Debatables

Debatables: No Hugging No Learning

It is time once again for Debatables, the monthly column where esoteric kid-lit questions are argued with way too much passion.

My Debatables sparring opponent is, as usual, my colleague, friend, and collegial frenemy, Cricket Muse.

Cricket and I are coming off a bit of a Debatables hiatus, so we’re going to be a bit less argumentative this time around. We also decided to make this month’s esoteric topic more esoteric than usual, so bear with me as I explain what we have in mind:

In most books, the main character goes on a journey. He or she must overcome a challenge or solve a problem or learn a lesson. In other words, the character has an arc. On the journey from Point A to Point B, the character changes.

In the Dr. Seuss book The Lorax, for example, The Onceler has a very pronounced character arc. In the span of a few pages, he changes from a gregarious, short-sighted money-grubber, cheerfully willing put his bank account above the health of the planet, into a regretful hermit, searching for a way to undo the damage he has done.

I love The Lorax. The story is tragic, but The Onceler’s character arc provides hope for a better future.

The Giving Tree, on the other hand, has no character arcs. The Boy hacks away at the Tree without ever giving his actions a second thought. And the Tree happily lets herself get hacked. By the book’s end, the Boy may be older and the Tree may stumpier, but neither character has learned a thing. The Boy is still a narcissistic, entitled turd, and the Tree still thinks nothing of destroying herself to cater to the Boy’s destructive whims.

God, do I HATE The Giving Tree.  

But here’s the thing: I don’t hate The Giving Tree because the characters have no arc. I hate The Giving Tree because the characters are horrible and they stay horrible.

Cricket and I believe that there are lots of great picture book characters who have no character arc.

And that’s today’s topic:

Who’s the Best Arc-less Character in a Picture Book?

Cricket believes it is Harold from Harold and the Purple Crayon.

And I’m going with Ferdinand from The Story of Ferdinand.

So! Let’s begin.

***

CRICKET

Some literary folk say a character becomes more memorable through the noted distinction of “arc.”

Not true.

I say Harold of The Purple Crayon has perfected the art of arc-lessness. After all, he has been around since 1955, inspired a variety of creative endeavors from movies such as The Story of Us to television icon Homer of The Simpsons. Yet no personal growth, no arc is present in Harold, the kid who goes from point A to point B without expressing any character change.

Harold draws

Harold is no doubt unruffled by all the attention he’s garnered. In fact, he is one of the most pragmatic four year olds in literature. He is a problem solver from the moment he decides to take a walk in the moonlight to finally going to bed after a long night of creating his own little world. No muss, no fuss, just grab a crayon and draw.

His intention is to not learn a lesson nor impart one, he simply wants to do his thing. And he does so.

Who says a character has to arc and sparkle to have meaning? Over 50 years of being Harold, the kid with a purple crayon, he has provided inspiration and insight on what it means to simply “be”. That carries some kind of convincible clout.

 

MIKE

I love Ferdinand the Bull. From the time he was a wee calf, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. And, despite the increasing madness that swirls around him as his story progresses, he never wavers. Ferdinand wants to be a flower sniffer. That’s it and that’s all.

Whatta cutie!
Ferdinand sniffs.

You might question the merits of Ferdinand’s life goal, but you certainly can’t argue with the strength of his convictions. He feels no peer pressure to roughhouse with the other bulls in the pasture. He is unswayed by his mom’s gentle prodding to be more bull-ish. (And let’s take a moment to appreciate Ferdinand’s supportive mother! WOO!) And when Ferdinand is foolishly selected to be the ferocious main attraction at the bullfights in Madrid, the peaceful bull feels no pressure to perform for the braying, bloodthirsty crowds.

In fact, Ferdinand barely seems to notice the crowds, the matador, the picadors or anything else. As long as there is a comfortable place to lie and flowers to sniff, Ferdinand is cool.

I love Ferdinand because I see a little of myself in him. I was a peculiar child. I liked to do my own thing, even if it meant doing it alone. So Ferdinand’s quiet and unshowy nonconformity struck a chord with the young me. That flower-sniffing bull taught me that being different was okay. (And, like Ferdinand’s mom, my mom was similarly supportive of my peculiar-ishness.) 

The book The Story of Ferdinand is not flawless—in fact, I’ve written about the book’s flaws on this blog. But Ferdinand the character is flawless in my eyes—and he always will be.

Don’t you go changing, you nutty flower sniffer, you!

***

And that’s the debate! Who is YOUR favorite arc-less character? Leave a comment and let us know!

Waffles With Writers

Waffles with Writers: Cathy Ballou Mealey

Yummers!

Welcome to the latest installment of my sort-of-semi-regular bloggy interview show, Waffles with Writers, where I chat with a working writer over a waffle-based breakfast.

Today’s guest is the lovely and talented Cathy Ballou Mealey, whose debut picture book, When a Tree Grows just hit store shelves. Cathy is also a big fan of wee rodents—and, as most of you know, I am a big fan of big fans of wee rodents.

“Oh, hai! Gimmie peanut.” One of Cathy’s backyard buddies.

Cathy! Welcome! I just put breakfast on the table. How do you like your waffles?

Hi Mike! Thanks for inviting me. I like my waffles with real maple syrup, butter and a side of fresh raspberries please.

Since you live so close to the Marshmallow Fluff factory, I thought you’d prefer a Fluffernutter waffle sandwich. I have all the fixin’s if you change your mind…

I’d never say never, but eating that super-sticky Fluff would make the rest of this interview sound like “Mmwuff fuwmpf phampumf.” Maybe later.

So be it. First off, I love When A Tree Grows! It’s fun and funny and the plot moves forward in cheerfully unexpected directions. How did this story come about? What inspired it?

Thanks! I’m really happy that you found Moose and Squirrel’s antics funny!

A few years ago I was out in the woods, enjoying a nature hike with my family when we heard a distant, creaky Crash! Was it a falling tree? An animal? We froze, listened, and after a long silence, hiked on. I began to wonder: What if that crash had scared a bear or frightened a deer?

Building on that “OR” question, I framed a wacky story with two different possible outcomes, one rather expected and one funny, unexpected outcome. Readers will find that “OR” spotlighted on the bottom corner of each page with a clever curled paper art effect.

When A Tree Grows features a precocious squirrel. I know that you are a pro-rodent (prodent) writer. Were you always a fan of the little critters, or did your rodent fandom arrive later in life? 

Definitely a prodent fan for life. My first all-my-own pet was a guinea pig named Brownie. Yep, I came up with that super creative name all by my five-year-old self. He was a charmer. Brownie was followed by a second piggie, Eliza Jane, and a repetitive sequence of hamsters. These days I am befriending the wild squirrels in my yard with tempting peanut snacks so they will pose for my camera.

From left: Cathy, Brownie.

Your story also stars a moose. A moose and a squirrel, eh? Bullwinkle fan?

Of course! And Fractured Fairy Tales cartoons. I also like the visual/logical challenge of pairing two creatures with mismatched proportions. That naturally lends itself to picture book hilarity, much like the GINORMOUS guinea pig in Everybody’s Favorite Book.

Aw! Look at you, plugging my picture book! This is why we’re such good friends. But let’s get back to talking about you. I’m always interested in kid lit writers’ childhoods. What was the young Cathy like?

I am so glad that you are asking me and not my older brother. I was a perfect angel and my parents’ favorite child.

When did you first have the desire to write?

As a kid I loved to write and illustrate greeting cards, so my earliest efforts were short and to the point. I also wrote scripts for Muppet-like puppet shows, assigning the best roles to myself of course. When writing lost its luster as school assignments piled up, I stopped scribbling for pleasure.

As an adult, I drafted my first picture book manuscript for the Cheerios “Spoonfuls of Stories” contest. Even though “Ozzie the Oyster” was definitely not ready for publication, my prize was discovering a passion for the craft of picture book writing

You dedicated the book to your “astute forester” father and “elegant correspondent” mother. This intrigued me. Can you tell me a little bit about your folks?

They are enthusiastic supporters and paid for my first SCBWI membership, so it was a natural choice to dedicate the book to them. My dad, at age 89, still cuts, splits, and stacks the wood used to heat their house. Thus, Moose made a tree-crackingly excellent tribute to Dad’s arboreal skills. My mom attended secretarial school and has the most Palmer-method perfect, beautiful penmanship and shorthand. Like Squirrel, when she sets pen to paper her encouraging messages are irresistible and instantly recognizable.

Cathy’s father. He likes chopping wood apparently.

You have two not-so-little ones. What role do they play in your writing/critiquing process? 

My teens are too deeply into teendom to attend well to their mama’s picture book shenanigans. The youngest used to illustrate my stories when she was still at the crayon and marker stage. Alas, recent family contributions tend to be the type familiar to most of us: “You know what you should write your next book about? [Insert idea here.]” To which I always respond, “Great idea. YOU should write that book!”

Thanks so much for coming by, Cathy! One last question: If you could be reincarnated as a rodent, what kind of rodent would you be?

I live with a deep-seated insecurity that I would like to resolve by being reincarnated as a river otter. Doesn’t everyone love a river otter?

Well, sure, but…

OK, that’s not technically a rodent. But I am not always a rule-follower, and I am sure that otters and rodents of all sorts would be good friends. And would share their Fluffernutter waffles. “Mmwuff fuwmpf phampumf!”

 

Book News

April 4 – World Rat Day & Guest Post by Mike Allegra

 

Today is World Rat Day!

To celebrate, I’m guest posting over at Celebrate Picture Books. Head on over, read my post, and enter for a chance to win my new, prodent-est picture book: Scampers Thinks Like a Scientist!

About the Holiday

In 2002 Robyn Archer and James Kitlock thought people should take another look at rats and recognize them for their endearing traits. They established World Rat Day to celebrate these rodents and promote the adoption of Fancy Rats as pets. Clean, smart, and devoted, Fancy Rats are beloved by many. How can you celebrate today? Why not hold a Rat Day party, read a book or watch a movie starring a rat, or if you’re looking for a new pet, check out your local shelter for these furry friends. To learn more about World Rat Day, visit the official website!

The Reliable Rodent

Guest Post by Mike Allegra

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am pro-rodent (or, as I prefer, “prodent”).

In elementary school, I took care of two four-legged gerbils and one three-legged gerbil. (The three-legged one was much faster than the four-leggers, by…

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