Scuffy The Tugboat by Gertrude Crampton

Scuffy The Tugboat

The Little Golden Books series was launched in 1942, just as the second world war ended. Children needed to hunker down with cosy stories (along with their parents). Scuff The Tugboat was one of the earlier publications of this highly successful franchise, first printed in 1946, and the epitome of ‘cosy’. Now you can buy an edition with a big 75th Birthday Celebrations on the front.

What makes this book a classic? Is there anything special about it, to be replicated by modern picture book writers?


The full title: Scuffy The Tugboat and His Adventures Down The River. Obviously, the river is highly symbolic.

But apart from the ‘pull along’ drag of it, in which there’s no going back, the river in this story could easily be a road and the main character could easily be walking down a path. Scuffy The Tugboat is your classic mythic structure: A character leaves home in search of something, meets various trials and tribulations along the way and either returns home or finds a new home, having learned something new about himself.

But this is the little kid version of a mythic journey — all suggestion, nothing followed through or explored in depth. A cosy myth, in other words. The illustrations by Tibor Gergely are also cosy in their palette and subject matter. (I like the concept of hygge to describe ‘cosy’ in picture books.)


Scuffy was sad. Scuffy was cross.

The story opens with the shortcoming of the main character with no mucking about.

“A toy store is no place for a red-painted tug-boat,” said Scuffy, and he sniffed his blue smoke-stack again.

Scuffy’s shortcoming: He feels cooped up and under utilised in the toy store.

Talking toys in children’s literature pretty much play the same role in storytelling as talking animals.


This is a case of a character mistaking their malaise (desire) in their self-diagnosis. Scuffy thinks he wants to go out into the wide world, but he’ll learn that’s not what he wants at all. That’s what he wants on the surface, but deep down he wants a family.

I was meant for bigger things.

The journey will teach him what those bigger things are.


The opposition in this story revolves around size.

Making Use of the Miniature In Storytelling

It eventually becomes clear to Scuffy that he is too small to survive in such a big world. Along the way he meets various cosy opponents:

  • The cow who almost drinks him by accident
  • The owl which hoots and gives him a bit of a scare
  • The men inadvertently blocking his way because they’re trying to pry free some floating logs. They won’t listen to the little tugboat.


Scuffy’s plan is to float down the river. He is self-important and speaks as if he owns the river. But eventually, when he realises the river is pulling him along and that he is stuck on this journey, he realises the plan belongs to the river, not to him.

The river moved faster and faster.

“I feel like a train instead of a tugboat,” said Scuffy, as he was hurried along.


The Battle sequence begins with the pathetic fallacy of the rain coming down, which tends to make water choppy and dangerous.

Faster and faster it flowed.

The river itself, which started out as a brook, is now perilous for a tiny boat. Men come rushing to fight the flood with sandbags and whatnot. This is the big Battle scene.


“Oh, oh!” cried Scuffy when he saw the sea. “There is no beginning and there is no end to the sea. I wish I could find the man with the polka dot tie and his little boy!”


The man with the polka dot tie has known all along that Scuffy would want to be saved right before the perilous journey into the sea, so in a scene that’s basically deus ex machina, the man with the polka dot tie plucks Scuffy out of the water and saves him.

Now that Scuffy has been on his big journey and learned how small he is compared to the world, he is happy to float in the bathtub at home.


Scuffy was published at a time when children’s books were undergoing a change. Scuffy appeared near the end of the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature and helped ushered in the Second.

Scuffy The Tugboat presents to young children a world which is big and scary. It ultimately says: The world is big and scary — way more scary than you know. You may have dreams, but the best place for you is at home, safe with your family.

I suspect this is how many people were feeling in the aftermath of the second war. Older adults had lived through two major crises. Most of the book buying public had suffered great loss.

I suggest that is why there’s nothing subversive or daring about this book. Scuffy the character does something bold, but child readers are not expected to emulate his attitude, which is presented to the reader as arrogance rather than confidence. By the end of the story Scuffy’s arrogance has been ‘fixed’. He knows his place.

Scuffy the Tugboat feels quite different from anything published today, in which children are respected to the point where they are told they can save the world — if not today, then one day. In contemporary children’s books, when children return to the safety of home, they are more likely to have earned independence, and the reader extrapolates that this journey out into the world was the first of many more.

Ironically, modern children have far smaller worlds than the baby boomers who were reading Scuffy the Tugboat. For many of today’s children, the most freedom they ever get ‘out in the world’ is the world they see through books and other media. Perhaps there’s no irony here at all. Perhaps we can expect, in any era, children’s books to afford exactly the freedoms denied to the young readers who enjoy them.

Pygmalion In Modern Stories And Literature

J.C. Leyendecker- the toy maker

Pygmalion was a sculptor who falls in love with an ivory statue he had carved. The most famous story about him is the narrative poem Metamorphoses by Ovid. (Pygmalion can be found in book ten.) In this poem Aphrodite turns the statue into a real woman for him. In some versions they have a son, and also a daughter together.

In Ovid’s narrative, Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory. According to Ovid, after seeing the Propoetides he was “not interested in women”, but his statue was so fair and realistic that he fell in love with it.

In time, Aphrodite’s festival day came, and Pygmalion made offerings at the altar of Aphrodite. There, too scared to admit his desire, he quietly wished for a bride who would be “the living likeness of my ivory girl”. When he returned home, he kissed his ivory statue, and found that its lips felt warm. He kissed it again, and found that the ivory had lost its hardness. Aphrodite had granted Pygmalion’s wish.

Pygmalion married the ivory sculpture changed to a woman under Aphrodite’s blessing. In Ovid’s narrative, they had a daughter, Paphos, from whom the city’s name is derived.

In some versions Paphos was a son, and they also had a daughter, Metharme.

Basically, Pygmalion/Daedalus is a story in which a man gives birth to a woman. You might say, it’s a type of wish fulfilment for men: The wish to create someone, especially someone in his own image. The creator might be deformed, and wishes he could have the advantage of beauty, like a beautiful woman. (Because women are the main objects of The Gaze.) Or maybe he’ll change a small thing about her to make her his version of ideal. Or it might be about controlling her fertility. 

Edward Burne Jones painting of Pygmalion
Pygmalion and The Image by Edward Burne Jones

The Pygmalion/Daedalus story has been told many times, and continues to be told. There is inherent sexism in this story, of course, or at least there is in many modern renditions, unless the whole point of the retelling is to point out the sexism. The modern narrative is that a man makes a woman into who she is. Ironically, the men do not find fulfilment for having helped a woman fulfil her potential. His control of her generally leads to his downfall rather than to exultation.

As feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey once put it, the woman stands as a “signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command, by imposing on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as a bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”


Some examples in stories for adults:

  • The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare, about controlling pregnant women’s bodies among other things
  • Million Dollar Baby, the 2004 film starring Clint Eastwood, who turns trailer park kid Hilary Swank into a prize fighter. The film poster would have you believe that this is a film about a female protagonist, but the real hero — the one who changes over the course of the story — is Clint Eastwood.
  • Annie Hall, the 1977 Woody Allen movie. Annie actually resists Alvy’s attempts to turn her into something in his own image, subverting the story. (Woody Allen is a feminist? Who knew!)
  • The Phantom of the Opera, who falls in love with an obscure chorus singer Christine, and privately tutors her while terrorizing the rest of the opera house and demanding Christine be given lead roles
  • Titanic, becauseJack helps Rose speak out and assert her independence from her suffocating family and fiance.
  • The Birth-Mark by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in which a man is repulsed by the birth-mark on his wife’s cheek, so dreams he cuts it out with a knife while she’s asleep, comparing himself to Pygmalion. The man is a natural scientist, so in real life makes a concoction and has her drink it.
  • George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. A professor of phonetics wagers that he will be able to transform the cockney speaking Covent Garden flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a woman as poised and well-spoken as a duchess.
  • Pretty Woman, in which creator and created are united at the end (and is probably why audiences loved it so much)
  • John Cheever’s short story “Metamorphoses” translates legends from Ovid into Westchester settings.
  • Lars and the Real Girl is a film starring Ryan Gosling about an off-the-page autistic man who orders a sex doll and forms a relationship with her. By the end of the movie he has buried the doll and looks set to form a romantic attachment with a real woman. The doll has been a necessary middle step. This ending is considered a triumph according to neurotypical standards, because Lars now conforms more comfortably to societal expectations.

Stories in which a man helps a woman have a sexual awakening might also be considered part of the Pygmalion wish-fulfilment fantasy of men. This can be traced at least as far back as fairytales:

The disadvantage — or, if you prefer it, the advantage — of being a princess is that you are essentially passive. You just sit there on your throne, or on a nearby rock, while the suitors and the dragons fight it out. In an extreme form of this passivity you are literally asleep or in a trance like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. This particular archetype is one that has always appealed to men, and it turns up again and again in their fiction. The trance takes different forms: sometimes it is physical virginity, sometimes it is a sort of psychic virginity. Often the princess is frigid, or sexually unawakened like Lady Chatterley; sometimes she is intellectually or politically awakened, like Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda or like the Princess Casamassima in Henry James’s novel of the same name, which is in  many ways, and not always successfully, very much like a fairy tale.

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

This Pygmalion trope is not limited in stories for and about men, written by men; take the Fifty Shades of Grey series by E.L. James. The success of this series shows that the trope has worked its way into a widespread female fantasy of the 2010s.

Edouard Joseph Dantan (1848-1897), French
Edouard Joseph Dantan (1848-1897), French


The Pygmalion effect, or Rosenthal effect, is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. A corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance; both effects are forms of self-fulfilling prophecy.


What about Pygmalion stories as they apply to children’s literature? Well, there are many, many children’s stories about talking toys. Toys have a place in certain types of wish fulfilment stories: The wish to have a friend and also the wish to never die, especially when toys are mended, or when they can be re-wound, in the case of a wind-up toy. (The modern version would be having its batteries replaced, if this kind of story were more common today.)

The wish for one’s toys to come to life as friends is a common wish-fulfilment fantasy in children’s literature, and I propose that this is the childhood analogue of the adult Pygmalion fantasy.


Maria Nikolajeva makes no distinction between the role of talking animals and the role of talking toys in children’s literature. Whatever can be said of animals can also be said of toys. Though the function is the same, Margaret Blount does make a distinction between who tends to tell which kind of story to whom:

Human is what the child wants his toy or pet to be, the substitute friend or brother, like himself but exempt from all the dreary rules attached to childhood and growing up, the eternal confidant or companion, steadfast and unchangeable. Stories about pets that speak are as old as Dick Whittington or the talking horse Falada, but those about toys that ‘come to life’ are most often of the kind that fathers and mothers tell to children in order, as C.S. Lewis mentions in Three Ways of Writing For Children, to give one particular child what it wants. They do not date back much before the Victorian Age and the time when childhood began to be considered in isolation and regarded in sentimental or romantic fashion.

Animal Land


  • Miniature people (who often have the bodies of mice), supernatural creatures and animated objects have similar roles throughout literature.
  • Imaginary friends can go into the same category.
  • Stories with talking toys therefore are quite often ‘sentimental’ and ‘romantic’.
  • Talking animals are never killed — it would be too much like murder. Especially when toys are in the shape of animals, the author might as well be writing about an animal. That’s how much readers can empathise.
  • There is usually no eating and drinking when it comes to talking toys and pets — it’s a bit uncomfortable that humans eat creatures without conscience.
  • Characters who are toys often have delightful predictability, and sometimes mechanical behaviour which can be used to humorous effect (especially if they wind up at the back).
  • Some toys talk only under certain conditions.
  • Sometimes only their owner can hear them.
  • Toys are made to be loved, yet what they seem to do is endure hardship with patience and steadfastness e.g. The Little Wooden Horse, who is sneered at for being simply and plainly made. (The Ugly Duckling story but in toy form.) Toys make good aesthetes since they don’t even need to eat. (See above)
  • Mark Haddon has said that ‘Ultimately, there is no narrative without death‘. It seems as difficult to write about toys without saying what happened to them as it is to write about humans without  mentioning death. (The town dump in The Mouse and His Child, ‘a big grim box’ for Leotard and the Ark etc.



It is not until 1846 that you get a story like The Little (Brave) Tin Soldier; and in nurseries, the gradual additions of strange creatures to the more conventional ‘human’ families — toy animals, the Golliwog and that indispensable piece of nursery furniture, the enduring Teddy Bear. Adults made the toys talk, and they became a child’s companions on magic adventures.


Though the product is a boy, this is still a Pygmalion story.


The ideology of toy stories is often that one must take care of one’s things, as if they were almost sentient. I wonder if the throwaway culture of today has contributed to the demise of this kind of morality — it’s no longer necessary to treat your teddy bear with such great respect as an object — when my daughter’s bear went missing it was very sad but I was able to buy an identical one for two dollars at the second hand shop. In fact, the idea that a child should be so attached to their things is almost the antithetical morality of today’s stories. (Including in my own, The Artifacts.)

The children in Sarah Trimmer’s (History Of) The Robins (1786) were taught to feed the birds and be kind to them, as Tom had to be kind to the caddis worms. Talking toys too can give a story a certain moral ring; one must be kind to objects or possessions and the screw is turned when they prove to  be human after all. Bad brother breaks his sister’s doll with the excuse that Toys Can’t Feel. Night comes and the toys come to life and of course they can feel and sometimes take a nasty revenge in a place where they are powerful and children are not (Rupert has this experience several times and once with Freudian additions in Mary Tourtel’s Rupert and The Wooden Soldier, 1928. The style is long lasting.) In fact, Toyland becomes a recognisable place for fantasy happenings and sometimes retribution from F. Anstey to Enid Blyton.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land


Only Toys book cover
[This story] has a toys’ vengeance theme and more interesting experiences of doll’s house living, which turns out to be as awkward as Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb found it. Torquil and Irene, transported to the place where toys are real, find their own doll’s house a very inconvenient place to be — the food is inedible, the drink not what it seems, the fire won’t burn and the kettle won’t boil. The dolls have a stiff hierarchy as wooden and artificial as themselves. But few toys stories exist without  human interaction. Toys have owners as pets do and in Toyland toy and owner meet on equal terms. All animals speak, whether ‘real’, carved or stuffed; it is a place that everyone recognises, with wooden trees and animals out of the Ark, always dreamlike, an after dark playground where nothing goes really wrong — one always wakes in time.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land
F Anstey

You may remember in The Little Princess that Sara Crewe has a doll house and she imagines the dolls talk while she’s not there. This lesser-known book for younger children stars those talking dolls, and is told by a fairy narrator. The introduction reads:

Now this is the story about the doll family I liked and the doll family I didn’t. When you read it you are to remember something I am going to tell you: If you think dolls never do anything you don’t see them do, you are very much mistaken. When people are not looking at them they can do anything they choose. They can dance and sing and play on the piano and have all sorts of fun. But they can only move about and talk when people turn their backs and are not looking. If anyone looks, they just stop. Fairies know this and of course Fairies visit in all the dolls’ houses where the dolls are agreeable. They will not associate, though, with dolls who are not nice. They never call or leave their cards at a dolls’ house where the dolls are proud or bad-tempered. They are very particular. If you are conceited or ill-tempered yourself, you will never know a fairy as long as  you live.

Queen Crosspatch

I do wonder how many young readers wondered why they weren’t visited by these fairies even though they were on their best behaviour.


Quite the most interesting and unusual Toyland was written about by, as might be expected, E. Nesbit in The Magic City — the only book, as distinct from her short stories, where she deals with talking toys. Nesbit children usually do not need toys they are too busy having imaginative adventures by other means. Like F. Antsey’s Torquil, they might remark that toys are ‘a babyish pursuit…except when they are exact models of things’. The Magic City, or rather series of cities, is a place that can be entered only by those who have helped to build it with books for bricks; and it is populated by creatures and people that have been put there, or have managed to escape, out of the books from which it is made. H.R. Millar’s drawings give the city that slabby, Babylonian/Aztec look of any structure made of books, ornaments, chessmen and dominoes. The story has that odd, logical but numinous quality shared by The Enchanted Castle, when the children who enter the city find that it is greater inside than out and has a history, prophecies and laws that seem to be older than its creators. That the dragon outside is a toy with a winding key does not make it any less fearsome; but it is still dreamlike — and one never dies in a dream. The lions in the desert that the children encounter are Noah’s Ark lions, but fierce and predatory. These lions are killed, and when dead are found to have turned to wood once more — a dreamlike easing of otherwise intolerable consequences.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

All of these stories lead up to Pixar’s Toy Story, released 1995 to huge critical acclaim and huge box office earnings.


Christopher Robin enters a world (The Hundred Acre Wood) where his toys can talk and he never has to go back, unlike Paddington/Mary Plain/the Pushmipullyu. Winnie the Pooh was modelled on the toy bear of illustrator Shepherd’s son Graham. The actual bear is quite a bit thinner, though.

A bear character is never inconsiderable; no Teddy bear takes second place in the toy hierarchy. He is always King, the first in a child’s affection. As Pooh progresses his rotundity increases, his legs and arms shorten, his back becomes humped (a rare characteristic only seen in vintage bears and never on modern ones), his head pokes forward as if in deep thought. He is the first famous fictional bear and all the others owe him something; his size, his fondness for honey, ponderous naïveté and occasional flashes of brilliance have left their mark on other lesser bears, real or toy; and there is no question about Pooh’s reality. His adventures in the Forest and Hundred Acre Wood spring as naturally from character as the happenings in any real life.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

Toys in popular children’s books are great for people in the modern era to make money — not by selling the stories themselves but by making cheap stuffed toys in China and selling those. Winnie-the-Pooh continues to be the most popular teddy bear from literature, helped along by Disney, who actually made a pretty terrible movie out of the character with none of A.A. Milne’s original wit.

Rupert Bear (1920s and 1930s)

Take a fairy tale from Grimm, one of the more exciting but less grotesque — say, ‘The Golden Goose’ or ‘The Frog Bride‘ or ‘Rumpelstiltskin‘. Add to this some of the glamour of The Arabian Nights, some of the magic and mysterious qualities of the King Arthur cycle and some of its knightly heroism. Add a homely taste of folk tale. Blend these ingredients very smoothly. Dilute the effect by a contemporary setting or framework. Express the result in drawings of beautiful, accurate detail, with no cartoon facetiousness, and then ration the dose to a picture a day, ensuring that addicts will always demand more — and you have the Rupert Bear adventures of the twenties and thirties, and some of the reasons why he enjoyed, and still enjoys, such success and popularity.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land
  • The Rupert Bear entry at Wikipedia tells you the full history.
  • There is no real reason for this boy to be a boy rather than a human, which makes him an ancestor of modern characters such as Olivia the pig.
  • But when he was created it was pretty normal for a child hero to be an animal (a la Pip, Squeak and Wilfrid, the Bruin Boys, Bobby Bear, Teddy Tail).
  • The character was created by talented illustrator Mary Tourtel.
  • Tourtel tended to give Rupert stories too much plot rather than too little. The stories became simplified over the years.
  • The first story was called Little Lost Bear, and was probably inspired by Goldilocks and Red Riding Hood combined. It’s a home-away-home story in which Rupert goes out into the forest, meets a variety of characters then returns home to his mother. (Woods are for getting lost in, in children’s literature.)
  • Tourtel was also inspired by The Arabian Nights tales, and Perrault and Dickens.
  • Tourtel’s collaborator was her husband, who was an editor. After he died — in 1931 — her stories went downhill, possibly because he acted as a restraining force. (Tourtel was first and foremost an artist, storyteller second. The pictures stopped being self-explanatory, requiring lengthy explanations to help the plot along. Also her drawing skills went downhill, due to failing eyesight.)
  • The subsequent Rupert Bear stories are also of this type. “Rupert’s fate was so monotonously terrible that one wondered why he went out at all, and conversely, why his parents never bothered to worry.” — Margaret Blount
  • Rupert Bear stories continued to be written by different authors, as were Sexton Blake, Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High and The Hardy Boys.
  • Rupert grew younger and was brought more up to date over the decades. He also passed from animal-boy to boy-in-a-bear’s-body. But he still retains a sort of magical power that can only come from being part human part animal.
  • The setting is a place called Nutwood with no towns or cities. It’s populated by other animals and people in about equal numbers. It’s a bit like Narnia in that regard.
  • Animal characters tend to be good; people (witches, magicians etc.) tend to be bad. (Apart from wolves and the occasional dragon, of course, who are also bad.)

Pooh has several direct descendants, but the closest is probably Albert, created by  Alison Jezard from 1968 onwards.

Illustrator Margaret Gordon even makes him look like Winnie.

TEDDY ROBINSON (1955 onwards)

Teddy Robinson’s life is limited to that of his owner Deborah, and he lives in the real world of ‘I said to Teddy and he said to me’, or of Christopher Robin’s Binker, ‘I have to do it for him.’ He moves when Deborah moves and stays where Deborah puts him. His adventures are those of a toy who has thoughts and makes remarks, but is quite unable to move or initiate action. To Deborah he is a child, bear and friend. […] In Deborah’s absence, Teddy Robinson can talk to blackbird, snail, tortoise and kitten; and to Deborah he makes short, simple, acquiescent remarks. Each loves the other wholeheartedly and their lives are totally shared — in many ways Teddy Robinson is the most ‘natural’ bear of all. His personality reflects Deborah’s in the ageless way of well-loved toys, and his adventures are those of getting lose, left behind (on a sandcastle) and forgotten (in a tool shed), placed for sale in a shop window, thrown into a tree by ‘a boy who ran round the garden shooting at people who weren’t there until they were all dead, bouncing on a piano while it is being thumpingly played at a party, playing the games that one insists on one’s toys playing too, being turned into pirate or Indian, or sent to the toys’ hospital.

Margaret Blount

Some of these adventures may remind you of more contemporary books. For example, Shirley Hughes uses the ‘gets lost and winds up for sale’ in her story Dogger.



There are still plenty of talking animals in picture books — take Ian Falconer’s Olivia series, for instance. But modern stories don’t tend to be talking pets and toys — they are just animals that talk, no more questions asked. There are plenty of good reasons for depicting people as animals in picture books, especially.

Also common in modern children’s literature are imaginary friends, or if not friends, creatures who stick around for a short time then depart.


After the 2016 American Election, with my feeds full of Trump news interspersed with the odd grim images from my earthquake wracked hometown, I was glad to come across a positive article for a change — a biographical piece on a woman called Margaret Hamilton: The pioneering software engineer who coded humans to the moon. I’m going to spend the next four years reading about women and people of colour, I had already decided.

So I read the article and soon came across two full paragraphs not on Margaret herself but Professor Lorenz, the man behind the woman:

Professor Lorenz was one of the people who most inspired Hamilton throughout her life. He taught her a lot about software and gave her freedom to experiment with new ways of doing things.

Hamilton said: “Lorenz loved working with his computer and he would share with me his computer-related experiences and what he had learned from them, for which I was most grateful. Known as a genius by his colleagues, his humility stood out and he was one of the nicest people I have ever known.”

This seems fine, right? I’m sure Professor Lorenz was indeed a great mentor.

That said, when was the last time you read a biographical piece about a man with the achievements of Margaret Hamilton, wherein not the man himself is called a ‘genius’, but rather the wo/man behind the man.

Margaret is rendered passive here. Professor Lorenz gave her freedom.

This is something that regularly happens to women. Her agency is diminished. She is instead the product of a man.

I’m aware that much of that is quoted from Margaret herself, who sounds like she may be prone to typically feminine self-deprecation.

Mind that kind of writing which minimises a woman’s achievements while elevating the men in her periphery.

Another example is Hypatia.

Hypatia (c.355–415) was the first woman known to have taught mathematics. Her father Theon was a famous mathematician in Alexandria who wrote commentaries on Euclid’s Elements and works by Ptolemy. Theon taught his daughter math and astronomy, then sent her to Athens to study the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. Father and daughter collaborated on several commentaries, but Hypatia also wrote commentaries of her own and lectured on math, astronomy, and philosophy. Sadly, she died at the hands of a mob of Christian zealots.

Mental Floss

In sum, when writing about high-achieving women, be careful not to elevate the men around her in a way that actually overshadows the woman you’re aiming to highlight, even if you’ve found some self-deprecating quotes from the woman herself.

When reading about high-achieving women, keep an eye out for this almost invisible marginalisation and see it for what it is: a very long history of sexism, in which we cannot accept high-achieving women without attributing their successes to that of men.

Related to the Pygmalion principle of writing female biographies is the tendency to talk about the men and children in their lives more than talking about the woman herself:

Emilie Du Chatelet (1706–1749) was born in Paris in a home that entertained several scientists and mathematicians. Although her mother thought her interest in math was unladylike, her father was supportive. Chatalet initially employed her math skills to gamble, which financed the purchase of math books and lab equipment.

In 1725 she married an army officer, the Marquis Florent-Claude du Chatalet, and the couple eventually had three children. Her husband traveled frequently, an arrangement that provided ample time for her to study mathematics and write scientific articles (it also apparently gave her time to have an affair with Voltaire). From 1745 until her death, Chatalet worked on a translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia. She added her own commentaries, including valuable clarification of the principles in the original work.

Mental Floss

Sarah La Polla, literary agent (update: now freelance editor), points out on her blog that she sees this trope often in submissions:

Regardless of what happens in November, I hope Hillary Clinton’s candidacy will help make a trope I hate finally go awayand that is the Female Character Falling Ass Backwards Into Power. My literal examples are all TV-related:

  • Veep, Male president resigns, female VP rises
  • Commander In Chief, Male president dies, female VP rises
  • Battlestar Gallactica, Everyone in the line of succession dies, female Sec. of Education becomes president (and is amazing, of course, but still)

Seriously, did no one think a woman could just, ya know, get elected? All by herself. Can’t we have even a fictional world where the people chose a woman voluntarily and not because a male option was dead? (But I digress…)

In not-so-literal examples, some trends I’ve noticed in submissions are:

  • Female athlete who learned everything from her dad, who may or may not be the coach of her team too.
  • Battle of the Sexes science fairs or class president elections.
  • Propelled into the plot because of a missing father.
  • Propelled into the plot because her father is the doctor/detective/scientist directly involved in the story.

In each of these stories, the girl is in the shadow of a more powerful man, and then — and only then — can she find her inner strength. It takes an “anything you can do, I can do better” approach to feminism that feels outdated.

Another gendered Pygmalion effect in journalism is noted below, in reference to Dr Oz and Dr Phil both saying highly unsympathetic things in close succession in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic:

Header image: J.C. Leyendecker- the toy maker

The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban

The Mouse and His Child

This middle grade novel features talking animals, especially mice, toys and doll’s houses. The Mouse and His Child is no Velveteen Rabbit, however.

As Margaret Blount says, The Mouse and His Child defies classification, and is therefore of interest to critics and children’s literature enthusiasts:

Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child (1969) is such a strange, haunting and distinguished book that it is very difficult to classify. It is about toy mice, yet the clockwork father and son move through a world in which small animals act out human dramas.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

In some ways it can be compared to Charlotte’s Web, but Charlotte’s Web continues to be more widely known.

The story shares commonalities with E.B. White‘s Charlotte’s Web by contrasting with a large part of children’s literature in the sense of occasional use of advanced vocabulary, a willingness to include adult themes, and talking animals.


Why is The Mouse and His Child not more widely read today? Townsend explains that The Mouse And His Child is clearly North American but has, for some reason, been far more popular in Britain, where it is regarded a classic.  Some people speculate it’s due to ‘hygiene’ — that picking toys out of the dump isn’t clean.

That said, the book has been reprinted and re-illustrated

The Mouse And His Child faber cover

And made into a film back in 1977


And the Japanese are well-known for a love of cleanliness, and it’s not unknown there:

Japanese The Mouse And His Child

The original edition was illustrated by Russell Hoban’s wife, Lillian. There is a distinctly Disney feel about it. Lillian Hoban is perhaps best known for her I-Can-Read illustrations for the Arthur series.

The Mouse And His Child Lilian Hoban

Arthur Levine commissioned illustrator David Small to do the artwork for their updated edition in 2001. These illustrations remind me more of Sir Quentin Blake, but with close attention to shade and tone which adds a slightly noir feel.

David Small The Mouse and His Child

What is the story about?

The mice are searching for the things that people want: happiness, a family, a home, self-winding freedom, from their bright morning in the toy shop at Christmas to their ending on a birdhouse platform by a railway line, near the town dump. There is a glimpse of shining perfection as the toys — the mice, elephant, seal and doll’s house that come so largely to the story — wait on the shop counter to be sold. The mice dance in a circle when wound.

To be bought is to be born. For four years the mouse father and son dance under the Christmas tree, always put away in their box until, pounced on and broken by a cat, they are thrown away. Repaired by a tramp who can only make them walk straight, they follow an endless road, tramps themselves, finding their way into a place like Cannery Row only far more sinister — the town dump ruled by the exploiting bandit Manny Rat, the underworld king who wears a greasy dressing-gown and lives in an old TV set.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

Influences And Intended Audience

Hans Andersen with the clockwork nightingale and lead soldier, Kingsley with the fate of the lost doll, Collodi with the strange quest of the puppet who wanted to be a boy — all tell of the strange quest of the puppet who wanted to be a boy — all tell of the human sadness of toys, which is something that adults see, and one wonders if children really enjoy The Mouse and His Child. As an adult it is impossible to read it unmoved.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

Multiple Layers

Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child (1967), about the quest of a pair of linked toys to find a home and be self-winding, is a multi-layered book, accessible at more than one level. It can be read by children quite simply as a story of the adventures of clockwork toys, and by adults as a haunting human progress. The pathos of a toy’s life — the decline from freshness, beauty and efficiency toward the rubbish dump, the rusting of bright metal, the rotting of firm plush — is the pathos of human life transposed. The mouse and his child are loving people, totally interdependent. There are clear allegorical meanings — any child can understand the longing to be self-winding — and strong, often funny, sometimes savage satire, though some of this may be beyond the grasp of children. Manny Rat, who rules the rubbish dump and deals with recalcitrant toys by consigning their innards to the spare parts can, is a splendid villain.

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children

Motifs, Symbols, Satire

Likeness to the human world is both satiric and symbolic. The mice are sent to rob a bank by the rat; the chipmunk behind the counter pushes ‘the alarm twig’ and a badger guard eats the rat. The mice get involved in a territorial war between shrew armies with big struggle cries of ‘ours’ and ‘onwards’; weasels casually eat the shrews; owls catch the weasels. A recurrent motif is an old empty dogfood tin with a picture of a dog in a chef’s cap carrying on a tray another dog in a chef’s cap. The mouse father’s heart is his clockwork centre. He has patience, courage, sad endurance. The child, with less clockwork, has room for dreams of family and home — ‘I want the elephant to be my mama and the seal to be my sister and I want to live in the beautiful house.’ In their hopeless quest, the mice somnambulate through impossible tasks, like Tess in the potato field. They pace the Crows’ stage in an incomprehensible play…they are harnessed by the muskrat to a saw device for felling a tree, which takes all the winter, they fall to the bottom of a pond. Their physical disintegration is a persistent theme. When they do at last find the doll’s house its fate has been that of many real ones. It has been ravaged by fire and ‘become in its romantic ruined state a trysting place for young rat lovers, then a social and athletic club.’

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

The Significance of ‘Wind-up’ In Wind-up Toys

Maria Nikolajeva writes, ‘The very idea of a windup toy is repetition, predestination, things going on forever. Another aspect is absence of change and free will.’ If the mice were to dance Christmas after Christmas, however, there would be no story. So although the adults have an idea of what children might enjoy, the children (or child characters) are wrong. When the mouse child breaks the rules, this is a step away from circularity (and from the iterative language). Everything that happens after the mouse child is expelled from paradise is tragic but necessary. The message seems to be that linearity is preferable to circularity:

“There is no going back,” said the father…we cannot dance in circles anymore.

The Mouse and His Child

The Doll’s-house Symbolism

The doll’s house is inhabited by wonderful papier-mâché models talking in scraps of newsprint, and is an enviable mansion with every detail exact, one of those American country houses whose adjectival accompaniment is always ‘decaying’ and ‘Southern’ as if they have to end up in Tennessee Williams land. And indeed, this one decays and suffers as doll’s houses, and some real ones, often do.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

Manny Rat

Manny Rat is your archetypal rag-and-bone man, which rats often are in children’s books with personified animals:

The rat is hideously real, always foraging, exploiting everything it meets, using old clockwork toys to fetch and carry, mending them just enough to keep them going like abused and broken-down horses, running sordid sideshows that offer and give nothing, and taking his profit from their wretched owners, miserable beetles and crickets.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

Jungian critics have fun with this novel. There is an obvious erotic subtext, ‘especially in the rivalry between the mouse father and Manny rat, and the elephant’s open aversion for Manny, who has, we might say, raped her.’

Maria Nikolajeva uses this book as an example of a book which breaks away from the idyll established in the beginning. Take note of what Nikolajeva refers to as ‘iterative’ time:

The Mouse and His Child is most often referred to as toy fantasy. However, I would like to show that […] it depicts an attempted, successful or not, to break away from idyll, which is often expressed by the change in temporal pattern of the novel from circular to linear. The Mouse and His Child starts with a perfect image of childhood, a doll house, a self-sufficient world existing wholly in the cyclical time:

…the dolls never set foot outside it. They had no need to; everything they could possibly want was there … Interminable-weekend-guest dolls lay in all the guest room beds, sporting dolls played billiards in the billiard room, and a scholar doll in the library never ceased perusal of the book he held … In the dining room, beneath a glittering chandelier, a party of lady and gentleman dolls sat perpetually around a table…

It was the elephant’s constant delight to watch that tea party through the window…

The Frog

The chief supporting characters in this strange nightmare are ‘Frog’, a figure of destiny who inhabits an old glove and makes his way with herbal remedies and fortune telling, a philosophic muskrat, a terrapin who is a thinker, scholar and playwright, two crows who run an experimental theatre company, a kingfisher and a bittern, both helpful characters represented as do-it-yourself expert and a solitary bachelor fond of fishing.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount


Other interesting things about this book are that it’s very much about eating and being eaten up, even though the toys themselves can’t and don’t need to eat (nor do they wish to become human, unlike in The Velveteen Rabbit, for instance).


The Velveteen Rabbit makes a good counterpoint here:

Because these characters are toys, death is treated differently, too.They cannot die, which means the story takes place over many more years than your typical children’s story. ‘…all these violent deaths do not affect the toys, just as “adult” deaths most often do not affect children. […] The author introduces a special kind of death for the toys, which they go through, as ritual prescribes, three times. Since death, for toys, unlike all other deaths in the story, is reversible, they are reborn like the returning gods.‘ Notice that after each destruction and resurrection the mice reemerge with new qualities.


The happy ending does not dispel the lingering sadness of the clockwork pair, the father doomed to travel forward through the world and the son (who is joined to him) backwards. Helpless when they are not wound up, unable to stop when they are, they are fated like all mechanical things to breakage, rust and disintegration as humans are to death.


The path of every toy is always downwards. Though they share with humans apparent death (by smashing) and strange resurrections (by mending), they do not, like humans, have a high noon. The Velveteen Rabbit (Marjery Williams, 1912) has once again the them of the toy made real and immortal by love. The Rabbit is quite new. Bright and plushy he comes to the Boy at the top of a Christmas stocking, at the peak of his physical perfection, and ‘for at least two hours the Boy loved him.’

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

The Mouse and His Child As An Influential Mouse Book

Margaret Blount compares the mouse of this book to others that have followed since:

Mice who do stand out for their individuality and sheer strength of character sometimes appear in other settings; The Mouse and His Child of the unforgettable endurance are really toys and not mice at all; the great Reepicheap is a Talking Beast, one of many; Stuart Little is notable for being a social misfit and Tucker, of The Cricket In Times Square, outstanding for his untidy antique collection and his hidden riches.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

It’s The Bear! by Jez Alborough

It's The Bear cover

It’s The Bear! by Jez Albrough  is one of our daughter’s favourite picture books. She loved it when she was three, and still loves it even though she is now seven. It’s The Bear! is the second of Jez Alborough’s three hugely successful bear books from the 1990s. Published in 1996, It’s The Bear came out two years after the first one, and two years before the final book in the series.

Published 1994
Published 1994

Published 1998
Published 1998


A boy learns not to trust his mum. At least, that’s what our seven-year-old concluded upon our most recent reading. “Eddy’s mum should listen to him!” she said. Basically, a mother takes her son for a picnic in the woods.

walking into the woods

They set out the picnic but mum has to duck back to the car to get a blueberry pie which she has forgotten. While she’s away, an enormous bear arrives, despite her earlier reassurances that there are ‘no bears around here’. The bear is a benevolent creature, however, who only wants to eat the picnic, not the humans. The mother gets a huge, comical fright when she turns around to find that her preschooler son is telling the truth about the existence of a bear.



Like ancient tales such as Little Red Cap, in which the story is designed to be ‘performed’ rather than read, and in which the child audience grows deliciously scared at the point where the wolf eats the grandma up, this story has a theatre quality to it that will have young listeners cuddling up to their adult co-reader.

This is achieved, of course, by building up suspense. The marketing copy itself lets us know at exactly which point the turning point occurs:

The last time Eddie went for a walk in the woods, he had the biggest surprise of his life! There was a bear the size of a house in there! Now Eddie’s mom is in the mood to picnic in the wood—and she insists there aren’t any bears in there, (except Eddie’s teddy, Freddie). But when Mom forgets the blueberry pie, she runs home to get it while Eddie waits in the woods all alone! [TURNING POINT] What happens next? Just guess! Hold on to your teddies, because Jez Alborough is back with another hilarious story about little Eddie and that oversized bear—and this time he’s hungry!

First we have the set up, in which Mum denies the existence of a bear. Therefore, the experienced reader (and any young reader upon second reading) knows that a bear is definitely coming. This in itself builds suspense.


Most of the story is spent on the build up. We see four images of Eddy sitting on the picnic hamper — by the fourth image he is climbing inside to hide.

The following page shows us the first glimpse of the bear. We see Eddy’s eyes as he looks in fright out of the hamper, and we’re sure the bear can see him too.

The page after that is mostly black, and we see Eddy inside the hamper — a top-down view. This mirrors an earlier page in which both Eddy and Mum are looking into the hamper together. We have the same framing of the hamper — the first time we were from the perspective of the food and the large frame was white. This time we see Eddy, and link him to food — Eddy IS the food.

The reader wonders if the bear is going to squash the hamper, but he doesn’t. He (or she) sets up their own teddy bear and ‘greedily gobbles up all of the food’. The small size of the sandwich and plate emphasise the hugeness of the bear.


Take note how many separate illustrations depict the large bear’s realisation that there’s probably dessert in the hamper and actually opening it up. A more economical but far less suspenseful way to illustrate this would have been to show a single illustration (one of any of those shown here). What makes this a picture book rather than an illustrated story is the extra frames.

Notice also that the bear is, despite his size, a child character. We’re to assume he is scared of what’s inside the hamper as Eddy is scared of what’s outside it. One clue: the bear picks up his own teddy as comfort before looking inside — foreshadowing his reaction.

The next two spreads, which readers are to fully enjoy, include between 3 and 5 words each. “Help! shouted Eddy. I want my Mum!”

Adroit framing builds the story for the next big enjoyable surprise: Eddy and Bear have already had their confrontation, now it’s mum’s turn to jump out of her skin. We see her in the distance, but the illustration is framed by the bear’s massive furry leg. Another scene shows her walking closer, with a big smile on her face and a blueberry pie balanced for the taking on her hand, waiter-style. For visual interest, the big bear’s toy teddy is included in this frame.

The following illustration shows how smug and disbelieving the mother is, and allows the bear time to snatch the pie, which seems to be offered to him, after all:


The denouement requires one double page spread, in which Mum and Eddy are sprinting back to the car, and a single page illustration of the very happy bear, who is enjoying the food thrown his way.


This is a story in which the rhyming text really works. There’s nothing fancy about what’s attempted — Teddy, Eddy, Freddy and ready are an example of words which rhyme; others are dear/here, long/gone, spread/bread, my/pie and so on. Much use is made of capitalisation to give clues about where emphasis should be placed.


The detail which will have readers wondering about how much of this happened in ‘the world of the story’ is the detail of the toy bears. Eddy just happens to own the same teddy as the big bear, but in miniature. Readers of the previous book have already been treated to a story in which this coincidence makes the plot.

When adults are drawn into the story, witnessing bizarre events for themselves, then we are to assume that ‘there really is a bear in there’. So the question is answered for us.


The details of the forest look genuinely pre-digital era and are lavishly detailed. This makes the forest seem alive. Our eyes are drawn into the woods just as Eddy’s are. We should be searching for something inside — just as Eddy does.


The wonderful detail has been lost in the screen adaptation, with its focus on movement rather than the gaze. However, I’m sure Hayao Miyazaki would have keep the detail and made the most of it.




Published by Candlewick Press

Written and illustrated by Jez Alborough. Alborough has also written picture books about mice, ducks and dogs.

…an English writer and illustrator of children’s picture books that have been translated into at least 15 languages and have been recognised for numerous awards. 



When it comes to lavish illustrations of a scary forest, I’m reminded of the illustrations in Anthony Browne’s Hansel and Gretel. In Browne’s story, the reader is rewarded for close examination, because the trees reveal themselves to be ominous shapes.

Hansel and Gretel forest details

It’s The Bear is interesting also because it plays with scale and proportion — something that seems to appeal very much to young readers. Other things that appeal to young readers are the identification with characters who are separated from their parents, who have imaginations which scare them, and whose toys seem to come to life. Animated toys are common in tales for children.

Different Types Of Toy Stories

In toy stories […] we should probably distinguish between toys existing in a world of their own (notably, doll-house stories, and Winnie-the-Pooh) and toys in contact with a child protagonist. Toys coming alive together with a lonely child may act as substitutes for missing friends, siblings, or even parents.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

In the second type of story mentioned above, most toys in toy stories live only when the child is around, being played with. Most of them become worn out or broken and die, but a few go into suspended animation and may come to life generations later into changed worlds.

Moth Manor Martha Bacon cover
Written in 1978, present-day Monica saves a fine old doll’s-house and its inhabitants from destruction. When Monica finds hereself inside the house, it and its garden are “as real as Monica’s love for them.” The reader can’t tell if this book is about magic/dream/imagination (perhaps all three).

Animal Stories = Toy Stories

[…] There is no point distinguishing between animals stories and toy stories, since both have the same structure, and toy or animal characters share the same function, primarily representing the child. Clearly anthropomorphic animals (such as Beatrix Potter’s or Janosch’s) are especially hard to distinguish from animated toys. Paddington is another good example—the bear is something in-between an animal and a toy (in illustrations, he definitely looks like a teddy-bear) and has the unmistakable function of an “imaginary friend”. […]

There are many marginal cases, like Winnie-the-Pooh, where some characters seem to be more toys, while others are more animals. It is thus arguable whether Winnie-the-Pooh is a toy story or an animal story […] and this may also be a matter of child versus adult perception. For a child reader, the characters of the book are “real,” that is, animals, while adults probably tend to see them as toys.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

Why Toy Stories Are Not Their Own Genre

Let us, therefore, not be deceived by the superficial form. Both toys and animals in children’s texts must be seen as representations of children and the texts themselves are, in my text typology, in no way different from domestic stories. When writers present their characters disguised as animals or toys, it is merely a narrative device, which has little to do with genre. There are few similarities between The Jungle Book, Babar and Peter Rabbit, besides their portraying animals; on the other hand, each of them can be related to other books without animals. For instance, The Jungle Book to Robinsonnades, Babar to a sentimental story about an orphan who is finally taken care of (Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Foundling): Peter Rabbit to any didactic naughty-boy book.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

Nikolajeva explains that therefore, toy and animal stories are even more heterogenous than “realistic” domestic and school stories.

Animals no doubt are more like us than are dolls, since they are living creatures and dolls are not; but dolls are made in our own image, and in the field of anthropomorphic fantasy there seems no harm in giving them a place. To the children who own them, dolls are people; and often they are people who have a hard life. They are to children as children are to adults: small, powerless beings controlled by others.

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children

Older Examples Of Stories Featuring Toys

  • The Nutcracker
  • Pinnochio
  • Winnie-the-Pooh
  • Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey (1946)
  • Adventures of a Little Wooden Horse
  • The Dolls House
  • Rufty Tufty the Golliwog
  • Five Dolls in a House
  • The Mouse and His Child
  • The Mennyms series
  • Behind The Attic Wall by Sylvia Cassedy (1983)
  • Through The Dolls’ House Door by Jane Gardam (1987)

The Dolls House Rumer Godden Cover
Godden wrote a number of stories about dolls: The STory of Holly and Ivy, Impunity Jane etc. He also wrote about humanized mice. Mice, like children, are seen as stand-in children because of their small size and precarious status.

It is an anxious, sometimes a dangerous thing to be a doll. Dolls cannot choose; they can only be chosen; they cannot “do”; they can only be done by; children who do not understand this often do wrong things, and then the dolls are hurt and abused and lost; and when this happens dolls cannot speak, nor do anything except be hurt and abused and lost.

Rumer Godden, The Dolls’ House (1947)