A child who reads heavily may well be under the impression that the acquisition of pets requires about as much thought as a well-chosen piece of jewellery.
Yesterday I rewatched Bridge To Terabithia — a perennial favourite at our house. I can’t remember if this also happens in the book version, but at the end of the movie Leslie’s father says he was going to gift Leslie’s dog to Jesse but couldn’t quite part with it.
Today I read Madeline in London, in which the girls visit Pepito at his new home and decide to give him the gift of a retired horse.
Children’s literature is full of stories about boys who save up enough money to buy a dog. The real cost of dog ownership — the food, the registration, the annual vaccinations, the worming and flea treatments — are never factored into the cost.
There’s a reason for this, of course.
Children’s books are not set in the real world. They exist on a continuum between utopia and real — and if it’s set in a realistic world (or, lately, a hyper-realistic one) it’s probably YA. As for middle grade novels and chapter books, these are largely privileged worlds in which there is always enough to eat, always a place to come home to and populated by adults who basically care for children.
These are also worlds in which any child who really wants an animal companion can have one. They will roam free and look after one another.
As long as the child saves enough money to buy the pet in the first place, subsequent costs are magically met, even in the poorest households.
I point out the obvious because a disappointing number of adults buy pets without factoring in the enormous cost of pets. My mother, who worked at the SPCA for some years, was constantly dealing with members of the public who approached the charity for help paying medical bills for sick pets, because they hadn’t planned ahead. These adults are still living in a kidlit utopia.
Perhaps we need a few more narratives about the realities of pet ownership.
One of the most honest kids’ books I’ve seen about wanting a pet real bad is by Mo Willems.
While the unthinking acquisition of pets are generally considered great in stories for children, when it happens in a story for adults we get an uneasy feeling. In the 2014 film Wildlike, an uncle suggests to his niece that they buy a dog together. This foreshadows abuse.
There was once an old woman who left the city to get away from all the noise and confusion. Out in the country she found a small house by a creek with a big shade tree in the back yard, writes Janet Lunn, in a town-dweller moves to the countryside where strange things happen kind of tale.
— Duck Cakes For Sale, 1989
White people love to be outside. But not everyone knows that another thing they like to do is make people feel bad for wanting to watch sports on TV or play videogames. While it would be easy to get angry at white people for this, remember it is hard wired in their head that the greatest thing a person can do in their free time is to hike/walk/bike outdoors.
If you’re looking for a chapter book to bridge the gap between beautifully illustrated picturebooks and pictureless novels, the Mercy Watson series is a great option, because the illustrations are just as enticing as any found in a high-production picture book.
STORYWORLD OF MERCY WATSON GOES FOR A RIDE
1960s American suburbia.
Children’s authors and illustrators seem to love this era — in hindsight it feels so safe, with the housewives cheerfully putting on endless spreads of food. For every happy housewife we probably had a Eugenia and a Baby, sisters forced to live together because there was no pay equality, a dearth of husbands after the world wars, and no freedom for a full life outside the confines of marriage. However! This image of suburbia, illustrated in bright, sunny pastel colours by Chris Van Dusen, is a genuine utopia. You’ll find nothing rotten in the basements here. This is a parody of the era, in which everything can be fixed with hot buttered toast.
Broadchurch is a TV murder mystery in which a village is a miniature for society. As one reviewer points out, “the death which happens at the beginning incites all sorts of unexpected human behaviour, with repercussions all around the town. Initially the show seems to be making the banal point that the residents of this bucolic town are not what they appear at first glance. But they are not what they appear at second glance either.”
Genre: Broadchurch takes the classic buddy detective template (she’s by the book, he plays by his own rules) and gives the procedural depth by showing the emotional aftermath of an unspeakable crime (drama).
22 (actually fewer) Steps In The First Episode (using John Truby’s movie steps from Anatomy of Story)
Self-revelation: This comes later in the series, no doubt. For now we see the set up. Ellie has compared herself to the more experienced Met guy and realised she may not have what it takes after all for the job she so wanted. She has probably overestimated her own abilities as a detective because she hasn’t been significantly challenged.
Ghost — Alec Hardy has a ghost which may or may not ever be revealed to us (it never was in Casablanca, in which we never really learn why the hero left America). But it’s only hinted at. (Later we’ll learn he’s hiding a serious health condition.) But Ellie on the other hand, has been living in a kind of paradise world, symbolised by her returning straight from holiday. In a paradise world, a ghost is not possible.
Ellie’s inciting incident: A friend of her son has been murdered. The inciting incident connects Ellie’s need with her desire: She needs recognition and she desires to help her friends to achieve justice by finding out the truth. This is a good place to put the inciting incident, because Ellie just thinks she’s had the worst day ever, not getting the job she wanted, but then that pales into insignificance when the murdered boy is found. This plunges her into the most harrowing career challenge of her life. (Another character asks if she’s ever done a murder case before — she says no.)
The town of Broadchurch in Wessex, England, is bracing itself for an annual influx of holiday tourists. This is a quaint village right next to the sea. The sort of place where even police officers can enjoy ice creams while in uniform.
The story world is an outworking of your hero. Detective stories, crime stories, and thrillers often set up a close connection between the hero’s weakness—when it exists—and the “mean streets,” or world of slavery in which the hero operates.
— John Truby
A walk along a clifftop leads to a steep drop onto the beach, which is the scene of the crime, and sets up this town’s relationship to the sea:
The sea has both a surface and a depth, and just like the ocean, this little town has that dichotomy; there’s the 2-dimensional happy, safe, low-crime surface contrasted against the murky depths below — the ultimate 3D landscape where all creatures are weightless and live at every level. In this story, the ocean deep is not a utopia but a terrifying graveyard.
— see John Truby
The oceanic nature of the story world is echoed in the camera movement as the pilot episode opens. The very first shot is of a choppy ocean. Next we have a camera ‘swimming’ around the neighbourhood, zooming in on various houses, panning across rooms, as if all of this town is underground and we’re seeing it as a fish. The oceanic colour scheme is even used in Danny’s mother’s room, which is painted out in an oceanic theme. This colour blue is seen again in the grandmother’s shirt, in Danny’s lunchbox (which he is not there to collect.)
The fish movement camera is used again as Danny’s father walks along the main street. He’s talking about mundane things with friends and acquaintances, but the music tells us something terrible has happened. Who is following him? (Us.) Much use is made of juxtaposition, as his exchanges are cheerful and they’re talking about everyday things. We see a poster for the Broadchurch Fair, presumably a weekly, light, fun-filled event.
Broadchurch is an ‘apparent utopia’. This village appears to be perfect, but the perfection is only skin deep. Below the surface, the world is actually corrupt, rotten, and enslaving. Everyone is desperate to put on a good face to hide a psychological or moral disaster.
Character desire is clearly established in the first episode.
Ellie Miller comes back from holiday giving out souvenirs when she is called into her boss’s office and told she hasn’t got ‘the job’. She wants a promotion from detective sergeant to detective inspector. The job has gone to a man. Ellie wants recognition and respect and career advancement. We know this from the very first scene. Compared to solving your first murder mystery, this is a fairly low-level goal, as initial desires should be. Psychological weakness: We get the sense that while Ellie may be ready for promotion in her small town, she is not sufficiently in control of her own emotions to do a good job. She needs to be paired with her opposite in order to learn. Ellie wishes to be called Ellie rather than Miller — a symbolic difference in how each detective approaches the job. Ellie can’t work without putting her personality into it. Ellie is a motherly figure, asking for ‘all the gossip’, giving out presents like stuffed toys and lipgloss.
Alec Hardy — Hardy’s reasons for relocation are kept from us for now, but we know that he has been shifted from the Met to avoid the consequences of some kind of scandal to do with a previous, high-profile murder case. Moral weakness: Hardy has no people skills whatsoever, bossing people around to get the job done. But the audience will forgive him for this, as he is very good at his job and cares deeply about finding the truth. No doubt Hardy and Miller will each learn from the other. Alec Hardy will be a fake-opponent, and we can see that from the beginning because his skills and weaknesses line up so nicely with those of Ellie.
Alec and Ellie are almost like the mirror image of each other. Normally in a set up the audience gets a very clear picture of the main character’s psychological weakness as well as their moral weakness, but here Ellie’s psychological weakness is highlighted whereas with Alec we get his moral weakness.
Beth Latimer — the murdered boy’s mother. We see her in her natural environment, getting her family off to school for the day — she wants her daughter to attend a school event even though the daughter is trying to pull a sickie. Then her desire changes suddenly when she is told her son hasn’t turned up at school (he was supposed to be spending the night somewhere else) and she is hellbent on finding out where he is. Then she is hellbent on finding out whose is the dead body on the beach. In follow-up episodes we can predict that she will be equally hell bent on finding out the truth. Beth is a bit of a ‘rule breaker’, jumping over the boundary police line in a panic over her son. (If a character can’t do that then, when?) The audience wants to see her do just that.
Olly Stevens is introduced in his work office — he is a young journalist who has just been turned down from the last of the big newspapers and now he’s stuck here in this tiny town working on non-event stories. Olly wants excitement, and he needs to prove himself somehow to get his foot in the door of a major paper. Moral weakness: He needs to start respecting other people’s privacy. He leaks the name of the murdered boy to the press even though his police officer aunt has told him not to.
Trendy young vicar — Moral weakness: using the death of a boy to spread the word of God.
Ally/Allies — Ellie’s main ally is a fake opponent, the new guy from the Met. Her husband is her emotional support. She is friends with people on the staff, though her boss has things she is not telling her, as evidenced by a secret conversation with Hardy while they eat ice cream on the pier.
Opponent — We don’t yet know who the main opponent is, but it looks like it’s going to be a web of people, including her own son, who deletes files from his C-drive as soon as his mother tells him his friend has been found dead. In the village we’ve also briefly met a creepy newsagent and a middle-aged misanthrope who is always lurking off to the side.
Mystery — Ellie must first uncover her opponents THEN defeat them. As far as she’s concerned, the whole town is on her side. In the detective genre there must be a mystery to compensate for the missing opponent because these stories deliberately withhold the opponent until the end. So we need something to replace it: the mystery of who murdered the boy. In a different genre, this would be when the opponent is introduced.
Fake-ally opponent — We have the strong sense that Ellie is not yet aware of the extent of hidden allegiances and deceptions going on in this town (helped with the symbolism of the sea). Her son may fit into this category, even if he’s too young and naive to be deliberately oppositional. Ellie’s boss may be a fake ally — in this genre the boss often ends up making things difficult for the spunky underling. Since fake-ally opponents are usually revealed after the main opponent (or mystery) has been revealed, we’re likely to find out what the allegiances and alliances really are in the next few episodes.
Reveals — Reveals are things the hero learns as the story progresses, and each reveal is supposed to be more significant than the last. Since this is a TV series there will be significant reveals much later on, but there will be minor reveals right the way through. Ellie’s first reveal: She hasn’t got the job of DI. But the guy from the Met who botched that other murder did get it, and she’s going to have to work with him. This is great, because the best reveals are about the main character’s opponent. Ellie’s second reveal: That the death of the boy is suspicious. Ellie’s decision: Her decision to solve the murder with her new boss will help her to gain the respect she craves, which means her new desire is a ‘bend’ of the original desire rather than a completely new one, which is perfect. (A river changing course.)
Plan — The new DI speaks clearly to the family and to the camera — he promises to find the killer. Ellie is along for the ride with him. There are bound to be problems along the way, with the audience wondering how these two can possibly solve such a difficult mystery. They’ll have to change strategy several times along the way.
Opponent’s plan — we already see the son hiding information that may be helpful to Ellie. But we don’t yet know what else is going on behind the scenes.
Drive — this will come in subsequent episodes. For now, Ellie is in reactive mode, looking stunned.
Katherine Mansfield finished “The Garden Party” on her 32nd birthday in 1921. She took a month to recover from her previous story, “At the Bay” before embarking upon this one. She felt that The Garden Party was better than “At The Bay”, ‘but that is not good enough, either…’ It is apparently based upon an actual incident.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE GARDEN PARTY”
Mrs Sheridan holds a party, which she leaves to her teenage children to organise. This will mark their entry into the world. However, the story is not about the party itself but rather the lead-up and the aftermath, when the upper class Sheridan family learns that a man has been killed down below. Laura thinks to offer solace by taking his bereaved wife some of the leftovers. She goes to the house down below and is overcome with a feeling of hopelessness, inappropriateness and perhaps some greater understanding of the nature of life and death.
The Garden Party is much more a story than the other shorts involving the Burnell family. Here, events are used to carry the meaning; Prelude and At the Bay are more explorations of milieu (storyworld), where a series of keen observations about seemingly insignificant details add up to form a lasting impression and offer a deeper message.
SETTING OF “THE GARDEN PARTY”
KM presents this deeper message by building an atmosphere of fun and frivolity before presenting the characters with an awful situation. The ostentatious nature of the party is emphasised with our attention drawn to the comfortable circumstances of The Sheridans: large house, tennis court, spacious garden, hilltop view, lily lawn, green baize door.
Also within this setting, we see a comparison between the Sheridans and the underlings – we see them interact with each other and the different reactions of the family to their social inferiors.
THEMES OF “THE GARDEN PARTY”
Most stories have several themes.
Remember: A theme is always a full sentence! ‘Party’ cannot be a theme, for instance. ‘Party’ is ‘subject matter’. When you write themes as a sentence they often sound simple or trite, but that’s okay. The stories themselves are much more subtle.
Growing up involves some uncomfortable truths.
The party is the children’s first time to prove their new-found maturity. Their mother is ‘determined to leave everything to the children this year’. Laura is torn between her own feelings and the dominance of her mother, who never really does relinquish control of the party, ordering masses of lilies on a whim.
Laura does not reject the life she is a part of; rather, she has understood something about it — she reaches a more serious maturity than her mother and older sisters have reached.
People are able to insulate themselves somewhat from class distinctions.
Criticism of the social values of bourgeois society is the most obvious, basic theme, with the upper-class Sheridan family living at the top of the hill and the lower-class in their ‘poky little holes’, ‘little cottages just below’. KM herself must have been keenly aware of class distinctions as she was the daughter of a self-made man, living in upper-class New Zealand society. This theme is also important in The Doll’s House.
The upper-class is symbolised by sheer extravagance. The sandwiches each have flags (fifteen kinds). There is a hired band, cream puffs and masses of canna lilies. Each member of the family has power over the cook, the maids and the men putting up the marquee.
[In my own illustrated short story Midnight Feast, this is also a theme. Growing up in New Zealand, I have been heavily influenced by Katherine Mansfield!]
CHARACTERS OF “THE GARDEN PARTY”
The family is no longer the Burnells but The Sheridans, who reflected KM’s family during her own teenage years. Unlike the Burnells, the family does not live within its own microcosm of the world but is fully participant in the wider social world of town.
The name Laura is a Latin baby name. In Latin the meaning of the name Laura is: Laurel tree or sweet bay tree (symbols of honour and victory).
This is Laura’s story. Main characters are linked inextricably to the setting, and perhaps KM chose a ‘plant’ name for Laura for that reason?
Although there are some general, impersonal passages and several scenes without her, we see this storyworld through Laura’s eyes. We observe others how she sees them, especially their response to her own behaviour.
At the beginning of the story, Laura is still a child. She doesn’t fully understand what is happening; her reaction to the workman’s death is a mixture of instinct, upbringing and egotism. She sees the workman’s death in an emotional way, torn between her own instinctive feelings and the powerful dominance of her mother and older sisters. She finally reaches her own personal understanding of life, which is left ambiguous in the final sentence. She does not reject the social life of the upper-class but comes to her own serious kind of maturity.
Being still a child, and not fully aware of the power of class distinctions and her own place within the social structure, Laura acts as a bridge between the upper and lower classes. She decides ‘it’s all the fault… of these absurd class distinctions’. Unlike Mrs Sheridan, she sees the workmen as individual people, indeed, as attractive ones.
When the carter dies, again, Laura sees him as another human, with the frivolity of their party exposed. But after she has her eyes opened to the true class distinctions, she is able to take her mother’s lead and return to the safety of the grand house on the hill. Just because she now knows the truth doesn’t mean she is going to do much about the income disparity.
Mrs Sheridan is comfortable with her social status and at ease with ordering others about. We see this clearly in her attitude towards the cook. She is teaching her children to see the world from her own elevated by short-sighted perspective. Mrs Sheridan doesn’t want her children to be socially aware. We see this when she tries to divert Laura’s attention with the talk of the new hat.
Mrs Sheridan is in charge of all the food, and might be compared to some kind of goddess of fertility.
Meg ‘could not possibly go and supervise the men’.
Jose, too, has absorbed the attitudes of her mother re class distinctions.
Laura and Laurie are similar in their outlook on life, symbolised by their similar names. It is only natural that Laurie understands Laura’s reaction to the grieving family without Laura needing to put her feelings into words because Laurie is the only other person in this world who could possibly understand her inner conflict.
SYMBOLISM IN “THE GARDEN PARTY”
By placing the hat upon Laura’s head, Mrs Sheridan claims her to the upper-class – superiority and indifference. Compare the passing of the hat to the passing of a crown (or similar talisman: sword, coat, cloak, cape, teacher’s pen etc.) in many other kinds of stories — generally flipped, in that a downtrodden, underprivileged character eventually earns a crown. That’s how most traditional stories go. Here, Laura doesn’t have to do much to get it, and when she does get it, she seems to realise that she hasn’t really earned it.
‘Forgive my hat.’
Nor is she entirely comfortable in her class. Nevertheless, she does wear the hat, just as she takes part in her upper class, privileged lifestyle.
Birds and Flight
Mansfield uses the metaphor of birds and flight as a strategy to show how the Sheridans insulate themselves from the lower classes. Jose is a “butterfly”. Mrs. Sheridan’s voice “floats” and Laura must “skim over the lawn, up the path, up the steps” to reach her. They are all perched high on an aerie up a “steep rise” from the cottages below. But Laura is a fledgling. Her mother steps back and encourages her to flit around in her preparations for the party, but Laura’s wings aren’t quite experienced enough–she “flung her arms over her head, took a deep breath, stretched and let them fall,” then sighed, so that even a workman “smiled down at her.”
— How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster
That’s why Laura describes her fellow party-goers as ‘birds’.
This bird symbol running right through the story also explains the significance of the man down below whose house front is studded all over with minute bird cages. Those cages are a threat to the upper-class people on the hill.
Those with Biblical knowledge may see the perfect weather and beautiful garden described in the first paragraph as the Garden of Eden. Failing that, KM has at least set up the garden as a kind of utopia. (For more on utopias, specifically in children’s literature, see here.)
Whenever you come across a utopia such as this in literature, ask yourself who’s in charge. This is, as John Truby would tell you in his book Anatomy of Story, an ‘apparent utopia’. In a genuine utopia there is a community, and everyone in that community is able to grow in their own way, supported by others. But the world of The Garden Party is not like that at all, and Laura has realised it by the story’s end:
This world appears to be perfect, but the perfection is only skin deep. Below the surface, the world is actually corrupt, rotten, and enslaving. Everyone is desperate to put on a good face to hide a psychological or moral disaster. The suburbs are often an apparent utopia, with their manicured lawns and friendly neighbours, but in stories there is usually something terrible going on in the suburbs.
— John Truby
There are a number of different words you might use when describing something like utopia:
Nostalgic — can have a negative connotation, meaning a kind of ‘homesickness’, where nothing can ever be as good as you think it was (and it never was that great anyway).
Topophilia — this is a term coined by Gaston Bachilard in his book The Poetics of Space. It means simply ‘love for a place’, free of the negative connotations associated with ‘nostalgia’.
Arcadian — Another word for Utopian. Arcadia is the name of a Greek province. Utopia also comes from Greek and literally means ‘nowhere/not a place’, though this might be a somewhat simplified etymology. But in some ways, Arcadia and Utopia are opposites — Arcadia is thought of as a garden full of good fruits for humans to enjoy whereas Utopia can be considered a place which has been shaped by humans, in which the environment is as much a construction as the society itself. Utopia in its purest form is a spaceship in a futuristic science fiction story.
Pastoral — when referring to land, it means land for raising cattle or sheep. But when referring to literature, pastoral means ‘portraying an idealized version of country life. But if you look for ‘pastoral books’ you’ll probably find books relating to the Christian church. The Wind In The Willows is pastoral, though also treated as nostalgic and Arcadian, depending on the critic.
Prelapsarian — characteristic of the time before the Fall of Man; innocent and unspoilt.
If the garden is an apparent utopia, this sets us up to regard the cottages down below as Hades/hell — the classical underworld. We might then regard Laura as Persephone. If Laura is Persephone, Mrs Sheridan is Demeter. As evidence for the comparison, here’s the list from Thomas C. Foster:
fertility-goddess mother, who is the match-maker (people arrive at the party in couples)
kidnap and seduction by god of underworld
pomegrante-seed monkey business
six-month growing season
happy parties all round
they live on an ‘Olympian’ height
the broad road into the cottages is kind of like the River Styx, which you have to cross to get into Hades (roads are often like rivers in literature, when the city/suburbs are a symbol of the forest/plains)
When Laura returns from ‘the underworld’ she has basically become her mother. In Greek mythology, there is often no difference between mother and daughter.
The myth of Persephone is also about a young woman arriving into adulthood. This involves facing death and understanding it. The myth involves the tasting of the fruit. (The story of Eve in the Garden of Eden also makes use of fruit, and how tasting it gives you unwelcome but adult knowledge.)
Darkness and Shadow as Death
KM does a great job of describing the darkness and shadow of the township below. There are many examples in the text e.g. the large dog ‘running like a shadow’.
NCEA ENGLISH 1.4 Example Essay
DESCRIBE AN IDEA THAT INTERESTED YOU IN EACH TEXT. EXPLAIN WHY THESE IDEAS INTERESTED YOU.
AUTHOR: Katherine Mansfield
TITLES OF SHORT STORIES: The Voyage and The Garden Party
An interesting idea that Katherine Mansfield dealt with in two stories, The Voyage and The Garden Party, is the transition from childhood to adulthood. In both stories, Mansfield makes use of symbols to let readers know that growth has taken place.
The Voyage is about a young girl, Fenella, who is being taken to Picton to live with her grandparents. As the story progresses it is revealed that this is because her mother has died, and we presume her father is unable to care for her alone. The death of a parent is in itself a time for children to grow up suddenly, and Fenella’s ‘journey’ to the South Island on the Picton Ferry is symbolic of this period of growth.
Within the symbolic journey is a symbolic umbrella, which comes to represent Fenella’s transition into the next phase of her maturity. Fenella’s grandmother, who accompanies her on this journey, allows her to look after the precious ‘swan-necked umbrella’. At first, the grandmother feels she must remind Fenella to be careful with the umbrella, being careful not to poke it into the railings of the ferry and break it. Later on in the journey, however, when Fenella and her grandmother leave the ship, Grandmother is about to remind Fenella about the umbrella, but does not need to, saying only:
“You’ve got my –“
“Yes grandma”. Fenella showed (the umbrella) to her.
This demonstrates that Fenella has now grown up to the extent that she need not be reminded about looking after precious things.
In the same story, darkness is contrasted with light to symbolise childlike ignorance versus the knowledge and understanding that accompanies adulthood. Images of light are used repeatedly in the first half of the story. For example, as Fenella and her grandmother walk to the ship, everything is dark except for a shining lamp. The solitary shining lamp highlights the darkness. On board the ship, it is revealed that the grandmother is dressed all in black; likewise, the men on the deck are hiding in the shadows. In contrast, as the ship sails into Picton, images of light prevail. “The cold pale sky was the same colour as the cold pale sea”. As Fenella is walking up the path to her grandparents’ house, she notices the path of ‘round white pebbles’. These images of light contrast with the initial images of darkness to indicate that Fenella can ‘see the light at the end of the tunnel’; that she has grown up sufficiently to get on with life despite the death of her mother and that she has moved into the next phase of her life. This is interesting because Mansfield’s view of life and death is ultimately a positive one, despite the overall negative view created in European culture.
The Garden Party also deals with the interesting issue of growing up, as Mrs Sheridan has decided to let her children organise their first garden party all by themselves. Unlike Fenella in The Voyage, though, Laura’s journey to independence is not as clear and definite; she flits between feeling very grown up and suddenly losing confidence. When the workmen arrive to put up the marquee, for instance, she begins to address them in an authoritative manner, but suddenly feels that this is too affected, and “stammered like a little girl”. This demonstrates the difficulty Laura initially feels in taking on adult responsibilities.
The real test for Laura comes later, when she is forced to make her own mind up on a moral issue. When the news arrives that a man from down in the cottages has been killed, Laura feels that the party must be cancelled out of respect for the family. Until her father and brother arrive home, however, she is forced to stand alone in this opinion. She decides to compromise by putting the incident out of her mind until the party is over, then taking it more to heart when the fun is over. At the conclusion of the story, when Laurie, her more mature older brother meets her in the village below Laura says, “Isn’t life-“ and does not finish the sentence. She does not need to, as Laurie understands her. This demonstrates that the younger sister has now joined her older brother (whose names are symbolically similar) in the increased understanding of life that comes from making one’s own decisions and contemplating death. This increased empathy with a more mature individual is an interesting one to consider, as it affects all of us as we grow older.
Both of these short stories deal with the fascinating theme of growth in two individuals who are confronted with the issue of death. Mansfield’s skilful use of symbolism and imagery help the readers to plot the growth of her central characters for themselves. This is interesting because the idea of growth and development is relevant to all human beings.
Hills and valleys, cliffs, mountains — altitude in story is highly symbolic. When creating a story, remember to vary the altitude as much as you’d vary any other setting.
HILLS AND VALLEYS
A cottage atop a hill can symbolise extreme happiness.
From the porch of her new house Miss Rumphius watched the sun come up; she watched it cross the heavens and sparkle on the water; and she saw it set in glory in the evening. She started a little garden among the rocks that surrounded her house, and she planted flower seeds in the stony ground. Miss Rumphius was almost perfectly happy. “But there is still one more thing I have to do,” she said. “I have to do something to make the world more beautiful.” But what? “The world already is pretty nice,” she thought, looking out over the ocean.
— Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Wolf Hollow is an interesting storyworld because it is an apparent utopia. ‘Hollow’ is a poetic sounding name (as the creators of Stars Hollow surely recognise). While dips in the landscape generally indicate evil (basements are scary, valleys attract mysterious fog and harbour secrets), ‘hollows’ are metaphorically similar to islands, sheltered from the evils of the outside world. That’s why ‘Hollow’ is such a great choice for this book — it is in many ways a utopian setting (sheltered from the World War going on elsewhere) but also a terrible place, with its inhabitants dangerously bigoted.
Hills and valleys have a logic of their own. Why did Jack and Jill go up the hill? Sure, sure, a pail of water, probably orders from a parent. But wasn’t the real reason so Jack could break his crown and Jill come tumbling after That’s what it usually is in literature. Who’s up and who’s down? Just what do up and down mean?
First, think about what there is down low or up high. Low: swamps, crowds, fog, darkness, fields, heat, unpleasantness, people, life, death.High: snow, ice, purity, thin air, clear views, isolation, life, death. Some of these, you will notice, appear on both lists, and you can make either environment work for you.
— Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor
In storybook illustrations, it’s very common to find a house on a hill. A house on a hill is a safe house — from here you won’t be susceptible to flooding, and you can see enemies approaching. A house on a hill might also be close to the sea, but protected from it by the slight altitude.
Mountains are somewhat cliched as ‘the land of greatness’ in stories but they are still used a whole heap and the symbolism still works.
[The mountain] is where the strong go to prove themselves—usually through seclusion, meditation, a lack of comfort, and direct confrontation with nature in the extreme. The mountaintop is the world of the natural philosopher, the great thinker who must understand the forces of nature so he can live with them and sometimes control them.
Structurally, the mountain, the high place, is most associated with the reveal.
In the 1997 film Contact, for instance, the Jody Foster character sits on a high piece of land when she has her self-revelations.
Revelations in stories are moments of discovery, and they are the keys to turning the plot and kicking it to a “higher,” more intense level. Again, the mountain setting makes a one-to-one connection between space and person, in this case, height and insight.
This one-to-one connection of space to person is found in the negative expression of the mountain as well. It is often depicted as the site of hierarchy, privilege, and tyranny, typically of an aristocrat who lords it over the common people down below.
The mountain is usually set in opposition to the plain. The mountain and the plain are the only two major natural settings that visually stand in contrast to one another, so storytellers often use the comparative method to highlight the essential and opposing qualities of each.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
The Moses story (the ur-mountain-story in the Christian world)
The association between cliffs and peril is so strong that occasionally cliffs can be misused in drama, for instance in The River Wild.
And what about the sequences in which Strathairn cuts crosscountry, climbing mountains, fording rivers, walking faster than the river flows? Impossible, but he does it. At one point, in a scene so ludicrous I wanted to laugh aloud, he even starts a fire to send smoke signals to his wife. At another point, he clings to the side of a cliff, while we ask ourselves what earthly reason he had for climbing it. And he works wonders with his handy Swiss Army knife.
In the illustration from Beauty and the Beast below, the family has lost its fortune at sea and has had to move to a small cottage and live as peasants. They live precariously in this community, not fully accepted (except for Beauty, of course, whose beauty privilege makes up for a lot).
Cliffs are also high in altitude but they have a quite different symbolism from mountains. Cliffs are precarious.
See the Hayao Miyazaki film Ponyo for an excellent example of cliff symbolism, in which the precarious cliff is a symbol for the precarious balance of nature.
Fire and cliffs make for a wonderfully camp symbolic admixture in this Three Investigators mystery story.
For a short story collection which makes full use of altitude, set in the vertiginous landscape of Wyoming, see one of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming collections (e.g. Close Range). Proulx makes use of mixed topography and everything you find in that:
high desert landscapes
buttes (an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top (similar to but narrower than a mesa)
eroded outcroppings (known in North America as hoodoos)
When reading Proulx’s stories, one of the most important concepts to grasp is her ‘geographical determinism.’ This refers to the way in which the landscape has the upper hand in a game against the insignificant humans who live there, but temporarily. We know the characters are going to have tragic endings; we read the stories to find out how much of a fight they put up, and to know the exact nature of their downfall.
As Rene Welleck and Warren Austin suggest, in Theory of Literature, ‘domestic interiors may be metonymic or metaphoric expressions of character’.
The comforting image of an idealized maternal figure and environment are produced in Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War. Carrie and her little brother Nick are evacuated to Wales during World War 2. They are billeted with a rather strange couple whose house is cold and austere. But they derive much comfort from visiting Hepzibah whose kitchen is “A warm, safe, lighted place … Coming into it was like coming home on a bitter cold day to a bright, leaping fire. It was like the smell of bacon when you were hungry; loving arms when you were lonely; safety when you were scared.’ Thus, the kitchen is a maternalized space, a place where warmth, the promise of food, bodily contact, and security conflate to produce feelings of comfort. When the children first meet Hepzibah she is “smiling. She was tall with shining hair the colour of copper. She wore a white apron, and there was flour on her hands. She has “a rather broad face, pale as cream, and dotted with freckles. Carrie thought she looked beautiful: so warm and friendly and kind.’ The feelings of homely, maternal comfort evoked by the descriptions of the kitchen and of Hepzibah herself are embellished and reinforced by sensuous descriptions of food. Carrie is shown the dairy where “there were speckly eggs in trays on the shelf, slabs of pale, oozy butter, and a big bowl of milk with a skin of cream on the top.
— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature
Do you have a favourite picture book kitchen? What does it say about the character who lives in it?
from one of the Brambly Hedge books
The smaller, working-class Victorian kitchen or parlour would appear, to a modern child, to have all the warm, dark earthiness of rabbit hole or badger sett.
The cosy kitchen is often chaotic, overflowing with food (and love and happiness).
Bush Picnic by Eveline Dare and John Richards (1970)
Here we have a happy nuclear family, but with a modern and sleek kitchen (1970 version). This appears in a picture book, but might just as well appear in an advertisement for stainless steel kettles or kitchen design.
Courage The Cowardly Dog (Horror Comedy TV Series 1999-)
Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo is a feature-length anime which makes heavy use of myth and symbolism but is aimed squarely at a young child audience.
I love the kanji for cliff because it actually looks like what it is.
Dani Cavallaro, in Magic as Metaphor in Anime: A Critical Study describes Ponyo as ‘an intimate bildungsroman’ and writes:
Sousuke’s developmental journey begins with his rescue of a plucky little goldfish that has run away from her underwater home and is desperately keen on becoming human (presumably unaware that such a status is by no means unproblematically advantageous), whom the boy calls Ponyo, vowing to protect her at any price. At the same time, the anime’s intimate mood is reinforced by its close focus on domestic life and the little boy’s relationship by its close focus on domestic life and the little boy’s relationship with his mother Lisa. The bildungsroman dramatized in Ponyo concentrates concurrently on two interrelated journeys. One of these addresses the human protagonist’s emotional and intellectual development as he negotiates the various complications attendant on his relationships not only with the heroine and the marine domain she comes from but also his caring mother and often absent father. The other focuses on Ponyo’s evolution from the moment she decides to abandon her father’s protected abode and explore the outside world with all its unforeseeable wonders and perils.
Food usually has its own starring role in the setting of Miyazaki movies.
The feast that turns the parents into pigs in Spirited Away, then the steamed red bean buns and the sponge cake scene
The bacon and eggs in Howl’s Moving Castle
Herring pot pie and rice porridge (おかゆ) as well as all the fresh bread products from Kiki’s Delivery Service
More rice porridge in Princess Mononoke
Bento boxes from My Neighbour Totoro
The fried egg in bread (目玉焼きパン) and the winter vegetable stew (煮物) from Laputa
Fried horse mackerel (アジフライ) from Up On Poppy Hill (nothing to do with horses — it’s a different kind of mackerel)
Time travel! Romance! Japan! If you love the films out of Studio Ghibli you’ll love The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, too.
An arc word/phrase is also known as a ‘leitwort’, which literaully means ‘lead word’. In order to be an arc phrase and not just a catch phrase the phrase must help define the tone of the entire work, or at least the plot arc.
‘Time Waits For No One’ is a fairly cliched English phrase, but perhaps a Japanese audience finds it a little more exotic, like we find Chinese characters exotic when we tattoo ourselves with them. This idiomatic expression is written across the black board, presumably after an English language lesson, and explains the basic message of this tale: Even if you had the ability to go back in time and change things, you wouldn’t be able to do anything about the basic nature of fate.
The magic in a very early Twilight Zone episode called One For The Angels (in fact this is the second episode ever) is such that even if you yourself manage to avoid death, the fate must be transferred to someone else.
Proud of having outsmarted Mr. Death and now virtually assured of immortality, Lou is informed by Mr. Death that “other arrangements” must now be made, that someone else will have to take his place. Mr. Death chooses a little girl, one of Lou’s good friends who lives in the same building. When she is hit by a truck Lou immediately offers to go with Mr. Death but is told it is too late.
This picturebook is an interesting example of sad subject matter dealt with through the lens of a pragmatic child narrator who is only beginning to get a sense of the magnitude of the problem of farm life during down years. See also the way this book ends with a sense of hope — the unwritten rule of publishing books for children which sell.
SENSE OF AUSTRALIA
If it’s not clear from the illustrations (which could be set in parts of America, I suppose), the second page of the story makes reference to coming off a bike due to a wombat hole — a specifically Australian problem, I suspect. The Australian setting is integral to the story rather than just a backdrop; though drought happens in other countries, it affects different places in slightly different ways. The language is specifically Australasian: ‘He won’t even notice how crook the place looks’, ‘poddy lambs’ and so on. This book will particularly appeal to readers whose extraliterary experience includes farming.
SENSE OF FOREBODING
The book is split into two distinct parts; the first is the narrator remembering how much fun he and Rick had on the farm last year. In his memories, the landscape is green. The story changes at the page which reads ‘Dad says Rick will be in for a bit of a shock.’ We’re not told why; instead we’re invited to infer for ourselves what has happened. The water hole is empty, with the dingy resting on dry banks. There is no green, and the sky looks smokey blue, as if fires are burning nearby.
‘I don’t think we’ll have much trouble at the river this year,’ we’re told, in typical Australian litotes, because we can see there is very little water left in it, making it easy to cross. We can see the ribs on the cows.
THE NUMBER TWO
The title of this book serves as one signal to the reader about the treatment of time in this story. In stories, time can be indicated only by reference. In picturebooks time might be represented by changing light as the day fades, or with clocks and calendars or seasonal changes or ageing characters. But mostly in picturebooks, the passing of time is underscored by words, and in this case, by the title. The concept of two different summers is also conveyed by the ironic distance between words and illustration; while the young narrator describes how wonderful things were last summer, the reader sees from the illustration how dry the landscape looks, and how cows are dead on the ground.
With the title Two Summers the number can be riffed on in a number of ways, and Freya Blackwood has run with this in some of her illustrations:
Two boys, one a country boy, the other from the city
Two different farm experiences: one visit during a good year, another visit during a dry one.
Two eggs in the eagle’s nest
When the boys swim in the river the ‘camera’ is set low so that the surface of the water dissects the page (above and below water), in which two fish swim along with two boys
The following page is a long, landscape shot. The house and the windpump are positioned on the page as almost a mirror reflection of each other.
Next we have a scene where cows cross the river; two dogs stand on either side of the river; one looks hopefully across the water whereas the other has already crossed, and is sniffing at a dead cow on the other side.
‘Last year we rode round the heifers twice a day’
On another page, two calves dip their heads into two feeding buckets; two boys each feed two poddy lambs
On the page after that we see two dead cows (one with a calf), also in mirror image to each other. The layout of the pages employ the technique of (near) symmetry.
Next we have another page dissected, this time by a strip of white for word placement, with a scene of cow branding at the top and a scene of lamb marking at the bottom.
On the final page we see a scene of the narrator and his dog, which is a sort-of mirror image of the very first page, in which we see the same scene but from the other side. The dog on the first page is in the process of stealing the boy’s sandwich; now he is licking the plate. By mirroring the initial scene, the story is brought to a satisfying close, though in the world of the story, the visit from the cousin(?) is about to begin. The reader’s end = the narrator’s real beginning.
SYMBOLISM IN TWO SUMMERS
What does the sandwich/dog/plate symbolise? The boy presumably goes hungry — is he hungry for just this one meal? Is he feeding his dog in the same way he feeds the poddy farm animals? To continue in maudlin fashion, if drought were to continue, eventually we’d all be losing food. The dog on the final page looks happy, presumably because he lives in blissful ignorance, much as this narrator did last summer.
With a dead cow on one side of the river, the river itself forms a kind of dissection. In stories rivers can symbolise many different things — often they symbolise a journey, but more negatively can also signal an irreversible passing of time. On this page I feel the river signifies a division (between two different life experiences — one of plenitude, the other of meagre pickings, much like the river in The Three Billy Goats Gruff.)
There are lots of poddies. Ewes just walked away from their lambs this year.
Foxes and crows took some. Mum and I grabbed the rest.
The narrative voice feels detached and pragmatic, but it is clear from the story exactly what is happening. The word ‘die’ is avoided, and not just because this is a picture book and therefore for young readers; this is the way farmers talk.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF TWO SUMMERS
The colour palette is very much of the Australian landscape.
Freya Blackwood is particularly skilled at drawing from a bird’s eye view, and does so here on numerous pages to show a great variety of things going on in the farm scenes, but also to convey a sense of helplessness, as if these people are like ants, small in their environment, and at is mercy.
WHO IS THE TRUE PROTAGONIST OF TWO SUMMERS?
This is an interesting question because the unnamed narrator (it’s significant that he’s unnamed) functions a little like a ‘storyteller as character’ — we know that he’s a farm boy, but we actually end up knowing a lot more about Rick — his injuries, his struggles, his character arc (how he gets better at riding a bike and so on). If this weren’t a picture book, we wouldn’t have a picture of him at all. Red-headed Rick’s position as central character is solidified when we consider what Mercedes Gaffron called the ‘glance curve’.
the “glance curve” … moves from the left foreground back around the picture space to the right background. Because we look first at the left foreground, we tend to place ourselves in that position and to identify with the objects or figures located there … People represented here belong to our side in the figurative sense of the term, in contrast to the people on the right side“. In fact, the protagonists of many picture books … do tend to appear on the left more often than not.
Sure enough, if you flip through this book with rules of the Western Glance Curve in mind, you’ll see that Rick has been positioned by the illustrator in ‘protagonist position’ — more often than not he is the character we see first.
DRAWING THE SPACES BETWEEN
Comparing this art style to something like Thirteen O’Clock illustrated by Tom Barling in the 1970s, in which every leaf of every tree is defined in detail (giving the book a distinctively 1970s look), Blackwood’s approach to painting objects in the distance seems to be ‘draw the spaces between’, as art teachers are sometimes known to advise. Take a look at Blackwood’s trees:
THE ENDING OF TWO SUMMERS
The sense of hope achieved on the final page is backed up by the colour of the sky on the final page — for the first time we’re given a sense that it might indeed rain, with a darkening sky. This could be read in two ways, of course — dark colours in picture books can also convey a sense of foreboding.
STORY SPECS OF TWO SUMMERS
Published 2003 by Scholastic Press
John Heffernan has written about thirty books for a range of audiences from early readers to young adults, in a range of genre that includes realistic fiction, fantasy, futuristic, and picture books. He also writes for junior readers under the pseudonym “Charlie Carter” (most notably, the Battle Boy series).
There is such a thing as a ‘storybook farm’. I’m thinking of board books in which toddlers learn the names of different farm animals. The farm animals have personalities. This storybook farm I’m imagining is probably set in America (not in a drought year), and there will be big American barns, almost always red. Do you have many of these books on your shelf? In picture books, the farm is often a kind of utopia, and will have the following:
the importance of a particular setting (in farm books, a farm)
autonomy of felicitous space from the rest of the world
a general sense of harmony
a special significance of home
absence of the repressive aspects of civilisation such as money, labor, law or government
absence of death and sexuality
and finally, as a result, a general sense of innocence
Rosie’s Walk is one kind of farm utopia, because no harm comes to Rosie — as sorry as we may feel for the poor fox, we don’t assume he starves to death — he probably catches her later, off-screen!
WRITE YOUR OWN BASED ON TWO SUMMERS
Obviously, ‘storybook farms‘ as seen in picturebooks are not real. What other storybook setting might you depict in more realistic fashion, while retaining some sense of hope at the end?
How might you take a most-usually American setting (a yellow school bus, an elementary school) or a white-nuclear-family setting and make it more mimetic of real life?