Monday, 12 April 2021

Picture Book Characters with a Passion for Fashion by Garry Parsons


Who Wants to be a Poodle - Lauren Child


Animal characters in children’s books have long been wearing clothes, but some appear to a have a passion for fashion unbounded.


Fabulous Frankie - Simon James Green and Garry Parsons

Having recently illustrated a book where the central character has a penchant for fabulous attire, I have been taking a closer look at what the animal characters on my bookshelf are currently wearing and revisiting some old favourites whose clothing style still remains striking.


Rupert The Bear - The Daily Express

Stories where animals appear wearing humans’ clothes preoccupy most of my bookshelf, as they seem to do in most children’s bookshops. This anthropomorphism is everywhere in our lives and has a long history in literature.

Illustration from the Panchatantra

Preceding Aesop’s Fables by centuries, personification is a well-established literary device from ancient times such as in the Panchatantra from India, in which anthropomorphized animals illustrate principles of life. 

The Wolf and the Crane - Aesop

Many of the animal stereotypes we are familiar with today originate from these texts and have an influence on what we read today and the roles animal characters take on in our stories but these weren’t aimed directly at children in the same way we recognise animal characters in picture books today.

Before the mid-eighteenth century, the notion of childhood, as we know it now, did not exist. Children were dressed in adult clothes and their natural playful curiosities were largely ignored, at least in literature, where illustrated material for children was virtually non-existent. Later, as the middle class developed and views about children changed, adults began catering to their emotional needs, and animals with human characteristics began to appear in children’s books.

Struwwelpeter, considered to be the first children’s picture book that used anthropomorphism in illustrations (1845) is a collection of moral tales that relate what might happen when children don’t heed the advice of parents, to pretty disastrous consequences. Heinrich Hoffmann was a physician as well as author and illustrator of the book and created the stories for his son as a Christmas present.


In The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches, Harriet ignores the warnings from the two cats not to play with matches which results in her catching fire and being burned to ashes, just leaving a pair of shoes. The cats in the illustrations are not yet wearing clothes but do use handkerchiefs to dry their tears at Harriet’s demise.


In The Story of the Wild Huntsman, the hare steals the hunter's gun and spectacles and turns the gun on him until he falls down the well outside his house.

More anthropomorphic illustrations followed including John Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland in 1865 which of course included the inimitable pocket watch carrying white rabbit in his plaid jacket and in 1902 came Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and there is a clear resemblance between the two.


Looking at these illustrations now, we can be forgiven for having a nostalgic view of them because of their attire but the clothing that Potter’s characters are made to wear are mainly for them to look socially acceptable for the time, rather than the characters themselves having a desire for fashion.


However, The story of Barbar, the little elephant by Jean De Brunhoff, first published in France in 1931 (English edition 1934), tells the story of an elephant who discovers an attraction to tailored suits and fine footwear.  The first story of Barbar depicts his life as a young elephant who is tragically orphaned by a miserable hunter right at the beginning of the book. The distraught Barbar flees from the hunter and finds himself in a wealthy provincial town where his mind is taken off his tragedy by his admiration of the clothes of the people who live there.


Everyone in the town appears to share an enthusiasm for fashion including an old lady who helps Barbar out with a place to stay and some spending money. Barbar purchases himself a smart green suit, a lovely bowler hat, shoes and spats. How wonderfully smart he looks!


Barbar’s cousins, Arthur and Celeste, find him in the city and help encourage him to return to the ‘Great Forest’ where, with his new found knowledge from the city, he becomes the new Elephant King and marries his cousin Celeste in stylish wedding clothes picked out by a dromedary with an uncanny eye for high fashion.

The attention to stylish clothing perhaps reflects the fact that the original publisher of the books was Editions du Jardin des Modes, a French language women's fashion magazine published monthly in France between 1922 and 1997 and owned by Condé-Nast. The Babar books were the first Condé-Nast publications not specifically about fashion.

In contrast to Barbar, Mr. Tiger, in Mr Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown, feels dissatisfied with his formal dress and discovers that he feels more himself in a quadruped stance than the adopted bipedalism of city life. His friends lose patience with him and he leaves the city to reclaim his wildness. When he returns later, he discovers other folk in his community are also feeling the urge to be themselves and abandoning their need for clothing.


Clothing plays an important role in the narratives of many picture books - Walter & the No-Need-To-Worry Suit by Rachel Bright, Slug Needs A Hug from Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross and the Goat’s Coat by Tom Percival and  Christine Pym to name a few, but clothing also gives the illustrator a chance to deepen the character they are depicting through what they are wearing, or not wearing, as is the case for Kes Gray’s streaking Nuddy Ned. 

Curious to find out why Sarah McIntyre’s Grumpycorn wears a purple roll neck sweater, she told me…

“I decided Grumpycorn would wear a purple jumper because we usually see unicorns looking very glamourous... I thought it would be funnier if he was wearing his comfy at-home clothes. Also, he has a cosy fire burning stove in his writing cottage, but it still might get a bit drafty in a place that's on stilts over the water. He needs some woolly warmth. And purple? Well, he has all the other rainbow colours in his main, except purple, so purple completes the colour scheme!” In Sarah's sequel to Grumpycorn, Don't call me Grumpycorn, he has a purple space suit. "Purple is a big thing for Unicorn"

As an illustrator of animal characters myself, I find there are always relevant reasons for adorning an animal character with clothing or accessories, be they glasses for a Horse Doctor or
a feather boa and glittering hat for a dancing llama.

 As I mentioned at the beginning, I have recently been illustrating the story of a character who’s desire is stand out from the crowd and the only way he is sure he can do that is by being fabulous. But for a flamingo in a lagoon full of fabulous flamingos, standing out from the crowd is not an easy task, even when your wearing a sequin cloak inspired by Kansai Yamamoto!



Thank you to Sarah McIntyre for answering my question about Grumpycorn. Sarah is a best selling writer and illustrator. See more of her work here@jabberworks

Garry Parsons is an illustrator of many children's books@ICanDrawDinos

For more picture book passion for fashion, Fabulous Frankie by Simon James Green and illustrated by Garry Parsons publishes 1st June from Scholastic. 

Monday, 5 April 2021

Learning Your Lesson (or not) by Kael Tudor

Character development. It’s the backbone of storytelling, where our main character (or in some cases villain) come away from the story a changed person, having learnt lessons from their adventure and grown as a character. 

Picture books are no exception. In The Bad Seed by Jory John and Pete Oswald, the titular seed changes his ways and makes a choice to be kind. In Gustavo the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago, Gustavo overcomes his social anxiety and finds the friends he’s been wanting all along. In Ravi’s Roar by Tom Percival, Ravi realises that his anger hurt the people around him and apologises. 

Besides being excellent stories, these books, and the countless others like them, have subtle, but very important lessons for the children enjoying them; be kind, be brave, take responsibility for your mistakes. But what about stories where the main character learns absolutely nothing, despite having the chance to, and ends the book in the exact same position (or sometimes even worse) than where they started? Would children’s literature - and picture books for that matter - really portray characters who learn zip? Zilch? Nadda? Of course! Here are some of my favourites. 

But beware, from here on in there be spoilers! 

I am a Tiger - Karl Newson and Ross Collins The premise of I am a Tiger is simple. Mouse refuses to accept that she’s not a tiger, despite a colourful cast of characters insisting otherwise. But when she comes face to face with an actual tiger, is it time for Mouse to admit that she’s really a mouse? Um… no. 

Stuck - Oliver Jeffers Floyd’s kite gets stuck in a tree, so in order to knock it down he throws his shoes, his cat, a bicycle, a duck, an orangutan, and so on. There are delightful moments throughout the book where you think that Floyd’s had an epiphany (a ladder, the fire brigade, a saw), but instead of using them to get his kite sensibly, he lobs them up into the tree instead. 

Cockatoos - Quentin Blake Professor Dupont’s cockatoos are well and truly fed up of the annoying way he greets them every morning, so they declare that enough is enough, escape through a crack in the conservatory glass, and hide from him throughout the house. After a day of trying to find his precious cockatoos (delightfully, they are hiding on every page, just out of sight), Dupont goes to bed, but wakes to find that they’ve returned. And how does he react? He greets them the same way as always, of course. 

That’s What Dinosaurs Do - Jory John and Pete Oswald William the dinosaur spends his days roaring at anyone and everyone as loud as he can. Why? Well, because that’s what dinosaurs do. However, at the start of the book he gets a sore throat and is given strict no-roaring orders from his doctor. After a week of rest and happy townsfolk, William can’t wait any longer, and roars his dino heart out at everyone. And does he see the error of his ways when everyone comes to his house to complain? Not one bit. 

Rescuing Mrs Birdley - Aaron Reynolds and Emma Reynolds Miranda Montgomery, keen nature expert, spots her teacher, Mrs Birdley, at the supermarket. Concerned that Mrs Birdley has strayed, Miranda decides to capture her and put her back in her natural habitat, the school. When Miranda finally accomplishes her goal, it looks like things are finished, but then she spots her headteacher, and the whole process is set to happen again, with Miranda none the wiser about how you cannot capture school staff and lock them in the building. 

Here Be Dragons - Susannah Lloyd and Paddy Donnelly A knight is on the hunt for a dragon, to prove his naysaying friends wrong. But despite the warning signs, subtle hints and obvious sightings (including an epic battle involving the dragon, a princess and the knight’s horse), the knight completely fails to find what he was searching for, even when half of his armour has been melted away by dragon fire.  

In addition to books such as these, I’ve reserved a special subsection for stories with a different sort of ending. One thing that all of the books on the above list have in common is that, while the characters don’t learn from their experiences, nothing particularly bad happens to them, either. They finish the book completely unchanged, but they do finish it. I like to call this next list (I just came up with the name, as I wrote this) the Grave Consequences list, for obvious reasons. 

The Fate of Fausto - Oliver Jeffers Fausto is a man who believes that he can claim everything in the world to be his own, and for the most part he proves himself right. Flower, sheep, mountain and boat all bow before him and allow themselves to be claimed by Fausto. But when he attempts to claim the ocean, and the ocean refuses, Fausto loses his temper and decides to stamp his foot on the ocean to prove how cross he is, with Grave Consequences. 

Not Now, Bernard - David McKee A book so good it should be included on literally every list relating to picture books ever. Whether viewed as a commentary on parents not devoting enough time to their children or simply a story about a boy, his parents, and a monster in the garden, one thing is the same: Bernard keeps talking to people who are too busy and ultimately is on the receiving end of some Grave Consequences. 

So the question stands: why? Why do children’s books with protagonists that learn nothing and teach their readers nothing exist? Shouldn’t all children’s literature, especially books for children as young as the picture book audience, teach children something? I’d argue not. While there is a huge need for stories with morals, I’d say there’s an equally important space for books like those on this list, where characters are flawed and don’t always learn the first time around. At the end of the day, can we all say that we’ve never made the same mistake twice? 

Could children say the same? Children who can spot a forced lesson from a mile away, who love being in on a joke, and who delight at the sign of mischief because often so much of their time is spent being taught the correct way to behave. Sometimes it’s just fun to hear a story about someone who isn’t willing, or capable, of learning from their experiences. 

And besides, there undeniably something lip-smackingly delicious about getting to the end of a story and realising that the main character is going to make the same mistakes all over again, and it’s often these endings that have solicited the biggest laughs, from both myself and the children I’ve been reading the stories to. When you consider that, sometimes the biggest lesson is that there shouldn’t be one at all. 

Kael Tudor is a children’s writer from Swansea. He’s not allowed to talk about whether or not he’s got any books in the pipeline, but is silently excited. He loves chatting all things picture books, so if you want to say hi, or suggest even more picture books with characters who don’t learn or change at all, you can do so on Twitter at: @KaelTudor