an animated version of Rosie’s Walk from 1970.

Or if you prefer, an actual chicken walking through an actual obstacle course. Because chickens can be trained, apparently.



There are two distinct stories in this picturebook:

1. Rosie the hen walks from her coop, across the yard, around the pond, over the haycock, past the mill, through the fence, under the beehives and back to her coop.

2. A very hungry fox plots to murder Rosie the hen but is foiled time after time by getting himself into pickles.

Because this technique has been reproduced a number of times since, it’s easy to forget that Rosie’s Walk started the whole thing off: A pedestrian story (text) is completely offset by illustrations which tell a different story altogether — a story of peril, in which the protagonist is lucky to get out alive. This picturebook was so influential that it is written about a lot in academic texts on children’s literature, much like Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are.

Fox and Flour

For example, here are some passages from Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction by John Stephens:

An Example Of Irony In Picturebooks

The distance between pictures and words can function as comedy or irony, and this can even be at the expense of the narrator, as seems to be the case with Rosie’s Walk.

The Layout Of Pages Leads Us Expertly Through The Story

A picture is a frozen moment in time, not subject to the demands of forward motion which control the verbal text. This is obvious from the opening spread of Rosie’s Walk. We can enter the picture at any point, and if we happen to be a young child not yet trained to interpret books from left to right, we might well start anywhere; but in fact the text carefully orients the viewer’s gaze by drawing attention to Rosie and to the information that she is going for a walk. Rosie is situated slightly off-centre, but her narrative centrality is reinforced because the objects at the edges of the picture (buildings, cart, fox) are incomplete; the picture co-operates with the text in that Rosie is depicted in a stance which conventionally denotes ‘walking’, i.e. one foot flat on the ground (heel and toe), one up-lifted. The picture is a very flat profile; while there are minimal attempts at perspective in the drawing of the buildings, the milk cans and the cart are ‘flat’, with no attempt to suggest three-dimensionality. The scene is also presented at the same ‘height’ as the viewer, who is positioned full frontal to it. This encourages the viewer to seek the linearity implied by ‘a walk’ — where is Rosie going? Where has she come from? The important addition in the illustration, which will prove to function in counterpoint with the text, is the presence of the fox. Throughout the book the fox makes a series of bumbled attempts to catch the hen, but these are registered neither by the hen nor the narrating text. Thus on the next double page the fox pounces; the text merely states that Rosie walked across the yard, but the picture shows both the pouncing and the setting up of the old slap-stick gag about treading on the head of a rake, and on the next page again, which is wordless, we see the fox discomfited. The audience’s encounter with the book is thus again very complex. First, the book introduces its audience to an important principle of intelligent picture books, a capacity to construct and exploit a contradiction between text and picture so that the two complement one another and together produce a story and a significance that depend on their differences from each other. Further, because individual pictures do not have grammar, syntax or linear flow, but freeze specific moments in time, rarely presenting more than one event within a single frame, this relationship between text and picture is one between differently constructed discourses giving different kinds of information, if not different messages. Hence the audience will experience a complicated process of decoding, so that a text which by itself is a series of inconsequential events structured as a language lesson, and as such might be expected to strive for clarity and precise, single meaning, becomes only a surface beneath which other kinds of meaning can be perceived, and meaningfulness itself becomes problematic. At the same time, the audience is being offered three different ways of relating to the book: he may be a superior subject, a cooperative subject, or a subjected subject, depending on the answer to the following questions. Is the narrating voice as oblivious as Rosie to the fox’s presence? Is the narrator in collusion with the audience, sharing a joke about the story? Or is the narrator teasing the audience?

Rosie’s Walk Teaches Humour

What, finally, does Rosie’s Walk tell us about the world? One of its functions is to teach/reinforce a social concept of humour. Treading on rakes, being covered in flour, being caught in runaway vehicles, or being chased by bees are not intrinsically funny events. It is a learned social convention that such events can be regarded as funny, and we learn the situations in which this applies. The ironical counterpoint of text and pictures constitutes these events as comic, even if the audience has not yet learned to recognise them as such. More specifically, comic villains may readily suffer such mishaps. It renders them less threatening, but also, especially when such accidents occur within a narrative sequence and are linked in a cause-and-effect relationship to attempted acts of villainy, as in Rosie’s Walk, it implies that evil brings about its own undoing.This is a tenet that has become deeply ingrained in children’s literature, especially in fantasy, and must be seen as an element motivating the recent genre of pessimistic realism. It is already being learned from Rosie’s Walk. Rosie simply passes through her world in quiet self-absorption and unknowingly avoids its major threat. Her escape may seem merely a matter of chance, and she herself may seen incredibly stupid, which offers one way of reading her obliviousness to danger. But nevertheless her implicit passivity may also represent a chosen quietude, and hence an ideological construct crucial for how we think about society and for how we envisage engagement with it or separation from it. Either way, it is an ideological issue that cannot simply be ignored.

Repeated Patterns Offer Comfort To Offset The Danger

The atmosphere of Rosie’s Walk is clearly not dangerous, despite the threatened violence of the situation, at least partially because so many of the objects it depicts consist of repeated patterns: a pear tree is a round green circle filled with carefully arranged rows of similar pears, and even the fox’s fur consists of the same shapes repeated to form patterns. These images are ritualized, repetitive, and therefore unsurprising, like wallpaper. No true danger could take place in such a comfortably decorative world.

In contrast we have fairy tales which could be genuinely scary to a child if interpreted as existing in the real world, rather than some non-existent other-world. Stories which borrow from fairy tales therefore tend to be more scary than the likes of Rosie’s Walk which, like Beatrix Potter’s Jemima Puddleduck, are about animals who would naturally get eaten, but manage to be completely benign as a story. Sandy Whiskered Gentleman definition wants to eat Jemima Puddleduck but she is mercifully ignorant of this fact, as Rosie is of the fox.

Sandy Whiskered Gentleman


The Illustrations Teach/Reinforce Vocabulary

[Rosie’s Walk] is a very minimal narrative, and at text level is hardly more than the lesson in the use of six dimensional prepositions (‘across’, ‘around’, ‘over’, ‘past’, ‘through’ and ‘under’), which the pictures do indeed illustrate. But because of the way the pictures relate to that simple text, the book becomes a fascinating, exciting and amusing experience. The pictures make it a fuller narrative by laying out a scene around the words, making them both more specific and creating meaningful contexts for them, but they also encourage a more complex response to the text. Pictures can reveal things that the words do not, and their interesting details are clues to a more interesting story than the one the words tell.


– John Stephens

Use of Folk Art

So-called realistic art inevitably implies an attitude of scientific objectivity. We assume that folk art is pleasant and harmless and so respond to the theoretical danger of Rosie’s Walk as pleasant and harmless.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

Related to this art style is the flat perspective, in contrast with a few picture books (such as those by Chris Van Allsburg) which utilise the full range of available perspectives.

Perspective In Rosie’s Walk

Like the vast majority of picture books, Rosie’s Walk places more emphasis on action than on atmosphere. The lack of detailed perspective suggests that Hutchins’s pictures are meant to be quickly scanned for their narrative information, not inspected for the implications of their settings.

Take note of the line within the pictures — this technique was used a lot in the 1970s, and give the story a distinctly retro feel: This is not just hatching to define form — the lines within the shapes are decorative.

Rosie The Hen Went For A Walk


Notice how each tile of the roof is clearly defined and individually drawn. Cylindrical form is given to the milk pails by horizontal, well-defined lines. Rosie’s feathers are ornamental. To off-set all of this ornamentation, it was a good choice to make use of white space for the ground and sky — a popular choice in similar styles of work. (See Mercer Mayer’s early work. Later he seems to have either grown tired of the ornamental style or discarded it when switching to digital, as his ornamental line turns into air-brushed fills which have more obviously been digitally rendered.) Perry Nodelman points out the paradox that both intensely patterned and intensely disrupted visual surfaces convey relatively less narrative information, and that a book such as Rosie’s Walk verges on the merely decorative.


Rosie's Walk Barn Behind Rosie

Distinctive Colour Palette

Rosie's Walk Color Palette
Rosie’s Walk Color Palette

If a picture in which one color predominates strongly suggests a particular mood, then so does a picture that leaves out one particular color. The pictures in Rosie’s Walk seem so peaceful and unthreatening not just because of their style but also because they contain yellow and red and even green, but no blue at all.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

Pairing Of Pictures To Create Mood and Movement

Much of the fun of Rosie’s Walk is the fact that the pictures come in pairs. In each pair, the first picture shows the fox about to get himself into physical difficulty, and the second shows the result of the movement  forward implied by the first. First, the fox in midair, about to land on a rake; second, the rake hitting the fox in the face. First, the fox about to leap on Rosie; second, the fox in the pond he has not noticed. In choosing these two particular sorts of moments, Hutchins implies an entire sequence of actions; she has selected those moments that best suggest movement forward or the consequences of previous actions. In focusing on the unexpected results of the fox’s action, furthermore, these pairs of pictures constantly reveal how the fox is as unconscious of his surroundings as is Rosie herself: she may have no eyes for foxes, but foxes appear to have no eyes for rakes and ponds. These pairs of pictures create mood as well as meaning. Their repetitive rhythm gives the story the detached feeling of a series of jokes rather than the evolving intensity of a plot; we can laugh as our familiarity with the pattern develops because we know the story is going to keep going through variations of the same situation rather than moving forward toward a climax.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures


Mr Magoo is a somewhat outdated children’s show, this time about a functionally blind man who walks around his urban environment narrowly avoiding one scrape after another.

Another cartoon from around the same era is Roadrunner — again about a bird and a dog-like creature — Wily Coyote — who runs into one scrape after another in pursuit of roadrunner bird for dinner. In this case, the Roadrunner is fully aware of Wily Coyote’s disasters, and seems to take great delight in them.

An Australian picture book by one of Australia’s most popular author/illustrator pairs is A Particular Cow, written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Terry Denton. Like Rosie’s Walk, this story is made up of (mostly) one long sentence which stretches over multiple pages. The cow is oblivious to the chaos she causes after accidentally walking under a clothesline and ending up with a pair of bloomers on her head. Like Rosie’s Walk, there is a dominant use of yellow.

A Particular Cow Cover

A Particular Cow Double Spread

Another picture book with dominant use of yellow is The Story About Ping. Instead of the significant red, we have blue:

Whether or not we associate the absent blue [of Rosie’s Walk] with sadness, these pictures do establish a definite mood, a mood different from the much calmer and more serene mood of Kurt Wiese’s pictures for The Story About Ping, which emphasize blues and yellows and downplay red.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

The Story About Ping Cover


The Story About Ping fisherman

The Story About Ping duck tail

Ellen Raskin’s book Nothing Ever Happens On My Block is another story in which the main character is surrounded by plenty of things going on, but fails to notice

Nothing Ever Happens On My Block

Stop Thief

Another story which teaches prepositions but which also has a strong story is by Jan and Stan Berenstain: Bears In The Night.

Bears In The Night Cover


I’m Mouse is another picture book consisting of a single sentence for a very young audience.


Rosie’s Walk, written and illustrated by Pat Hutchins. Published by The Bodley Head, 1968

A single thirty-two word sentence sewn together with seven prepositions. Or, in more academic terminology:

The text is…a single sentence…consisting of two correlative clauses which function formally as the beginning and end of a narrative sequence, as marked by the semantic relationship of the two verbs which frame it, ‘went’ and ‘got back’. The middle of the narrative is made up of a series of prepositional phrases adjuncted to the first clause.

– Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction, John Stephens



Take a classic public domain poem or nursery rhyme and imagine how the narrative might be completely different if you were to change the:

  • characters
  • time of day
  • place
  • mood
  • colours

Can you turn a workaday tale into a scary one, or vice versa? For example, Mary Had A Little Lamb might not be a lamb at all, but a gigantic fluffy monster. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star would be quite different if a child astronaut were looking at earth from a futuristic space craft. Humpty Dumpty would take on a different mood altogether if ‘Humpty Dumpty’ were a child pushed off a wall by bully classmates.


Rosie’s Walk: Picture book perfection from We Read It Like This

Fun With A Stranger by Richard Yates

Norman Rockwell school teacher

Some short stories exist mainly as character studies. Fun With A Stranger by American author Richard Yates is one example.  The story paints a portrait of a particular kind of old-fashioned school teacher. The reader feels empathy for everyone involved,, from the young pupils to the teacher herself.


A man retells what it was like being a third grader in Miss Snell’s class. Two particularly memorable events happened that year: The field trip to the locomotives and the Christmas party.


The setting is unambiguously mid-twentieth-century America, and though this town is set somewhere near a place called Harmon, it’s not clear which Harmon this refers to — there are a handful — one is a ghost town. It doesn’t really matter either. There is mention of Halloween and Thanksgiving, which of course are specifically American. We can also tell from the word usage: vacation, raincoats and rubbers.

The children are off on a field trip to see ‘locomotives’, which places this firmly in a certain era, just as my own real-life primary school field trips to the tobacco and hops farms place my childhood in a certain era.

It’s significant that female teachers were paid no more than a living stipend at this time, because the reader knows that Miss Snell’s purchase of a class set of erasers was no small thing for her, even though the gift was brushed off by the narrator as a disappointment.


The story is told by an unseen narrator, but we know that the narrator writes as an adult from memories of being a pupil of Miss Snell’s third grade class. Only he could have this information. (We assume the narrator is a boy because he writes of girls as if slightly removed from them. Also, I suppose, because the author has a male name, and we tend to conflate authors with narrators.)

The familiar childhood rivalry that often exists between two classes of the same grade is used to great effect in this story. The young, pretty, exuberant and socially adept Miss Cleary is set up as the clear antithesis to the old, starchy, awkward, black hat and black coat wearing Miss Snell, whose very name sounds brusque. Since class rivalries naturally occur, this is what gives rise to the protectiveness Miss Snell’s own pupils feel towards her. The rivalry is underscored first by the Taylor twins, who boast that they are going on a field trip, and next by Grace, the girl who interrupts Miss Snell’s class on the final day before Christmas by asking for a paper plate.


Children can be more emotionally adept than the adults who care for them.

The title Fun With A Stranger won’t be lost even on modern audiences, due to the 1977 and 2005 movies called Fun With Dick and Jane, the title of which is taken from an American grade one basal reader, used in American schools from the 1930s through to the 1970s. The Dick and Jane readers were coming under heavy criticism during Richard Yates’ adulthood, mostly for their lack of diverse characters, but also because they are so very easy to parody. The stories are ridiculously simplistic, even for the youngest of readers. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Dick and Jane became a bit more sophisticated.

So the title of this short story has been chosen to evoke Dick and Jane, or rather all the things the Dick and Jane series evokes: innocence, awkwardness, something that’s easy to poke fun at because of its very earnestness. Likewise, this is how we are to think of Miss Snell:

Still, they could not hate Miss Snell, for children’s villains must be all black, and there was no denying that Miss Snell was sometimes nice in an awkward, groping way of her own.

Dick and Jane became increasingly out-of-touch with the children reading it. In the same way, Miss Snell started teaching when teachers typically removed their personalities from their classroom personae. The children know nothing about Miss Snell other than what she shows them in class of her teaching style. As adult readers, however, we can fill in the gaps: Miss Snell is a lonely old woman who has interpersonal issues in her private life. If she fails to relate to third graders, we assume she has no family of her own.

Fun With Dick And Jane Title Page

Affection is expressed in many ways, and not always appreciated or reciprocated.

Just like a Dick and Jane reader, there are no ‘baddies’ in this short story. In other stories the rivalries set up between groups of pupils, or between pupils and teacher, encourage the reader to side with one group over another. But because this story is retold from an adult’s point of view — and an adult who clearly has empathy and wonder for Miss Snell — the reader can see that the pupils are far more important to her than Miss Snell is to the pupils, who rush out of her class at the end of the year and never look back.


The Impression Of Imperfect Recollection

The challenge in writing as a narrator looking back in time is that of detail: How might the reader believe that all of the story necessary for an engaging story has been recalled accurately? What does Yates do to give the impression that these specific details really happened? After all, this is a narrator rather than an omniscient narrator, and a narrator’s memory is fallible.

1. Describe Habit

John Gerhardt and Howard White usually walked home from school together, and often as not….

“Hey, wait up!” Freddy would call.

If you listened to the podcast Serial you’ll have noticed this come up a lot — narrators remember past events partly because they always happened, not just because they happened on a single day.

2. Let The Reader Know That These Events Are A Summary

John Gerhardt had already made it plain to the twins once, in so many words, that he didn’t like walking home with a girl…

…he very nearly said something to the effect that

3. Pick Events That Would Be Remembered

Sure enough, the things you remember from your third grade class, if anything, were the field trips and the parties.


Richard Yates published two short story collections in his lifetime — Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love. This is from Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, which was released just a year after his most popular novel, Revolutionary Road.

3700 words

First person character as narrator. For more on this technique see: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction.


There is a short story by Noel Coward about a boy with a drunkard father who idolises his teacher. Ultimately, the teacher disappoints. I read it back in high school but can’t remember its title. Anyhow, that was a great story. (And it seems I was the only kid in the world who didn’t know the short story writer Noel Coward also wrote plays and songs! Who knew?!)


The teacher in this story reminds me very much of a teacher I had for year 9 science. I’m pretty sure anyone who’s been through an educational system will have come head-to-head with some pretty eccentric characters. I wrote a story about this teacher and asked my writing group for critique. I was interested to learn that although what I wrote was non-fiction, some of the facts that happened in class came across to the reader as ‘unbelievable’. An important lesson when writing fiction based on real-life.

Header: Norman Rockwell HAPPY BIRTHDAY MISS JONES March-16-1956

Just Me And My Puppy by Mercer Mayer

Just Me And My Puppy Cover

Just Me And My Puppy by American author-illustrator Mercer Mayer is worth a close look because, like many others in this long-running series, it is a wonderful example of ‘counterpoint irony’ in picture books.

Though the title may annoy purists, the grammar of the title foreshadows a story told from the point of view of a toddler-aged creature. As a child I always wondered what ‘critters’ were. I thought a critter must be some sort of American animal in particular.

Apart from ‘counterpoint irony’, another useful concept when considering any disconnect between words and pictures is ‘symmetry’. Nikolajeva and Scott have attempted to create 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.


In Just Me And My Puppy, the words tell us a sweet but bland story about a child who is care for and train a new dog. The pictures tell a difference story altogether: the story of a boy who is struggling to control an exuberant and disobedient puppy. Readers familiar with the innocent, willing-to-please Little Critter will see that the puppy is simply a more exaggerated version of the Critter.

Just Me And My Puppy Basement Scene


Broadly speaking, irony is a difference between what was expected and what actually happens. In literature, irony is a rhetorical figure based on a deviation from the dictionary meaning of words. Picturebooks make use of their own specific kinds of irony. Irony cannot be expressed by illustrations alone, but can be achieved when the words in a picturebook don’t match up with the pictures, creating what academics have called an ‘ironic counterpoint’.

How does this counterpoint work, exactly? Mayer begins the ironic counterpoint on page two. Page one sets the story up, with the protagonist swapping his baseball mitt for a puppy. The picture does not contradict the words, as we indeed see a box full of puppies and a raccoon pleased with his new baseball mitt. Naturally, there is more to the illustration than there is to the words — we see they are in a basement, that the box of puppies used to hold tomatoes, that a surprised spider is watching on. But this pictorial elaboration is not a counterpoint so much as an expansion.

Come page two, we are told, ‘My baby sister liked him right away.’ But we see a puppy jumping all over a baby, who doesn’t look pleased at all.

Page three is less ironic: ‘And, boy, were Mom and Dad surprised! They said I could keep him if I took care of him myself.’ The interesting thing is, we now mistrust the little boy’s version of events, and adult co-readers (especially) will be wondering how that conversation really went down. Mayer is very good at depicting facial expressions, and the parents in the Little Critter books manage to so often look resigned, disappointed and skeptical, but loving at the end.

The ironic counterpoint heightens as the Little Critter trains his puppy. ‘He eats every bite,’ we read, noting that there is dog food spread in a trail right across the kitchen floor. ‘I am teaching my puppy how to heel’ shows Little Critter tangled in dog lead with the puppy pulling uncontrollably, and so on.

After a few pages of unsuccessful episodes, we see a full-page spread set in a park. Now we see a ‘snapshot’ scene, of four Little Critters and four puppies, and we take from this that all of these scenes happened, but not at the same time.

Just Me And My Puppy Park Scene

Notice how Little Critter is dotted across the page — the reader is given a clear sequence of events. Sometimes a sequence of events depicted like this is not important — events can happen in any order. Personally, I like my eye to be guided around/across a page. I like to know what’s meant to come first. Notice also the white space across the park scene. The path is the white space.


Not only do Little Critter books tell two different stories via the words and the pictures; the pictures contain a subplot story about a spider and a grasshopper who readers will be keen to locate once they realise these unnamed characters are a regular instalment on each page. These characters never speak, but they have facial expressions which offer the reader further emotional cues.   Mercer Mayer has a knack for depicting ‘cute’. Especially cute is the scene where Little Critter gives puppy a towel-dry and blow-dry, in which puppy transforms from a bedraggled creature into a fluffy pom-pom. The look on Little Critter’s face is one of great love.   The setting of the Little Critter series is an American home housing a middle-class nuclear family somewhere between 1950 and 1970, when groceries came home in paper bags, when mothers stood at the sink washing dishes by hand in one-piece dresses with big bows at the back, when pets were sold from cardboard boxes. This is a cosy setting which only existed in America for a very short time, but it’s surprising how many picturebook creators are still making use of it. The cosiness of it is particularly well-suited to the picturebook audience, who receive much of their reading time right before bed.

Kitchen Scene Just Me And My Puppy

  In conversation with Katie Davis on the Brain Burps About Books Podcast, Mayer expressed his opinion on technology by saying that he bought a top of the line computer a long time ago (about 1990?) and hasn’t needed to upgrade since. I mention this because those of us illustrating picture books digitally are faced with a tough decision: Make do with cheaper software, or spend a disproportionate amount of money (relative to likely income) on Adobe CC. For those making do with older software on older hardware, Mayer’s opinion that you don’t actually gain much (if anything) by having the latest and greatest is worth hearing once in a while.


First published in 1985 in the USA as a Golden Look-Look Book.

The Complete Mercer Mayer Collection (of Little Critter books — there are others) is a set of 24, available on Amazon

Just Me And My Puppy App Icon

Oceanhouse Media made book apps out of the Little Critter series for the emergent reader market. The apps offer the functionality of word-highlighting, read-to-me and autoplay. Hotspots in the illustrations allow emergent readers to touch a part of the picture and hear the name of the object. But since these books were not created to be apps, they have not been coded from the ground up; rather, the pictures have been scanned in. There is little in the way of touch interactivity outside the pop-out words.

Just Me And My Puppy App Title Page

Bears In The Night by Stan and Jan Berenstain

Bears In The Night Cover

Anyone who has helped an emergent reader with assigned readers knows the difference between an interesting early reader and a ‘slog’. Bears In The Night by the Berenstains is an early reader with a focus on positional words. This book is an example of a successful early reader because the story is engaging and children will want to return to its fun creepiness over and over. This is achieved by:

  1. Creating an eerie story with just the right balance of scary and humour
  2. Creating words with wonderful rhythm and judicious use of repetition.


Seven bears are tucked up in bed together. They hear a ‘whoooo!’ coming from outside, so leave the safety of their bedroom to explore what it is. When they discover it is a big owl, they rush back home and get back under the covers.

Berenstain Bears Whooo


Picturebooks work best when the world of the story is exaggerated in some way compared to real life. On the very first page we see not just a young character in bed, but seven of them, all looking exactly the same.

Creators of picturebooks must find the line between ‘too scary’ and ‘not scary enough’, settling upon ‘intriguingly scary but not nightmare inducing’. The Berenstains have managed a perfect balance, with an owl which seemed far more scary before the little bears and little readers know what it was, and a final page in which we see the mother for the first time, and seven little bears fast asleep. Downstairs, the light is on and the mother looks content, with a reassuring, cosy surrounding: sewing in a rocking chair.

It’s interesting how often mothers perform the comforting role in picturebooks. This story was published in 1971. We are starting to see a few more ‘fathers as comforting figures’ in picturebooks, but they are still few and far between.

As for the text, this is a story in which the words build upon themselves, and I tend to find these irritating if there is too much text to read over and over again. Regardless of how much children like it, so often it’s an adult co-reader who has the arduous task of reading these stories, and I have seen some particularly bad examples in my time, one of which recently ended up in the bin.

This book, in contrast, builds upon itself in the best kind of way, often by repeating just the first phrase in a sequence, next by compressing all phrases — mostly on one page. This is a good technique to use following a climax, because when familiar phrases are seen on a single page the reader naturally quickens the tempo of reading, adding urgency to the need to get back to safety. Another classic book which makes use of this technique is Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. The language in Hairy Maclary is more complex because the words carry more of the story, but the repetition works because the names of the dogs have such wonderful mouthfeel.


This is almost but not quite a wordless picture book. Because there are so few words — and even fewer distinct words — the illustrations carry the vast majority of the story.

The choice to make stories about seven identical bear children offers advantages to the illustrator. We see a variety of facial expressions in the one scene, for example, without having to create a multiple of backgrounds which prop up a different, conflicting face. Also, when decoding picturebooks which show successive scenes, for example when a character gets ready for bed and we see several different ‘shots’ of the character, brushing teeth, putting on pyjamas and so on, young readers don’t always realise that each instance of the character is the very same character. This book avoids the decoding issue, and has a dual child audience of children encountering picturebooks for the first time, and a few years older when learning to read for themselves. These ‘crossover’ books are very useful to have on the shelf, because there are few things more satisfying for an emergent reader than to come back to an old favourite just a few years later and discover they can now read the words themselves (aided by general familiarity as much as decoding skills, perhaps). This gives confidence.

Out Of Bed - Bears In The Night
The seven bears almost resemble the blueprint of an animated sequence

When illustrating night scenes, many illustrators for children do this by using blue hues rather than darkening the tone. This serves well to create a nightscape which gives the illusion of darkness but without the element of scary — blue hues in bright hues are the ‘night light of picturebook world’.

When you read the book did you notice the white space? Good white space goes completely unnoticed unless you’re looking for it. White breaks up the blue of the night time, and has several other roles here:

A place to put black text, which needs to be super easy-to-read

Allows for differently shaped scenes across multiple pages of the same dimension.

Bears In The Night White Space
An example of white space

Though there is white space, these blue night scenes can look a bit flat unless there is a high-contrast lightsource. In this story we have a bright yellow lantern which provides a focal point of colour on every single page. The same yellow is used for a crescent moon. (Full moons are less common in this illustration style, more easily confused with the sun.) The intratext of ‘Whooo!’ is also yellow. Combined, this adds up to quite a few splashes of colour.

There are stock images illustrators make good use of to tell the reader ‘This is scary!’ The Berenstains have used:

  • the darkness of night-time
  • reflected light off the silhouette of the owl
  • spider webs
  • dark woods with sparse foliage and jagged branches
  • ghost stories as a sort of hypotext for the ‘whooo’ of what turns out to be just an owl
Bears In The Night Climax

One of the challenges when illustrating this particular story would have been the page layout; specifically, the need to include vast landscapes on double-page spreads. The spreads build on themselves just as the words do. On the most challenging double spread we see a bear climbing out of a window, climbing down a tree, ducking under a bridge, running around a lake, walking through two big rocks and running scared through the woods. The illustrator could have created a less engaging picture (though easier to illustrate) by drawing a series of ‘snapshots’. Instead, we see a birds-eye landscape view with compressed perspective.


  • First published 1971 in Great Britain by William Collins Sons and Co Ltd
  • Subsequently became a ‘Bright and Early’ book with the Cat In The Hat logo
  • Our Picture Lions version has exactly the same cover on both the front and the back, which is an interesting choice for children who haven’t yet learnt which way a book opens.
  • 15 double page spreads and a final ‘comforting’ page facing the colophon on the back cover.


Phoebe and the Night Creatures Cover

Phoebe and the Night Creatures is a much more recent book (also an Australian band) published by Scholastic, and stars a single girl protagonist who is scared to get out of bed to visit the toilet.

Phoebe and the Night Creatures Double Spread

The mother in this story is a distant figure who appears at the beginning of the story and provokes Phoebe to become independent rather than as a comforting figure who appears at the end. Again, the scenery is a nightscape, but set entirely inside a house. Notice how a digital artist portrays night-time and intratext, and how the advent of computers has changed how we illustrate. Like Bears In The Night, Phoebe and the Night Creatures is a story that builds on itself, but in a different way. The climax comes later in the story, so the denouement is shorter. Scary things in picturebooks tend to fall into two categories:

  1. The thing wasn’t scary after all and
  2. The thing you were scared of was all in your imagination.

Or perhaps it’s best to think of picturebook scary things in terms of a continuum.

Continuum Of Scary In Picturebooks

There are many ways of illustrating night-time, and nightscapes are not necessarily less bright and cheery than daytime scenes. See: Illustrating The Dark.

Short Story Study: Accidents by Carol Shields

The more you read of [Shields’] stories the more you sense her delight in making connections, moving things on…If Shields had a single subject in these stories it was really solace, the strategies we employ to keep despair, or doubt, or even confusion at bay. Mostly that solace comes from language, whether it be literature or everyday wisdom…She dwells a lot on the singularity of couples, the flimsiness of the ties that bind, the minute-by-minute work of strengthening them.

The Guardian

What Happens in “Accidents”

A husband and wife take a vacation on the French coast, as they do every year. The wife is a translator and we find out near the end of the story that the husband narrator is an abridger. When a cup on the verandah of their accommodations seems to spontaneously explode, the husband moves close to reassure his wife, but she turns her head unexpectedly and her earrings leave a surprisingly deep gash across his cheek. He must spend a night in hospital. In the next bed lies a young man covered in bandages. The young man has been in a motorcycle accident and eventually dies, leaving the holidaying husband and wife to get on with their holidays. The husband manages to move on from this shock by telling his wife the man has ‘moved on’, without elaborating that he has actually died.

Setting of Accidents

This middle-class Canadian couple holiday on the French Coast. They stay in a comfortable vacation flat owned by the wife’s brother-in-law.

The French Coast

Although the husband grew up in French-speaking Montreal, there is a language barrier in which he realises he can’t pick certain speakers’ French irony. This creates creates an uncomfortable tension via the setting, for both the character and the reader; how much of this story itself is ‘true’? Likewise, how much can the reader trust this first person narrator?

The place this couple visits every year is called Aigues Mortes, which unfortunately includes the French word for ‘dead’ (part of the plot) but is also thematically significant because it is a fort: A symbol of the state of this couple’s marriage, the way things look safe on the outside but only because certain topics are not broached.

Aigues Mortes

Characters in Accidents

“Accidents” opens with a character sketch of the narrator’s wife:

At home my wife is modest. She dresses herself in the morning with amazing speed. There is a flashing of bath towel across the fast frame of her flesh, and then, voila, she is standing there in her pressed suit, muttering to herself and rummaging in her bag for subway tokens. She never eats breakfast at home.

This thumbnail character sketch is adept, and often used in novels as well as short stories, but on second reading — after I know the narrator is an abridger by profession — I wonder just how much has been abridged. Something of the ‘speed’ that abridgement offers is conveyed even in this sketch with the ‘flashing’ of bath town, and ‘fast frame of her flesh’ (whatever that means, exactly). The verb ‘rummaging’ includes the meaning of rapid motion. This is a modern-day working martyr, never eating breakfast at home — a modern-day fast, perhaps. The narrator later compares her to St Agatha, a Christian martyr. Is this how he thinks of his wife?

The narrator himself paints himself as a loving husband who is attentive to his wife’s needs. ‘I was anxious to reassure her,’ he says, which is how he ended up with a deep gash in his cheek. He appreciates that his wife removed her earrings after that. Yet there is something unsettling about a husband who sees his wife’s bare breasts and is put in mind of a rather disturbing Spanish Baroque painting of St Agatha (below). There is also something unsettling about a husband who sees his middle-aged wife as someone to be protected from the truth. Although the small untruth in this story is innocent, what else is going on in their wider lives outside this oasis of holiday? How might an abridgement of reality impact their relationship?


For a queasy reader such as myself, “Accidents” is an uncomfortable read. We are confronted with the flesh, cut and dismembered, as foreshadowing for the death which occurs at the end.

Francisco de Zurbaran St Agatha
Saint Agatha Bearing Her Breasts on a Plate, 1630-33 Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France Saint Agatha (c. 231 AD – c. 251 AD) was a Christian virgin martyr. Agatha was born at Catania (Sicily), and was put to death during the persecution of Decius (250-253), for her steadfast profession of faith. Amongst the tortures she underwent was the cutting off of her breasts.

There is truth and then there is the whole truth. The whole truth is not always necessary or pleasant.

Innocence and age are sometimes the same thing.

Tragedy exists alongside the minutiae of everyday life, and sometimes we are oblivious to the tragedy, distracted by the minutiae.


Although the narrator is an abridger, he includes certain details which at first glance don’t seem necessary to the flow of the story, signs that he is ‘abridging’ the whole story for our benefit. We are told not only that the cup explodes, but that it is ‘made of a sort of tinted glass in a pattern that can be found in any cheap chain store in France.’ This is the sort of detail that aims to lend verisimilitude, but also distracts us from whatever else might be going on. Did the cup really explode or did someone throw it? Why? The narrator is showing us with such details that his story is to be trusted.

Was it really the earring which gashed his face? Here in Australia, the court case of Gerard Baden-Clay comes uncomfortably to mind. Baden-Clay murdered his wife. He attempted to explain away a deep gash on his face as a self-inflicted shaving accident.

When the wife in this story goes shopping, she buys ‘a new pale cardigan with white flowers around the neck, very fresh and springlike.’ This is the cardigan of a ‘fresh-faced’, nubile young woman — a woman who needs to be protected from the truth. Even the holes in her earlobes are described using the child-associated word ‘dimple’, rather than say, ‘holes’ or ‘tiny gashes’ or any number of more grisly alternatives.

This image of the wife as young and fresh is followed by a paragraph about the newspaper, in which we are reminded that this is not actually a young woman at all: The last time she bought the Herald Tribune was in 1968, which at the time of the story makes her middle-aged.

All of these details tell the reader that our narrator sees his wife as a young person, and explains his withholding (‘abridging’) unpleasant information at the end. This naturally makes him an unreliable narrator, despite all his details.


Carol Shields Collected Stories Cover

Originally published in the anthology Various Miracles, Accidents also appears in the Collected Stories, published one year after Shields’ death in 2003.


Any suggestions?


Sometimes in stories — as in real life — the career/job/vocation of a person can influence the way they conduct their personal affairs. Think of some lesser-known/more mysterious jobs. How might the mindset required for such work impact a character’s life outside work? Can this become a story?

Have you ever omitted part of a story for the sake of others?

Does the uncomfortable abutting of triviality against death in this story remind you of any real life situation?

When we were alone in the world

Written by author Ulf Nilsson and illustrated by Eva Eriksson, When We Were Alone In The World is a 2009 Swedish picture book produced by two longtime experts in their field. I am reading the English language translation from Gecko Press.


Written in first person point of view, a young narrator (probably a grown up by this stage) recalls the day he learnt to tell the time at school. He was five years old at the time and is looking back with knowing hindsight. The narrator is therefore extradiegetic, because hindsight has turned him into a ‘different character’ (for storytelling purposes).

On second reading, we notice the importance of the very first paragraph:

One day at school I learned to tell the time. Nine o’clock, ten o’clock, one o’clock, two o’clock.

Thinking it is three o’clock, the young narrator leaves school two hours early, wondering why his father isn’t there to pick him up. He quickly jumps to the conclusion that his parents must have been killed by a truck, and launches into parental mode, collecting his little brother from playschool, promising that everything will go on as usual despite the obvious tragedy. They walk home and build a makeshift house. Their sad, imaginative game continues until the parents turn up, having been contacted by the playschool.


Translated beautifully in 2009 by Julia Marshall, something of the ‘foreignness’ has been retained in the English, but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is exactly. The European-ness is apparent on the cover, of course, as only the first letter of the title is capitalised. Some of the intratext has been translated, while in other cases the Swedish has been left in the illustration. This adds to the European feel of the story. For example, in one illustration, a recipe taped to the fridge has been translated into English but the packets of ingredients in the kitchen retain their Swedish names.

when we were all alone in the world illustration kitchen
When we were all alone in the world – Kitchen Scene

From Nilsson’s profile page at Bonnier Rights:

[Ulf Nilsson’s] books are filled with humour, warmth and imagination, often with a touch of irony (directed against himself). A theme always present is the victory of Good over Bad, and he always speaks in favour of children. Another theme is about acknowledgement and being seen, how to control your own fears by protecting someone smaller than yourself.

The illustrations consistently expand upon the words, creating dramatic irony for the reader. On the very first page we see the protagonist leaving school at ‘three o’clock’, but the illustrations show the other children still inside the classroom, pressed against the window. The close reader should be asking: Why aren’t all the other children outside, too? A close reader will notice he is carrying a paper clock but has left off the eleven and twelve. (The ten is even hidden by his hand.) The same paper clock is seen again on the second page, this time giving the reader a clearer view. In this way, small details are drip fed and slowly revealed over the course of the illustrations.

The imagination of the little boy will be familiar to all readers, the way the mind can jump to the worst possible conclusions when someone doesn’t turn up at the expected time. Unlike adults, who are able to employ reason, this story beautifully portrays the tendency for young children to both jump to the worst conclusion but at the same time turn their imagination over to a maudlin sort of game, funny and tragic in turn.

This funny/tragic juxtaposition is reproduced in the illustrations. While the words say that Mum and Dad got run over by a truck, the picture shows toddlers playing — some have spades in their mouths; the little brother is tipping sand over another child’s head. The maudlin humour is portrayed with phrases such as ‘We poor children’, and ‘It made me sad to think about them. My eyes filled with tears,’ and ‘The wind blew through the gaps in the rickety walls. It was such a shame about us.’ These are the words of a narrator who is self-aware of the humorous memory, without being heavy-handed about it. He is melodramatic and enjoys his melodramatic game on one level.

Young readers will definitely feel sad while empathising with the children. Adult readers will understand the humour from the start. This is how this masterful story achieves a dual audience. I really enjoy it as much as my six-year-old does.

Though trying his hardest to be a responsible grown-up, our five-year-old main character behaves as we might expect: The first thing he builds after returning home to an empty house is a ‘flagpole’. He finds a long stick and attaches a hanky. (Notice that there was a little red flag on top of the fort at playschool — surely this is where he got the idea — another hint at his naivety.) The whole house-building episode, in which the young narrator finds wooden fence posts and constructs a rickety shelter is surely a common form of play worldwide — playing house.

The humour of this scene reaches a new level when the young narrator goes next door to ask his neighbour for some eggs. He wants to make biscuits for the little brother, who normally eats a biscuit after playschool. The author introduces this scene with: ‘Then I remembered we could borrow things from our neighbour. Sometimes when you run out of something in the kitchen, you go over to a neighbour’s house and you borrow it.’ This is an important segue, because it tells the young reader that this is something that people do, but it also tells the adult reader that the young narrator has seen it done. Otherwise we might be wondering what provoked it. This sort of narration is worth a mention, I think, because it’s one of those techniques which is overlooked by the casual read — it is designed thus.

The list of requests for ingredients grows longer and longer, until the baffled neighbour has filled a bowl with every ingredient needed to make biscuits. The adult reader will identify with this neighbour, who is no doubt starting to wonder if the boys have been sent to him by the mother, as he may well have assumed! But he has been drawn so far into the boys’ game that he probably doesn’t know exactly how to stop.

Haven’t we all had the experience of interacting with a young child, wondering how much to believe, thinking there is probably some ‘truth’ to a story but not knowing exactly what? “The People Across The Canyon” by Margaret Millar is a short story for adults which delves into this exact problem.

In When We Were Alone In The World I like the choice of neighbour — an older man in a vest, who may or may not have much experience with very young children. (Matronly types may read the situation better!) We are not given any dialogue from the man — for all we know he questioned the boys, but the important thing is that he obliged. The boys mix everything together ‘using the antenna’. The choice to use ‘antenna’ instead of ‘stick’ is masterful — the children are now fully immersed in their own imaginative world. The stick is not a stick to them.

One thing I always love about young characters in picture books is when young characters draw on partially-understood adult experiences to recreate in their own imaginative play. ‘I didn’t know if we would be able to live in it when we grew up,’ the young narrator says, gazing upon the rickety, make-shift hut, ‘But we could build on eventually.’ I get the strong sense he has overheard adults talking about ‘building on’. This is particularly funny because the hut is so unstable, in which case the hut itself should be fixed, let alone ‘building on’. (The structure eventually falls over, at the very end, and we see a black bird sitting on top of it — a humorous symbol of death.) It is when the boys are in their parents’ arms that the hut falls over. Of course, it’s not just the hut which has fallen over; the entire imaginative role-playing game has collapsed. It’s time to return to the safety of reality.

end illustration
End Illustration – note the white space = ‘aloneness’

The young narrator’s partial understanding of the world is echoed again when he makes a TV out of a carton found on the rubbish heap (‘It is quite hard to make a TV.’) and ‘a remote control from a smaller box’. When the TV won’t turn on he concludes it’s because the remote is out of batteries. Yet he knows he needs an antenna, and makes one out of a stick. Again we have a juxtaposition between the five-year-old boy knowing all sorts of things about the world, but with knowledge that stops short of actually making sense of it. ‘Anyway there’s nothing good on TV these days,’ he says, looking at the screen. ‘I sounded just like Dad and I rubbed my chin just like he did.’ The masterful phrase here is ‘these days’. A five-year-old can’t possibly have enough experience of the world past and present to use a phrase like ‘these days’, which is why it’s so funny, and reminds me of my six-year-old who reprimanded me for washing her stuffed toy, since she had been cuddling it a lot and working on its smell ‘for ten years’.

When the young narrator pulls carrots out of the ground, noting that his little brother ‘didn’t think much of them’, the reader sees from the picture that the carrots themselves are tiny, with lots of shoots growing off them — inedible, in other words. Again, this is letting the illustrator shoulder some of the work.

How to make sure the reader understands the story? The reader must understand by the story’s end that the reason the young narrator went home early is because he failed to tell the time correctly. The opportunity for this explanation is taken when the parents piece together what has happened, with the mother showing the boy that there are twelve numbers on her watch, not ten. There’s something about this story which makes me think it may be based on a true event. True or not, it definitely achieves that feel.

The final sentence of the story is ‘My little brother burped.’ With a description of a mildly funny physiological event, the reader is reminded that we are firmly in reality now, that nothing is all that important: This afternoon was just a ‘burp/bump/blip’ in the larger tapestry of life.


The faces on the characters are simple, with dots for eyes and single strokes for mouths. This allows any young (white) reader to imagine that this highly stylised face might just as easily belong to him.

The drawings look to be rendered in coloured pencil, which usually lends a naive touch to picture books, since this is a medium commonly utilised by young readers themselves. The foreground shapes look to be outlined in ink (or strong, sharp pencil perhaps) which adds definition. Sometimes, pencil drawings can have a dream-like quality.

Adding to the naive quality, perspective is ever so slightly ‘off’ in some drawings — this gives a hand-drawn look in an era in which photorealism can be achieved reasonably easily using digital software.

The colour palette is warm — reds and browns dominate each page, and there is no obvious change of palette for the ‘scary’ pages or anything like that. The season looks to be autumn — the sky looks a little thunderous; the little boys wear winter hats. This is an autumn palette.

The end papers are a wallpaper of clocks, each showing a different time. “What?” my six-year-old said, when I asked her to read one of the clocks. “This isn’t a book on how to tell the time!” But here’s the thing: It can be a book about telling the time. The adult reader can point out that there are twelve hours in a day, not ten, for instance.


This is a squarish book in shape. Approximately half of the pages contain white space with the text as a separate asset; the other half are full page illustrations with any text overlaid. The text is a simple Times New Roman sort of font with a large ‘O’ to kick off the story.

Ulf Nilsson is a well-known Swedish children’s book author with over 100 publications under his belt.

Eva Eriksson has illustrated for a number of well-known Swedish series such as The Eddie Series (Eddieserien) written by Viveca Lärn about a boy in early elementary school age in Sweden. She also illustrated the Max Series by Barbro Lindgren, the Mimmi series and a series about a wild baby.


By the very same creators, All the dear little animals is another book about death and loss incorporated into childhood play. This one is just as good as When we were alone in the world. This book is published both by Gecko Press (New Zealand) and Hawthorne Press (UK). There is a strong Christian undertone to this story. Apparently Ulf Nilsson takes a strong interest in Christianity and is makes a study of it without being Christian himself, which makes for an interesting juxtaposition. Gecko Press specialises in translating foreign picturebooks into English.

All the dear little animals

For a more on these two picturebooks, see a post at Playing By The Book.

There is something endearing about stories in which siblings do something really nice for each other. In When we were all alone in the world, the older brother vows to look after his younger brother. The Charlie and Lola series is good on the sibling-harmony front, as well as the classic Dogger written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes, in which a big sister does something really kind for her little brother after he loses his pet dog.

The Problem Novel: A constructed, artificial society?

“The Problem Novel” is a dismissive term for a realistic young adult story which focuses solely on the worst aspects of life: murder, eating disorder, discrimination, imprisonment, rape, drug abuse and similar.

The following draws heavily from Lecture 03 of Fiction For Young Adults, delivered by Prof David Beagley at La Trobe University. Lectures are available on iTunes U.

A Brief History Of The Problem Novel

Little Women is sometimes regarded as the first teen novel. A group of girls try to live their lives as normal. But it’s the middle of the American civil war. Their father is away and they are desperate for his return.

In this vain we have light mysteries such as those by Enid Blyton, The Three Investigators, Nancy Drew and so on. Those stories are cosy. The children return to their normal lives after they have neatly solved the mystery at hand.

The problem novel developed after this. Instead of living a normal, everyday life, the unusual, the danger, the disruption IS the normal situation. Ironically (given that these are called ‘problem novels’, rather than solving the problem of poverty or whatever the dramatic element is, the characters must simply learn to cope with their situation and survive through it. The protagonist is the victim. In other stories for children, the protagonist tends to help the victim.

The mid 1960s marked a guide change in the world as well as in children’s literature. The 1970s and 1980s gave rise to problem novels, in which the world flowed in to fiction. These are about death, loss and trauma, which test a child’s ability to cope. They focus on rites of passage.

The (Modern) Problem Novel can probably be traced to something like My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel in 1969, which is about teenage pregnancy. (The title comes from the health counsellor who tells the girls that to derail a boy from sex is to encourage him to eat a hamburger instead.) The subgenre of problem novels about pregnancy are called ‘Preggers Novels’. We also have A Girl Like Me by Jeannette Eyerly, published 1966, or Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones by AnnHead, published 1967. The formula for a preggers novel:

  • Worry. Am I pregnant? Oh no, I might be pregnant!
  • Discovery. Oh my god. I’m actually pregnant.
  • Revelation. Young woman tells her boyfriend/parents.
  • What do I do now? There are three alternatives: abortion, keep the baby, adoption.

The authors of these 1960s preggers novels approved the last option. It’s interesting, therefore, that a liberal minded writer like Diablo Cody followed the 1960s preggers novel script when she wrote Juno, which screened in 2007. That said, Juno is far more progressive in its attitudes. That’s because the Preggers Novel continued to evolve throughout the 1990s. The books themselves were better written and eventually we even started to see some preggers novels written from the point of view of the young fathers, e.g. The First Part Last by Angela Johnson, 2003.

The 1976 book Open The Doors was the first novel about sex which was not aimed at an adult audience. This book was difficult to get hold of (either because librarians didn’t want it on the shelves or because it was always on loan).

I Came Back To Show You I Could Fly (1990) deals with another unmarried teenage pregnancy but in this case the girl is a drug addict as well.

At the moment in YA fiction some storylines are reminiscent of the Problem Novel, but without quite the same intensity. There are currently many books which deal with:

  • sexual abuse
  • physical abuse
  • school gun massacres, prompted by the Columbine High School shooting
  • alienation in general
  • overturning bullies

Sleeping Dogs by Sonja Harnett, Tiff and the Trout… in all of these books the key character is the victim.

This is what Sheila Egoff was referring to in 1980 when she wrote her article The Problem Novel.

Criticism Of The Problem Novel

Egoff is not a fan of this style of story. In her essay she has a go at the very formulaic way these novels have become a construction industry, in a way. She identified several key elements in this type of YA book. She argues that:

  • These stories are not well written, pumped out because they are sensational.
  • Most feature a shocking ‘rite of passage’ which changes the character from a carefree child to a careworn adult. There is some specific thing which causes a change.
  • Therefore, these books focus on externals, and how things look to others – oh dear, I’ve been thrown out of society. S.E. Hinton’s book The Outsiders: ‘’Oh dear, there’s been a stabbing! I must run away!”
  • The protagonist is laden with grievances and anxieties, focusing on the alienation from the adult world, to which he or she is usually very hostile. The narrative is almost always in the first person, and its confessional tone is rigorously self-centred.
  • This focuses on a childlike concern about ‘me’. These are all very egocentric books.
  • The biggest problem in all of these novels are adults, who rarely if ever offer a loving, constructive solution.
  • These books have to almost outdo each other by becoming more and more sensational.
  • Writing style: Trite, stereotypical, patronising, presuming the readership cannot understand the real problems, wanting only the sensational aspects of the real problem.

To be clear, Egoff does not have a problem with such problems being dealt with. There are two quite separate issues we need to consider when evaluating a YA novel with grim subject matter:

  1. Are the topics appropriate for the readership of the books?
  2. Are the books actually well-written?

Other authors and critics have weighed in on The Problem Novel. Below are some quotes:

There is a plethora of very fine children’s books that mainly portray the writers’ disappointments, phobias and depressions, tales of punishment, injustice and loneliness. But one thing he always owes his readers is a happy ending, some kind of happy ending. Or a way left open for the child to spin the tale further.

– Tove Jansson

I remember thinking how refreshing it would be to read a book about young people who enjoyed life, did well at school, had happy relations with their parents, and neither became nor made anybody pregnant. But fictionally, I suppose, that would be a dull life.

– John Rowe Townsend

I agree that children need to be — and usually want very much to be — taught right from wrong. But I believe that realistic fiction for children is one of the very hardest media in which to do it … You get ‘problem books’. The problem of drugs, of divorce, of race prejudice … and so on — as if evil were a problem, something that can be solved, that has an answer, like a problem in fifth grad arithmetic. If you want the answer, you just look at the back of the book. That is escapism, that posing evil as a ‘problem’…

But what, then, is the naturalistic writer for children to do? Can he present the child with evil as an insoluble problem … To give the child a picture of … gas chambers … or famines or the cruelties of a psychotic patient, and say, ‘Well, baby, this is how it is, what are you going to make of it’ — that is surely unethical. If you suggest that there is a ‘solution’ to these monstrous facts, you are lying to the child. If you insist that there isn’t, you are overwhelming him with a load he’s not strong enough yet to carry.

– Ursula Le Guin

Pretending that there are no choices to be made — reading only books, for example, which are cheery and safe and nice — is a prescription for disaster for the young. Submitting to censorship is to enter [a] a seductive world … where there are no bad words and no bad deeds. But it is also the world where choice has been taken away and reality distorted. And that is the most dangerous world of all.

– Lois Lowry, when The Giver caused controversy

Although there is still much hand-writing about Problem Novels, the trend is largely over. You know what put an end to it? They got more and more sensational until Daniel Pinkwater couldn’t resist writing a parody called Young Adult Novel in 1982. In fact, the era of The Problem Novel only lasted about a decade, mostly in the 1970s. The main body of YA literature continued to grow during and after this time in scope, material and diversity of topic.

Examples Of Problem Novels

Martin Waddell (Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?) also wrote The Beat Of The Drum, set in Belfast at the height of the troubles. The protagonist is faced with the problem of whether he should become the leader of the annual parade after someone is injured. Will I, or won’t I? Will I take sides in blame? Will I just leave? This is quite a confronting book, first written under the name of Katherine Sefton. There is some suggestion that he needed to do that because he’s a Northern Irishman himself, and might have been seen to be taking sides.

Once, Then and Now – three stories following a boy Felix through the second world war and the Holocaust.

Looking for X by Deborah Ellis is largely set in a single night where a girl is desperately trying to find an old homeless woman who can help her family, because her younger siblings are autistic. The family is trying to stay together.

Pervana is set in Afghanistan. Pervana is the name of a girl, whose father goes missing. This means her mother can’t leave the house, so Pervana has to dress as a boy. There are two sequels.

The Heaven Shop by Deborah Ellis

Tiff and the Trout is an interesting study of family dynamics dealing with divorce. Tiff has to decide between her mother and her father. The father is a quiet teacher, the mother is an active social figure who wants The Gold Coast. Dad wants the mountains. Set in a small town a bit like Mount Beauty of Victoria. The mountains and the sea symbolise the two extremes in the family.

Helicopter Man by Elizabeth Fenchem won the younger reader’s book of the year award, unusual because it deals with an adult theme of schizophrenia.

Dear Miffy some years ago shocked John Marsden’s readership when it first came out. This time, unlike previous ones, it’s not a teenage girl dealing with problems but a boy, and has sex, drugs, strong language.


Academic Reading

Sheila Egoff’s set of books called Only Connect which she edited over several decades. Rather than just being an updating of the previous editions each one is really a completely new text (which should probably have different names). See The Problem Novel. This is quite hard to get now.

Pam Harvey, Australian Journal of Teacher Education 2010, Bibliotherapy used by welfare teams in secondary colleges is a very different way of looking at the role these problem novels play for the readers. Who constructs the meaning? The author, fixed in the text, or is it totally the interpretation of the reader?

Hawks looks at Sonja Hartnett’s The Midnight Zoo, looking at the environment and the writing style.

Maureen Nighman from South Australia looks at the selection of texts by adult mediators (parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers) from ACCESS Realism in young people’s reading: the line between selection and censorship. At what point can kids choose for themselves?

Pattee, A. S. (2004). Disturbing the peace: The function of young adult literature and the case of Catherine Atkins’ When Jeff comes home Children’s Literature in Education, 35 , 241–255. Pattee looks at a novel which came out about 1999 called When Jeff Comes Home by Catherine Atkins, a very confronting story. Pattee highlights the criteria by which so many of these adult mediators make these choices, about what is or is not appropriate for child readers.

What’s Going On inside of Me? Emergent Female Sexuality and Identity Formation in Young Adult Literature by Evelyn Baldwin talks about sexual assault.


Realism Is Requisite

(See the Realism lecture from Genres in Children’s Literature.)

The characters in a so-called Problem Novel are people you could meet in real life, set in a place you might visit (even if the place isn’t actually real). There are no magic or supernatural elements. These settings will quite often directly influence the plot. The plot is often driven by the situation of those characters – how the character approaches, faces and makes choices. The key characters develop as a result of those choices.

Even stories set in other worlds, of fantasy, must begin with the probable, then later moves into something disrupting that. Even a movie like Shrek starts with the mundane, everyday world before moving into fantasy/adventure.


What is the point of The Problem Novel?

YA Violence and Abuse Problems – a Goodreads List

Best Teen Books About Real Problems – a Goodreads List

Sheila Egoff would argue that most Problem Novels are simply trying to achieve sensationalism as a marketing tool.

Patty’s article about When Jeff Comes Home (Disturbing the peace…) makes a similar argument to that of Egoff. It’s not only a stereotype of the story but of the YA as well. A template defines the reader as this standard teenager.

When Jeff Comes Home is told in the first person (surprise, surprise!) about a 16-year-old boy who has been held prisoner after being kidnapped at a bus station by a sexual sadist, kept as a sex toy for three years. This is not an uncommon story – there have been several cases of it, particularly in Europe over the past few years. The American Library Association immediately put it on a best book list, which raised a lot of hackles.

Harvey argues that these stories give young readers coming from an unfamiliar environment strategies to understand and deal with all these nasty things.

Patti quotes Michael Cart – The Problem Novel is an exercise in iconoclasm, taboo busting, shibboleth shattering. (Iconoclasm refers to the tackling of the boundaries. A shibboleth is a password at the boundary.) The problem is, in order to be realist, there is the implication that these taboo topics are normal – that it is normal to be kidnapped, to become pregnant while very young, to be abused.

Does Problem Literature create the stereotype, or does it reflect the reality? As each book pushes a boundary, the next ones have to go further. Where are the boundaries and how do we define them?



Bibliotherapy is used by welfare teams in secondary colleges in Australia. ‘We read to know that we are not alone’ is from C.S. Lewis. The aim of bibliotherapy is to elicit change in the attitude or behaviour of the reader. The prescribed book is deliberately aiming to change the reader in a cognitive way, to the reader’s benefit. There are no bones made about its intention. The aim is for the reader to have a physical/emotional reaction to something fictional. When it becomes too confronting simply shut the book, returning to it when you’re ready. Literature is thought to serve a purpose – it implies that there is somebody who knows better than you do and that they have the right and the tools to make that change that needs to be made. So what is the difference between bibliotherapy and propaganda?

This is a contentious issue, because it rests upon a premise that this time of life is a particularly dangerous and destructive period.

The Picturebooks Of Chris Van Allsburg

Chris Van Allsburg is an American writer and illustrator. You’ve probably heard of Jumanji and The Polar Express, which have been adapted for film. Have you read the others?

You’ll hear two main things in connection to the work of this author/illustrator:

  1. His picture books are surreal.
  2. His picture books are postmodern.


“The Stranger” is a page turner of a picture book which asks more questions than it answers, and reminds me of the Australian picture book written and illustrated by Shaun Tan in which an ‘exchange student’ arrives, strange things happen, and then he departs. This is a story with a similar plot, asking different questions.

The drama begins on the very first page when a little girl’s father runs over a man on the road. At first he thinks he’s hit a deer, then he is worried he’s killed a man, but the man seems to have little wrong with him other than being struck by amnesia and rendered speechless.

It soon becomes apparent to the reader that there are supernatural elements in this story: The doctor’s thermometer is ‘broken’ (not registering life heat at all); the visitor has a way with rabbits, and is highly interested in the flock of birds flying across the sky.

When the stranger leaves, however, the reader is not told why and we never find out if this is a dead man who seems alive, if he has magical powers which stop the trees from turning orange, where he came from or where he is going. There are just enough strange things in the illustrations to really make the reader work hard. For one thing, the stranger looks very much like the little girl’s father. They wear similar clothes. This may partly be because the stranger has borrowed the father’s clothes, but even their face and hair is the same. The stranger is a lot happier than the father, dancing and singing and taking time to sit with her on the grass looking at the sky. Perhaps this is a little girl imagining what her father could be like (but isn’t), or perhaps this farmer father has had a very good year crops wise, due to the weather (part of the story), and the little girl has constructed her own story about the newly exuberant father who suddenly seems to be in a wonderful humour.

The illustrations are coloured pencil, with a variety of sketching techniques: the trees look pointillist, and the sky is drawn with long, continuous lines. The colour overlaid upon colour invite the eye to linger. The autumn colours of the surrounding farmlands are an important part of the plot and are rendered beautifully.

Not only is colour striking in this book; page design is beautiful too.

We first meet the little girl looking through the door from her position sitting at the bottom of the stairs. This puts the young reader in the little girl’s position, looking through a doorway, not quite knowing what’s going on, and identifying first and foremost not with the adults but with the young character.

After the visitor has departed, we see a birds’-eye-view of the father, mother and girl as they stand on their front lawn, wondering where he has gone. This point of view suggests that the visitor has flown upwards, into the sky and therefore into some supernatural world, and the viewer now sees the family from his perspective. As the story draws to a close, so too, do the family get smaller and further away.

This is a wonderful story and one of my favourites, designed especially for readers who are happy with ambiguity in picture books.


The two child protagonists are a little older than most characters in picture books. A boy and girl walk home from school together before each going to their own houses to complete a geography assignment. Finding his parents out, Ben falls asleep in a chair and dreams his house has turned into a boat in a giant sea. The words end and the black and white linocut illustrations continue to tell the story, as Ben floats past various famous world landmarks. He is woken abruptly by his friend Margaret who has come to ask him to join her in a game of baseball. This is where the words begin again. She tells him that she has had an amazing dream and it turns out they’ve had the same dream.

Van Allsburg makes use of various children’s storytelling techniques in this one: Absent adults (there’s a note in the illustration to say the mother has gone shopping), dreaming to enter a strange world in which anything can happen, and an ending which suggests the story wasn’t just a dream; it was something more and some unnamed magic must have been involved.

This story would be an excellent way to introduce children to some famous landmarks.


This is a collection of pictures which do not form a sequential narrative in their own right, each one telling its own story. This would be a wonderful way to inspire a class of students who are about to embark on a creative writing exercise.


The Polar Express Book Cover

The Polar Express was adapted for film.

As an adult viewer I find the film adaptation a little drawn out in an attempt to create something highly commercial out of a much-loved children’s book, but I feel this would have been better as a short film of about 20 minutes, like the adaptation of Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo.

The reason the book works so well is because it manages the reader’s emotions so well. We feel the excitement of the boy as the Polar Express turns up at his house. We feel his pride when he is the one picked to receive the first gift of the year. We especially feel his disappointment when he learns that he has lost the bell through the hole in his pocket. This disappointment is conveyed perfectly by the boy who hangs his head and the concerned and consoling children who surround him on the train.

It’s at this point in the story we wonder if this is all a dream. But Van Allsburg likes to play with the reader in this sense. The next morning there is a bell waiting for him under the tree, with a note from Santa to fix the hole in his pants. The parents think the bell is broken because it doesn’t make a sound, but the children think it makes the most beautiful sound in the world. This part of the plot seems especially ingenious, playing on natural human hearing loss, in which only people under 20 can hear the highest pitches, with our hearing range gradually narrowing with age. In this case, the message is that imagination gradually narrows with age, and the final page is a reminder that we can keep our minds open if we try hard enough.


“The Wreck Of The Zephyr” is framed by a young boy speaking to an old man on the beach, next to the wreck of a small boat. The boy wonders how it came to be there. The old man spins a fantastic story about a boy who flew it above the clouds before crashing down and breaking a bone.

A slightly sophisticated reader should infer that the old man telling the story was the boy, though adult readers may infer that this old man’s gone a bit loco or is making up a story for a naive younger audience.