Father Tropes In Fiction

George Sheridan Knowles - Page and Monarch forth they went, Forth they went together, Through the rude wind’s wild lament, and the bitter weather 1898

Turn Out Like His Father – A character has charge of a child (usually her son) and is desperate to keep this child from imitating another relative (usually his father). This is a fear of history’s repeating itself for his fate, which may be turning evil and usually ends with being dead. Harry Potter isn’t allowed to find out about his parents in case he turns out like them.

Like Father Like Son – this one is called a ‘supertrope’ because of all its subcategories.

Like Father, Unlike Son – In How to Train Your Dragon, Stoick the Vast is a big bearded man who is every bit a typical Viking warrior whose main defining feature is his strength.

Luke, You Are My Father – when a character in a story finds out who their real parent is. An Arthurian trope. In some versions of Arthurian mythology, Mordred is the son of Arthur and his sister, who was sent away to die as an infant, as he was destined to kill Arthur later on. Which he did when he showed up as an adult. In Northern Lights, Lyra finds out that the man she thought was her uncle is actually her father.

I Am Not Your Father – There will be a reveal that a child’s parents are not the real parents after years of Oblivious Adoption. After a long time, the adoptive parents finally tell him.

Tell Me About My Father – We see the female version of this in Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

The father from Because Of Winn-Dixie

Sins Of Our Fathers – This describes the act of exacting revenge upon the descendants of the one who originally did the wrong.

Standard 50s Father – Mr Dursley from Harry Potter, the father from Freaks and Geeks (though it’s set in 1980). In Tom’s Midnight Garden we have a father figure rather than the father (Tom’s uncle) who is literally a 1950s father because this book was written in the early 1950s.

Mother Nature, Father Science – If a show has men and women both from an academic background, the man will typically have a degree in science, math, or engineering, while the woman will have one in arts or literature. (This may be why so many mad scientists are male.) Even if both characters are scientists, expect the man to research physics or mathematics and the woman to research psychology or biology. This reflects real life, but children’s literature both reflects real life AND influences it, so children do need to see more STEM mums and nurturing dads. (We are starting to see the nurturing dads, usually when the mother has been disappeared in some way.)

Lineage Comes From The Father – This can be a sexist trope: a great deal of the time characters in the Heir Club for Men who insist on having a boy are men, that when a character has a legacy of royalty, villainy or heroics it comes from the father. Even for female characters. The implicit assumption is that if a character is going to inherit something of relevance from their bloodline, it’s going to be from their father’s side, never their mother’s. However, writers can imbue a story with far more nuance than that. Children can turn out like their fathers even when it’s not a good thing. Bill of Big Love was kicked out of home as a young teen and has since appeared to make it okay in regular Utah, middle-class society. But he will never shake his background or his core beliefs learned while growing up within a cult of polygamy. He is more like his horrible birth father than he realises, and pays for it. It seems for a while that his eldest son is following in his footsteps. The audience realises that there is no real ‘supernatural’ type religious calling but that the son is instead influenced by an influx of teenage hormones, and that is the main reason he can see himself with multiple wives. A picture book example of this is Some Dogs Do by Jez Alborough. It’s out of print but you can listen to the author read it on YouTube.

Fantasy-Forbidding Father – A father, mother, or guardian (these last two are less common) disapproves of their child or ward reading “fairy stories”, playing fantasy or SF games, sports, and even such “useless” hobbies as astronomy, boxing and being literate. In extreme cases, anything the child likes that isn’t directly and concretely tied to whatever it is their dad does for a living (or that he wants them to do for a living) is seen as an utter waste. The dad may even break, burn or sell anything of this nature their child owns, possibly even punishing or locking them up. In Freaks and Geeks Nick Andopolis has one of these dads — a military Dad who does not approve of his son’s playing the drums. The audience may be able to see both sides in this case, because Nick is genuinely terrible at the drums and doesn’t practice. Many a heroine of a Pony Tale was saddled with parents like these, when they weren’t obstructive in some other way to her dream of becoming an equestrian.

Supernatural-Proof Father – Usually, when a household starts experiencing supernatural events the whole family experiences them.Well, almost everybody. The father, as the head of the family and the most “sensible and grounded” member, is the last person to encounter (or admit encountering) these bizarre events. We have this kind of father in the horror film Insidious, though it turns out that technically he was the first to see the ghosts and has simply repressed his trauma.

Disappeared Dad – Children’s literature is full of Dads who are absent, either because they have left the family unit or because they’re too busy with their work. Bella Swan’s father grants her sufficient space for her to get mixed up in all sorts of supernatural happenings. However, the gap between disappeared mothers in fiction versus the parent with caregiving responsibilities in real life is far wider.

Action Dad – This is the father who realizes something is happening, and isn’t going to stand for it, particularly if it poses any kind of threat to his family. The father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Papa Smurf.

Archnemesis Dad – aloof, remote, and offer scant praise for their children’s achievements. Some expect their kids to act like adults from an early age and offer no guidance. Lord Tywin Lannister, the dwarf’s dad from A Song of Fire and Ice.

Bumbling Dad – Born out of the Sitcom Dysfunctional Family, he’s a deliberate subversion of the Standard 1950s Father. This father archetype is now so ubiquitous the older trope is nearly forgotten. Homer Simpson, Papa Bear of the Berenstain Bears, Frank Heffley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid, maybe Ron Weasley’s dad in Harry Potter.

Human Mother, Non-Human Dad – In the Japanese comic book (and movie) Wolf Children, the mother is fully human, but the father is a werewolf. His children inherit his werewolfishness.

Jock Dad, Nerd SonBill, from Freaks and Geeks (in relation to his mother’s boyfriend, who is also his P.E. teacher.

Overprotective Dad – Kat’s father from 10 Things I Hate About You.

Papa Wolf – when bumbling Dad turns into action Dad. The dad on The River Wild, in which the last line is given to the young son: something along the lines of “My mother is really brave but my father saved the day”, just to remind a conservative audience that the character arc really belongs to the man, even though the film ostensibly follows the path (“river”) of the mother.

Parent Ex Machina – This is when a mother or fatherly figure swoops in to save the day, much as a god did in old dramas. This is an absolute no-no in writing fiction for children. Cheryl Klein advises in her book Second Sight, if you find yourself with a plot that a child wouldn’t be able to solve because of their age, you can do something to fix it: Turn the unsolvable plot into a subplot while giving the child main character more autonomy in the main plot. Children must be the fully fledged main characters of their own stories.

Team Dad – Usually the disciplinarian, lead-by-example-kind of character. There’s usually a warm, nurturing Team Mom. The Team Dad is almost always the oldest member of The Team and if he isn’t The Leader, then he’s definitely The Mentor, and in family-based teams, he is the father (or at least the big brother) of at least one member. This character doesn’t have to be an actual Dad and doesn’t actually have to be male — though usually is. A good example from kidlit is Julian from the Famous Five series, or Dick from The Faraway Tree series — Enid Blyton loved Team Dad boys. Open page one of The Wishing Chair and highlight the mansplaining dished out to Molly from her brother, who looks the same age as she is.

Veteran DadPark’s father from Eleanor & Park. The gay dad across the road in American Beauty.

The Three Little Pigs Illustrated by Leonard Leslie Brooke Fairy Tale Analysis

The Three Little Pigs is one of the handful of classic tales audiences are expected to know. Pigs are handy characters: They can be adorable or they can be evil. You can strip them  butt naked and let the reader revel in their uncanny resemblance to humans. Or, you can dress them in jumpers and they’re as cute as kittens.

Brooke’s version of The Three Little Pigs, published January 1st 1905 by Frederick Warne and Company,  is freely available at Project Gutenberg.

No one knows who wrote it, but we do know it’s from England.

The Story Of The Three Little Pigs

This version is also part of the Mother Goose collection.

(Did you know that children’s books in general originally emerged from nursery rhymes and folk tale? And that William Godwin, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley, published the first Mother Goose Tales?)

In the edition below the Three Little Pigs are given names: Spotty, Curly-tail and Little Runt. By giving the pigs names, and also by dressing them in clothes, storytellers make the pigs more sympathetic to human readers.

Spotty, Curly-tail and Little Runt set off into the wide world to seek their fortune Three Little PIgs

Giving previously unnamed fairytale characters personal names is a trick normally employed by the Disney corporation. (The dwarves of Snow White didn’t have names until Disney named them.)


Margaret Blount, in Animal Land, points out that in this version, the animals are not yet wearing clothes. It was only after Beatrix Potter that animals started to wear clothes in picturebooks.

There were several different versions of this tale in my house when we were coming up — this was my favourite. It has very 1970s art and as you can see the pigs are wearing clothes. Though it’s not obvious from the cover, one of the pigs is carrying a bundle tied with a pink kerchief. Although gendered male in the text, I asked my eight-year-old if this pig was a boy or a girl and she said, “I don’t know.” She’s grown up in the pinkification of femininity, and to her, one pink item normally signifies a girl.

There was also this version from my childhood, and notice these ones aren’t wearing clothes. It’s harder to find naked pigs in this century, however. The newer Ladybird editions feature clothed pigs.

I grew up with the 1973 Little Golden Book of The Three Little Pigs, illustrated by someone who went by “ROFry”. I have no idea who this person is, but they seem to have also illustrated My Home and This Little Pony. The illustrations are beautiful, non-Disneyfied, and I would like to have seen more from them.


The story of the Three Little Pigs has a mythic Odyssean structure, with characters leaving home to embark upon a journey. Sometimes these heroes return home afterwards; in other variations they find new homes.

Picture books about journeys tend to feature a road (or river) in at least one spread. The illustration by Mary Evans is especially masterful in its composition, including all three houses in one frame. Of course readers aren’t supposed to take away that the pigs were building their house this close together — it’s a ‘fantasy map’, conceptual rather than GPS accurate, much like maps you find from the medieval era.

Three Little Pigs illustration by Mary Evans all houses in one frame
Three Little Pigs illustration by Mary Evans all houses in one frame

As much as any fairytale ever written, The Three Little Pigs makes full use of the Rule of Three in storytelling.

Who is the main character? The main character is the one who changes the most psychologically over the course of the story. That doesn’t include changes in circumstances, such as from living to being dead.

Still, I will argue that fairytales work slightly differently. We’re working with tropes here rather than fully-rounded individuals, and although the smart little pig doesn’t really evolve over the course of the story — starting smart and staying that way — the smart pig is nevertheless painted as the viewpoint character, which gives him the edge.

That said, the illustrations in Brooke’s version humorously depict the smart pig as more sociopathic than the hapless wolf. Readers may find their sympathies divided, and my wolf-loving eight-year-old refuses to read fairytales which vilify wolves. (Hence she prefers The Three Little Wolves And The Big Bad Pig.)


The two stupid (or lazy) brothers are dealt with swiftly, and in this version they get eaten. There’s no running away or anything, more typical of modern adaptations for the preschool set. We don’t actually see a gory blood and guts scene but we do see a satisfied wolf with his guts full of bacon.


The smart pig’s shortcoming is that he is delicious.


Surface desire: He wants to build a house.

Deeper desire: He wants to live a full life, safe from carnivorous wild animals.


You could argue that the brothers are opponents to each other. In contrast to the goat brothers in The Three Billy Goats Gruff, these pig brothers are isolated from each other and show no cooperation.

The Big Bad Wolf

The Big Bad Wolf in this tale is really no such thing. The audience already knows that the house of bricks will survive any big struggle, and Francis Spufford links it back to Piaget:

The invariability of a story is what gives it a secure existence. It adds it to the expanding sphere of what is known for sure; and therefore to the dependable world, which is made up at the deepest level, for a small child, of patterns on which it is safe to rely. Piaget called the patterns in an infant’s head ‘schemes’. They begin very simple. There is one scheme of ‘everything that will go into my mouth’. Then it subdivides, and there are separate schemes for food and for not-food. Complexity mounts up. Another way of seeing it is to say that small children agree intuitively with Wittgenstein. “The world is the totality of facts, not of things.” It’s what you know to be true that constitutes the world. Objects are terrible important, but the things in the small child’s world that she or he can touch — the red brick that somehow encapsulates the nature of the whole box of bricks, the kitchen furniture nested at the centre of the whole geography of home — count just as one type of true fact. Objects are just a subset of a scheme that has already divided, the scheme of things-that-are-true. They’re the type of fact you can verify by prodding or biting, but they go together with other types, equally certain, such as the fact that morning always comes. Or that the third little pig’s house will never blow down in any retelling of the story, no matter how hard the wolf huffs and puffs. Stories are so.

The Child That Books Built, Frances Spufford


The pig is smart enough to realise the wolf is a trickster, so the pig outwits him in turn by getting up earlier and earlier. This is clearly one of those stories which position early risers as morally more upright than people with a circadian rhythm that runs later!

Again we see the rule of threes, with three attempts by the wolf to lure the smart pig out of his house of bricks:

  1. the turnips
  2. the apple tree
  3. the fair

It is during this big struggle of wits that the audience sympathy is encouraged to switch from the pig to the wolf. In illustration this is achieved very simply by having the reader look over the wolf’s shoulder.



The escalating struggle sequences contain a lot of humour, even in this gritty version. There’s something comical about the pig jumping from the tree. Is it partly because we have no idea how he get up there in the first place? Is it because the wolf is so oblivious to the jumping pig even though it’s happening right in front of him? Or could it simply be the sight of a naked anthropomorphised pig?


The pig in the butter churn is also funny — probably because his naked butt is showing, and the Big Bad Wolf is scared.


When I look at the video in the tweet below, I realise pigs might have a long history of being roly poly.

In this gritty 1905 version, the wolf falls down the chimney straight into a pot of stew.


Modern editions for contemporary kids don’t make a meal out of this scene, but the Three Little Pigs story from Father Tuck’s “Mother Goose” series puts this image on the front cover. Sensibilities have changed. Not to mention, it’s normally an odd choice to ‘ruin the story’ by depicting the climactic scene on the front cover, which speaks, I think, to the fact everyone coming to this story already knows what happens.

Three Little PIgs from Father Tuck’s Mother Goose series
This Robert Lumley illustration from the 1965 Ladybird edition also makes the most of the death of the wolf.
This Robert Lumley illustration from the 1965 Ladybird edition also makes the most of the death of the wolf.


I’ve yet to see a pig actually eating the wolf but we come as close as we’re probably ever going to get with Brooke’s back view:


The revelation, perhaps, is that the pig is the genteel baddie and you should’ve been rooting for the wolf all along.

Or perhaps the young audience is simply reassured, having heard this same story many times before.


The Wolf is cynical and worldly looking, and the last Pig sitting by the fire is like the satisfied man who has taken out a life-insurance policy — which, as the story is about prudence, is quite fitting.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land


Like any classic tale, there have been numerous re-visionings over the years. Some are more successful than others. This is one from my childhood — hard to get a hold of now.

Clever Pigs cover_700x566

At first it looks like it’s a retelling of The Three Little Pigs, but it’s a story written on the back of second wave feminism, in which three female pigs each has a anagnorisis that she can do more than her fairytale trope.

Though the story is somewhat lacking due to lack of an opponent, it’s an example of the ‘battle-free myth form’ which we’ll probably see a lot more of in years to come given the success of Pixar’s Inside Out.

Unfortunately the batle-free myth form is really hard to do well, precisely because there’s no big bad wolf and no big big struggle scene.



Each pig is introduced as a category, as in a fairytale. See also: Fairytale Archetypes. Except these aren’t archetypes from fairytales — they are the sort of labels that get attached to children fairly early on — the kind of labels that can be restrictive.

Clever Pigs introduced


They lived in a rubbish dump where they were quite happy.

Emphasis is the author’s. The pretty pig is shown saying “Pooh!” but apart from that these pigs aren’t really driven to do much. They spend their days doing exactly what they supposedly like to do best.


There is no opponent, except for the wider society who has decided that each pig is an archetype rather than a complex individual.


There is no real plan.


There is no big struggle.


Instead, we skip straight to the anagnorisis.

Mucky Pig has a good idea


From now on the pigs will not live in a smelly rubbish dump but in a pretty garden, because they were each able to diversify their skills. Presumably their new occupations better suit their true talents, which is how they were able to make a garden.

Pretty Pig made a garden

Interesting History

Take any fairy tale and you’ll find numerous versions. There’s a similar tale to this called The Fox and the Pixies. Pixies sounds similar to Pigsies. Could the pixies have turned into pigs at some point in the oral evolution of this tale? 


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Rats In Children’s Literature

close up of a rat

That’s a gif from Reddit.

I’m reminded of modern children’s literature, in which an underdog, much maligned character has his/her own back.

It’s pretty funny until you read the top commenter, pointing out that the rat probably has toxoplasmosis, a disorder of the brain. On the other hand, mice and rats alike aren’t timid at all when you consider how small and vulnerable they are compared to us, and how they hang around humans anyway.


[A] recent meta-analysis of studies on species conservation in Australia found that, although conservation-based studies and efforts have expanded in recent years, taxonomic bias against “ugly” species exists in scientific reporting. Fleming and Bateman found that mammals considered as “ugly” and/or not “charismatic,” such as rodents and bats, were the subject of far fewer studies despite greater species diversity and a higher rate of extinction.

On The Politics of Ugliness (Introduction)

Sooo, compared to mice, rats are relatively uncommon in children’s literature.

There are a number of reasons for this:

First, mice are cute, and serve as stand-in children owing to their small, vulnerable size. Rats have long, worm-like tails and look at you as if they’re about to murder you. Their paws are large enough for us to notice they are uncannily like human hands.

Mice are widely represented in folktales, both as protagonists and as helpers. Apparently, there is a subconscious identification on the part of children’s writers of a small and helpless child with one of the smallest animals, also know–maybe without reason–for its lack of courage. While rats are in many children’s stories presented as ruthless enemies, mice–in reality similarly harmful–are portrayed as harmless and sympathetic. The emblematic meaning of animals in art and literature deserves special attention there is an enormous diversity between cultures. However, in most ancient mythologies, mice are chthonic animals, worshipped as powerful and benevolent towards humans.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature

Second, there’s a long history of tropes depicting rats as baddies, and the antihero isn’t very well explored (yet) in literature for young children.

See also: A list of rodent tropes at TV Tropes

This gets dark real quick when you realise that the trope of rats as baddies extends to real life.

Characterizing people as vermin has historically been a precursor to murder and genocide. The Nazis built on centuries-old hatred of Jews as carriers of disease in a film titled “Der Ewige Jude,” or “The Eternal Jew.”

INFEST — The Ugly Nazi History of Trump’s Chosen Verb About Immigrants

Third, there’s no Aesopian precedent for personified rats. Aesop has a much bigger influence on modern children’s literature than we might think. Take a look at the following word cloud, from a site which catalogue’s Aesop’s fables and you’ll notice that rats are entirely absent. Even mice aren’t all that common.


Rats are associated with different emotions, depending on the culture. Ancient Japan had a good relationship with rats, though I have no idea why — didn’t rats get into everyone’s food stocks… a life or death matter back then? It may be precisely the power of rats that affords them respect, and respect can be associated with good fortune, I guess.


The rats from Chicken Run speak Cockney English, are underworld petty criminal scavenger types and are used to deliver funny one-liners.

rats chicken run

If these guys were characters in a children’s story they would be rats.

Only Fools and Horses
from Only Fools and Horses

Charlotte’s Web was probably a heavy influence on the rat as rag and bone man today, via the character of Templeton.

Rats = Masculine, Mice = Feminine

The characters in Froggy Went A-Courtin (here we have the 1955 illustrations) are a good example of rodent gendering in children’s stories. The mice is infantalised in what today seems ridiculously old-fashioned, but which was no doubt representative of its time. No one knows exactly when the original song was first composed, but it was long before 1955.

Uncle Rat froggy went a courtin
Miss mouse will you marry me

That said, it wasn’t unusual for Americans to see pictures of women on men’s knees in popular culture, and it wasn’t always a loving dynamic such as this one.



Because the rat as baddie is so well established, an author can subvert audience expectations by creating a nice, kind, loving rat.

Andrew McDonald does this in Real Pigeons Splash Back, illustrated by Ben Wood. The pigeon crime fighters are scared of rats. This is established early as they prepare to head into the sewers. Eventually they come face to face with the dreaded rats… first a female rat who pulls them out of the water and dries them off nicely with towels.

Mo Willems also subverts the stereotype of a rat by creating a lovable Naked Mole Rat — check out photos and the animal is about the least cute mammal I can think of.

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A Squash And A Squeeze Analysis by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler Analysis

A Squash and a Squeeze is a 1993 picture book written by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Sheffler. The plot is very old.

A Squash and a Squeeze was published in 1993, when Donaldson was 44. It was not expected to be a big seller. For one thing, it was in rhyme, which publishers at the time largely avoided because of difficulties with translation. “In order for a picture book to be profitable, you more or less have to glue some foreign editions on, so you can do a bigger print run,” Donaldson said.

The Guardian

Donaldson’s great gift is two-fold: weaving old folktale tropes into contemporary stories, and with beautiful, read-aloud prose. This particular story is a retelling of an old Yiddish tale and, to be honest, I wish there were more acknowledgement of this heritage in editions and reviews of A Squash and a Squeeze. Even the tentpole authors are heavily reliant upon a long tradition of storyteller and storytellers.

There are other picture book retellings of this story. Too Much Noise by Ann McGovern, with illustrations by Simms Taback (1967) has fallen into obscurity, though I picked up a copy for free when our local library was having a throw out. (This sort of proves its obscurity.)

Too Much Noise by Ann McGovern
Too Much Noise by Ann McGovern

Another example is  A Big Quiet House by Heather Forest and illustrated by Susan Greenstein (1996).

You’ll find many folktale tropes here: Witches, chimeras, rats, mice, and here: a mentor archetype. Then there’s a trope most often found in fairytales and in picture books: an old woman who lives alone on a simple small plot of land in the country. This woman will probably have a close relationship with her animals (and if she doesn’t, she’ll be forced to, here!) The older Yiddish tales are about a man who lives alone in a house, so Donaldson has inverted the gender. (At first this may look like an act of feminism, but I don’t believe Donaldson is a feminist storyteller.) In the Yiddish tale the man goes to a woman for help; now we have a woman going to a man for help. This is an inversion, not a subversion. (There’s a difference.)



There have been various editions of A Squash And A Squeeze in its 20+ year history of reprints.

Here is a slightly more ominous sky:

a squash and a squeeze dark sky

With the help of an old man and all of her animals, an old lady realises that her house is not as small as she thought it was.

“a bit of a classic … A goat on the bed and a cow on the table tapping out a jig? My readers collapsed in heaps, and then had to have it read again. And again.”

Vivian French in The Guardian


The old woman feels her little house is too small for her. The four walls make her feel ‘squashed and squeezed’. Donaldson brings the freshness of onomatopoeic/mimetic language to this revisioning.


She wants a bigger house, we guess.


The Wise Old Man is a secret-ally opponent. He at first seems to be making her situation worse, but there’s method in his madness.


She asks the local Wise Old Man what to do.

The word 'plan' is even used in the text. A SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE
The word ‘plan’ is even used in the text.


The big struggle scenes are slap stick set pieces as the Wise Old Man tells her to bring her farm animals into the house. He starts her off on the smallest farm animals and ends with the cow.


Compared to having a house full of farm animals, a cottage with just her in it no longer seems so small.


The animals live happily in the yard and the old woman lives happily in her cottage, no longer feeling it’s too small.

Charles Hunt – Paddy’s Darling
Frederick George Cotman - One of the Family
Frederick George Cotman – One of the Family
Belinda Lyon
Belinda Lyon


Picture books are easy to read – Donaldson’s usually run at just 32 pages, and under 1,000 words – which can give the mistaken impression that they are easy to write. This myth has been reinforced by the publishing industry’s penchant for indulging celebrity authors, who are seen as a guarantee of press coverage and sales, though the books themselves are often ghost-written or heavily edited, and few are unqualified successes. Donaldson has repeatedly complained that picture book authors do not receive “the recognition they deserve”, lamenting at the 2019 Hay festival that “everything has to be the next big thing or else just go out of print”.

Similar charges, meanwhile, have been levelled at Donaldson, whose dominance of the picture book genre is seen by some as crowding out the market for new titles. “Some authors are a bit sniffy about her, but I think that’s just pure and simple jealousy because she’s so successful and she gets all that shelf space,” the author and illustrator Rob Biddulph told me. “But there’s a reason for it: she’s a genius.”

The Guardian

Julia Donaldson is indeed a rhyming genius, and like many geniuses, Donaldson occasionally rewrites formerly published stories, sometimes without changing the plot at all. How many of us have a copy of A Squash And A Squeeze on our shelves, but have never heard of Too Much Noise or A Big Quiet House? Perhaps this is what the ‘sniffy’ authors are talking about.

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The Symbolism of Stairs And Attics

C. Coles Phillips (American artist and illustrator, 1880-1927) stairs


Common-sense lives on the ground floor […] on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers.

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

See Symbolism of the Dream House for more on stairs and the places they connect.

stairs from Mango & Bambang- The Not-a-Pig by Polly Faber
Mango & Bambang- The Not-a-Pig by Polly Faber
Garth Williams (1912 - 1996) Miss Bianca (1962) by Margery Sharp stairs
Garth Williams (1912 – 1996) Miss Bianca (1962) by Margery Sharp. Mice contemplate their journey from the bottom of a majestic staircase.
Up the Staircase, Tom Lovell, (1909-1997), for a magazine story illustration. 1942
Up the Staircase, Tom Lovell, (1909-1997), for a magazine story illustration. 1942

Beauty and the Beast

Stairs = Ascent To Heaven

This image is from the 1986 version retold by Anne Carter,  illustrated by Binette Schroeder. Beauty and the Beast has a strong Christian message for young women: Do as you’re told and you’ll wind up in Heaven. Here we see her going up the stairs into the Beast’s castle, sure that she’s about to end up dead.


Stairs as Ascent into Terror and Imagination

I like drawing staircases, so it seems. There’s nothing like a steep staircase to add some tension and drama to an illustration.

Stairs As Eavesdropping Spaces

A battle scene in 101 Dalmatians (1963) features a chase and dodge sequence which takes place on the stairwell of a big, unwelcoming, aristocratic house. Staircases allow for a variety of angles.

101 Dalmations
101 Dalmatians staircase
The nice thing about stairs is, the space beneath offers shelter and hiding place.
101 Dalmatians baddie defeated
101 Dalmatians A top down view of the baddie sprawled across the landing shows that he has been defeated.
From 'When the Sky is like Lace' 1975 Written by Elinor Lander Horowitz Illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917 - 2000)
From ‘When the Sky is like Lace’ 1975 Written by Elinor Lander Horowitz Illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917 – 2000)
Angela Barrett, from the Walker Book of Ghost Stories
Angela Barrett. from the Walker Book of Ghost Stories

Speaking of ominous staircases, you may have seen a picture of Stairs to Heaven or Haiku Stairs on the Internet.

Over at Messy Nessy is an explanation:

“The Stairway to Heaven, also known as the Haiku Stairs, is a series of 3,922 steps in Oahu, Hawaii on the Koolau Mountain Range. The staircase was built by in 1942 by the U.S. Navy and its scenic views made it a popular tourist attraction. The Stairway to Heaven was closed off in 1982, and scheduled to re-open in 2001 after an $875,000 renovation but local residents opposed access in a NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) move. Hikers ignored the signs placed by the city, the city hired security guards to block access, so hikers then accessed the Stairway to Heaven in the middle of the night.”

Welcome to the tyrannical city of Jewel, where impatience is a sin and boldness is a crime.
Goldie Roth has lived in Jewel all her life. Like every child in the city, she wears a silver guardchain and is forced to obey the dreaded Blessed Guardians. She has never done anything by herself and won’t be allowed out on the streets unchained until Separation Day.
When Separation Day is canceled, Goldie, who has always been both impatient and bold, runs away, risking not only her own life but also the lives of those she has left behind. In the chaos that follows, she is lured to the mysterious Museum of Dunt, where she meets the boy Toadspit and discovers terrible secrets. Only the cunning mind of a thief can understand the museum’s strange, shifting rooms. Fortunately, Goldie has a talent for thieving.

Which is just as well, because the leader of the Blessed Guardians has his own plans for the museum—plans that threaten the lives of everyone Goldie loves. And it will take a daring thief to stop him. . .

Some stairs are hidden, functioning as a labyrinth just beyond the familiar walls.

Nancy Drew is alarmed when Nathan Gombet threatens her father. Gombet sold a piece of land for a railroad bridge through Carson Drew and now believes that he was cheated.

Meanwhile, valuable objects are disappearing from rooms in the Turnbull mansion even while the Turnbull sisters, Rosemary and Florette, are at home in their locked house. Having heard about her reputation for solving mysteries, the sisters invite Nancy Drew to stay in the mansion and discover the thief.

In seeking to solve the mysterious happenings in an old stone mansion, Nancy uses her courage and powers of deduction and tackles a situation that would have appalled a far older person.


The stairs leading to the turret are narrow, which forces physical proximity.

Frederic William Burton - Hellelil and Hildebrand, the meeting on the turret stairs (1864)
Frederic William Burton – Hellelil and Hildebrand, the meeting on the turret stairs (1864)

Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

Does anyone else find it ironically hilarious that the steps are made of anti slip metal? I mean, it’s necessary and all, and probably better than nothing, but that, folks, is what you call a death trap. Safety tread or no safety tread.


Wolves In The Walls is a contemporary story, but ‘living beings in the walls’ has a real-life history when we think back to the relatively recent Edwardian era, in which well-to-do houses kept a staff of services who lived, like rats, ‘behind the scenes’. Behind the green baize door. These servants had their own stairways, and were expected to keep apart from the owners and ‘proper residents’ of the house as much as humanly possible. If they were to ever meet their superior in the house, the most lowly of staff were expected to turn away, pretending not to have seen or heard a thing.

Only William knows about the big great bear living under the stairs. He’s sure he saw one lurking there…
The Bear Under The Stairs
The Bear Under The Stairs

Behind the Green Baize Door

In order that the frenzied activity of the servants didn’t impinge on the peace and quiet of the household, there was a second staircase, unlit, between the attic where the maids lived and the basement where they worked. The servants’ stairs were behind the … green baize door, and led to a network of tunnels and passages few from the other side would ever need to see. The servants’ entrance was around the back of the house and, in town houses, was below ground level. It was considered a heinous impertinence for anyone of servant or tradesman class to call at the front door.

Along with the kitchen and scullery, the basement housed the sleeping quarters for the male members of staff as well as the butler’s pantry and the housekeeper’s room, where the preserves and pickles would be kept. If the housekeeper was lucky she would have enough room there.

Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney

The Dark by Lemony Snickett and Jon Klassen

Stairs = Descent into terror

the dark stairs

Geronimo Stilton

In this humorous series we have a mouse who is terrified of entering an attic. This is a small inversion on the norm, which is to be terrified of entering a basement.

Geronimo Stilton staircase_600x911

Courage The Cowardly Dog: The Demon In The Mattress (1999)

a great high angle view of a staircase

Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry (2013)

Stairs = descent into dreamlike other reality

midnight feast stairs

David’s Waiting Day by Bernadette Watts (1977)

At various other points in this picture book we see the young David gazing out at the reader from the second-storey bedroom window.

We don’t find out what it is David is waiting for until the end of the book (when we learn he has been waiting for his mother to come home with a new baby.) In the meantime, there is a deliberately ominous mood to this book, depicted here by the staircase in silhouette and backgrounded in black. David doesn’t know what’s going on. The mysteries of childbirth are kept from him. David is The Boy Upstairs.

David's Waiting Day staircase
Angusine Jeanne (A. J.) MacGregor (Scottish-English, 1881-1961) stairs
Angusine Jeanne (A. J.) MacGregor (Scottish-English, 1881-1961)
by Mary Petty (1899-1976) 1948
by Mary Petty (1899-1976) 1948


An attic is a space found directly below the pitched roof of a house or other building. Attics are also known as

  • lofts
  • sky parlors
  • garrets

Being in an attic is not like being in any other room — the sloped and low ceiling is a constant reminder.

What are attics used for? Some are converted into insulated, liveable spaces. But others are accessible only by ladder, perhaps a pull-down ladder, or a manhole, considered a storage cavity rather than part of the house.

Victorians were obsessed with air quality in their houses and the attic for well-off landowners was an important part of the ventilation system:

In 1872, a Liverpool doctor, John Hayward, built his own house to demonstrate his ideas of proper ventilation. It was a remarkable and uncommon example of how the new environmental technology had to be integrated with architecture if it was to work well. All the gaslights were so-called Ricket’s globes, in which the flame was enclosed in a glass ball and the fumes were never allowed to enter the room. The windows were not openable. Fresh air was fed in from the basement, warmed in a furnace, and distributed via a central lobby on each floor and through a perforated cornice into the room. Over each gasolier was an outlet grille that led to a duct. The exhausted air was collected in a “foul air chamber” in the attic; from here a shaft led to the kitchen fireplace, which pulled the air down and evacuated it through the chimney. Not only the main rooms but also the kitchen, dressing rooms, bathrooms, and water closets were ventilated in this way.

Home by Witold Rybczynski

When popular TV personality Malcolm Master says during a broadcast that he envies his listeners the sound of children’s pattering feet they will have on Christmas, he does not expect to find four babies on his doorstep the next day expecting to be adopted! As these children grow up as siblings, they need to create their own family since he is rarely around.

In The Mystery of the Deadly Double we have an illustration of a regular sized house but with the basic features of a gothic mansion — the attic looks like a modern version of a belfry.

Attics can be creepy. They can safeguard horrible secrets. The attic is the architectural equivalent of the psyche, the head. You may have heard the phrase ‘squirrels in the attic’ to describe lying awake at night, ostensibly because your squirrels in the attic are making noise, but really because you’re worrying about something.

The attic can also be a haven, however, as it is for the bachelor in 101 Dalmatians.

101 Dalmatians attic scene
101 Dalmatians attic scene

Mousse will welcome his niece Pistachio for a few days. He wants everything to be perfect: he does the shopping, sets up a small library with his favorite books, prepares the guest room…

He quickly realizes that what pleases Pistache the most is to bathe again and again. Is there anything else that might interest him? Yes, maybe to participate in this garage sale. But Mousse finds that what is in the attic is very good in the attic. And then, these are his memories…

As much as the attic is a haven, our bachelor must come down from his safe space, meet a woman, marry and have children. Sure enough, he is forced out of his attic and into the real world.

Norman Rockwell. Jo is seated on the old sofa from the most beloved American writer. This illustration was for a December 1937 edition of the Woman’s Home Companion.
Ralph Hedley - The Sail Loft
Ralph Hedley – The Sail Loft

For more on the symbolism of the attic, see Symbolism Of The Dream House.

Scene from Midnight Feast. In children's books you often have a child locked upstairs. The child generally comes down and enters the real world for an adventure. Upstairs is for dreaming.
Scene from Midnight Feast. In children’s books you often have a child locked upstairs. The child generally comes down and enters the real world for an adventure. Upstairs is for dreaming.
Another view from Midnight Feast. By this point in the story the reader feels locked inside the house along with the main character.
Another view from Midnight Feast. By this point in the story the reader feels locked inside the house along with the main character.
Wilhelm Roegge (German, 1829 - 1908) In Atelier, 1900-10
Wilhelm Roegge (German, 1829 – 1908) In Atelier, 1900-10
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) attic
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) attic


Maids In Attics

In the Edwardian era:

Maids were invariably placed in the attic, partly because there were rooms there that the family didn’t use and partly to keep them as far away as possible from the male staff, to deter ‘fraternization’. For this reason, the maids’ corridor, often guarded by a formidable housekeeper or head housemaid, was known as the ‘Virgin’s wing’.

Bare Necessities

The basic furniture in the attic rooms varied little from house to house. There was a mattress on a small iron bedstead for each maid, a washstand with a jug for water, as very few had running water, and a basin, soap dish and toothbrush holder which rarely matched, having been passed down from the ‘best bedrooms’ when a companion piece had been broken. Some would have chairs and all would have bare floorboards, unlike the thick rugs and carpets of family rooms.

Private Utilities

Ornaments and pictures were strictly forbidden in most servants’ bedrooms and the attics were bitterly cold in winter, with the poor incumbent usually waking to a frozen flannel and ice in the washing jug. Even when electricity and gas became common in society homes, employers trying to save on their budget usually left the attic out of the expensive installation.

from Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney

Mad Women In The Attic

The trope comes from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, in which Mr Rochester keeps a mad wife locked up in his attic. This trope was really common in works written in the 1800s, but didn’t really become known by that name (‘Madwoman In The Attic’) until an academic work published 1979 by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.

Gilbert and Gubar examine the notion that women writers of the 19th Century were confined in their writing to make their female characters either embody the “angel” or the “monster.” This struggle stemmed from male writers’ tendencies to categorise female characters as either pure, angelic women or rebellious, unkempt madwomen.


The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The main character in Messud’s novel is a middle-aged school teacher who is not imprisoned by any single man, as such, but by a society in which she is increasingly invisible.

The Woman Upstairs Cover

The ‘mad woman in the attic’ is given a voice in this cornerstone of post-colonial fiction. Antoinette Cosway is a Creole heiress and the wife of a man who, though never named, is understood to be the dashing Mr Rochester of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre. Cosway’s tragic narrative is delivered in three ceaselessly compelling parts, each brimming with a heady mix of lechery and treachery. A deep sense of injustice – racial and sexual Wikipedia simmers throughout.

The Island Review
Wide Sargosso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea is a 1966 novel by Dominican-British author Jean Rhys. The novel serves as a postcolonial and feminist prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1847), describing the background to Mr. Rochester’s marriage from the point-of-view of his wife Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress. Antoinette Cosway is Rhys’s version of Brontë’s devilish “madwoman in the attic”.

Falling Down Stairs

I’ve been watching a show on Netflix called Forensic Files. One thing I have learnt: when people suicide they inexplicably keep holding the gun because their hand muscles kind of seize up. Also: It’s actually quite rare to die after falling down stairs, yet murderers have tried to stage death by stairs on numerous occasions.


ABOVE, THE: Also called “the aloft” and sometimes used interchangeably with “the Heavens,” this term refers to the gallery on the upper level of the frons scenae. In Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, this area contained the lords’ rooms, but the center of this location was also used by the actors for short scenes. On the other hand, in most indoor theaters like the Blackfriars Theater, musicians above the stage would perform in a curtained alcove here.

Literary Terms and Definitions
The Best Of Fred by Rupert Fawcett, Headline Book Publishing, London 1998
The Best Of Fred by Rupert Fawcett, Headline Book Publishing, London 1998

Header illustration: C. Coles Phillips (American artist and illustrator, 1880-1927)

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The Female Injures Male Trope In Children’s Stories

Italian writer, Waltz Molina (1915-1997) woman hitting man with roses

Female on male violence is often used for comedic effect in storytelling. This holds true even when male on female violence would never fly. Is this a double standard?

I have looked for this particular storytelling device on TV Tropes, where you can find most any trope under the sun, but haven’t yet found this particular romantic plot device. I’m not sure if I’m one of the only people to have noticed this is a thing — a relatively new thing, I might add — a sort of inverse of the Rescue Romance, which is very old indeed.

This illustration is by Italian Waltz Molina.
Continue reading “The Female Injures Male Trope In Children’s Stories”

Fathers In Children’s Literature

Nils von Dardel (Swedish, 1888-1943), My daughter, 1923. Watercolor on paper, 45 x 28 cm. Private collection


Historian Bernard Wishy has noted that as paternal rule in the New England household faded in reality, it flourished a good while longer in story and myth. In popular advice books for parents of the 1830s written by Jacob Abbott, Samuel Goodrich, and others, “it was the mothers who were at the centre of home life, [but] in books for children written by the same authors, the father was clearly in control of the family. This difference,” according to Wishy, “is not surprising for it had not been decreed that the mother formally replace the father. She had, for the sake of practicality, stepped into roles in the nurture literature that the American father could not play well.” Under the new regime, not least of the mother’s primary duties was “to teach the child that he owed supreme respect, love and obedience to his father.”

Minders of Make-Believe by Leonard S. Marcus

The father who goes to work (during daylight), then comes home to protect his family overnight was the middle class ideal. The city in the background of the 1952 illustration below suggests the father commutes and earns a big wage, returning to the utopian cottage or suburb each evening.

John Faed – The Expectant Wee Things (engraving by William Miller)
“Daddy’s Home”, illustration by Jerome Rozen, 1952
N.C. Wyeth (American, 1882-1945), After The Day's Work, 1923
N.C. Wyeth (American, 1882-1945), After The Day’s Work, 1923
Illustration of 'The Father whose return is greeted by young voices' by Hugh Thomson, 1907 edition of Silas Marner
Illustration of ‘The Father whose return is greeted by young voices’ by Hugh Thomson, 1907 edition of Silas Marner
Walter Humphrey 1940s father
Walter Humphrey 1940s father
Austin Briggs 1949
Austin Briggs 1949
Eileen Alice Soper (Enfield, Middlesex, 26 March 1905 - 18 March 1990; England) window father
Eileen Alice Soper (Enfield, Middlesex, 26 March 1905 – 18 March 1990; England)

If anyone’s in any doubt about the image of father as protector, take the illustration below, which is selling insurance.

STAYING SAFE #1 NORMAN ROCKWELL (1894-1978) FATHER’S RETURN HOME 1973 American Mutual Insurance Company Christmas card
STAYING SAFE #1 NORMAN ROCKWELL (1894-1978) FATHER’S RETURN HOME 1973 American Mutual Insurance Company Christmas card
Hans Andersen Brendekilde (7 April 1857 – 30 March 1942) The Arrival Of The Christmas Tree (Danish)
Hans Andersen Brendekilde (7 April 1857 – 30 March 1942) The Arrival Of The Christmas Tree (Danish)


A case could be made that there are already plenty of flawed parents in young adult literature. Richie, from Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park immediately comes to mind. Is there a more despised character in YA? For me, no.

Bryan Bliss

‘I hate him,’ Eleanor would say.
‘I hate him so much I wish he was dead,’ Maisie would answer.
‘I hope he falls off a ladder at work.’
‘I hope he gets hit by a truck.’
‘A garbage truck.’
‘Yeah,’ Maisie would say, gritting her teeth, ‘and all the garbage will fall on his dead body.’

from Eleanor and Park

Fathers In Picturebooks

It’s common for a young boy in a picture book to want to impress his father. This can even drive the plot, forming the ‘Desire’ part of the story structure (Desires to prove himself to his father).

Examples are the Spot books by Eric Hill and some of the Dr Seuss books — notably his first, And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, in which a boy tries to impress his father by concocting an interesting story about what he saw on the way to school:

When I leave home to walk to school,
Dad always says to me,
“Marco, keep your eyelids up
And see what you can see.”

This desire line feels to me like a specifically masculine one; I can’t easily think of picture books (or even stories for older children) in which a boy or a girl must prove themselves to their mother. In storybook world, a mother’s unconditional love is taken for granted whereas that of a father must be hard won.

Fathers In Fairytales

Hänsel and Gretel, The Brothers Grimm. Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger, 1979. I’ve always thought the father in this story (as retold today) gets off lightly. All the blame for child abandonment is heaped upon the (step-)mother, and no internal story blame is directed to the father, who stood by and let his own children be left to die in the woods… twice.

There is hardly a tale in the Grimms’ collection‘ — argued the Grimm scholar and fairy-tale activist Jack Zipes, in 1995 — ‘that does not raise the issue of parental oppression.‘ And yet, ‘we rarely talk about how the miller’s daughter is forced by her father into a terrible situation of spinning straw into gold, or how Rapunzel is locked up by her foster mother and maltreated just as children are often locked up in closets and abused today.’

Frances Spufford, The Child That Books Built
Satyr with his Son, Georg Jahn  1907
Satyr with his Son, Georg Jahn 1907

Fathers and Disney Fairytale Adaptations

“My Heart Belongs To Daddy”: Fathers, Bad Boys, and Disney Princesses

Fatherhood is a powerful force in Disney Princess films. Fathers bequeath nobility and exert influence over their daughters, whose marriages often effect the reproduction of economic capital. Even when the fathers of Princesses are absent, as in Snow White, Cinderella, and The Princess and the Frog, they instigate storylines: Snow White’s and Cinderella’s fathers marry cruel stepmothers, setting in train narratives in which the monstrous feminine is central. Angela Carter describes this scheme in her story “Ashputtle or The Mother’s Ghost,” where she reflects that in “Aschenputtel,” the Grimms’ version of the Cinderella story, the father is “the unmoved mover, the unseen organising principle, like God.” In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana’s father has died by the time the story begins, but not before impressing upon Tiana the imperative of hard work, which, he promises, will enable her to “do anything you set your mind to.” Disney’s Sleeping Beauty features two fathers: Aurora’s father King Stegan and his friend King Hubert, who arrange the betrothal of Aurora to Prince Phillip, Hubert’s son. While the Sleeping Beauty scenario comprises the most explicit reference to practices of dynastic marriage in aristocratic families, all the Princess films strenuously advocate heterosexual romance and (with the exception of Pocahontas) marriage, so arguing for the maintenance of “traditional” social and economic orders.

from The Disney Middle Ages: A Fairy-Tale and Fantasy Past by Tison Pugh, Susan Aronstein

Fathers And Domestic Work

There is much to be said about mothers in children’s literature. While authors try to get adult figures out of the way so children can solve their own problems, if there is a parent hanging around the house, it is usually the mother.

Although, arguably, social roles are changing and in more and more households domestic work, including food provisioning, is being shared, cultural change is slow. Vincent Duindam, citing the work of Dr. Morgan, confirms that most of the evidence shows that there are “very slow changes in the direction of men’s participation” in domestic duties and child care and this is supported by the lack of male figures performing these roles in children’s books. In the conservative world of children’s literature it is the female, rather than the male, in general, who is still linked to the domestic.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children

Absent Fathers

Where the father is absent from a children’s story, no matter how terrible he was, the child character often longs for him. (The same is true of absent mothers.) Examples include:

  • Lenny’s Book Of Everything by Karen Foxlee
  • Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak
  • Fly Me Home by Polly Ho-Yen
  • Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi
  • You May Already Be A Winner by Ann Dee Ellis
  • Dog-man: A tale of two kitties by Dav Pilkey
Thomas Benjamin Kennington - Widowed  and Fatherless
Thomas Benjamin Kennington – Widowed and Fatherless

In modern children’s stories the fathers are absent for a wide variety of reasons, sometimes those reasons are left unexplained. In 20th century children’s stories the fathers are often absent because they are at war.

Into The Forest by Anthony Browne is a stand-out example of a picture book about a child’s emotional landscape as the father is away at war.

Fathers Preparing and Serving Food

from David's Waiting Day by Bernadette Watts, 1977. The story looks progressive, until you realise the father may only be cooking because his wife is away giving birth.
from David’s Waiting Day by Bernadette Watts, 1977. The story looks progressive, until you realise the father may only be cooking because his wife is away giving birth.
A father flipping pancakes by Shirley Hughes. Generally, when fathers cook in picture books, they are not doing it in the background. They are performing cooking as spectacle. This tells us they aren’t doing the day-to-day labour of family cooking, but taking over every now and then as part of having fun.
Mr Gumpy's Outing table_700x380
Mr Gumpy seems to be a single father with two children and a farmyard full of slightly anthropomorphised animals. So I’m going to assume he made tea himself.

It is rare to find instances of males providing food in children’s literature. One such is Will in Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife. Will nurtures Lyra through food, cooking an omelet for her. He has knowledge of relevant food rules and domestic hygiene practices. It could be argued, however, that Will is feminized by the role he performs, especially given that he is also earlier seen to be caring for his sick mother. Pullman’s framing of the boy as having murdered a man may serve the purpose of counteracting the feminizing effect of his implicit domestication.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children

As Daniel points out, when dads serve food in children’s fiction they are often less ‘fussy’ about its presentation than the mothers. They’ll provide a meal, and sometimes the meal ends up really delicious and fun, but he’ll slap the knives and forks onto the table rather than expecting them to be laid out, as a mother might. Instead of acting in loco parentis, the dad in a story is often ‘babysitting’. In real life, too, you often hear men talking about ‘babysitting’ their own children, but women will almost never use this term when describing their own mothering duties.

Daniel does offer one example of a nurturing male who provides food in children’s literature, and that’s Michael from David Almond’s Skellig. He looks after an old man presumed to be a tramp, bringing him Chinese takeaway (but in a way that puts me right off Chinese takeaway, I must say).

  • King Arthur
  • Zeus
  • The Tempest
  • The Godfather
  • Rick in Casablanca
  • King Lear
  • Hamlet
  • Othello
  • Aragorn and Sauron in The Lord of the Rings
  • Agamemnon in the Iliad
  • Citizen Kane
  • Star Wars
  • Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire
  • American Beauty
  • Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman
  • Fort Apache
  • Meet Me In St. Louis
  • Mary Poppins
  • Tootsie
  • The Philadelphia Story
  • Red River
  • Howards End
  • Chinatown

To this end, it’s useful to take a look at various ‘King tropes’ when understanding the roles — the strengths and shortcomings — typical of fathers in fiction.

King Tropes

The Good King

The High King

Related Links

My Dad by Anthony Browne cover
My Dad by Anthony Browne cover

The trial of the century has come to Tupelo Landing, NC. Mo and Dale, aka Desperado Detectives, head to court as star witnesses against Dale’s daddy–confessed kidnapper Macon Johnson. Dale’s nerves are jangled, but Mo, who doesn’t mind getting even with Mr. Macon for hurting her loved ones, looks forward to a slam dunk conviction–if everything goes as expected.

Of course nothing goes as expected. Macon Johnson sees to that. In no time flat, Macon’s on the run, Tupelo Landing’s in lockdown, and Dale’s brother’s life hangs in the balance. With Harm Crenshaw, newly appointed intern, Desperado Detectives are on the case. But it means they have to take on a tough client–one they’d never want in a million years.

For everyone who’s already fallen for Mo and Dale, and for anyone who’s new to Tupelo Landing, The Odds of Getting Even is a heartwarming story that perfectly blends mystery and action with more serious themes about family and fathers, all without ever losing its sense of humor. Cover design by Gilbert Ford.

I thought the Lego film was delightful. They had a deep subtext that created a brilliant climax when you had a marvelous turning point where suddenly everything is retrospectively obvious, and there’s a massive reconfiguring of reality. Suddenly all those father characters you saw from world to world to world are all aspects of the kid’s father. It was superbly written!

Robert McKee

Header painting: Nils von Dardel (Swedish, 1888-1943), My daughter, 1923. Watercolor on paper, 45 x 28 cm. Private collection

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Inspector Gadget: How Children’s Media Has Changed

Inspector Gadget

When a children’s story gets a remake we see more clearly how storytelling has changed. Inspector Gadget makes for a case study.

Inspector Gadget
In which girl character and dog character have equal billing

Interestingly, Esquire calls this ‘the digital era’, under the idea that the use of computers has an integral impact on narrative. The medium is the message, and all that.


Steven DeNure, president and COO of DHX Media, was thrilled to acquire the rights to Gadget in 2012. But he worried the old Gadget wouldn’t appeal to its target audience of young children.

For starters, the pacing was painfully slow. Kids today are used to fast-moving commercials, quick cuts, and a thing called the Internet.


Gadget remains as clueless as ever, and Penny remains just as brainy.

This is related to what has been called The Hermione Trope. We see it in movies such as Monster House, too, and ParaNorman, in which the bossy brainy girl saves the day, but completely behind the scenes. 35 years later, girls are still swots, boys are still adventurous etc. Boys see that they don’t need to be such swots to get on in the world — they’ll be the stars of the story because of their gender.


“What we wanted to do was make Penny a little older,” says Chalopin, who estimates she was between 10 and 12 before and is now in her mid-teens. She also has a new love interest: Dr. Claw’s spiky-haired nephew, Talon. “He’s more of a kid of today,” Chalopin says.


[Talon] makes a great counterpart to Penny with his good looks and his charm.


“Penny had a smartphone way before it existed,” Chalopin says, so that wouldn’t impress children today. To get around the problem, he created “holographic protection” for Brain and a computer that appears out of thin air when Penny needs it.


Financing remains an uphill big struggle. Much of what’s selected today, at least for content streaming services like Netflix, must not only reach a broad group of viewers but transcend countries and age groups as well. As Erik Barmack, Netflix’s vice president of global independent content, says, “The things we look for in general is if the shows transcend countries, have a new story to be told, or a new way of reimagining characters.” Gadget, he says, ticks off all three criteria.

This explains the increasingly sexualised teen characters over a pre-adolescent girl character.

– How Inspector Gadget Was Remade For A New Generation from Esquire

The Technique of Ticking Clocks in Storytelling

Being late, Norman Rockwell (1894–1978)

The very first episode of The Narrative Breakdown podcast is about a plot device which helps to amp up the tension in a story: Sometimes it even comes with a ticking clock sound effect — more often it doesn’t — and it describes a story which has time as a pressing issue. If there’s a bomb in the story you have an especially clear example of a Ticking Clock Plot Device e.g. the movie Speed.

The Cat In The Hat Comes Back by Dr Seuss
The Cat In The Hat Comes Back by Dr Seuss

(Here are many more tropes associated with Cat In The Hat, though ‘race against the clock’ isn’t one of them.)

Watchin The Clock by Gus Kahn and Seymour Simons, Art by Helen Van Doorn Morgan

A Trick Older Than The Hills

The ticking clock device has been used in storytelling to increase narrative drive for many generations. It is used in Cinderella, who must escape from the ball before midnight, before her carriage turns back into a pumpkin. Often, the device is implied rather than stated outright. In Hansel and Gretel, we know the witch will eventually eat the children. That could happen at any moment, though she’s waiting for them to fatten up.

I haven't much time left, True Life Library No 475
I haven’t much time left, True Life Library No 475

Other Examples Of Ticking Clocks In Movies

  • Die Hard 2 — a plane running out of fuel
  • Speed — a bomb is set to go off if the bus goes under 50 miles per hour
  • Se7en — a cop must stop a serial killer before he kills his next victim
  • The Fugitive — an innocent man must prove his innocence before being caught again
  • Dumplin — Performances always give a story narrative drive because they provide a ticking clock. Without that, Dumplin would’ve been in great danger of losing momentum.
The Coach Draws Near (cover), Robert McGinnis, 1972
The Coach Draws Near (cover), Robert McGinnis, 1972

Ticking Clocks In Picture Books

Hilda Bewildered stars a petrified young princess, charged with the task of delivering a speech to open winter. As the live broadcast draws near, the princess concocts a story in her head to help her through the task.

TV Tropes refers to this as ‘Race Against The Clock’ and offers plenty of examples.

Variations of the ticking clock device can be found in a wide variety of genres — not just in thrillers — such as in Little Miss Sunshine (a road trip with a beauty pageant as deadline) and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which a man wants to make it home in time for Thanksgiving with his family in his warm, cosy house.

On the podcast, Cheryl’s first example of this device happens to be a children’s book: The Cat In The Hat, in which an unwelcome visitor makes a mess of the place, which must be cleaned up again by the time the mother gets home.

In picture books with ticking clocks, it is often the parent(s) who have made some rule, and it is universally understood that if the rule is broken there will be terrible consequences.

Aside from our own Hilda Bewildered, another picturebook that combines ticking-clock and the snowy, dreamy atmosphere of a mood piece is Home By Five, by Ruth Wallace-Brodeur, illustrated by Mark Graham.

Home By Five cover

This is a gentle, dreamy book, beautifully illustrated in pastels.

But to contrast with the dreamy mood (and the dreamy Rosie), here on the first page a ticking-clock urgency is set up, as Papa instructs Rosie to be home by a certain time. He helps her to get ready for her ice-skating session. This is a handsome, nurturing dad who we don’t want to disappoint.

Home By Five setup
Home by Five setup2

So we get a little antsy when we see Rosie dilly-dally along the way home, despite her best intentions. She stops to swing around the poll and to look inside the bakery window, and all the time the reader can see she’s not hurrying. But it’s a little frustrating because we aren’t given access to the time, either. This book sets out to be a mood piece, with evocation descriptions of the wintry landscape. But there’s that confounded ticking clock, ruining it for us as it’s ruined for Rosie…

Rosie dilly-dallies

We don’t know what time it is until Rosie arrives home. The clock tells us she’s pretty late. Her parents discuss what to do.

Home By Five clock

On the final page we see their decision: The 1992 option is to buy their daughter a wristwatch.

In two of our story apps I make use of the ticking clock device: In Midnight Feast we have Roya’s excitement of the lead up to Midnight, though I invert this device by drawing her evening out.

midnight feast ticking clocks

Jeff Kinney also makes use of the ticking clock in several of his Diary of a Wimpy Kid The Long Haul gags.

Header illustration: Being late, Norman Rockwell (1894–1978)

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Drawing Development And Children

childhood house

The above picture was drawn by my eight-year-old. According to Gaston Bachelard, who quotes psychologists of his era, door knobs are a good sign.

The Psychology Behind Drawings By Children

Asking a child to draw his house is asking him to reveal the deepest dream shelter he has found for his happiness. If he is happy, he will succeed in drawing a snug, protected house which is well built on deeply-rooted foundations. It will have the right shape, and nearly always there will be some indication of its inner strength. In certain drawings, quite obviously, to quote Mme. Balif, “it is warm indoors, and there is a fire burning, such a big fire, in fact, that it can be seen coming out of the chimney.” When the house is happy, soft smoke rises in gay rings above the roof.

Now I interrupt the quote to bring you this:

Misery Kathy Bates bbq indoors

Continuing with Bachelard:

If the child is unhappy, however, the house bears traces of his distress. In this connection, I recall that Francoise Minkowska organized an unusually moving exhibition of drawings by Polish and Jewish children who had suffered the cruelties of the German occupation during the last war. One child, who had been hidden in a closet every time there was an alert, continued to draw narrow, cold, closed houses long after those evil times were over. These are what Mme. Minkowska calls “motionless” houses, houses that have become motionless in their rigidity. “This rigidity and motionlessness are present in the smoke as well as in the window curtains. The surrounding trees are quite straight and give the impression of standing guard over the house.. Mm. Minkowska knows that a live house is not really “motionless,” that, particularly it integrates the movements by means of which one acedes to the door. Thus the path that leads to the house is often a climbing one. At times, even, it is inviting. In any case, it always possesses certain kinesthetic features. If we were making a Rorschach test, we should say that the house has “K”. […] In one house, drawn by an eight-year-old child, she notes that there is “a knob on the door; people go in the house, they live there.” It is not merely a constructed house, it is also a house that is “lived-in”. Quite obviously the door-knob has a functional significance. This is the kinesthetic sign, so frequently forgotten in the drawings of “tense” children.

The Poetics of Space

This is called the Nightmare Fuelled Coloring Book over at TV Tropes, since drawings used to analyse children are common in horror movies.

The combination of a disturbing image rendered in a crude, childlike style is a powerfully scary one in and of itself, but just as unsettling is the window onto a child’s view of sex/violence/Cthulhu that it gives us. The idea of innocence being exposed to things it finds frightening, or things it can’t understand, is a classic way to play off Adult Fear and at the same time deliver a bucketload of Nightmare Fuel rendered in red crayon.It gets extra points if the suburban mum decides to hang it on the fridge rather than call a child psychologist or an exorcist.If a Creepy Child draws pictures, they will be this trope. If it’s the Monster of the Week the child has been drawing, expect the Nightmare Fuel Coloring Book to come in handy when the heroes come along – after all, now they’ve got a wall full of pictures of their enemy.

Nightmare Fuelled Coloring Book

The assumption underlying this use is that, since emotionally disturbed children are believed to reflect their problems in their drawings. For more on the various drawing tests issued to children undergoing counselling, see here.

tl;dr: There are no empirical data to support interpretations of children’s drawings. Despite their frequent use in child abuse investigations, drawings are subject to the same criticisms as anatomical dolls (ie. prompting and priming).

The Sixth Sense
The Sixth Sense

Perhaps it was this kind of psychometric gazing into pictures that inspired Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in the opening of The Little Prince?

TheLittlePrince Elephant Hat

It’s Impossible To Fake Children’s Drawings

If you spend time around children, and their drawings, you’ll just know when you see a fake kid’s drawing on a TV show or horror movie. You just know. Writers of The Office understood this when they wrote the following Season 8 scene, in which Pam tries to pacify the office after Jim fakes jury duty to stay at home and help out with their two young children:

Andy: Wow, these are incredible. Cece, did you do these?
Cece: No.
Pam: She says “no” to everything. You know, she thinks my name is “No.” Cece, do you want some broccoli?
Cece: Yes.
Pam: No. It’s crazy.
Ryan: Why am I shorter than the table that I’m standing next to?
Andy: There’s cross-hatching in some of these. That’s kind of advanced for a two-year-old.
Kelly: Cece, this is your big sister Kelly. Did you color this pretty picture?
Cece: No.
Kelly: So then this means nothing to you. [rips picture]

Season 8, Episode 13, “Jury Duty”


Some picturebook illustrators use a naive style to emulate the look and feel of childhood drawings. One other benefit of doing this: The warped perspective and symbolic layout of naive illustration allows for a more fairytale feel, in which the placement of items is more akin to what’s in our heads, rather than where it exists in the outer world.

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