Saturday, 4 February 2012

Shrunken Heads and Scary Fish. The Case for More Unpredictable Weirdness in Picture Books. Moira Butterfield


Recently I visited the fabulous Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, a frankly bonkers collection of artefacts brought back from all over the globe. Row after row of wooden cabinets stretched around the rooms behind, stuffed with gloriously unpredictable objects. At the front sat the original Dodo skeleton that inspired Lewis Carroll to write Alice in Wonderland. A ritual Pacific island statue lurked in a far corner, looking exactly like one of the monsters in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Other personal favourites included a delicate cloak made from seal intestines and a war helmet made from a porcupine fish.
Already primed by the Dodo and the wild thing to think of childhood, I saw a display of shrunken heads and was instantly pitched back to my parents’ home. As a child I had obsessions with particular illustrations in my small store of books. I secretly studied certain images again and again, while my imagination went on unpredictable journeys. For reasons unknown, my parents owned a book about the headhunters of New Guinea, and I used to stare long and hard at the macabre sepia photos of posing tribesmen.
E. H. Shephard’s illustrations for A.A. Milne poems provided me with a couple of other favourite pictures, including bears skulking on the pavement, ready to eat children who stepped on the cracks. In my Beatrix Potter books it wasn’t the rabbit in clothes that fascinated me, but a terrifying giant fish on its way up from the depths to eat Mr Jeremy Fisher.
All my favourite images had a touch of oddness and the unexplained, and often an implied threat.
I’ve been asking around to find out if other adults can remember having an obsessive interest in specific images as young children. It makes for a good conversation. Some people name something straight away. Others have come back to me a little later with a sudden memory. A number of those I asked remembered odd, mysterious or slightly threatening pictures. Not everyone - but enough for me to think I’m not alone. It turns out I wasn’t a uniquely greedy, ghoulish and cruel child…Phew!
We have been lucky enough to have grown up with a richly inventive and unfettered picture book illustration tradition, fostered by the higgledy-piggledy museum collections and strange imaginings of previous centuries. Illustrators were not afraid to embrace the surreal, the odd and sometimes the scary - not to prove a point or ram home an issue, but simply for the glorious sake of it, expecting children to react as the illustrators did, with interest.
Surreal unpredictable elements have generally disappeared from mainstream picture books in the last few years, rendered safe and predictable by the demands of the international market. There are, of course, exceptions, but most picture books are, in the main, all soothing reassurance. We don’t want to give children nightmares about giant fish biting anyone’s feet off, do we?
No child would react well to that kind of psychologically disturbing image…right?
Wrong, surely?
I, for one, hope that children still get the chance, somehow, somewhere, to be secretly fascinated and sometimes deliciously scared by images of strangeness. I’d recommend your local museum.
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6 comments:

  1. If I wanted to scare myself as a child (and I did sometimes - why, I wonder?) I would open the glass-fronted bookcase of special, all adult, books, take out the large volume of Edgar Alan Poe stories, and look at the totally nightmare illustration for The Pit And The Pendulum. I can see it in my mind's eye now - a skeletal man wearing just a rag, hair on end in terror, tied with ropes and lying on a floor as an a glinting axe head on a rope swings, slicing, lower and lower. He's sucking his stomach in to put off the inevitable cut ....urgh! I have never yet, and suspect I never will, actually read the story because that picture was as far as I dared go!

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  2. Pippa, the picture you describe freaks me out and I haven't even seen it!
    Moira, one day I must visit the Pitts River Museum. I adore eclectic collections, although some Victorian animal dioramas can be downright creepy. As to creepy pictures in picture books, I agree they can be intriguing and thrilling, although I like the story (the words) to have a measure of safeness (to counterbalance the threat of the pictures). Perhaps it's because I have a son who still doesn't enjoy being scared and when he was tiny he was freaked out by 'Not Now Bernard' (the ultimate scary picture book that doesn't end with hope - though it's the story that's most scary, not the illustrations). Personally, I think scary can be great fun if it's delicious fairytale/supernatural scariness, and not 'real life' terrors.

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  3. Ah, what a lovely post! And I *love* the Pitt Rivers!

    My brother and I used to look *all the time* at a picture of a seal in an encyclopaedia and it made us laugh so much my mother (with no sense of humour) threatened to tear the page out. A couple of years ago, he scanned the picture in and sent it to me and it *still* makes me laugh. But as for picture books - the picture of Mr Todd lying in the fox's bed in Beatrix Potter's Tale of Mr Todd was very scary. I loved the picture of the girl finding a dead bat on the pavement in Edward Gorey's La Chauve Souris Doree, which I borrowed from the library repeatedly. And the picture of Bluebeard's wife holding the bloody key in a compendium of stories - very scary. There was an Arthur Rackham, too, of trees reaching out to grab a girl who was running past. But the scariest of all, which I kept going back to, was in a book my father brought back from Russia in the 1960s which showed how to recognise a wolf hiding behind a tree. God knows why. And I wouldn't go out to get the firewood for years in case there was a wolf.

    Pippa, that Poe story is scary.

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  4. Isn't it interesting that we have such vivid memories of certain illustrations,and looked at them all the time. There's a thesis there for a child psychologist! Pippa, your example is really gruesome. A friend told me she was obsessed by the giant picture of an eye in her local optician's window, which sounds quite scary. I was also obsessed by a Beek illustration in a Noddy book. It showed bakers rushing anxiously along with a giant iced gem on a stretcher, as if there was some kind of cake emergency in Toyland. It wasn't scary, just odd..and I was greedy, I guess.

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  5. I just love the Pitt Rivers Museum - all that gruesomeness, the possibility of stories. Such an astonishing collection of, well - of everything!

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  6. How exciting to be taken on a trip to Pitt Rivers, seeing it from your perspective Moira. For me, shrunken heads and a waterproof mac made from finely sewn seal bladders. Oh yay.

    This relates to Karen King's post in the Picturebook Den about texts that are considered too dangerous for children e.g. the thoroughly reasonable objection to having an apple fall on a character's head.

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