The Best Invented Characters in Picture Books

My favourite part of writing children’s picture books is creating and developing fun and likeable characters. The characters are what steer the story and give it purpose and a meaning to exist.  However, to date I’ve never attempted to create a new creature in its own right. For now I’ve concentrated on humans or animals. So like many before me I often wonder what the right ingredients are that make an everlasting and memorable make believe character. Is it just a single magic ingredient or a mixture of many? To investigate this I chose six original and well known picture book characters which have stood the test of time.

Fungus the Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs (author / illustrator). Published: Penguin Books ed. 2012.
This edition is set out like a graphic novel and as the title states, Fungus is a Bogeyman who bizarrely is lovable for the very thing we dislike about him; his grimy, grubby lifestyle. His manners and habits are so disgusting that we can’t help but grimace out loud and revel in his yucky, sticky mess. Fungus lives in the deep, dark tunnels of Bogeydom and this book devotes a double page spread to Bogey anatomy. Bogeymen sleep in the day then like to stir up trouble and be a nuisance at night by waking babies, making as much noise as possible, frightening people and even giving them boils as Bogeymen do everything humans despise. Fungus lives in a world which seems topsy turvy to us but completely mundane to him so he soon begins to question the reason for his existence.

The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My by Tove Jansson (author / illustrator). Translated by Sophie Hannah, 2001. Published: Sort of Books, ed. 2001.

Moomin is a lovable Moomintroll who lives in the woods and helps his friend Mymble find her sister Little My and the fillyjonk. Right from the start Moomin is the one leading the searches and not afraid of adventure. Moomin is portrayed as kind, helpful and supportive to the others whilst remaining a tiny bit vulnerable. What is there not to love about Moomin?

The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson (author) and Axel Scheffler (illustrator). Published: Macmillan Children’s Books, 1999.


The Gruffalo is a creature that also lives in the woods, whose distinct physical characteristics are clearly described to create a memorable image (and rhyme). The woodland creatures talk about him liking “roasted fox, owl ice cream and scrambled snake” but his description turns out to be more intimidating than his actions as he mocks the mouse and gladly follows him. The fact that the reader is aware but not the Gruffalo, that it’s the Gruffalo scaring the other creatures and not the mouse only adds to our sympathy for the Gruffalo. He’s lovable because he’s not very bright and is easily manipulated by the mouse.

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (author / illustrator). Published: Harper Collins Children’s Books, ed. 2009.

Dr. Seuss is the master of creating characters including The Grinch, the Once-ler and Wockets but The Lorax has to be my favourite by far. The Lorax lives in a tree trunk and looks like a wise but jovial and cuddly grandfather figure. He speaks for the trees and isn’t afraid to follow his principles and ethics when the Once-ler starts to destroy the Truffula trees and their Truffula fruits. So much so eventually all the creatures are driven out of their home. It’s a serious story about the importance of looking after the environment but as always with Dr Seuss, it’s told in a clever and entertaining way. The Lorax is a strong, individual character.

Larf by Ashley Spires (author / illustrator). Published: Kids Can Press; reprint ed. Jun 2015.


Larf is a vegetarian sasquatch described as a 7-ft tall manbeast who lives in the woods with his bunny friend Eric. He’s an unassuming guy who doesn’t like attention and enjoys a quiet life but deep down feels a little sad that nobody seems to want to acknowledge his existence.  Larf feels different to the humans so keeps himself to himself to avoid drawing attention to his differences. However when he meets Shurl and Patricia he starts to feel they might be able to understand him so he becomes more open to changing his life and sharing his time with them.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (author / illustrator). Published: Random House Children’s Books, Red Fox Ed. 2000.

Although the Wild Things are not the main characters I thought they deserved being included as they still play such a central role to the story. Of all the characters I’ve mentioned The Wild Things are probably the most fearsome with all their roaring and gnashing, sharp claws and rolling of eyes but as Max is able to tame them and play games with them, they quickly lose their frightening image. The Wild Things live on an island in the middle of the sea and although they are physically gigantic and unruly animals we soon understand that they are just doing what comes naturally to them.

What do all these characters have in common?

Having gathered all these creatures together in one room I started to try and decipher what I’d learnt from these characters? What do they all have in common? Although not an exhaustive list, I picked out the most important points which stood out to me and thought I’d share these observations with you.

  • NAME – something easy to pronounce but with no other meaning.
  • APPEARANCE – they cannot be a human or animal but must be recognisable as a creature with eyes, legs and arms for example.
  • SETTING – where does the character live? Somewhere hidden from the human eye.
  • RELATABLE FEELINGS / ACTIONS – ensure the reader can empathise with the character’s reactions and reasons for doing something.
  • PERSONALITY – the character needs traits that we admire, love or sympathise with.
  • SOMETHING UNIQUE – there needs to be something unique or distinct about the character to make them stand out. Either through physical or personality traits, a particular interest, passion or belief or being unconventional in their outlook.
  • GROWS – the character needs to change, grow or learn something since the start of the story.
  • EFFECT ON OTHERS – they need to have an effect on the other characters, stir up feelings, instigate behaviours etc.
  • INTERESTING EXPERIENCES – they should experience a range of feelings and events in the story which surprise or capture the reader’s imagination.
  • NEVER MEDIOCRE – the character should be clearly defined with distinct personality traits and an individual appearance. Nothing vague or wishy-washy, these characters are different, unusual, with a purpose and the reader knows it.
  • GOOD OR BAD? – Are they a good or a bad character? They can be bad, but not intimidating, good but not weak or they may grow from being a bad character to a good one but never remain in between.

Looking at the characters within a story in this way isn’t easy and it’s obvious there are a number of factors to consider but breaking the character down like this can help to determine their motives, dreams and behaviours in greater depth in order to understand who they are.

Maybe now I should attempt the trickier part of creating a character of my own…

 

Source: Library or private copies.

NOTE: Books for Children Blog is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.co.uk.

 

A Sensitive Ban or a Senseless Plan?

Farmyard

Image courtesy of bandrat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last week the Daily Mail published an article saying the Oxford University Press had banned the mention of sausages, pigs or anything deemed pork related from their children’s books. Shock, horror! What monster would demand that our children can’t read books like Peppa Pig or Olivia anymore? On its own this might seem ludicrous but this is by no means a new censorship. It has not only been in the OUP’s guidelines for some time already but this topic has been in and out of the newspapers for years. For example this 2003 article in the Guardian talks of pig books being banned in schools for exactly this reason and it was the Muslim Council of Britain who was quoted as trying to stop the “well-intentioned but misguided” ban.

Furthermore The Express in 2007 reported a Church of England school was told by a music festival panel that they could not perform the Three Little Pigs unless they changed it to Three Little Puppies for fear of offending any Muslims in the audience, (anyone familiar with Islamic teachings on the subject of dogs would understand the irony of that one!). Again it was Muslim Groups who were quoted as saying “their religion only stops them eating pork or touching a pig – not singing or talking about them.”

Of course last weeks revelation again prompted a whole barrage of articles from several newspapers on how ridiculous this sounded and in the OUP’s defence the Telegraph reported “a spokesman for the OUP said” (hang on shouldn’t that be spokesperson!) it was introduced to “encourage some authors of educational materials respectfully to consider cultural differences and sensitivities.”

Ok, let’s look at this from the publisher’s point of view. Why do publishers “consider cultural differences and sensitivities” and not allow complete freedom of speech? The mere nature of the publishing role demands that a book should not only be well written, interesting and entertaining but also needs to be a marketable product. This means that for it to be financially worth publishing it needs to appeal to as wide an audience as possible and remain eligible for selling with foreign language rights. It makes logical sense that a book will only be produced if it is likely to be bought. So it is inevitable that these topics have to be considered from both a moralistic and practical point of view if each book is to remain a positive experience for all potential readers, opposed to a negative one. It’s classic censorship, upholding the publisher’s responsibility to our children. The point being that of course individual beliefs and values should be taken into consideration, but nobody is questioning that. What is being questioned is where the line should be drawn and has it been taken too far in this instance? From the reaction received from many Muslims and Jews it makes me wonder whether this kind of ban is respecting their beliefs or inadvertently trivialising them. Perhaps these bans have touched the fine line between respecting cultural differences to that of being overly cautious and ending up making a huge issue over something that was never there in the first place.

To my mind (as quoted in the Daily Mail article above) a spokesperson for the Jewish Leadership Council put it perfectly.

“Jewish law prohibits eating pork, not the mention of the word, or the animal from which it derives.”

Banishing the word pig or sausage from a book is not going to eradicate its existence from our world and as far as I know they haven’t started eating Peppa Pig in the stories yet – which incidentally would be horrific – I know she likes spaghetti but I very much doubt she likes sausages!  Anyway isn’t it a bit like me saying it’s against my ethics to eat a dog so maybe I’ll stop my children reading books which mention the word dog? Then again perhaps I should suggest meat-based cookery books should be banned on grounds of being offensive to vegetarians!

So I will leave you to ponder over some well-known and much loved classics which at some point have been banned or challenged over a politically correct debate either prior or post publication.

Where the Wild Things AreWhere the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Reasons: psychological issues with “how Max dealt with his emotions” and later for images “promoting witchcraft and supernatural events.”

The LoraxThe Lorax by Dr. Seuss

Reasons: being “anti-consumerism, supporting environmentalism” and “criminalising the forestry commission.”

the Wizard of OzThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Reasons: being an “ungodly” influence and “depicting women in strong leadership roles.”

Alice in wonderlandAlice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Reasons: sexual references, talking animals being an insult to humans and the fear that it would encourage drug use.

The giving TreeThe Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Reasons: “sexist” and a “vicious, one-sided relationship.”

Winnie the PoohWinnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne

Reasons: Piglet “might offend Muslim students and their parents,” being “pro-Nazi” and “an insult to God.”

James and the Giant PeachJames and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

Reasons: “too scary for the targeted age group, mysticism, sexual inferences, profanity, racism, references to tobacco and alcohol, promoting disobedience, drugs and communism.”

Charlotte's WebCharlotte’s Web by E. B. White

Reasons: “talking animals are blasphemous and unnatural,” and on grounds of pigs being offensive to Muslims.

And Tango Makes ThreeAnd Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson

Reasons: depicting “homosexuality and same sex parenthood.”