Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips

Strays Like Us is a 1998 middle grade novel by American author Richard Peck. (155 pages)

Peck not only understands the fragile emotions of adolescents, he also knows what kind of characters will pique their interest. In this tender novel, he paints a richly detailed portrait of Molly, a drug-addict’s daughter sent at the age of 12 to live with a great-aunt she has never met. Molly soon discovers others like her in this small town full of secrets.

Publisher’s Weekly starred review

STORY WORLD OF STRAYS LIKE US

Strays Like Us is set in The (American) South but is not a Southern Novel as such. This is one of those American stories which could easily be set elsewhere — like lots of ‘midwestern’ stories set in suburbia or small towns. Molly’s story could belong to many kids all over.

This one happens to take place in small town Missouri. The ‘small’ town is significant because of the way gossip works:

“How did the guys find out anyway?”

“Becasue they don’t let you keep a secret in a town like this.”

Although this is like a 1950s utopia in some ways, there is a lot of poverty in this town and turns out to be an apparent utopia. Richard Peck is making a statement about income inequality when he writes:

“There’s things they can do now for what Fred had,” [Aunt Fay] said finally. “But he didn’t have insurance.”

The story opens with Molly up a tree. She is in semi-hiding up here, melding with nature, and although in reality trees are reliant on each other via their root system, the common understanding of tree symbolism is that they stand ‘tall, proud and alone’, like Molly at the beginning of her character arc.

Strays Like Us tree cover
Molly Moberly in the foreground with neighbour Will in the background.

The exact year of this story is unclear — there is mention of computers and microwaves so I believe it is set in the late 1990s, at time of publication. Still, there is a 1950s feel about it. Locals are starting to feel suspicious of strangers, because until this period everyone has known everyone here. Continue reading “Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips”

Jack And The Flumflum Tree by Julia Donaldson and David Roberts

jack-and-the-flumflum-tree-cover

The title suggests this may be a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk but it’s not really — it’s an original tale based on mythic structure with elements of Little Red Riding Hood (the sick grandma) and pirate adventures (the big seas, the small boat). Like any good fairytale, this story makes use of the rule of threes.

This is also a carnivalesque story, in which the opponents are friendly, easily distracted, and very happy to join the children in their hi-jinks.

jack-flum-flum-tree-sharks

#WeNeedDiverseBooks

This picturebook has the usual problems found right throughout the kidlit world. This is another story about a white boy. He has two sidekicks. One of the sidekicks is a girl dressed in pink. The other is a black boy. Two boys and one girl consistently comes back in educational research as the ratio at which boys feel comfortable — 1:1 boy-girl teacher attention in the classroom will give boys the impression that girls are dominating. So it is in children’s stories, from Harry Potter to Monster House.

Is this in the illustrator’s wheelhouse? If so, a call to illustrators — why not make Jack the black kid for a change, with a white boy as his sidekick? And to writers: Why not write some more trios of two girls and one boy?

Well, we know why.

How does everyone feel about the phrase ‘Don’t get your knickers in a twist?’ which is repeated as a refrain throughout the story?

In this book both the boy and the girl are assumed to be wearing ‘knickers’, but in my dialect of English — and I assume most modern dialects — knickers refer specifically to female underpants. The assumption is therefore that getting (unnecessarily) shitty about something is a specifically feminine trait, and when the instruction is dished out to a male character the effect is to feminise him and strip him of his power. The phrase has always grated with me.

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

Jack needs to go on a long journey without adult supervision in order to mature.

DESIRE

He wants to save his granny from her purple spots disease by finding her fruit that grows on the rare and distant Flumflum tree.

OPPONENT

Nature is against them — the ocean, mainly, and everything in it: namely sharks, leaks and man overboard.

jack-and-the-flumflum-tree-boat

But nature isn’t a very satisfying opponent. A ‘humanesque’ opponent appears once they get to the island in the form of a mischievous monkey who steals the precious Flumflum fruit.

PLAN

At each of the three calamities at sea Jack works out a use for each of the items granny provided in the patchwork sack.

BATTLE

Jack turns into a trickster with the monkey, giving him or her some wooden spoons. The monkey can’t resist playing the drums with them on the tom-tom drum, so the children are able to retrieve the stolen Flumflum.

SELF-REVELATION

Each of the items in the bag had a use. That’s what the young reader will learn at the end of the story.

As for Jack, he has learned that he is quite capable of saving the day.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Granny is better and Jack is the hero.

 

See also a Goodreads list of picturebook featuring trees

Leaf by Stephen Michael King Picture Book

Leaf by Stephen Michael King is a book comprising pictures and onomatopoeia. No narrative text.

leaf-stephen-michael-king-cover

How does one write flap copy for a (largely) wordless picture book? The publishers of leaf have obviously done a test read with a young reader called Amelia and they quoted her response for the flap.

This story reminds me of the advertisement for Tooheys Extra Dry — both are surreal and involve a dream sequence with real-life influence, and both are about what happens after planting hair.

But to linger for a moment on the word ‘surreal’:

Surrealism is used wrongly in everyday speech  to mean “I don’t get it, I don’t understand”. But in an academic sense it means almost the opposite: It’s an abbreviation of ‘super-real’, in which we do understand a surrealist work of art by going past the surface and looking at the essence behind. The idea you dig for is more important than any conveyed by the first impression. Surrealist art makes the viewer work before understanding the meaning.

When it comes to children’s picture books, a boy with a leaf growing out of his head is surrealism. That’s not what you’d expect. Humour is rampant in surrealist picturebooks and kids’ films, in which the audience may be a part of the joke or even the butt of the joke.

 

CHARACTERS IN LEAF

The first thing you may notice about the boy is that his shirt is green and his trousers are brown. Obviously, the boy = the tree.

As for the mother, this is a caring but unsympathetic character — the opponent in this scenario. She, too, is tall and thin. (For genetic reasons, it makes sense, since the boy grows tall and thin himself.) A thin, angular mother in picturebooks is ‘not warm’.

Notice her coffee. The author/illustrator makes sure we notice it in fact; she holds it out against a purple background; she holds it out against the white space; she next seems to point to it, although in the story world she is simply reaching for the shears. The steam curling up from the coffee cup is the inspiration for the boy’s leap into imagination.

 

STORY STRUCTURE OF LEAF

WEAKNESS/NEED

A boy does not like having his hair cut.

DESIRE

He wants to run in the wild with his dog with his long, untidy hair, au naturel.

OPPONENT

The mother figure, who wants his hair to be cut.

mother-figure-and-boy

PLAN

He runs away from his scissors-wielding mother. He takes his dog for companionship and adventure.

leaf-boy-and-dog

BATTLE

Like many picturebooks, the ‘battle’ scene take up the middle third-or-so of the book. A bird drops a seed onto the boy’s head and a leaf grows. This marks the beginning of a carnivalesque imaginative sequence in which they get blown in the wind, the leaf almost dies from the heat of the sun, the dog gets saturated by the water from a watering can used to perk up the leaf, followed by the crescendo, which is a literal dream (at home in bed). In this dream the mother has been replaced by a man with huge gardening shears who wants to cut the leaf off the boy’s head.

The ultimate battle scene is when the mother greets him with the scissors the next morning and gives him a buzz cut.

SELF-REVELATION

The boy’s self-revelation is connected to his revelation that the leaf is not dead. He can still save it. He plants the cut-off hair along with the leaf. Amazingly, it grows into a tree.

The self-revelation may be that he will continue to grow, and will soon be out of the grip of his mother’s enforced buzz cuts.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

A few flashforwards and we see he is now tall and thin, just like the tall tree the seedling has become. He has his own family and has grown his hair out long, just how he likes it.

As for the dog, a bird drops a seed onto the dog’s head. We presume the same story will happen to the dog.

 

See a Goodreads list of picturebooks about trees.