Paul Jennings has been an influential children’s author in Australia and New Zealand since the 1980s. Continue reading “How To Write Like Paul Jennings”
You may not believe in ghost stories. I don’t either. But once you understand how ghost stories work, you’ll understand how tools of persuasion are used in other realms. Studying the ghost story is a fun way to study the techniques of persuasion.
AUDIO EXAMPLE OF A SCARY TALL TALE
First, listen to a master. This bloke (‘Bongo’) rang into an Australian radio station cracking on his story is true. If it’s true, I’ll eat every single one of my hats. Mind you, the guys at Mysterious Universe believe it. Strange things happen in The Outback.
What do you think?
Go to episode 404 of Mysterious Universe and, unless you want to hear all about sleep paralysis and trolls sitting on chests (which is also fascinating), you can skip straight to Bongo’s yarn at 51:25.
No doubt about it, Bongo is a master of the form. I bet he’s been telling this very yarn for years and years (since September of ’78). If you go to the Australian Outback you’ll meet a number of great storytellers just like Bongo; my in-laws love their camping holidays and they’ll tell you exactly where to find these old guys – out near Lightning Ridge and so on. There’s nothing much else to do out there after dark, you see, with no internet connection and no nothing. Spinning yarns while sounding authentic is a valued skill, like playing the banjo or the harmonica… or the Bongos, even. Continue reading “Tall Tale Techniques For The Scarily Inclined”
At around the same time Annie Proulx published “The Blood Bay”, an episode of Six Feet Under saw Claire in big trouble for stealing a severed foot from her family’s funeral business and taking it with her to school. That episode, like this story, was darkly funny and made use of someone’s severed foot.
It was inevitable that a TV series called something about feet would have to at one point make use of an actual foot. Dark comedy involving the loss of someone’s severed foot was used more recently in episode seven of season two of Animal Kingdom. (“Dig”)
While this is icky, North Americans haven’t been so squeamish about carrying around rabbits’ feet for good luck. Larry McMurtry writes of that practice in his cowboy novels. (Only the left hind foot is lucky.)
Severed human hands have a stronger history in folklore than severed feet. Characters with severed hands tend to be either victims, or monster-like villains. For more on that see Severed Hands as Symbols of Humanity in Legend and Popular Narrative by Scott White. The severed, walking hand also makes for a memorable horror scene.
STORY WORLD OF “THE BLOOD BAY”
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE WAY BACK HOME
WEAKNESS IN THE WAY BACK HOME
“Once there was a boy.”
This is a generic child and he doesn’t require a psychological/moral weakness. He’s a stand-in character for the reader.
He is perhaps a little too rash. (He should have checked the plane had petrol, at least!)
DESIRE IN THE WAY BACK HOME
He wants to fly the aeroplane that he finds in his cupboard one day when putting things away.
OPPONENT IN THE WAY BACK HOME
Nature’s against him — this plane he found has run out of petrol and now he’s stuck on the moon.
PLAN IN THE WAY BACK HOME
When the alien happens to turn up they make a plan together.
The reader only sees them gesture to each other. We don’t know how they’re going to get off the moon.
BATTLE IN THE WAY BACK HOME
The boy’s main battle is with himself. Back on Earth, he gets waylaid by the TV. But eventually he realises what he’s supposed to be doing. The battle is symbolised by the very high mountain he has to climb in order to hoist himself back up to the moon.
SELF-REVELATION IN THE WAY BACK HOME
After fixing the alien’s flying saucer and filling his own plane with petrol he learns that he can be self-sufficient.
But the other part of the plot is about the kindness of strangers. The boy learns that strangers in a pickle can help each other out.
NEW EQUILIBRIUM IN THE WAY BACK HOME
He goes back home. The alien goes the opposite direction, also back home. A lot of picture books have a circular ending, especially carnivalesque ones, in which we get the idea this kind of thing is going to happen all over again, only with a minor modification. But Oliver Jeffers doesn’t tend to do that — his work has a melancholic finality to it. It’s bittersweet that this boy will never see the alien again, and Jeffers’ depiction of the boy saying goodbye is perfect — looking at the ground and drawing into the moondust with his toe.
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?
Picturebook art has been influenced by the age of photography, and this may be a recreation of a page of old-fashioned photographs you might find in an album — photos which have been taken on the day of some important event.
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.