On Little Red Riding Hood

I am currently a bit of an expert on Little Red Riding Hood — self-described — having just done a bunch of reading from the world’s experts, and making my way through Jack Zipes’ anthology of all the most famous versions throughout history.

I summarised the most interesting bits over at my other website. (Okay, yes, I have been two-timing you.)

Why would one want to know so much about Little Red Riding Hood? I hear you mutter, noting that my lawn could really do with a mow and my fridge definitely wants to be caressed with an antiseptic wipe or two. Well, I have been head down bums up illustrating a modern re-visioning I co-wrote with my friend Liz and now it’s done and here it is if you’d like to download the pdf (for free) on Scribd.

And why would anyone want to rewrite a tale which has been re-visioned and retold thousands of times before? I used to think the same thing about fairytale rewrites, but then I thought, Hey, THAT hasn’t been done before.

Maybe it has and I just never found it. Take a peep and decide for yourself.

Lotta Red Riding Hood Cover

Click through for the link at Scribd.

Or if you happen to own an iPad, here is the slightly more beautiful version over at the iBooks Store, also free.

Then I woke up, and it was all a dream!

I don't sleep

I’ve recently been taking some magnesium supplements which is supposed to send you to sleep, and it does indeed. For me it also leads to vivid and lengthy dreams. I’ve been on some adventures, I tell you. This week I’ve even been stranded in a desert after my frat friend’s aeroplane crashed. (I have never been in a fraternity. I’m neither male nor American.) I’ve had kebab shops and beach walks and chickens murdered.

All of this has had me thinking about dreams, and their use in fiction.

I had a teacher at school who forbade any ending of stories with dreams. Some years later when I was an English teacher myself, I was introduced to an extant Department Policy borne of bitter experience of evenings reading wads and wads of creative writing assignments:

No babbling brooks


No chirping of birds.

I never had any reason to argue with either of those. The woman who executed those rules — a high school English teacher of many years’ experience — walked out of her first yoga session after it turned out the instructor asked them to imagine ‘babbling brooks’ at the end of their ‘proper yoga’… Oh, if only the yoga teacher had been primed!

In hindsight I would add two more topics I never want to read about again:

Birthday parties

Childhood Injuries

I don’t know why those two topics cropped up so often, but I think it was because I encouraged students to write about events which happened more than seven years ago, because I read something somewhere which made a good case for allowing adequate time for reflection between experiencing an event and then writing about it. The trouble is, I was teaching 14-year-olds, so memories prior to age seven were limited to birthday parties and injuries, especially those which necessitated a trip to emergency for stitches. Oh, so many stitches and grazes and broken arms!

Then there’s the Dream Ending.

I know several people who have told me as adults that when they discovered they could end a creative writing assignment by waking up from a dream they genuinely believed they had come up with the Best Thing Ever. English teachers and the judges of short story competitions would say otherwise.

Maria Nikolajeva writes about the dream ending and similar tidy conclusions in her book Children’s Literature Comes Of Age:

Children’s books with ready solutions bind the child’s imagination and free thought. It is treachery towards the modern sophisticated child reader to offer a “rational” explanation at the end. “And then he woke up and it has only been a dream.” We should not think that this ending is a thing of the past, for we remember it from Alice In Wonderland. It is repeated in much later texts, and one discovers it somewhat reluctantly in Mordecai Richler’s prize-winning book Jacob Two-Two Meets The Hooded Fang (1975) and in a many even more recent texts. Critical and creative authors find such resolutions very unsatisfactory, and regard the open ending as the only possible way of appealing to modern young readers.


So it is clear that the dream technique is not dead, but writers after good reviews do their utmost to avoid it.


Whatever your thoughts on Freud, dreams can play a useful role in plots and we fancy dreams give an insight into someone’s subconscious. Whether this works in real life, I’m not so sure, but as literary convention… It’s pretty much accepted, I think.

Here are some effective uses of dreams that I have seen of late. As in all things, there will still be readers with a very low tolerance for dreams, because everyone’s dreams are weird.


At the conclusion of Chapter 4, ‘Magic Phenomena’ of The Men’s Room by Ann Oakley (I’m getting a lot of mileage out of that book) is a dream scene. After a space break, the sequence begins:

There was a nail in the bed. It had cut into her face and made it bleed.

And the reader thinks, ‘Oh god, what has the man done to her?’ and then it gets more and more ridiculous, but it’s kind of sexual so I won’t quote it here because I don’t want that kind of spam.

Anyway, by the end of the scene the reader is left in no doubt that the protagonist is mid-dream. This technique works because it only happens once in the entire novel (after which it may get tiresome). The dream/nightmare gives the reader insight into the protagonist’s greatest fears. (I’m not sure that dreams really do indicate a person’s greatest fears — I’m not much of a Freudian — but nevertheless, I accept that this is the case in fiction.)

If you’ve seen Six Feet Under you’ll be familiar with the sneaky dream technique. Once you’ve seen a few episodes of Six Feet Under you’ll learn to expect dreaming, especially when something weird is playing out. That series also makes much use of tripping to achieve the same effect, as well as Nate’s illness. The technique has since been used in The Sopranos, and in many other things I haven’t seen, no doubt.


John Irving’s short story Other People’s Dreams is a prime example of that. It’s about a man who has never dreamed in his life, but then he discovers that by sleeping where others have dreamed, he can dream what they have. He learns a few things along the way, including a few surprises about his own mother.

So these kind of stories aren’t using dreams as a device, they just happen to be stories whose plots somehow involve dreams. The reader therefore doesn’t feel tricked.

Maria Nikolajeva writes in The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature:

Some of the best children’s novels and picturebooks are dream narratives, in which dreams are not merely a parable used to illuminate the main plot, but constitute the plot itself. Sometimes the narrative is explicitly stated to be a dream, as in Alice In Wonderland; more often it is implied, as in Tom’s Midnight Garden. While Alice, on waking up, is comfortably relieved of the necessity of taking responsibility for her actions in the dream, the character of Marianne Dreams finds that there is a significant connection between her dreams and her real life. Picturebooks allow vast possibilities in the interaction of word and image to create ambiguity of meaning in dream narratives… in many cases [the dream narrative] is also more inventive and imaginative than most of the mainstream dream narratives.


In this case, the dream snippet functions like backstory snippets, and in fact a snippet of a dream seen in the past is kind of a subcategory of backstory. This works on the presumption that dreams mean something, be it in a supernatural way, or simply because the protagonist’s mind has been playing something out, thereby highlighting its significance.

Robert McKee, in his scriptwriting guidebook Story, likens dream sequences to montage sequences:

In the American use of this term, a montage is a series of rapidly cut images that radically condenses or expands time and often employs optical effects such as wipes, irises, split screens, dissolves, or other multiple images. The high energy of such sequences is used to mask their purpose: the rather mundane task of conveying information. Like the Dream Sequence, the montage is an effort to make undramatized exposition less boring by keeping the audience’s eye busy. With few exceptions, montages are a lazy attempt to substitute decorative photography and editing for dramatization and are, therefore, to be avoided.

I think McKee is a little harsh on montages and dream sequences — we each probably have our own tolerance level and he has no doubt been more attune to the bad ones than I have as an armchair movie critic. (The book was written before Six Feet Under was produced, which took dream sequences to a new level.)

In The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier describes Jerry’s dream a moment before he wakes up:

He’d been dreaming of a fire, flames eating unknown walls, and the siren sounded, and then it wasn’t a siren but the telephone.

Since we know from the first sentence that Jerry dies, this nightmarish start to the day is foreshadowing events to come. A dream can also indicate worry and trauma from the previous day. In Jerry’s case it’s the prank calls:

In bed once more, small in the dark, Jerry willed his body to loosen, to relax. After a while, sleep plucked at him with soft fingers, soothing away the ache. But the phone rang in his dreams all night long.


Contemporary children’s literature makes much use of this technique: all sorts of fantastic/marvelous/uncanny things happen, and then by the final page the world has been restored to realism, and the reader is led to wonder, “Did that really happen, or was it just a dream?” Often in picturebooks there’s a small clue in the picture — something from the fantasy world appears in the ‘real world’ of the story, to make the reader wonder.

What do you think of this technique? I really like incomplete or ambiguous endings, but I’m not a huge fan of bringing something from the imaginary world into the real world of the story. That seems to have the opposite effect, of telling the reader, “Yes, it really did happen”, when they’d be better off truly wondering.


Nothing says, ‘I’m falling in love with him’ like a dream. Pearl Cleage manages to avoid the saccharine by breaking other worn-out romance writers’ tricks: this protagonist ain’t white, ain’t virginal and ain’t clean-talking:

I dreamed about walking in Eddie’s garden. I’m wearing a long, white dress and I’ve got on this big-ass straw hat and I’m holding up my skirt so it won’t get dirty.

– from What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day

And those two sentences pretty much sum up the voice of this book, in which the romantic lead woman has already got AIDS.


Can the subconscious mind alert us to the future? from Psych Central

Taxonomy Of Dreams

Obviously I have been interested in creating a taxonomy of dreams, and haven’t quite got my categories sorted.

NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour Podcast Episode 18 April 2014 is about Orphan Black and then it is about Dream Sequences. Here are some notes from that (starting at 19:30), in which several different ways of classifying fictional dreams are discussed. The discussion is also interesting in that it encourages the listener to consider what we do and don’t like about fictional dreams.

  • Glen collected numerous examples of dream sequences in modern stories and could probably have come up with a ‘taxonomy of dream sequences’ but found that a lot of the dream sequences were getting quite old and this is a narrative crutch that writers aren’t taking advantage of as much as they used to. The dream sequence has been around so long that it already has all the cliches associated with. The Simpsons is one show which makes fun of the cliches. Glen responds better to dream sequences when they do some emotional work as opposed to narrative work. When dreams are used to foreshadow or explain plot, they seem like more of a crutch than for example when a dream sequence is used to offer an insight into what a character is thinking/worried about. So there’s the taxonomy.
  • A writer who knows how to connect things emotionally via dreams is David Lynch. Everything Lynch makes has some surreal dream sequence. But ‘surreal’ doesn’t equate to throwing a ton of crazy crap in. There’s an internal emotional logic.
  • Stephen says that dreams can probably be divided into taxonomies in all sorts of different ways but another way of classifying dreams in fiction is according to their function.  There’s the ‘red herring’ or the ‘what, it was all a dream!’ and ‘dream sequence as fantasy’, but a common way dreams are used these days is to mete out little bits of backstory, especially in very convoluted stories like Captain America in which the mystery is ‘what the hell’s going on.’ (This is also true of Orphan Black, in which visualisations are used, even if they’re not technically dreams.)
  • Dreams, daydreams, visions, prophecies, processes of memory… all of these count as ‘dream sequences’.
  • In fantasy, dreams are almost always plot advance tools. They’re Jungian rather than Freudian; they’re messages to the reader, not about him. They’re there to give you some cryptic information about what’s going to happen.
  • Diana Wynne Jones wrote a fantasy satire called The Tough Guide To Fantasyland which is a parody tour-guide: “While you are on tour, your psyche is in the care of the management who will, when necessary, provide you with dreams. You should always attend to these, particularly when they are repeated the next night in the same form. They occupy the same slot as legends. They will be telling you something you need to know for the next phase of your tour, but they will not be doing so very clearly. You will need to think a bit.”
  • It’s surprising that dream sequences aren’t done better. Dream sequences feel more true when different scenes are blended, populated by characters who shouldn’t be there. Everybody knows that experience of having dreams where you can only describe it by saying, ‘Well, it was my bedroom, but it was also school’, and in the dream you knew that. It’s so rare for cinematic dream sequences to achieve the constantly shifting sense of place.
  • There’s an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer that conveys this disconnectedness of dreams particularly well where they’re rambling from room to room through various tunnels. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is another example of this done well. [I would add Big Love Season 5 in which Bill Henrickson dreams of meeting Emma Smith. His mother is also in the room. Cabin in the Woods could perhaps be considered a good example of this too.]
  • The thing that makes a dream sequence creepy is that there’s a difference between a stimulus and a response.
  • All that said, sometimes dream sequences are there just because they’re cool. Buster Keaton is a master of the dream sequence.  (The Playhouse, Sherlock Junior.)  In 1924 his techniques were quite revolutionary. [By coincidence(?) today marks an anniversary of this film and it is discussed by Film School Rejects. “Although Woody Allen claims Keaton’s film wasn’t an influence, his 1985 comedy The Purple Rose of Cairo employs the same conceit of people moving through a movie screen like it’s a gateway between worlds. This time, though, it’s a character from the film-within-the-film that exits out to the theater auditorium and real world. The address of escapism is still there even if the movie universe is doing the escaping. It’s a blurring of the border between cinema and reality.”]
  • Dream sequences used to be used as a way to do things which were experimental without needing to say that you had broken the rules of narrative storytelling. For example, that’s how you can have Dorothy go to Oz and say, ‘No no no, it’s not really a fantasy movie. It’s still in reality. It’s just a dream, because anything can happen in a dream.’
  • Some of the musicals of the 40s and 50s had dream sequences. An example is Oklahoma, which has a dream ballet. It’s a way to incorporate a huge ballet in the middle of a Broadway musical.
  • One of the most famous dream sequences in history occurs in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Designed by Salvador Dali, a lot of crazy crap happens. The film has a disturbingly literal understanding of Freudian psychology. There’s no ‘mesh’. The audience is more likely to remember the dream sequence of this movie rather than plot.
  • There have been a number of romantic comedy shows with a ‘will they or won’t they plot’ in which characters kiss, but it happens in a dream. That way the audience gets to have it both ways: You get to see the people kissing but the high sexual tension of unrequited love gets to continue. People didn’t used to be quite so embittered about that, but once the Dallas thing happened, in which a dream sequence wiped out an entire season of the show, audience started to think, ‘Boy if this turns out to be a dream I’m going to lose it.’ That was always on the table in Lost. Surprisingly, students of creative writing are still using it.

ANND, sort of not related is the effervescent Natalie Tran, in which she wishes she could insert the movies into her dreams rather than the usual way around.

dreaming and doing

More On Dreams In General:

What is metafiction, anyway?

  • Patricia Waugh defines metafiction as “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.
  • “Its relationship to the phenomenal world is highly complex, problematic and regulated by convention.” (I like that phrase ‘phenomenal world’ to what I’ve always problematically referred to ‘the real world’)
  • Why do we need words for talking about metafiction? To distinguish between the world within fiction and the world outside it.
  • This distinction is more important now that more and more writers are deliberately violating logic and using language for its own sake.
  • Although metafictional elements can be found in pretty much any work of fiction, metafiction as a literary device is relatively new in Western literature — perhaps 40 years old. (I adjusted from 20 years in a book which is 20 years old.)
  • Examples of metafiction in children’s literature first occurred from the 1980s.
  • There are two main types of metafiction.
  • The first is to parody a well-known work of literature.
  • The second is to consciously discuss the art of writing.
  • Metafiction is prevalent in experimental post-modern literature, but shouldn’t be regarded as only an experiment for experiment’s sake.
  • The message of a metafictional story is often that the world itself is artificial, constructed, man-made. It asks the question: What is the boundary that delimits fiction and reality?
  • In books for young readers, polyphony is one example of a metafictive device. Polyphony is “multi-voicedness”.
  • Metafiction isn’t a genre. It’s a trend within a genre.
  • Metafiction in children’s books is different from metafiction in books for adults. This is because metafiction always relies on past experience of the reader. Young readers don’t have much experience.
  • In children’s literature, metafiction is sometimes obvious to both the child and the adult co-reader, but often it is obvious only to the adult co-reader, resulting in a story which can appeal to all ages.
  • Daniel Handler is a good example of a modern metafictive children’s author. His books are written by ‘Lemony Snicket’, and he even continues this gag with him to his stage presentations. Adult readers know that the Series Of Unfortunate Events wasn’t written by one of the characters from inside, that a publishing world exists, with a real-world author behind the name. As for picture books, Mo Willems is a good example.
  • A Pack Of Lies by Geraldine McCaughrean, Fade by Robert Cormier and Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers are also metafictive in that their endings make the reader wonder how much of it is really true. The Monster At The End Of This Book is another example for younger readers. (You can read that here.)
  • Directly addressing the reader is a type of metafictive narrative device. Maria Gripe used it in her books about Elvis, and it has been developed by many modern Scandinavian children’s writers in particular.
  • A metafictional work has: the writer (e.g. Daniel Handler), the implied writer (e.g. Lemony Snicket), the narrator (the “I” of the novel), the implied reader (“you”) and the real reader. Other (non-metafictional) works might have the writer, the narrator and the reader. Simple.
  • “As long as anything can happen in a book it can also happen in real life, since it always happens more in real life.” – Tormod Haugen, “A Novel About Merkel Hanssen, and Donna Winther, and The Big Escape (1986), a metafictional YA Norwegian book
  • It could be argued that adult fantasy is by default metafictive, since the reader is aware of entering a different kind of world. But in children’s fantasy, that awareness is not necessarily there on the part of the child reader, so it’s hard to argue the same case.

Reference: Maria Nikolajeva’s Children’s Literature Comes Of Age and The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature, with a couple of more up-to-date examples of my own.

Gingerbread and Lamingtons

What is it about picturebooks? Sometimes the repetition drives you batty and as the adult reader you skip entire pages because you can’t face the thought of reading the same repetitive phrase another single time, even though you’ve heard that repetition is exactly what makes kids’ books so good for kids. Yet other picturebooks have the same amount of repetition, and yet you enjoy reading those ones. Each time you get to that repetitive bit you are motivated anew to put on your funny voice and you enjoy the theatre of it.

stunning fox photography is by Roeselien Raimond

stunning fox photography is by Roesalie Raimond

The Gingerbread Man is one of the latter examples. I enjoy reading good versions of that story and my daughter is spellbound by it. We have the Little Golden Book and the Ladybird versions.

Which version do you remember? My favourite illustrations of The Gingerbread Man are the lavish kind, in which grandmother’s kitchen feels safe and homely and you can almost smell the gingerbread baking. This isn’t a story that lends itself well to block colour. The gingerbread has to look delicious.


The very attractive ‘Run, run as fast as you can’ catch-phrase has been repurposed in a variety of new works. Stephen King even wrote a short horror story about a woman who loved long-distance running. I won’t spoil it for you, but it doesn’t end well.

Then there’s the Australian retelling of The Gingerbread Man. It’s called The Lamington Man, naturally. Lamingtons are a traditional cake — a square of sponge covered in icing (pink or chocolate) then covered in dessicated coconut. I’m not a fan. At least I wasn’t, until I tried homemade lamingtons, which are quite different from the dry sponge you get from the supermarket, although supermarkets have started selling mini lamingtons, which are much improved, not because their sponge is any less dry, but because mini lamingtons have a lower ratio of icing to sponge. (Here I am reminiscing, because after giving up sugar entirely, I have absolutely no intention of eating another darned lamington no matter how many country fairs I attend.)


This is what a lamington looks like.

I really like this Australian retelling of The Gingerbread Man — first of all, the old woman screams when the lamington comes to life. The artist has to be careful to get this right, because even in fairytale world, I’m sure anyone would be surprised if their baked goods up and left. This woman has a great surprised look. We can see straight down her throat.

I also like the phrase, ‘And sprinkled him with coconut, to finish him off of course.’ ‘To finish someone off’ has another meaning and indeed that’s what will happen.

This Lamington Man is a cheeky little bastard, insulting everyone he encounters. That’s why it’s so satisfying to see him eaten by a croc. He calls the dog lazy, insults the postman’s hat and makes a ‘mocking salute’ which I can only imagine is the middle finger, except the lamington man hasn’t actually got fingers, which is why it’s funny.

There’s also a pretty good joke at the end, but I won’t spoil it.

*There are people for whom Gingerbread will never be quite the same, because their children were making gingerbread houses the day a boy with a gun shot entered Sandy Hook Elementary School. Although I’m not American, and our gun laws are as good as they’ll ever be, that was an event which affected the world, and in fact gingerbread will never be quite the same for me either.

Feminist Film Review: Pirates Band Of Misfits

Perhaps when children develop interests in pirates, it’s the adventure they crave.


It is 2012 and there is no excuse for these kinds of movies being made. Of course, I say that with the assumption that in regards to female representation we can only move forwards, but this film is another example of why many feminist commentators conclude that we’re going backwards.

I wrote copious notes on why I hate this film so much, and before ranting about it here, checked it past my husband. I asked him to watch it first, for a repeat screening with the four-year-old, who I should mention up front — loves this film.

“What did you think?” I asked, knowing he knew I hated it.

“Um, I thought it was pretty good…?”

“But you can see why I didn’t like it, right?”

“Um… not really.”

So I read him my notes (which took some time) and then he got it. He said, “I honestly didn’t pick up any of that.” And I don’t think he said it just for a quiet life, but he agreed with me that this isn’t the sort of film we should let the four year old watch over and over again. Kids do that, you see, and I definitely see the influence of a few films in her imaginative play, which is why I’m so careful about these things.

This feminist-commentary/blissful-ignorance thing is a familiar dynamic in our living room. After coming out with a feminist critique of an episode of The Walking Dead the other night (even though I do try to keep my editorial inserts to myself, for enjoyment’s sake), my husband said, ‘Doesn’t knowing all this feminist stuff ruin stuff for you?”

(Totally not related: 7 Scientific Facts That Will Ruin Movies For You from io9)

“Yes!” Absolutely it does. Absolutely. I am in no doubt that my thinking deeply about inequalities enhances my enjoyment of not a single little thing, least of all Life In General, but in fact, these kinds of films annoyed me long before grew the vocabulary to explain how.

I’ll say upfront that this film met with very good reviews from the critics and as I mentioned above, I have long been baffled with the enduring popularity of pirates. Pirates are criminals, yet they have entered the common consciousness as heroes. If it’s sea adventure we’re after, we could easily glamorise the lives of common seafarers, yet we glamorise the lives of 19th century pirates.

The mood of this film reminds me a lot of The Boat That Rocked — a film for adults which I really enjoyed. Aardman have married stop motion animation with computer generated effects to create something visually stunning. What a shame the gags don’t live up to the vision.

This pirate story opens with Queen Victoria, a formidable character — yay!, a strong female character I think — followed not long after by blokey jokes about “scantily clad mermaids” and I realise that it’s only going to go downhill from there.

The token female saunters into a room full of hapless male pirates announcing that she is just as deadly as she is beautiful. The men stare at her with their mouths agape, stunned by her beauty, or perhaps from the unexpectedness of this.


Female pirates? At this point I would like to quote Shattersnipe:

What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?

The answer tends to be as ugly as it is revealing: that it’s impossible for black, female pirates to exist anywhere, that pixies and shapeshifters are inherently more plausible as a concept than female action heroes who don’t get raped, and that fairy tale characters as diverse as Mulan, Snow White and Captain Hook can all live together in the modern world regardless of history and canon, but a black Lancelot in the same setting is grossly unrealistic. On such occasions, the recent observation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz that “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3rd elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they (white people) think we’re taking over” is bitingly, lamentably accurate.

– from the blog post PSA: Your default narrative settings are not apolitical

I feel I should quote some more of that article, in which we learn that that there was such a thing as female pirates — writers don’t need to shove them in just for the sake of modern political correctness — it is entirely possible to make a movie with female pirates at the helm, rather than as a walk-on sexually objectified character, and she would be perfectly historically accurate:

…there’s a significant difference between history as written and history as happened, with a further dissonance between both those states and history as it’s popularly perceived. For instance: female pirates – and, indeed, female pirates of colour – are very much an historical reality. The formidable Ching Shih, a former prostitute, commanded more than 1800 ships and 80,000 pirates, took on the British empire and was successful enough to eventually retire. There were female Muslim pirates and female Irish pirates – female pirates, in fact, from any number of places, times and backgrounds. But because their existence isn’t routinely taught or acknowledged, we assume them to be impossible.

Here’s another point, from author Scott Lynch, in response to a reader complaining that having a middle-aged female pirate is nothing more than political correctness. Quite rightly, Lynch says that middle-aged women are allowed some wish fulfillment in their fiction as much as the next person.

I can see that this film, however, is parodying the classic female roles with its eyes wide open, but what does this really achieve, apart from reinforcing those roles? I was slightly concerned when the four-year-old looked at me and said, “Girls are queens!” meaning, I thought, “What is this girl doing as a pirate?” A successful attempt at gender-role bending, perhaps. Then I worked out that the female pirate was acting so far out of her traditional female role — only her voice was feminine — and the four-year-old didn’t realise that the pirate was actually a female. Decent female characters do not equal male characters with boobies. To the four-year-old, even the bows in the hair was confusing to her, since male pirates are traditionally depicted wearing bows on their ponytails, unlike every other character on everything, and so hair-style is how little kids are conditioned to tell the difference between female and male caricatures/cartoons/characters in the first place. (There’s that and the colour pink, of course, to denote the token female in a group.)

So much for gender bending, anyway. I’m wondering now how female pirates did behave. I don’t know. I’ll probably never know, because their histories haven’t been recorded.

By the way, this alluring female pirate appears later in the sexually charged fantasy of the Pirate Captain. This time she’s the stereotypical gameshow hostess in which he wins pirate of the year, or something. She may have first appeared in pirate dress, but that is not how the audience is guided to see her. It would be a mistake then for the audience to conclude that this film is a good one for pirate-loving little girls, because a young woman in pirate-costume is… well, just that.


In the week when American news anchor Jennifer Livingston responded on air to an email from a male lawyer asking her to lose weight in order to be a good role model on screen, I was already wondering where all the fatism comes from, especially when the overweight and obese look set to outnumber the rest. So I couldn’t help but notice the fat jokes in this film, too.

The Pirate Captain has the obligatory parrot on his shoulder, standing in as his ‘trophy wife’. The running joke is that the parrot is bigger than it should be. “She’s not fat — she’s just big-boned”, exclaims the captain defensively. This has the entire ship in fits of laughter, and is the turning event when the captain decides he must prove his worth as their true leader. This joke wouldn’t work, of course, if there were not the cultural assumption that powerful men must have beautiful women on their arms — or in this case, beautiful parrots on their shoulders. A man whose woman (or his female parrot companion) can’t possibly be fit to be leader unless he finds himself a female who fits the narrow constraints of acceptable body shape. A man’s status must match his woman’s beauty. Stereotype thusly reinforced.

Later, when Queen Victoria enters a room on a horse, the queen is exaggeratedly large (as she is always depicted) and the horse is ridiculously small: a visual joke about size which is as powerful as anything voiced. In another scene someone says, “A minute on the hips, a lifetime on the hips.” A ridiculous axiom in the first place. All it does is bring unhealthy messages about food guilt into a comedy designed for kids, who shouldn’t have to have to hear such rubbish.


Much of the humour in this film come from anachronisms such as the appearance of a group of modern children on a geography field trip to the pirate ship, or the Pirate Captain performing the moonwalk, or the audience at the science awards eating popcorn and sucking down soda drinks.  Yet in that same audience, a woman is so taken aback that she faints. This often happened in those days, partly because it was expected of the weaker sex. It’s interesting to see which authentically 1800s parts are kept and which are ditched for comedy’s sake.


I am a big fan of the historical figure Charles Darwin — I think he did a lot to advance our understanding of the world — so at the risk of sounding way too precious, I take it a little personally when he is fictionalised as a rather hapless character. I wouldn’t mind so much if he were as untouchable as Queen Victoria, but here’s the rub: there are still plenty of otherwise well-educated people in this world who refuse to believe ‘The Theory Of Evolution’, so I’m not sure Darwin is quite up to the role of being ridiculed, not so long as his work is still being ridiculed for real.

I’d be interested to know if other adult viewers got an impression of Charles Darwin depicted as gay when he is first introduced in this film. Later, it turns out he is in love with Queen Victoria, which is meant to sound ridiculous, of course, but funny? Really? “You don’t get many women back here, do you Charles,” says one of the pirates when Charles takes them to his house. Because women exist as sexual conquests, to be impressed? Because a comfortable home takes a ‘woman’s touch’? I’m not sure, but I know I don’t like it. I think it’s because a man couldn’t possibly be attracted to an unattractive woman… in power. One of those attributes would be unappealing enough, but both at once, in the same woman? Impossible. Even today. Queen Victoria can see Charles’ infatuation for her and says, “I’ve always loved you Charles.” “Really?” “No!” Queen Victoria then hits him over the head with a frying pan. I wondered if this is how the male authors of this screenplay feel about women in general. Much of this humour felt like a catharsis of female rejection. Or maybe they’re just playing on how many other men feel about women, and the nasty business of being rejected when you’re acculturated into making the first move, as a real man.

Small things, small things, I know. But they add up. Like when a canon ball smashes the head off a female figurine at the front of a boat. A model of Queen Victoria is sucker punched. An animated pirate movie will of course contain comic violence, sure, but when violent things happen to the male characters the male characters are there in person, to fight back. Maybe it’s not okay to depict violence against actual female characters, but using images of them in an indirect, subversive kind of way doesn’t work either, in my opinion.

Not when women are sexualised as it is. When a scientist presents his new invention (a blimp) he goes over all the ways in which it will be useful, then says, “but mostly it’s for looking down ladies’ tops.” This film may well be hilarious in a dirty-old-man kind of a way, and I might even expect this to come out of the mouths of ribald pirates, but this was from a character who was meant to be a scientist. In this film, no opportunity is lost for treating women badly. I should mention that (the real depiction of) Queen Victoria ends up being squashed by giant barrels of vinegar( though she magically reappears later, since she’s indestructible in a larger-than-life kind of way).


The rolling credits at the end are accompanied by (omitted?) scenes, if you’re still watching. “It’s not about the treasure,” says one of the pirates, “it’s about how you feel inside.” The Pirate Captain responds dismissively with, “You’re not a man disguised as a woman, are you?” Also: “Grow yourself a beard. It’ll make your face look less lumpy.” Wrong on several levels. It’s not lost on me that stories which are not good for little girls are also not good for little boys. Gender roles, when presented in binary, are bad for everyone.

Something tells me the creators of this film weren’t thinking too hard about their script. At least they took out the bad-taste leprosy joke before the final cut. But where the hell was Germaine Greer?

And now the four-year-old wants a pirate party for her next birthday. She liked the ‘scary dolphin’ in it, and now this appears to be one of her most favourite movies.

For good claymation from the same people, watch Chicken Run instead. That’s what she’s getting for Christmas. But how the flying hell did this film get a rating of 6.7 on IMDb and avoid any feminist critique whatsoever from the top reviewers? I checked.


Disney Is Finally Getting The Message That Parents Don’t Like It When Their Kids Are Fat Shamed from Mommyish

Interesting Collection Of Links About Children’s Literature


Beautiful Illustrations for a Madame Bovary picture book


3. 3d illustrations

Gorgeous 3D Illustrations for Classic Children’s Books from Flavorwire


Cat People: What Dr Seuss Really Taught Us from The New Yorker


You’ll have seen his picturebooks even if you don’t know his name.


The Freedom Of Classic Children’s Fiction from The Guardian


A Brief History of Children’s Picture Books and the Art of Visual Storytelling, in The Atlantic

8. Research shows steady decline in natural world, wild animals in illustrated books for kids

Study: Increasingly, children’s books are where the wild things aren’t.

9.Parents A Liability?

In children’s books, yes.

10. 5 classic children’s books

with timeless philosophy for adults, from Brain Pickings.


curated by Tania McCartney at Love2Read


from The NYT Sunday Book Review.


from No Time For Flash Cards


available at the Wiley online library


from Sarah McDonald writing at Daily Life

Before Bedtime Books

Most children’s novels contain at least one scene with the child in bed and an adult, often a parent or grandparent, by the bedside comforting, reading or telling a story, saying a prayer or listening to the child’s confessions. … Sleep is… in children’s novels, as much a social activity as food.

– The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva

just go to bed by mercer mayer

Little Critter is told to get ready for bed, but gets distracted at each point. Mercer Mayer’s books are so appealing because they’re so realistic. This is exactly what happens if you tell a toddler to get ready for bed. Of course books of this kind must end with the critter/animal/child in bed asleep. This one is no exception.

Where’s My Mummy? By Carolyn Crimi

The picture on the front cover tells us that the ‘mummy’ is the Egyptian kind, wrappped in bandages, but the play on words is that the baby mummy has lost it’s mummy (named ‘mama’ to avoid confusion). The mummies live in a graveyard, and as the baby mummy wanders about looking for its mother it comes across all sorts of creepy (but comical) characters who are going through their bedtime routines. (Gargling with goo, cleaning long pointy ears etc.) Eventually baby mummy finds its mother and goes safely to bed.

Wake Up! By Katie Cleminson

This doesn’t sound much like a going to bed book, but it begins with a boy waking up, takes us onomatopoeically through his daily routine, focusing on different verbs. He ends up in bed, which is why it could be effective as a bedtime story.

Where Does Thursday Go? By Janeen Brian

A bear and a bird (Splodge and Humbug) wonder what happens to each day after the sun goes down so they get out of bed after they’re tucked in and go look for it. They come to the conclusion that Thursday is ‘the moon’, because it disappears slowly behind a cloud. They retire to bed for the rest of the night until the sun brings Friday.


A procession of forest animals turn up on Percy’s doorstep because it’s snowing and they want a warm bed for the night.

The storyline reminds me a bit of that song that goes, ‘There were three in the bed and the little one said Roll Over! Roll Over!”

But if after reading this you’re stuck with Men At Work singing “Who can it be now?” as an earworm, don’t say you weren’t warned.


The characters are friendly monsters behaving like a human family, which would reassure young children who have a tendency to see creepy crawlers in the dark.

A mother monster has four youngsters, who each ask her as they’re tucked in, ‘Who do you love the most?’ Each time the mother says she loves them all equally but she also mentions the special quality each of them has. (Sense of humour, creativity etc.) The little monsters wait until their mother is asleep then they get out of bed and make the most of their special gifts – the creative one bakes his most creative recipe yet, for instance. In the morning the mother monster gets up and if other readers are anything like me, they’ll be expecting the mother monster to be very angry, because the little monsters got out of bed when they shouldn’t have and made a big mess. But the mother monster is delighted. She’s especially delighted that they’ve written ‘Mama we love you the most’ in red, right across the cave walls. (I wasn’t sure whether I should categorise this as a ‘mawkish book’, but there is plenty of humour in this book as well, since the monsters do monstery things like floss their fangs.)


The characters in this one are rabbits who behave like human children. Two rabbits sleep on a bunk bed. The smaller one is worried and can’t sleep, so the bigger one takes the smaller one around the house and shows it all the reasons to be happy: chicken slippers waiting to be worn, a jumpsuit waiting to be put on tomorrow, oats, milk and apples waiting to be eaten for breakfast etc. They end up back in bed. The little rabbit is happy now and falls asleep.


Polly Dunbar is the daughter of Joyce Dunbar, above.

There are no adults in this one. Instead a little girl takes the parental role and gets her toys ready for bed. She gives the elephant a bath, brushes their teeth and tucks them in. Once in bed herself, she wonders who’s going to tuck her in. Tiptoe must be her favourite toy – he is still up, so does the job for her. This story would perhaps help a toddler to consider the going-to-bed routine a game of imagination. By encouraging the child to take the parental role, a reluctant sleeper might be thus coerced.


This story is a little strange, in that the event which starts the rest of the story is simply that a little boy goes in search of pillow stuffing for his little sister. In the boy’s head (or perhaps in the world of the story) the family live in a castle, so the little boy finds things such as wolf hair and feathers off ‘feather trees’. The feathers off these trees prove a hit, the baby sister stops crying and the royal family is able to get a good night’s sleep.


It’s hard to write a going to bed book with an original twist, but this book achieves it by turning the usual reluctance to go to bed on its head: Little Owl desperately wants to go to bed but his night-owl parents make him stay up and play. Eventually, of course, he has played enough to satisfy them and he is grateful for the opportunity to sleep.




I feel as though the above book is a more taboo version of Don’t Let The Pigeon Go To Sleep by Mo Willems, published 2007. The Willems book goes through all the typical excuses a child has (where do they learn it? Antenatal class?) but the language is appropriate for a child. I’m not sure who’d appreciate the Mo Willems book more though — parents or their children.


This one is for young dinosaur enthusiasts, with a page at the very beginning showing what the dinosaurs are called. Each dinosaur is sitting on a bed, engaged in classic human pre-bedtime rituals such as reading a boo, jumping on the bed or hugging a teddy. Some are blowing bubbles and getting up to general three-year-old bedtime mischief. This story is basically saying to a toddler, ‘A dinosaur wouldn’t be naughty before bed, would he?’, hoping that the toddler will use the beloved dinosaurs as role models for good pre-bedtime behaviour.

This book is a modern one, first published in 2000, yet the illustrations look set in an earlier time. The ‘papa’ wears those high waisted trousers straight off the set of Mad Men. The mothers (because there are various bedrooms and various parents) seem often to be wearing aprons and 1950s bobbed hair. To summarise, the men look as if they’ve got home from work, while the mothers all look as if they’ve been working in the home all day. Is this a way of preserving traditional values and gender roles, I wonder, by setting modern stories in 1950?


The danger of reading this book all at once is that the adult reader may find themselves yawning uncontrollably, or maybe that’s just me?

This is a collection of nursery rhymes, some well-known, some less so; some by well-known poets, others by Anonymous. Some sound like the sort of thing your grandmother made up on the spot. They are illustrated in whimsical, modern style in an attractive colour palette of pinks and purples and blues. The illustrations appealed to my daughter. The poems she found less appealing. I thought back to my own preschool years and realised that my mother read me a lot of nursery rhymes, and I realised that unless children are exposed to such rhymes at the right age, parents have missed the window. This leads me to wonder how relevant those nursery rhymes really are, because I’ve been quite neglectful about reading them to our own preschooler. So much more is available now, and a lot of it is, frankly, a lot more interesting than the classic lullabies. Yet there’s something about a classic — I think it’s knowing that every single one of your recent ancestors knew the same one. Still, if it’s continuity we’re after, there’s always mitochondria, which will never let us down.

Related Links: Where Children Sleep – James Mollison Photographs; A Book Of Sleep, reviewed by Brain Pickings; Best Read Aloud Books For Before Bed from Education Matters

Don’t Be Scared Books

There’s NO Such Thing as a Ghostie! by Cressida Cowell

This is a very English book, featuring a monarchy with Beefeaters and Ladies-in-waiting, and a child Queen who gets bored after Royal Tea so decides she wants to go looking for ghosties. (Do the English call suitcases ‘trunks’ though?)

Everyone in the castle tells her there’s no such thing as ghosties but I guess because she’s the Queen, they all go on the hunt. They hear all sorts of sounds which sound a bit like a ghostie, but it’s always something else (like the wind). There’s a fold-out centrefold which features an enormous illustration of a bat. This sends Sergeant Rock-Hard running back to his bed, because he’s obviously terrified of bats. (I am too, to be fair.)

The conclusion is that there’s no such thing as ghosties, but on the final page we see an illustration in which the Queen referees a game of soccer with a bunch of ghostlike figures in a candlelit hall of her castle. So, like many books which are reassuring by intent, there is some doubt left in the child’s mind. They might, just might, be right.


This colour scheme is a limited palette of monochrome plus red and a little green. (It reminds me of Emily the Strange.) A boy wonders what’s under the bed. Eventually he plucks up courage to look, and finds it’s only his teddy. On the final page there is a story reversal, where we see a monster in bed with the boy underneath.

The colour scheme aims to frighten, which secure children tend to love, but there seems to be a rule that all must be well by the end of the book. (If it’s not a rule, I’m not sure parents would buy a book which frightens but fails to pacify.)

Joe Fenton is a concept artist, and his love of art comes through.


I suppose any story which features a likeable monster is effectively a ‘don’t-be-scared’ book. In this story, a monster has a passion for dancing, and takes his moves to the stage. When the audience twigs to the fact they’re watching a monster, they flee the theatre in terror. The monster doesn’t care. He just keeps on dancing.


This book teaches children that animals are more scared of children than children are scared of them.

Tom is followed by a dog and gets scared that the dog will eat him. He encounters a number of animals as he walks along, and thinks of the horrible things that animals can do (bull tossing him over a fence, ants up his nose, etc). Eventually he is surrounded by all the scary animals and sinks to the ground. He doesn’t see the ants. He panics because the ants get into his trousers and he takes off his pants. The animals are scared of Tom’s bare bottom and run away. Next time he’ll know what to do – give them a brown eye. (There’s a picture of this on the final page, designed to elicit a laugh.)


Many ‘don’t be scared’ books focus on fear of darkness or of something specific (like animals, above). This one is about a baby possum who is too scared to jump from tree to tree without the help of its mother, but the message is feels much wider than that: Don’t be scared to try new things when your mother urges you to do so.


This book is for older readers – maybe 8 years old – and is shelved with the middle grade fiction at our local library. The Federation of Fright sends a memo out to all the vampires, ghouls and witches to tell them they’re not being scary enough. Via their diaries, the reader learns about the daily lives of these creatures, which are both comical and ordinary in nature. Not one of the scary monsters wins the award – they’re all deemed useless.


A mother warns her son to stay away from a dragon that lives in a cave at the beach. This is a New Zealand story, and it reminds me of the stories about taniwha (mythical Maori monsters) that we read as children.

When the boy meets the dragon, he finds out that the dragon has been told not to play with little boys. They are both scared of each other. But in the end they are great friends.


Three friends — animals — are next to a puddle in this minimalist picturebook in which the (female) sheep is too scared to jump over a puddle. The panda and the owl encourage her to jump over despite the fear. She falls into the puddle but it doesn’t hurt at all. This story will encourage young readers to examine their fears and consider what’s the worst that could happen.


Is Goldilocks Really Too Scary For Modern Kids? from The Guardian

The School Library Journal review of The Dark by Lemony Snicket

Picture Books Which Celebrate Individuality

celebrating individuality

“The word “indie” is meaningless now. It’s so over-used that people think it simply means green hair.”

– Morrissey


Pearl is an extrovert, Charlie an introvert (as described by what each of them likes to do), but they are great friends regardless and help each other out. This teaches children that people are all different but can be friends regardless.


This is another book which celebrates individuality. Sunday Chutney is a little eccentric, and the story reminds me of the opening sequence of the movie Amelie, in which Amelie gives us a snapshot of her strange life, including a rundown of the things she does and does not like.

Sunday Chutney sometimes feels lonely because she is always the new kid at school. (Her dad’s job means they move a lot.) There would be a lot of kids in this position – I was one of them all through primary school – and this book might help them to feel as if being new or different (or both) isn’t so bad.

Sunday Chutney is a well-chosen name for a children’s book, and I think it was the name which grabbed my attention – especially since I had already read the Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley book, so assumed (without knowing the author’s name) that the book had been created by the same person. (Did you know that one of Diana Ross’s daughters is called Chudney? With a ‘D’? Happy days.)

Here is a great interview with Aaron Blabey.


Elmer the Elephant has proven so popular that there is a whole series of picture books featuring his adventures. Basically, it’s an elephant who is patchwork instead of grey, which could symbolise any way in which a child happens to be different from other children. The storyline and message is similar to Freckleface Strawberry by Julieanne Moore, which is specifically about the difference of having red hair and freckles.

(Elmer’s Special Day has since been turned into an app, if you happen to own an Apple touch device.)


A little girl wants a pink fluffy rabbit because all the other kids have got one and she doesn’t want to be different. No one can find a pink fluffy rabbit, so grandma decides to knit one, but it ends up looking more like an armadillo. The girl gets laughed at. The toy seems to come to life, and they play together. But whatever the armadillo does, the girl is critical, thinking a rabbit would do it better.

I’m not sure why, but this book did manage to pull on my heart strings a little – I think it’s the expression on the armadillo’s face when he decides to go back to grandmother for an unravel and reknit.

Fortunately, the girl realises how special her armadillo is, and no one gets unravelled.

The knitting theme is prominent in the illustrations and page design, with textures made of photographs of knitting, and occasional fancy font reminiscent of looped wool.


This was first published in 1962 and was still in print in 2008. It teaches colours, but in an original way, because different people see that the objects in their lives are not necessarily viewed in the same hue.

I thought this was going to be a book which teaches a basic concept of art (that the sky isn’t always blue, for instance) but the milk is brown and the cabbages are blue, so I think it’s simply about indulging in your eccentricities.

(Still, I wouldn’t drink brown milk.)


I love books by Mo Willems, which appeal to the humour of adults equally. Besides, there’s something inherently funny about naked mole rats.

In this story, one naked mole rat bucks trends by deciding to wear clothes. This causes a stir, but catches on. By the end of the story, some naked mole rats are wearing clothes and some aren’t, but they’re all having a lovely time regardless. So this story is about going your own way, while pointing out the inherent ridiculousness in some of the social conventions we take for granted as normal.


Misunderstood by his teacher, the boy in this story sees the world differently from other people. This is reflected in his art assignments, which are meant to be realistic but which he depicts in an abstract way.

One day he escapes school and spends the day at the art gallery. This only spurs his imagination. When he arrives back at school the teacher doesn’t know what to say, so doesn’t say anything at all.

Suspension of disbelief is needed here, because a kid absconding from school these days is very much on the radar of the truancy admin team, or should be, but perhaps the world has changed even since this picturebook was published, in 1999.

Despite that plot hole, the story is a good one, with fantastic artwork, and will strike a chord with any kid who has ever been misunderstood by his or her teacher for failing to follow instructions to the letter.


The author wrote this book after noticing while in Africa that giraffes are far more graceful than one would expect given their ungainly looking neck and limbs. When he returned home he wrote this story, in which the giraffe surprises all the jungle creatures at a dance by his unexpected graceful moves.

This is a story about having a go even if you don’t think you’re going to be any good at it, and secondary to that it’s about doing things your own way, because while all the other animals are doing a ‘type of dance’ (cha cha, Scottish dancing etc.) the giraffe simply dances.


10 Reasons Why Naked Mole Rats Will Inherit The Earth, from io9

How Rare Are Your Physical Traits? (a YouTube video)

photo 2