Page Turns and Curtain Drops in Picture Books

When I took my first stab at writing a children’s book — as my Master’s thesis at Bank Street College  a million years ago — one of the “precedent books” that I studied was Esphyr Slobodkina’s Caps For Sale (NY: William R. Scott Inc., 1940). I love how Slobodkina’s peddlar handles the frustration of not being able to retrieve his caps from a band of theiving monkeys — flapping his hands, stamping his feet and making indignant demands — so much like the 2 to 6 year old set that has long adored this book.

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My favorite sequence begins on the fourth spread, when the tired peddlar goes to sleep sitting upright against the base of a tree, checking first that his wares are all neatly stacked atop his head. The illustration is direct: peddlar, hats, tree.

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You turn the page, and on the next spread a sun smiles down on a flower through a blue sky that is empty save for three small clouds. There is no peddlar and no tree. The text reads simply “They were all there. So he went to sleep. He slept for a long time.”

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You turn again and find the peddlar still leaning against the tree. But this time, his eyes are open, he is stretching, and there are no hats save for his own. The text does not suggest that anything is amiss: “When he woke up he was refreshed and rested.” If you are reading aloud to an audience of small people, at this point there are howls of “The hats are gone!” and “Where are his hats?!” But the illustration doesn’t offer any clues. You have to turn the page again before the peddlar realizes they are gone, and then two more times — with suspense building — before he (and we) can see that they have, in fact, been commandeered by a band on monkeys.

There is much anticipation in each page turn after the peddlar wakes up, and the sequence offers great reminders of how the turning of the page can extend pauses and gaps, shifting the rhythm of a story and heightening suspense.

Jon Klassen’s amazing This Is Not My Hat (Candlewick Press, 2012) got me thinking about Caps for Sale again recently. Klassen’s two fish — the thieving little one and the aggrieved big one — are physically self-contained in comparison to Slobodkina’s peddlar and monkeys: they swim straight ahead, left to right with the turning pages mostly, their bodies rendered solidly and simply. There is no wiggling or diving or darting. That they are moving (or not) is communicated by their bubbles: in streams when they are in motion and in columns when they are not. Meanwhile, their eyes are quite active: snoozing, popping open, looking around, squinting with determination and — interestingly — directing our attention forward and to the right as we turn the pages. The narration is a long monologue that we get drawn into; it is the story that this little fish tells himself (and us) as he tries to justify having stolen the big fish’s hat and to convince himself that he won’t get caught.

The familiarity of his string of rationalizations — and the way that the illustrations undermine them — carries us along until the key moment in the 13th spread when the big fish, hot on the trail of the little guy who has stolen his hat, dives into the same thick bed of plants that the little fish has swum into before him — the place “(w)here the plants grow big and tall and close together” he says, and (his final words) where “Nobody will ever find me.”

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You turn the page and find yourself looking at a wall of plants. No fish, just a thicket of plants.

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On the next spread, the big guy swims out of the plants, leaving us not quite certain about what has gone on.

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Klassen’s wall of plants functions just like Slobodkina’s blue sky page: implying the passage of time but obscuring what is happening during those moments. In trying to understand this device it occured to me that one rule of ‘the page turn’ may be that you can’t have some pivotal event happen between two spreads, while the page is turning. It is probably like a jump cut in film: it jars people and the logic falters. But the blue sky page and the wall of plants, like dropped curtains (or dimmed lights) in a play, tell us that something is happening without letting on what. In Slobodkina’s book, we’re left with a mini-mystery to solve. Where did the hats go? In Klassen’s: we may be spared a visual of the food chain in action — or maybe not. The spread introduces a smidgen of ambiguity, which I appreciated (though when I realized that the narration ends right there, the little fish’s fate seemed more certain.) In both cases, it is a device used to nice effect.

It was only while I was writing this post that I realized that both Caps for Sale and This Is Not My Hat are books about headgear theft. Hopeful that this might be some interesting, under-reported strand in children’s literature, I wracked my brain for other stories that could be lumped in under this heading — and that maybe even use a ‘curtain drop’. All I came up with was Tomi Ungerer’s The Three Robbers which, while it features both stealing and some spectacular millinery, doesn’t technically fit the bill. Although it, too, is a great one.

 

 

3 comments

  1. Caps for Sale was definitely one of my favorite books when I was a kid and I still love it. I too loved the discovery as well as the funny sounds, the fact that the grown up was losing his temper in a silly familiar way, and the ultimate cleverness. I don’t think you see grown ups in that way in many kids’ books.

    1. I know — I have this sense that picture books with adult protagonists were more common in days gone by.
      Do you know the Tomi Ungerer one? The only book of his I knew, as a kid, was Crictor. THE THREE ROBBERS was a favorite of my youngest: the blunderbuss, and the buildings at the end that look just like the robbers’ hats…

  2. So: this weekend I finished reading THE ERSATZ ELEVATOR aloud to my kids and lo and behold: it has a double page curtain drop — in a chapter book no less! — followed directly by Snicket/Handler-esque elaboration on his use of the device. Check it out if you come across the book: it is hard to miss the two black pages in the middle.

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