Sidewalk Flowers (2015), or what I might call Footpath Flowers, is a wordless Canadian picture book by poet JonArno Lawson and beautifully illustrated in ink and wash by Sydney Smith.Continue reading “Sidewalk Flowers by Lawson and Smith”
Wolf in the Snow (2017) is an almost wordless picture book written and illustrated by Matthew Cordell, with links to the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale.Continue reading “Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell”
STORY STRUCTURE OF UP AND UP
The story opens with the following wonderfully detailed Where’s Wally-esque opening spread, with foreshadowing of the big balloon partially hidden behind a tree:
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
The girl in Up and Up doesn’t have a name, though she may be one of the characters from another Shirley Hughes book. Hughes’s characters all have a similarity to them. Children are drawn like sprightly little old people, somehow.
When characters in children’s books don’t have a name, this turns them by default into The Every Child.
WHAT DOES SHE WANT?
The girl wants to fly like a bird. We see this from the opening spread. A bird flies past; she stands up to watch it leave. At first we don’t know if she’s just interested in bird watching or perhaps feather-collecting, but the following spread cements that wish.
For more on flight, see The Symbolism of Flight in Children’s Literature.
Her natural opponent is gravity, but gravity does not make for an especially interesting opponent. We can’t care about gravity — whether it wins or loses. Gravity just is.
Like many children who go off on carnivalesque adventures, her parents don’t pay attention to her. I guess this is a universal feeling children have, no matter how much time parents have.
Her main human opponent is introduced a bit later — the old man with the telescope, who is the most hellbent on bringing her down. He’s a mad scientist archetype, and so keen to arrest her that he even uses his hot air balloon which he has in his backyard.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
Shirley Hughes utilises the rule of threes during the opening sequence, giving the girl three separate plans to fly like a bird.
- Run and leap (trips and falls)
- Make wings out of paper and jump off a ladder. (I have personally done this as a kid, though I didn’t have enough faith to actually make the leap!)
- Inflate balloons and float up into the sky. (Gets stuck on a twig.) At this point the story has already crossed over into fantasy realm. First, the girl blows up the balloons with her breath, but these are behaving like helium balloons. Second, there’s no way 9 balloons would lift a girl up into a tree.
All of her plans fail so she goes home in a grumpy mood. She’s standing in her entrance hall when something amazing happens. A massive chocolate egg is dropped off by the postie.
The ‘portal’ takes the girl back into the mundane world rather than into a parallel world. The chocolate egg is something I haven’t seen elsewhere, and to be honest I’d never even realised any connection between my chocolate eggs at Easter and the fact that eggs normally house baby birds.
Though these pictures are simple black and white line drawings, I imagine this is the part in ‘Wizard of Oz’ where everything turns technicolour (or perhaps the colour has been seeping in since the balloons fantasy page). What follows is maybe a dream, or maybe it’s real within the world of the picture book. Picture book fantasies generally work like that — they can often be interpreted as the young child’s inner world fantasy.
The Big Battle in this story is preceded by a chase sequence in which people on the ground are chasing the girl to see this amazing spectacle. There’s a large dose of showing off involved here — the wish fulfilment in this fantasy is ‘everyone looks at how amazing I am and I am briefly the centre of attention’.
So we can predict she will defeat the old man chasing her. It’s all part of her own fantasy of being a hero.
We never see the old man again. I guess he’s dead. (Who said you couldn’t kill people off in picture books? Just make sure it’s off the page.)
WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?
A carnivalesque story is not about learning stuff.
You know from the beginning if a character is going to have a anagnorisis because there will be something wrong with them. They might not appreciate someone, or they might be lonely, or they might not treat their friends well. In those stories, the character will almost certainly have changed by the end.
But in a carnivalesque story the point is to escape the mundane world and have fun for a while. That’s it. The carnivalesque story structure has more in common with comic structure than with dramatic structure. Though more ‘fun’ than ‘funny’, there is nothing to be learned except ‘that was really fun’ or ‘so that’s what fun looks like’.
HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?
The point of a carnivalesque story is that it will actually be the same as before… with one small difference. Now the girl knows what it is to have real, unfettered fun. The scene at the end where she’s eating a boiled egg and toast shows the mundane nature of her everyday life. (Boiled eggs are quite often used in fiction to show ‘ordinary’, though less so these days. I think kids are eating fewer boiled eggs in general.)
This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee to show how universal structure exists behind all good stories, even when those stories don’t have words.
(Frazee is pronounced FRAY-zee.)
The Farmer and the Clown is part of a trilogy. Frazee has said that they can be read ‘individually, and taken together, with a beginning, middle and end. The FARMER AND THE MONKEY is the “winter” book; a time of seeking warmth.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN
The Farmer and The Clown is an example of a carnivalesque story. Carnivalesque stories are popular with children. ‘Carnivalesque’ is a term coined by a guy called Mikhail Bahktin to describe the kind of story in which a character breaks away from ordinary life for a while and has fun. At the end of the story the character returns to their ordinary life. In this case, two characters go off on a picnic.
Carnivalesque tales don’t necessarily have a single thing to do with ‘carnivals’, though in The Farmer and The Clown, Frazee has taken characters from a circus to use in her story.
For more on picnics in children’s literature, see this post.
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER AND WHAT IS WRONG WITH THEM?
Who is the main character? This question isn’t always as easy to answer as it seems. In this case the title suggests two characters who are equally central to the story. Sometimes a story is about a pair/group of people equally. If you’re not sure, here’s the question to ask: Who changes the most over the course of the story?
I argue that the farmer changes the most. Therefore, the farmer is the main character in this story, by a little bit. The young clown also changes, I guess. He or she learns that being separated from family can be fun, but not for too long or you start to get homesick.
What’s wrong with the farmer? He is isolated. The single chair on the verandah shows that he lives alone, and we know that even before we’re inside his house.
What’s wrong with the child clown? They are missing their own family, and because of youth, there’s no easy way to get back.
WHAT DO THEY WANT?
Carnivalesque stories tend to be unvarying in some of these steps. In a carnivalesque tale, the characters always desire fun. They desire a break from the routine and restrictions of their regular lives. But they also need to return to those regular lives at the end of the story. Unending fun is as terrible as never-ending routine.
This is tough. I’m trying to persuade you that every story needs an opponent. But where’s the opponent in this story? At first glance there is no opponent — just hard circumstances (falling off a wagon and becoming separated from family).
Here’s the thing, though: ‘Opposition’ is often very subtle. All this means is that the characters want different things. It doesn’t mean they have to have a big fight because of their differences. Sometimes the characters are very loving. (Another example of this kind of story is Sam and Dave Dig A Hole, in which two characters are always happy in each other’s company, never arguing.)
Frazee depicts a different kind of opposition in this wordless picturebook.
Look at the farmer’s face when we first see him. He looks grumpy, right? We assume he’s a grumpy old miser who prefers to be alone.
Look at the little clown’s face. They have a painted on smile, but we assume he is happy. It’s only when the facepaint is washed off that we see they are not happy at all.
Frazee thereby presents an opposition between the characters and the reader, bringing the reader into the story as one of the participants.
When the farmer says goodbye to the little clown, his hands are clasped firmly behind his back. This tells us that he knows he has to say goodbye to the little clown, but he doesn’t want to. He’s restraining himself from leaping forward and keeping the clown for himself.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
The farmer has no idea how to get the clown back with their family, so he simply looks after them. When the little clown becomes sad, he goes out of his way to make their time together fun, by teaching the clown how to milk a cow, by doing tricks with his hat, by taking them on a picnic.
The big struggle scene of this story is as subtle as the opposition. (If the opposition is subtle, the big struggle will be, too.)
The big struggle is an inner struggle. This is what makes The Farmer and The Clown so masterful — Marla Frazee uses no words, yet we still know exactly how that farmer is feeling when he is forced to say goodbye to the little clown. It’s all in those hands, clasped behind his back.
WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?
Another way of putting this: How does the character change? What is the character arc?
In old tales, like the fairytales transcribed by Charles Perrault, stories for children ended with a paragraph about what the child reader should take away from the story.
Moral: Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.The ending Perrault gave to Little Red Riding Hood
These are called ‘didactic’ (moralistic) stories and are no longer published for modern kids. Exception: Overt, didactic messages are still found in ironic children’s literature, which pokes fun at those old didactic tales. Lemony Snicket started that big trend in middle grade fiction, but there must have been something in the air, because in the same year A Series Of Unfortunate Events was published, we had the massive hit series from Nickelodeon, SpongeBob Squarepants (1999), which often ends with a mock didactic message, sometimes in the form of an outro (musical sequence to end on).
Contemporary stories, even for the very young, are rarely obvious about what the character has learned. Sometimes, even in picture books, the character winds up dead, and has therefore learned nothing!
Still, characters must change in some way. We deduce this change for ourselves. The farmer now knows what it is to have young company. When he leaps into the air, trying to cheer up the little clown to get him out of bed the next morning, I’m reminded of Grandpa George from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Frazee makes use of the trope that old people regain some of their youthful vigour when exposed to youth and novelty.
Frazee received a letter from a grandmother whose three year old granddaughter had made the observation that when we meet someone, even after that person moves on, we have kept something about that person and made it a part of ourselves. (That kid is an emotional genius.) We deduce that the farmer has changed simply from spending a bit of time with this child.
How does the reader change?
Marla Frazee loves a Mem Fox quote which goes something like, “A good picture book changes the reader’s emotional temperature over the course of the story.”
In a story, it’s not always the character who changes. Oftentimes it’s the reader. Did you find yourself welling up as you finished reading The Farmer and the Clown? I did! I was perfectly happy before I opened this book, but by the end my emotional temperature had certainly changed.
HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?
The young clown will be with his real family. The farmer has a new companion, so we can extrapolate that he won’t be as lonely as he was before.
A lot of children’s stories are about ‘found family’. A young character has no family, or a terrible family, so goes out into the big, wide world and meets a person/people to call kith and kin. This kind of story can still work, so long as the author makes it clear that the child had no family to begin with. Contemporary stories about found family have a real-life political backdrop of children who have been taken from their families, often for no good reason. Speaking of Samson and Delilah, here in Australia The Stolen Generation and their descendants are still dealing with the intergenerational trauma of Australia’s White Australia policy, in which Aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in White families. Other countries have similar histories.
This is why every piece of art is political. When authors write picture books, even carnivalesque picture books like The Farmer and the Clown, history has an impact on the story. When the young clown reunites with his family of clowns, this is a good thing. We know this, because the clowns are clearly excited to see him (or her). The farmer may or may not be sad to see him go, and lonely from now on. Frazee’s ending makes for a perfect blend of bittersweet which, ideologically, is very much a story of its time: ‘If you have a family who care for you, your own people are always the best people for you.’
Marla Frazee softens the ending a bit. When you turn the page, the final spot illustration shows that the monkey has jumped off the wagon to join the farmer. The monkey has one finger to his/her lips, looking conspiratorially at the reader. A lot of picture books end in this way — this is a circular plot. Now we know that this story is going to play out again, but this time with a monkey. Perhaps the clowns won’t come back for the monkey. This is acceptable in a contemporary milieu because the monkey never was part of the clown family — itself stolen from its own kin. We can imagine the monkey will stay with the farmer forever, keeping him company.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN
Marla Frazee works with real media rather than digital illustration. She feels that even when hand-painting something that would be heaps faster on a computer, the subtle difference between hand-painted and digitally painted art is worth it. As a child she hugely appreciated the time and effort that went into the illustrations that appeared in her favourite picture books. (I would like to add, from experience, that it’s perfectly possible to do painstaking hand-drawn work straight onto a computer, via a tablet.)
Marla Frazee says in this video that she is influenced by Maurice Sendak, who is most famous for Where The Wild Things Are. It’s easy to forget this now, but when Wild Things came out it was unlike anything that had come before, in its honest expression of a child’s strong emotions.
Frazee was also influenced by Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCluskey (who also wrote Make Way For Ducklings).
Frazee also says she loves stories in which an older person tells a story about what happened to them as a younger person, which then inspired what they do as adults. The fancy name for this kind of story is hypodiegetic narration.
The farmer’s cottage in the middle of nowhere reminds me very much of the setting of Courage the Cowardly Dog, a Cartoon Network show from the late 1990s.
A small, rickety house in the middle of an empty plain also reminds me a lot of Samson and Delilah, an Australian film about two Aboriginal teens learning to live independently in the Australian outback. (A must watch for teenage viewers and older, because not much of Australia looks like the set of Neighbours or Home and Away.)
When characters exist in a small cottage in the middle of nowhere, this increases the vulnerability, which also increases our sympathy. Notice too how Marla Frazee chose to keep her ‘camera’ higher than the characters. We’re looking at the farmer and the clown as if we’re up high, like we’re birds. This also makes the pair seem vulnerable, and also young and small. Even though the farmer is an adult, we can consider both farmer and clown as children. They both have a childlike sense of fun.
When the child clown reunites with his clown family inside the wagon, we know that the farmer will be alone once more. Did you feel a pang of sadness for him?
Colour Palette of The Farmer and the Clown
The palette is ochres, though the end papers are red to lend some colour. (Clowns are also associated with red because of their noses.) The clowns themselves are colourful, showing that they are not a part of this environment. The clowns belong to an entirely different world.
Many of the illustrations are not full bleed, meaning they don’t fill the entire page. (I’m not talking about the spot illustrations either, which are small pictures without the background.) A number of the illustrations in this book are almost a cross between full bleed and spot, with a fuzzy border. This lends a dreamy atmosphere to the story. Have you ever had an unusual experience which, looking back, feels almost like you dreamt it? For me, the years I spent in Japan as an exchange student feel like a dream now, because the experience was so different from my normal life and also because it happened a long time ago. I’m not sure young readers have been around long enough to know what memories turn into after several decades, but adult readers would.
Continuous Narrative in The Farmer and The Clown
There is a type of narrative art known as ‘continuous narrative‘. Marla Frazee is a big fan of this type of illustration, and includes an example in most of her picture books. Here’s an example:
The youngest readers of picture books don’t understand that there is only one little clown. They think there are six identical clowns. But after exposure to enough books, we learn to decode pictures as they are intended: There are not six clowns but one, and this is the same clown in six different states. Continuous narrative in illustration is good for depicting movement.
STORY SPECS OF THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN
The Farmer and The Clown won the Horn Book’s ‘Mock Caldecott’ 2015 by a country mile, but lost out when it came to the real Caldecott Medal. (You know what won? Dan Santat’s The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, also very good, obviously.)
Marla Frazee is also well-known for illustrating the Clementine middle grade novels and for writing Boss Baby, recently turned into a feature film by DreamWorks.
How does one write flap copy for a (largely) wordless picture book? The publishers of leaf have obviously done a test read with a young reader called Amelia and they quoted her response for the flap.
This story reminds me of the advertisement for Tooheys Extra Dry — both are surreal and involve a dream sequence with real-life influence, and both are about what happens after planting hair.
But to linger for a moment on the word ‘surreal’:
Surrealism is used wrongly in everyday speech to mean “I don’t get it, I don’t understand”. But in an academic sense it means almost the opposite: It’s an abbreviation of ‘super-real’, in which we do understand a surrealist work of art by going past the surface and looking at the essence behind. The idea you dig for is more important than any conveyed by the first impression. Surrealist art makes the viewer work before understanding the meaning.
When it comes to children’s picture books, a boy with a leaf growing out of his head is surrealism. That’s not what you’d expect. Humour is rampant in surrealist picturebooks and kids’ films, in which the audience may be a part of the joke or even the butt of the joke.
CHARACTERS IN LEAF
The first thing you may notice about the boy is that his shirt is green and his trousers are brown. Obviously, the boy = the tree.
As for the mother, this is a caring but unsympathetic character — the opponent in this scenario. She, too, is tall and thin. (For genetic reasons, it makes sense, since the boy grows tall and thin himself.) A thin, angular mother in picturebooks is ‘not warm’.
Notice her coffee. The author/illustrator makes sure we notice it in fact; she holds it out against a purple background; she holds it out against the white space; she next seems to point to it, although in the setting she is simply reaching for the shears. The steam curling up from the coffee cup is the inspiration for the boy’s leap into imagination.
STORY STRUCTURE OF LEAF
A boy does not like having his hair cut.
He wants to run in the wild with his dog with his long, untidy hair, au naturel.
The mother figure, who wants his hair to be cut.
He runs away from his scissors-wielding mother. He takes his dog for companionship and adventure.
Like many picturebooks, the ‘big struggle’ scene take up the middle third-or-so of the book. A bird drops a seed onto the boy’s head and a leaf grows. This marks the beginning of a carnivalesque imaginative sequence in which they get blown in the wind, the leaf almost dies from the heat of the sun, the dog gets saturated by the water from a watering can used to perk up the leaf, followed by the crescendo, which is a literal dream (at home in bed). In this dream the mother has been replaced by a man with huge gardening shears who wants to cut the leaf off the boy’s head.
The ultimate big struggle scene is when the mother greets him with the scissors the next morning and gives him a buzz cut.
The boy’s anagnorisis is connected to his revelation that the leaf is not dead. He can still save it. He plants the cut-off hair along with the leaf. Amazingly, it grows into a tree.
The anagnorisis may be that he will continue to grow, and will soon be out of the grip of his mother’s enforced buzz cuts.
A few flashforwards and we see he is now tall and thin, just like the tall tree the seedling has become. He has his own family and has grown his hair out long, just how he likes it.
As for the dog, a bird drops a seed onto the dog’s head. We presume the same story will happen to the dog.
Peter Schossow’s picture book More! is wordless in the same way Robert Redford’s All Is Lost is wordless: Both contain one spoken word, imbued with huge weight accordingly.
Gecko Press brought this book from German to English in 2010, and have also translated another of Schossow’s works: My First Car Was Red.
Even a ‘wordless’ picture book follows the typical story arc.
STORY STRUCTURE OF MORE!
A man is small and helpless compared to the forces of nature.
The man would like to enjoy a walk along the shore.
The wind, who blows off his hat.
He will chase the hat.
The big struggle takes place over a number of double spreads, and we see the man thrown higher and higher into the air, until he is level with an aeroplane.
He likes it!
He will let himself get swept up in the wind again.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF MORE!
Ask a child the colour of sky and they’ll tell you ‘blue’. They get this from picturebooks, perhaps. In reality, the sky is many colours. But in this picturebook we have a distinctly green hue. Why? What was behind this choice?
Well, the thing about green is, it feels otherworldly. Green is associated with the subconscious; it’s thought we see green just before passing out (though I haven’t given this a go). The other thing is, a green sky means the sky is part of the land. There is no real distinction between land and sky. Did this story really happen, or is it entirely in the man’s imagination?
Notice the sun, also — this is not a distinctly delineated circle but rather a roundish glow, suggestive of some sort of magical haze. Yet at the end of the book we have a crescent moon. Over the course of a day the sky changes from bright to dark, but in this story the sky remains the same otherworldly hue of green. It’s only once you notice the moon that you realise the man has been flying in the wind all day. This is not the first time he’s asked to go again!
Though this is not a Christmas book, the colour palette is made up of green, white and the red of the man’s trousers and scarf. Red and green are complementary colours, so shouldn’t be commandeered by Christmas, sure.
This limited palette means the man is the same colour as the bits of rubbish blowing in the breeze.
This character has a very big nose. In fact, the nose is the first thing we see of him. I thought it was a chin. Then I realised the nose matches the shape of the shoes; these are big clodhoppers of shoes which should plant the man firmly upon the ground.
I’m left with one question though: What happened to his dog? Normally if the story starts with a dog it reappears on the final page. Did the dog get sick of him and go home alone? I believe the dog is an example of a picturebook McGuffin. The dog is the reason the man sets off on a walk in the first place, but after the inciting incident, the audience (generally) doesn’t think about the dog again. And it does work. For me, the dog’s fate was a refrigerator moment.
This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at The Snowman by Raymond Briggs.
The Snowman is another carnivalesque tale, in which the ‘classic story structure’ needs a little reinterpretation.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE SNOWMAN
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
A boy. Illustrated in generic style, with dots for eyes, this boy is supposed to represent the Every Child. (White boys often do. Anything extra on the White boy is interpreted to be a meaningful embellishment.)
What is wrong with him?
This is the question you should always ask of a main character. Unless there’s some psychological shortcoming, there’s no room for the character to grow. But sometimes, especially when you get a story about an Every Child, there’s nothing really wrong with them at all — we don’t know enough about them. Usually, in that case, their youth is their biggest problem. Childhood is restrictive. You don’t get to make your own decisions. The boy has to ask his mother before going out to build a snowman. He has to ask her again if he can dress the snowman in clothes. This is symbolic of how the boy lives his life — he craves more freedom, and he does get it, only for one night, and it may have been a dream.
WHAT DO THEY WANT?
Surface level desire: When he sees it is snowing outside he wants to build a snowman.
Deeper desire: As I mentioned above, he is restricted, so he craves freedom and adventure, and probably also a friend. He seems to be an only child, and in stories, only children are presumed to be lonely.
This is a carnivalesque story, so the character who turns up can exist at anywhere on the spectrum between opponent and best friend. The Cat In The Hat messes up the house, so is an opponent. But the Snowman in this tale is very much a friend.
Opposition in carnivalesque stories can come from the fact that the new friend has to eventually leave.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
The boy introduces the Snowman to his world. He shows him the TV, how to punch the punching bag, and eventually they have a midnight feast together in the house. But this is not quite enough. The boy has already been shown to gaze wistfully out the window, so any lover of picture books should expect the child to go beyond the house. And so they do. They go flying.
The ‘Big Battle’ in a carnivalesque tale is often no such thing. Consider it simply an ultimate escalation of fun. Just when you thought the characters couldn’t have any more fun (a midnight feast is pretty fun, right?) they go further.
In this story the boy flies through the air. They go on a ship across the sea. Consider this ultimate fun.
Flying is common and also highly symbolic in children’s literature. It can symbolise a bunch of different things. (Not just freedom.)
WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?
I’ve heard it said that although children share the same emotions as adults, and we should respect that, the one thing children can’t relate to is nostalgia. Children have simply not spent enough time on earth to have seen good things (or bad things) come to an end, and though some things have ended (the toddler years etc) they haven’t yet had time to separate themselves from those experiences. It generally takes seven years before we can look back on a past event with a clear view.
But when the snowman melts, that’s pretty close to nostalgia. The boy has learnt that even wonderful things must come to an end, and there’s not a single thing you can do to stop the passage of time.
I think this is a book which appeals to adults just as much as it appeals to kids, if not more so. Adults can look at that snowman and think of all the wonderful things that have come and gone in their lives.
HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?
The boy has now experienced something wonderful, even if it was all a dream. Now he knows what it is to fly through the air and have a companion, and not be the naive one in the partnership.
In these types of plots it’s not clear how life will be different exactly, but we trust it will be, simply because the boy has been touched by magic. You might call it ‘The Life-changing Power Of Magic’.
WONDERFULNESS OF THE SNOWMAN
[This story] is so tightly controlled in its cartoon strip visual images which resemble animation stills as to almost negate the interjection of the viewer’s imagination that the proponents of the wordless picture book so extol.
– Sheila Egoff suggests in Thursday’s Child that [the reason why this story] is superior to other wordless picture books is because it contains 43 pictures. (This is far more than most.)
Perry Nodelman explains why The Snowman is such a successful wordless picture book:
The Snowman is tightly controlled in every respect. If it stands out from other wordless books, it does so because Briggs has chosen both a subject and a style that allow him to make full use of the potential of the difficult medium. The idea of a snowman coming to life is full of action, and Briggs chooses to show us the snowman and the boy doing things, and lots of different ones. We recognize what they are doing because these are familiar actions, the sorts of things we do every day in our own homes. They are funny, because the snowman does not know how to do them. But the soft warmth of the style demands empathy rather than the distance of comedy; we stand back from the snowman but we still like him. He is the ideal candidate for sympathy: he is incompetent not because he is vain or self-satisfied but because he is ignorant and ingenuous. We feel superior to him because he cannot do the things any child can do, things that the boy in the book does well. But because these are things any child can do, we feel concern for him. He demands the same response from viewers as Winnie the Pooh does from readers. That he should be capable of flying gracefully through the air after his endearing display of incompetence is an added bonus.Words About Pictures, Perry Nodelman
For this same reason, viewers empathise more with the likes of Patrick in SpongeBob Squarepants more than Squidward, who is self-satisfied, pessimistic and vain. For more tricks on how to create empathetic characters, see this post.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS
There are three main ways illustrators can choose to depict people: minimalist, generic and naturalistic. I write more about that here.
Briggs has been working in children’s literature over decades and has developed a wide range of styles. He chooses either minimalist, generic or naturalistic depending on the story.
In other books, Raymond Briggs’ people lack delicacy/sensitivity, with jutting chins and prominent and scattered teeth. See Fungus the Bogeyman (1977) for an example of that style. Briggs also has an eccentric sensibility (see Father Christmas, 1973) and has even written a picture book for adults to demonstrate the horror of nuclear war (see When the Wind Blows, 1972).
Characters in The Snowman are drawn in generic, non-grotesque style, with dots for eyes. (Though even when we say ‘generic’, generic means obviously a White boy.)
There are two dominant colour palettes in The Snowman — cool palette, warm palette.
There are a lot of pictures of windows and doors in this picture book. Windows and doors are highly symbolic. In children’s illustrations they tend to show a child shut inside (against their will). The child will look outside, wondering what adventures could be had on the other side. Next we see them break free of their prison. But first comes the wondering and watching.
The final image could easily have taken up the entire last page, but instead Briggs chose to keep it very small. The boy’s world now seems very small again, now that his partner in imagination has melted away. This letterbox view is surrounded by a lot of white space, also known as ’emptiness’.
STORY SPECS OF THE SNOWMAN
I have heard the publishers of The Snowman love this book. They don’t have to do anything and it sells a reliable number of copies each and every year. Partly, this is because it’s a great Christmas book, and as you know, Christmas comes around each and every year. For most of the world (not here), Christmas and winter go together.
Made into a short film, released 1982. The boy who sang the song Walking In The Air (Aled Jones) grew up to present British home and garden shows, among other things.
WORDLESS PICTURE BOOKS
According to Barbara Bader, the first wordless picture book was What Whiskers Did by Ruth Carroll, published in 1932. Since then, many more wordless picture books have found popularity with young readers. Wordless books are truly interactive, because they require more of the reader. When a child and adult read a wordless book together, they’re probably doing a lot of talking about what’s going on.
COMPARE THE SNOWMAN WITH…
Another wordless picture book with a similarly affecting storyline is The Farmer and The Clown by Marla Frazee. In both stories an interesting stranger turns up, they have fun for a while and then there is sadness as the stranger must disappear.
The Snowman is bittersweet. The Man, also by Briggs, shows Briggs is multi-talented. He has the power to tell a story, illustrate it well, and he can also be very funny in both the pictures and the words.
Snowmen are not always the kind, naive creatures as presented by Raymond Briggs. Sometimes Snowmen are evil.