Have you ever had something living in your walls or in your roof space, or cellar?
Apparently the story was inspired by his own daughter, who heard rats in the walls at night. (So do we — they’re actually mice…) Hearing rodents in the walls isn’t all that uncommon. And rodents are most active at night. It really is quite disturbing to hear two a.m. scrabbling right behind your head: You’re not quite sure they’re rodents, they’re so close to you, yet you can’t see them. And it’s not easy to do much about them, either. You have to wait for them to come out and eat the bait you’ve placed elsewhere.
Some of the oldest tales about miniature creatures living in oversized land come from fairytales: Thumbelina and Tom Thumb are the first that come to mind.
My method was mostly metaphorical: what if Thumbelina wasn’t actually small, she just felt small?
— Emma Donoghue, explaining how when rewriting fairytales she took tales from the oral tradition and simply considered them in metaphorical terms.
A useful term here is ‘homunculus‘, which means a very small person. The plural is homunculi. This was originally a medical term which comes from alchemy. By the nineteenth century we knew a bit more about how humans come about, so now the homunculus was a fictional character.
Hills and valleys, cliffs, mountains — altitude in story is highly symbolic. When creating a story, remember to vary the altitude as much as you’d vary any other setting.
HILLS AND VALLEYS
A cottage atop a hill can symbolise extreme happiness.
From the porch of her new house Miss Rumphius watched the sun come up; she watched it cross the heavens and sparkle on the water; and she saw it set in glory in the evening. She started a little garden among the rocks that surrounded her house, and she planted flower seeds in the stony ground. Miss Rumphius was almost perfectly happy. “But there is still one more thing I have to do,” she said. “I have to do something to make the world more beautiful.” But what? “The world already is pretty nice,” she thought, looking out over the ocean.
— Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Wolf Hollow is an interesting storyworld because it is an apparent utopia. ‘Hollow’ is a poetic sounding name (as the creators of Stars Hollow surely recognise). While dips in the landscape generally indicate evil (basements are scary, valleys attract mysterious fog and harbour secrets), ‘hollows’ are metaphorically similar to islands, sheltered from the evils of the outside world. That’s why ‘Hollow’ is such a great choice for this book — it is in many ways a utopian setting (sheltered from the World War going on elsewhere) but also a terrible place, with its inhabitants dangerously bigoted.
Hills and valleys have a logic of their own. Why did Jack and Jill go up the hill? Sure, sure, a pail of water, probably orders from a parent. But wasn’t the real reason so Jack could break his crown and Jill come tumbling after That’s what it usually is in literature. Who’s up and who’s down? Just what do up and down mean?
First, think about what there is down low or up high. Low: swamps, crowds, fog, darkness, fields, heat, unpleasantness, people, life, death.High: snow, ice, purity, thin air, clear views, isolation, life, death. Some of these, you will notice, appear on both lists, and you can make either environment work for you.
— Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor
In storybook illustrations, it’s very common to find a house on a hill. A house on a hill is a safe house — from here you won’t be susceptible to flooding, and you can see enemies approaching. A house on a hill might also be close to the sea, but protected from it by the slight altitude.
Mountains are somewhat cliched as ‘the land of greatness’ in stories but they are still used a whole heap and the symbolism still works.
[The mountain] is where the strong go to prove themselves—usually through seclusion, meditation, a lack of comfort, and direct confrontation with nature in the extreme. The mountaintop is the world of the natural philosopher, the great thinker who must understand the forces of nature so he can live with them and sometimes control them.
Structurally, the mountain, the high place, is most associated with the reveal.
In the 1997 film Contact, for instance, the Jody Foster character sits on a high piece of land when she has her self-revelations.
Revelations in stories are moments of discovery, and they are the keys to turning the plot and kicking it to a “higher,” more intense level. Again, the mountain setting makes a one-to-one connection between space and person, in this case, height and insight.
This one-to-one connection of space to person is found in the negative expression of the mountain as well. It is often depicted as the site of hierarchy, privilege, and tyranny, typically of an aristocrat who lords it over the common people down below.
The mountain is usually set in opposition to the plain. The mountain and the plain are the only two major natural settings that visually stand in contrast to one another, so storytellers often use the comparative method to highlight the essential and opposing qualities of each.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
The Moses story (the ur-mountain-story in the Christian world)
The association between cliffs and peril is so strong that occasionally cliffs can be misused in drama, for instance in The River Wild.
And what about the sequences in which Strathairn cuts crosscountry, climbing mountains, fording rivers, walking faster than the river flows? Impossible, but he does it. At one point, in a scene so ludicrous I wanted to laugh aloud, he even starts a fire to send smoke signals to his wife. At another point, he clings to the side of a cliff, while we ask ourselves what earthly reason he had for climbing it. And he works wonders with his handy Swiss Army knife.
In the illustration from Beauty and the Beast below, the family has lost its fortune at sea and has had to move to a small cottage and live as peasants. They live precariously in this community, not fully accepted (except for Beauty, of course, whose beauty privilege makes up for a lot).
Cliffs are also high in altitude but they have a quite different symbolism from mountains. Cliffs are precarious.
See the Hayao Miyazaki film Ponyo for an excellent example of cliff symbolism, in which the precarious cliff is a symbol for the precarious balance of nature.
Fire and cliffs make for a wonderfully camp symbolic admixture in this Three Investigators mystery story.
For a short story collection which makes full use of altitude, set in the vertiginous landscape of Wyoming, see one of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming collections (e.g. Close Range). Proulx makes use of mixed topography and everything you find in that:
high desert landscapes
buttes (an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top (similar to but narrower than a mesa)
eroded outcroppings (known in North America as hoodoos)
When reading Proulx’s stories, one of the most important concepts to grasp is her ‘geographical determinism.’ This refers to the way in which the landscape has the upper hand in a game against the insignificant humans who live there, but temporarily. We know the characters are going to have tragic endings; we read the stories to find out how much of a fight they put up, and to know the exact nature of their downfall.
Overlapping shadows tend to suggest the power of the objects that cast them over the objects they overlap.
– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
Nodelman offers as example Errol Le Cain’s clever use of shadow in Beauty And The Beast. In that book, the Beast has an unusually shaped shadow which overlaps the father’s foot. This tells the reader that the father is afraid of the Beast.
That shadows can cause overlap effects suggests the importance of light sources for creating relative weight and focus. Not all pictures imply a source either inside or outside the picture for the light that illuminates the scene–books like Rosie’s Walk deliberately avoid any hint of darkness, and everything is bathed in the same even, cheerful light. But pictures that do imply a light source focus our attention on the objects in the light–and, if it is depicted in the picture, the light source itself.
– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
Other illustrators include highly idiosyncratic shadow in their illustrations. Below is an example from Wolves In The Walls.
The verso image
The light above the door highlights the text without even seeming to. The light coming from the TV should really be casting a different sort of shadow from the boy lying on the floor (the shadow should be cast behind him rather than in front) and the girl, who is emotionally distant from this otherwise cosy scene, casts no shadow whatsoever. The colours are warm and this could easily be a cosy living room scene, but the shadows at the edge of this room combine with the off-kilter perspective to create an uneasy atmosphere.
The light implied by pictures may come from sources both inside and outside the pictures. Like the bright lamps often seen in Nijinsky, an actual light source depicted in a picture draws attention both to itself and to what it casts light on. For example, each of the lamps in the scene of a theoretically happy family evening nevertheless lights only one of the Nijinsky children, and so implies their isolation from one another. The light that shines onto Brian’s face from an unseen but implied sun as he peers through a window in The Salamander Room emphasizes the way in which the window itself, its borders jutting out from the rest of the picture like a jet taking off, offers an opening into the bright and free world outside. An implied light from the rear of a picture places characters in front of it in shadow, and Human takes advantage of this to place the evil brothers in shadow throughoutThe Water of Life; but when the good brother first meets the dwarf, the light comes from the front and illuminates his face. Viewers expect light to fall from above, and therefore variations from this convention, such as those Van Allsburg uses in The Polar Express and M.P. Robertson uses in The Egg, create an atmosphere of strange mystery.
– The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Nodelman and Reimer
The recto image
Again, heavy use is made of shadow, though we can’t see — or even guess — at any light source. The light seems to be coming out of the opaque wall. The reader senses that there’s something inside the wall (aided, of course, by the huge clue in the title.) The light sources throughout this book are unknown and illogical, but also foreshadow the story. The reader doesn’t know what’s about to happen but we feel appropriately uneasy.
Gyorgy Kepes [Hungarian artist and art theorist] suggests that we expect light to fall from above, so “every shift from this standard light condition is registered and interpreted by us as an exaggeration of spatial dimensions”.
– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
InIn The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, Van Allsburg switches the light source on each page.
What is occlusion anyway, when we’re talking about art, and not dentistry or meteorology?
Occlusion is rarely discussed as a major issue in art, yet it could be regarded as the major issue in depicting a three-dimensional scene on a picture plane. By occlusion is meant that in any view of a scene some surfaces are hidden in part by nearer surfaces.
First, what is a metonym? A metonym is a part that stands in for the whole.
Suit for business executive
The turf for horse racing
Canberra for Australian politics
The breast for motherhood
In picture book illustrations, sometimes we see an image of a part and this, too, is meant to stand in for the whole.
A choice is set up between a depiction of a character that is complete (realised by inclusion of the head, which is so important for recognition) and a depiction that is metonymic (realised by only a body part, silhouette or shadow.)
— Reading Visual Narratives by Painter, Martin & Unsworth
When does an illustrator show the whole thing and when to show only a part? The inclusion of a head with facial expression imparts more meaning, of course, than if you’re only showing a shadow. This choice is all to do with focalisation: What does the illustrator tell the reader to look at? But what else must we notice about the picture? Inclusion of someone’s shadow shows that although that character was there before, now they have gone. This cuts out the need for an interstitial image showing the character actually leaving.
Similarly, a verbal description of a character as an attractive young Australian girl with a healthy tan commits more meaning than one describing her simply as a girl.
— Reading Visual Narratives by Painter, Martin & Unsworth
SHADOWS AS MORPHED REFLECTIONS
A trick sometimes utilised in picture books is seen in the two images below, in which the shadow cast differs from the person/object casting the shadow. It’s generally used for ominous effect, but could also be comical. I use it in our picture book app Midnight Feast to show how the main character is angry at being sent back to bed.
Ah, composition. How things are arranged on the page… or on the screen. I have written before about how picture books have a lot in common with film, and that study of one equals study of the other.
Knowing how to manipulate an audience is far more important than knowing how to manipulate the technology of film.
— Howard Suber, The Power of Film
Here is a useful YouTube video from Channel Criswell which introduces the topic of Composition in Storytelling. While the examples in the video are all from film, as I watch I’m thinking of the page composition of my favourite picture books.
Lewis Bond explains that composition in good films achieves two things:
It draws your attention to the right thing.
There is a subtext. e.g. Which character has control of the scene? How are they feeling? How have they changed? What are they about to do?
Power And Control
Composition is really good at depicting the power dynamics between characters. In fact, that is probably what it is best at. You may know this already. (Low angle means strong, high angle means weak etc.)
But control can be broken down further into two separate meanings:
ARTIFICIAL CONTROL: The control of the aesthetics and where we should be looking. (What’s listed below: geometry, framing etc.)
PRIMAL CONTROL: What subject holds more weight in the narrative at that moment in time? This could show the power dynamic between characters or even between character and setting. Nothing shows this more than size and scale in an image.
Control can also be conveyed by placing the subject right in the centre of the frame, though it can also mean loneliness and difference, as below.
This is an aspect of composition which is perhaps talked about even more in picturebooks than it is in film. What is the purpose of negative space?
It is often used to show the vast expanse of the area.
On a psychological level, negative space creates apprehension, as we expect something to take place in the void we see.
In characterisation, negative space can be used to show that characters have no hope. Or perhaps it signifies the great distances characters must go before reaching their goals.
While ‘negative space’ is a word from art world, when talking about picturebooks we might say that a scene has been ‘decontextualised’. This is when we see, for example, a child putting on a jumper, but without the bedroom scene. There are a number of reasons for decontextualising a scene in a picture book:
This technique deliberately removes ‘ambience’
And draws attention to the action rather than inviting the reader to linger on the picture (manipulating the pace of the story)
Where words accompany the scenes the words feel more integrated with the illustration when the illustration is decontextualised, probably because there’s no clear demarcation between the edge of the picture and the start of the words.
When an illustration extends right to the edge of the page it is called an ‘unbound’ image.
This is an unnecessary term when it comes to film, since almost all frames in a film extend to the edge of the border. Many picture books are composed entirely of unbound images. In these stories the imaginative world becomes the focus of the story throughout. If the illustrator is creating an otherworld or a work of magical realism or something that is not entirely familiar to readers (as are bathrooms/kitchens/bedrooms etc.) then you’ll likely find mostly or entirely unbound images.
It’s also possible to have both unbound and decontextualised images i.e. unbound images can still have a heap of white space. I Went Walking is made entirely of this kind of image.
But in a large number of picture books you’ll find a mixture of bound and unbound images. When to make use of which?
Reasons to use unbound images:
The reader is invited into the story world at selected moments
The effect is greater when preceded by a sequence of bound images
The removal of edges brings the reader into a room/forest/scene
Bound images are those which are set within a page margin or border, demarcate the story world as more distinctly separated from the reader’s world than unbound ones and may also serve to ‘contain’ or confine the character. In general, bound images separate the reader from the semiotic world of the story. Where there is both a frame and a margin, there’s a more emphatic demarcation of the two. Frames contribute to the ambience of a layout. A defined frame marks out the image as a representation to be viewed from the outside but can also afford additional meaning. A frame can either influence the attitude of the reader, or confer a symbolic attribute upon the character(s).
How to bind an image:
Coloured ‘white space’. If the background image is anything other than white (the default) this binding colour is making some sort of statement. The ambience changes. (See Lucy’s Bay, Hyram and B, Wolves In The Walls.)
The frame doesn’t need to surround the entire picture — it might just be on one side. This binds the picture less.
A part of the illustration might extend out into the frame, for example a character might sit inside the framing block of colour thinking, to show that the main image on the page is part of a flashback.
The frame might be part of the picture itself, e.g. in Voices in the Park the playground the children swing from itself forms a frame. This is called ‘an experiential frame’, and the frame serves as a symbolic attribute. The playground as frame shows that the young characters are playful.
Illustrators might use an actual frame from the world of the story (e.g. a window frame, door frame or picture frame etc.)
Dividing the image into rectangles, or perhaps circles, arches and triangles
Human beings are prone to find order where there may be none, and frames in cinema work to help the elements to appear in a much more uniformed manner. They tend to dilute the external details in an image, and our eyes are drawn to them because within the frame lies order, and hopefully, our main subject. But through this technique emerges deeper implications. These frames are often used as a partition to separate. The subtext: Why not use the frame to separate the worlds on both sides of the frame. It can show a contrast as simple as freedom versus isolation, or by showing a character’s passing through a frame, we see their decision to pursue a lifestyle, contrasted to those lifestyles that other characters are denied entry to.
Not all frames look like frames. Doors and windows and mirrors are obviously ‘framed’. But we can also see a character through the barrel of a shot gun or a noose or two hands, through legs, books in a library, or any number of other objects.
In the image below, the symmetry suggested by the architecture and the centre position of the tutor is juxtaposed with the children, who are lively and cannot be tamed.
One thing that is specific to film (and not to static images of picture books is ‘reframing’ (as demonstrated in the video). However, book apps are able to make use of this technique. I haven’t seen it done nearly enough (yet) but, on a touch screen device, finger gestures are able to take readers off screen to reveal something that wasn’t there before. One example of this occurs in The Heart And The Bottle app by Oliver Jeffers.
Eye-line of Subjects
What are the characters looking at? Whatever they’re looking you’ll want to look, too.
Parallel lines and converging lines can intersect characters or trap them in corners.
In the illustration below, Jon Klassen emphasises the way the characters lean back by framing them with architecture in the background.
Cameras are able to pull focus to highlight the subject of a frame, in the way of an SLR camera. Picturebooks are more like point-and-shoots in that they typically tend to focus everything in the frame, by the very fact that there is no camera involved in the process. However, picture book illustrators can still mimic this technique. Illustrators have for a long time mimicked the human eye, if not the exaggerated pull-focus of cameras, by using the rules of aerial perspective. Closer objects are also more detailed, but what about when they are not? Some illustrators of picture books create work which is equally detailed no matter how far the object from the eye of the viewer. This may be because they are creating a folkart feeling, which goes hand-in-hand with light and bright stories.
“The Wrysons” is interesting as a study of writing technique because it is a story with the theme of ‘lack’ running throughout, and Cheever masterfully chose to employ some narrative techniques which are themselves about describing not what did happen but what didn’t, and what might have.
Apart from The Bella Lingua, which is set in Italy, this and the preceding number of Cheever’s short stories were all set in his famous Shady Hill. Did Cheever want to live in a place such as Shady Hill? I suspect he would have called the whole place ‘phony’, and in The Wrysons he once again dips into the idea that in the suburbs where everything seems perfect, there must be rot beneath the veneer. In fact, he has gone much further with this in other stories such as The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, in which a man burgles his own neighbours (I guess I didn’t really spoil anything for anyone there — it’s all in the title!), and in “The Enormous Radio”, which is not set in the suburbs but is all about the feeling that you’re living two steps away from terrible, terrible happenings.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE WRYSONS”
A suburban couple with one daughter have zero interests except the wish for their comfortable suburb to stay exactly the same. The only difficult thing about the wife’s life seems to be her regular unsettling dreams in which someone explodes a hydrogen bomb and causes the end of the world. She also dreams that she poisons her own daughter. The husband thought he felt nothing when his mother died, but deals with her death by occasionally waking in the middle of the night and baking a cake in the kitchen to remind him of his childhood, in which his mother and he would bake together to create a cosy atmosphere. The husband is unaware of his wife’s dreams; the wife is unaware of her husband’s cake-baking habit, until one night he burns the cake, wakes her up, and they go back to bed more confused about the world than ever.
SETTING OF “THE WRYSONS”
If you’ve read other, better-known stories of Cheever you’ll be familiar with this place in middle to upper-class America — it’s not a real suburb in any real town, but Cheever returns to it as a setting time and again. Perhaps his most famous story set in Shady Hill is The Swimmer. This family lives in the fictional Alewives Lane. They have a nice garden. ‘They were odd, of course’, writes Cheever — and with a masterly use of ‘of course’ we are to take it for granted that everyone who might seem ‘normal’ is actually harboring a hidden or overt eccentricity.
It’s significant in this story that at the time this story was written, the baking of cakes in the home was strictly a feminine task, a point of pride, in fact, and for a married man to don an apron and make a cake — a Lady Baltimore cake, no less — would have been thought terrible emasculating. Indeed, when the wife is finally woken by the smell of burning, she admonishes the husband by telling him he should have woken her if he was feeling hungry, as if the kitchen was her own private space.
This is also a time — difficult for those of us who are younger to imagine — in which people genuinely feared a hydrogen bomb ending everything.
Gray, the color we attach to characterless people, often suggests bleakness, lack of intensity, a cool detachment. The oppressively predominating gray of the stone walls surrounding Snow White’s mother in Burkert’s picture of her demands our detachment from her but also contrasts with the vibrantly colored patterns we see surrounding her as we look through her window into her room; perhaps as a foreshadowing of her daughter’s fate, she is a small spot of lively beauty in an otherwise bleak and forbidding world. In Inter-city, the wordless story of a train trip, Charles Keeping creates a similar relationship between what can be seen around a window and what can be seen through it. The feeling of boring detachment in the predominantly brownish grey pictures of passengers on a train contrasts with the vibrant colors of the world outside the train’s windows, which the passengers ignore. The contrast between the monochrome of the passenger pictures and the rich colours of the window pictures supports the central theme of the book: we see the passengers as they themselves see the world, and we see the richness of the world they miss because they do not bother to look at it.
– Words About Pictures, Perry Nodelman
and below is an interior image from Inter-City.
Most of these greys have a hue to them. Yellow greys, orange greys… Then there is completely desaturated grey.
Forest green makes an interesting accent colour against grey — it’s more often something bright like yellow.
Critics love Maurice Sendak. For a lot of academic stuff about Where The Wild Things Aresee here.
For a post on The Picturebooks of Chris Van Allsburgh see here.
John Cheever isn’t exactly well-known for his ability to get inside women’s heads and depict the other half of humanity as fully human. If he wrote a story with a rounded female protagonist, I’m yet to read it. In “The Pot Of Gold”, at least, the main male character has something to learn from his wife. This short story demonstrates that even if Cheever didn’t feel he understood women sufficiently to be able to write from a female perspective, he at least grasped the essence of white male privilege of 1930s New York.
John Cheever demonstrates a complex understanding of what money, or the pursuit of it, can do to the psyche. Though there are many stories and folktales about the evil of money, the messages here are a little more nuanced.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE POT OF GOLD”
In depression era New York, a young married couple feel that they live on the edge of poverty. In fact, they have enough money to afford an apartment and to go out to dinner on special occasions. But the husband is constantly after a get-rich fix, and spends a lot of money in this pursuit. When he goes off to war, the wife does quite well on her own with their daughter, having temporarily gone back to work. But when he returns, it’s back to high expenditures.
Eventually, the husband gets a lucky break. His uncle has saved a man’s life on Lake Eyrie, and through this connection, the husband is offered a very well paid job in California.
The idea of a strange, perhaps untrustworthy housemaid is particularly discomfiting to a middle class who can afford such luxury; we hate to think that we invite our own evil into our comfortable homes. An untrustworthy woman let into the home is a familiar trope in horror stories, and is the basis of Mavis Gallant’s short story “Bernadette”.
Sometimes the trope isn’t used in the horror genre, but to lend a bit of horror to a different kind of story.
The reader of Mavis Gallant’s story Bernadette is lead to wonder, what is wrong with this girl and is she about to do something terrible? In fact, the housemaid of this story is simply a magnifying glass into the evil which existed in the house before her arrival.
The illustrators I admire the most have one thing in common: They each employ the full range of perspectives and points of view: high angle, low angle, up through tunnels, long shots, close ups and so on and so forth. Much can be gained from thinking about perspective in picture books, though Perry Nodelman the whole thing up in a few sentences:
Generally speaking, figures seen from below and against less patterned backgrounds stand out and seem isolated from their environment and in control of it; figures seen from above become part of an environment, either secure in it or constrained by it. Also generally speaking, illustrators who make significant use of changing angles tend to be those who emphasize the intense drama of the stories their depict; Van Allsburg and Trina Schart Hyman, both of whom tend to depict highly charged emotions, use extreme views from above and from below in book after book…
As well as viewing their characters from varying angles, picture-book artists can place them against differing sizes of backgrounds, much as movie directors do, in order to focus our attention on specific aspects of their behaviour.
Long shots, which show characters surrounded by a lot of background, imply objectivity and distance; they tell us about how a character’s actions influence his environment, or vice versa.
Middle-distance shots, which show characters filling most of the space from the top to the bottom of a picture, tend to emphasize the relationships between characters.
Close-ups generate involvement with characters by showing us their facial expressions and, presumably, communicating the way they feel…In picture books, close-ups are rare–not surprisingly, for the width of most picture books makes it difficult to show a face without any background behind it. In any case, this is a literature of action rather than of character, and the emphasis is on events and relationships rather than on subtleties of feeling. If close-ups are used at all in picture books, they tend to be on the front cover or dust jacket and to operate more as an introduction to a character’s appearance than as a way of revealing character.