Monday 27 September 2021

Taming Wild Things; Where Sendak's Wild Things Came From, by Pippa Goodhart


For this post I am simply going to quote Maurice Sendak from his acceptance speech given to the American Library Association in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1964, in which he answers the question, ‘Where did you ever get such a crazy, scary idea for book’, referring to his, then recently published picture book, Where The Wild Things Are. 

Where The Wild Things Are is a simple book in terms of the word count and plot, but, my goodness it carries a rich heavy load of story, and it’s fascinating to glimpse where that emotional depth and insight comes from - 


‘During my early teens I spent hundreds of hours sitting at my window, sketching neighborhood children at play. I sketched and listened, and those notebooks became the fertile field of my work later on. There is not a book I have written or a picture I have drawn that does not, in some way, owe them its existence. Last fall, soon after finishing Where The Wild Things Are, I sat on the front porch of my parents’ house in Brooklyn and witnessed a scene that could have been a page from one of those early notebooks. I might have titled it ‘Arnold the Monster.’

            Arnold was a tubby, pleasant-faced little boy who could instantly turn himself into a howling, groaning, hunched horror – a composite of Frankenstein’s monster, the Werewolf, and Godzilla. His willing victims were four giggling little girls, whom he chased frantically around parked automobiles and up and down front steps. The girls would fee, hiccupping and shrieking, ‘Oh, help! Save me! The monster will eat me!’ And Arnold would lumber after them, rolling his eyes and bellowing. The noise was earsplitting, the proceedings were fascinating.

            At one point, carried away by his frenzy, Arnold broke an unwritten rule of such games. He actually caught one of his victims. She was furious. ‘You’re not supposed to catch me, dope,’ she said, and smacked Arnold. He meekly apologized, and a moment later this same little girl dashed away screaming the game song: ‘Oh, help! Save me!’ etc. The children became hot and mussed-looking. They had the glittery look of primitive creatures going through a ritual dance. 

            The game ended in a collapse of exhaustion. Arnold dragged himself away, and the girls went off with a look of sweet peace on their faces. A mysterious inner battle had been played out, and their minds and bodies were at rest, for the moment.

            I have watched children play many variations of this game. They are the necessary games children must conjure up to combat an awful fact of childhood: the fact of their vulnerability to fear, anger, hate, frustration – all the emotions that are an ordinary part of their lives and that they can perceive only as ungovernable and dangerous forces. To master these forces, children turn to fantasy: that imaged world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction. Through fantasy, Max, the hero of my book, discharges his anger against his mother, and returns to the real world sleepy, hungry, and at peace with himself. 


            Certainly we want to protect our children from new and painful experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences. That is obvious. But what is just as obvious – and what is too often overlooked – is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, that fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, that they continually cope with frustration as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things. 

            It is my involvement with this inescapable fact of childhood – the awful vulnerability of children and their struggle to make themselves King of All Wild Things – that gives my work whatever truth and passion it may have.’


            There is more, equally interesting, but, to read it you’ll need to get hold of a copy of Caldecott & Co. by Maurice Sendak.

Monday 13 September 2021

Fury at the Farm (with Mini Grey)

 George Monbiot lays the blame on picture books.

Talking about making the film Rivercide with Franny Armstrong (livestreamed on 14th July this year), the environmentalist George Monbiot says:

“When I say farming, what image comes to mind? Well, I bet for quite a few of you, at least fleetingly, a particular kind of picture flitted across your mind. A picture with which we’re surrounded when we’re very small children, at the very dawning of consciousness.  Many of the books produced for very young children are about farms; and most tell broadly the same story.”

He also writes that even the grim realities of industrial farming cannot displace the storybook images from our minds. At a deep, subconscious level, the farm remains a place of harmony and kindness—and this suits us very well if we want to keep eating meat”.

So what’s a picture book farm?

George Monbiot says: “The animals – generally just one or two of each species – live in perfect harmony with the rosy-cheeked farmer, roaming around freely and talking to each other, almost as if they were members of the farmer’s family. Understandably there’s no indication of why they might be there, what happens to them in life, how and why they die.”

A picture book farm is a random collection of one or a few of several animals living together with a farmer – it’s a kind of animal sanctuary. No-one gets killed. The main danger is usually foxes or wolves. Old MacDonald had a picture book farm. Eee-i-eee-i-oh….

But I love picture book farms: it’s a lovely mythical place to explore – a family of animals who can talk to each other, it’s a great setting for a story to unfold. We love to see animals living together and talking together. Little children like to make animal noises and all pat the bone. It’s familiar. It’s fun.

 And lots of  ingenuity and creativity and humour can be had with farm animals.

Here’s Farmer Duck, one of my all-time favourites. It’s so thrilling to see all the animals getting together to discuss their cunning plan to outwit and oust the fat and lazy farmer. It’s so beautifully imagined and lit and painted by Helen Oxenbury. What a perfect place for a story.

(Also secretly I’m reminded by the cow of the classic Larson Far Side cartoon ‘Car!’)

 And I’ve been there too. My first book, Egg Drop, is narrated by a chicken and set on a bucolic farm idyll with gently distressed chicken houses.

Here's Chris Mould brilliantly illustrating Animal Farm and he says about the story: “It works on different levels. If you look at what it is saying politically, it will always be relevant as a text, but from a child’s point of view it’s also about animals talking to each other, and that’s great fun.” There's upheaval and horror and sadness in Animal Farm - but the animals have agency. Just imagine the same animals transposed into a factory farm. How would that look?

Older children's books do address what really happens on farms - here are a couple...

The reality of Factory Farms

But in Rivercide it’s revealed that factory farms are the leading source of river pollution. So what lies hidden beneath? What’s the reality of factory farms?


Approximately two in three farmed animals are now raised in “factory farms” worldwide (Compassion in World Farming 2018).

 The biggest cause of river pollution in the UK is farming.

Intensive chicken farms will house about 40,000 birds that will be cleared out, killed and replaced every 40 days or so.

You don’t need a permit for a farm if you’ve got fewer than 40,000 chickens.

The UK now has some 2,000 chicken factories.

Even so-called ‘free range’ isn’t necessarily what you’d think it was. Here are the images Happy Eggs want you to imagine of their ‘free-range’ chickens:

….and here’s the reality: (pictures screen-grabbed from Rivercide.)

 (Happy Eggs are one of  the biggest 'free-range' egg producers in the UK.)

It’s impossible to put this in picture books

Well, how about trying this as the setting for your picture book? 

Or this? 

Where can you go? Clearly, the Great Escape. But for very little peoples, it’s too unacceptable, too haunting, too disturbing. And what does THIS tells us about factory farming? It’s too unacceptable, too haunting, too disturbing. The truth is, we wouldn’t be able to read a picture book about factory farming to a very little child – it’s too upsetting. So if it’s too unpleasant to bear in picture books, it must be the same in real life. But we don’t get to see it.

“The history of intensive animal farming has led to a progressive removal of animals from public view” (Stewart and Cole 2009).

The farm myth in picture books acts as a very useful screen.

Picture books have helped to shield hidden factory farms, acting as a screen that we don’t worry about looking behind, because we all feel farms are friendly places. Intensive farming is hidden, invisible, and also shielded by the visible happy farms we can see when we go for a nice walk (like the lovely shaggy beasts I see grazing on Wittenham Clumps). 

 So let’s have a look at the Invisible.

The Invisible is the true cost of cheap meat.


Enormous amounts of animal shit that the landscape can’t absorb

Nitrogen-fuelled algal blooms in rivers, dying rivers

Misuse/overuse of antibiotics (and don’t even mention sea lice on farmed fish)

Methane emissions

The loss of small farms, as they can’t compete with the economies of scale of huge ones

Animals inside can’t forage and need feeding. Soya to feed livestock is a main cause of deforestation in the Amazon (and don’t even talk about feeding farmed fish.)

The suffering and discomfort and misery of millions of animals

And don’t forget fish farms – fish can be miserable too. 

Can we make the invisible visible?

 What about a packaging revolution so it is impossible to buy a product containing factory-farmed animal product without knowing about it? Let’s do a magic trick and make the invisible visible. 

If policy makers are not up to banning or limiting factory farms (which is what they should do), I want to make it impossible to buy intensively farmed meat without knowing who it was, and that it’s from an industrial livestock unit. (Honestly, it shouldn't deserve the word 'farmed'. )

Look at cigarette packaging. I don’t know if you’ve hung around with smokers lately – but I have, and I noticed that the horror on cigarette packets is impossible to ignore.

The packaging on animal products should also be impossible to ignore.

Do picture book makers have a responsibility?

Well, maybe. But maybe we should make our farming more like picture books. We should “eat meat as our grandparents did, as something rare and special” and “recognise that an animal has been sacrificed to serve our appetites, to observe the fact of its death: is this not the least we owe it?” (George Monbiot 2015)

Living within your landscape

Landscapes need animals. All farmed animals should be able to live in a natural landscape and be able to behave as they naturally would. (This means really low stocking densities. And yes that means really expensive animal products. But we could subsidise ethical meat.) Meadows need grazing animals; a proper landscape would have top predators too, but around here, they’re us. We live in a landscape (which is often a river valley): the landscape is our framework, and we must only put in it the amount of animals, houses and waste products that it can support without being degraded – which means treading lightly. The signs of environmental collapse: disappearing creatures, algal blooms, polluted rivers – mean we are dumping too much onto the landscape and taking too much out. Humanity’s long term project has got to be to learn to live in balance with the Earth: balance in CO2, water, habitat, wildlife, landscape.

The picture book superpower is to be able to put the reader into the place of someone else. 

Someone who might be a chicken.

So here, to end, is a story for you: the story of Doris, the chicken who changed the world.


Doris the Chicken appeared in the Puffin Book of Big Dreams, published by Puffin Books in 2020.


 Mini's latest published book-involvement is The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, with AF Harrold.  Her BlogSite is at Sketching Weakly.

Monday 6 September 2021

Paper, pencils and picture book ideas by Jane Clarke

Chitra recently contributed a great step by step post How to edit picture book texts without cutting trees and I intend to try her method the next time I attempt to put a picture book text into pages. But when I'm working on a new idea, it never starts off on the computer. I'm not advocating the destruction of forests, but at the outset, paper, pencils and picture book ideas go together for me.

  •  Working this way is an excuse to buy notebooks. And pencils. And stuff like sticky notes. Even if the ideas in them get outdated, the notebooks don't become obsolete and are easy to access.

 I have LOTs of notebooks filled full of half-baked ideas. I’m not that fussy about notebooks. Some caught my eye, but I’ve been through a lot of cheap spiral bound notebooks. The posh Moleskine one was a gift. 

  • Working with paper and pencil feels free-er and more creative than screen and keyboard. There’s something just too neat and tidy and regimented about computer text.

Mind map of what became Firefly Home. Messy handwriting with lots of crossing out happens in my notebooks. 

  • Paper and pencil slows me down and grounds me. There are not so many distractions - no clicking of tabs and going off down ‘research’ rabbit holes or checking out social media. 

 Squirrel! moments on the computer are lots of fun, but make it hard to concentrate on one idea at a time. 

  • Paper and pencil makes me feel more relaxed and under less pressure to ‘perform.’ Very few editors are interested in seeing scribbles. It’s only when I’ve tidied up a text on the computer that I dare to send it off.

Tidy text of Tiptoe Tiger

If a picture book text is taken by an editor, all future work on it will be on the computer - electronic versions will whiz back and forth by email. Which brings me to my final point in favour of paper, pencils and picture book ideas:

  • When I spill my cup of tea over paper and pencil work, it’s not nearly as traumatic as upsetting one over the keyboard :-)

Jane’s latest picture book is Tiptoe Tiger, gloriously illustrated by Britta Teckentrup, and published by Nosy Crow.