In part 1 I introduced Chrysanthemum, Owen, and Sheila Rae – three of Henkes’ creations. It appears as though, in each of these stories, he breaks one of the cardinal rules of writing for children: that the protagonist should solve his or her own problem. But there is still emotional resonance in them – how did he do this? Perhaps the protagonist is not who we think they are…
Conventionally, the protagonist of the story is introduced first. His or her desire is shown to us upfront along with a concrete
problem they have to solve. They overcome obstacles that stand in their way, and they resolve the problem. In Owen, the reader sees how important the blanket is to him through text and pictures. We see that the parents don’t mind that he carries around this blanket, judging by their neutral expressions on the third page. The parents are introduced into the text on the fourth page, along with Mrs. Tweezers, and suddenly Owen has a problem, but so do the parents. Could they be the protagonists of this story?
Like typical protagonists, the parents try to resolve the problem, and each attempt fails. Then the mother gets the idea to cut up the blanket. She solves the problem. And so it seems that two possibilities exist: 1) Owen is not the true protagonist. This story is about the adults and how they are influenced by Mrs. Tweezers, but how they care enough for Owen to find a creative solution to the problem, or 2) there are two protagonists, and as long as one of them solves the problem the ending is satisfying.
It seems that Henkes did a similar thing with the story of Sheila Rae. The sister, Louise, isn’t mentioned in the text until the sixth page, but the reader can see her astonishment at the bravery of Sheila Rae in the illustrations from the first page. Louise has her own story that is only visible from the pictures – she wishes she could be as brave as Sheila Rae. When Sheila Rae needs her, she’s there, and she shows that she really is brave by leading the way home. Again, the possibilities are that 1) Sheila Rae is not the true protagonist, Louise is, or 2) there are two protagonists and the resolution by one of them results in a satisfying ending. As Owen and Sheila Rae both have their own set of desires and are introduced early in the story, as is the norm for the protagonist, the second possibility deserves further investigation.
In tomorrow’s final instalment, we’ll look more closely at that second possibility, and at what Robert McKee calls “plural protagonists.“