A Puss without Boots: John Burningham’s It’s a Secret!

by | Nov 5, 2018 | IBBYLink Spring 2018

June Hopper Swain

The work of John Burningham has been defined as incorporating ‘postmodern strategies … to challenge expected reader/author relationships’ (Thacker and Webb, 2002:143).

Picture books such as Come Away from the Water, Shirley (1978) and Time to Get Out of the Bath, Shirley (1979), wherein each there is more than one narrative at work and the reader needs to decide what the relationship is between them, are brilliant examples of his inventive, postmodern way with pictures and texts that can entertain as well as challenge the young reader/viewer.
While being perhaps more restrained because the words and pictures do, mainly, work together to tell the same story, in It’s a Secret! (2009), Burningham’s take on the fantasy fairy tale, does feature several postmodern narrative strategies: sometimes the pictures tell us more than the text does, at other times we have to rely on our imagination to fill in some of the details; and there are intertextual references, wordplay and a scenario in which there is no parental interference.

And while the characters and situations in some traditional fairy tales might seem remote and the stories often lacking in humour, It’s a Secret! has an immediacy and playfulness that invites involvement. Thus, it is not a once-upon-a-time story for it is set vaguely in the present, and it is too grounded and unsentimental for there to be a completely happily-ever-after ending, yet it has several features that might be found in a conventional fairy tale. There is a talking animal and certainly the hero of the story, who guides the two children once they have mysteriously transformed themselves out of their everyday world into one that is more colourful and vibrant; but before this can happen there is a hazardous journey during which some villains give chase.

On the front cover of It’s a Secret! is a cat standing on his hind legs and wearing a belted green tunic and plumed broad-brimmed hat. This, perhaps, is a playful allusion to the title character in the traditional fairy tale ‘Puss in Boots’. Burningham’s cat, however, is without boots. He looks out at the viewer with a deadpan expression on his face and this matches perfectly the narrator’s mock serious delivery that keeps the story grounded and matter of fact.

The cat in ‘Puss in Boots’ has a certain swagger, is wily and ambitious and gains fame and wealth, by whatever methods, for the story’s hero. Burningham’s puss in contrast seems modest and accommodating. He can talk, on occasions, but he knows his place when he is fulfilling his part-time role of family pet. Like most domestic cats he has another, secret, life but one that is surely more exciting. Children love a secret, and it is the promise of finding out what it is in this narrative that can propel the young reader forward.

The picture on the title page shows a little girl, Marie Elaine, awkwardly clutching a cat. This is Malcolm, in his family-pet persona, passively putting up with his lot as best he can with a resigned expression on his face. This image is in marked contrast to the same cat, looking very impressive in fancy costume as described above, on the picture book’s front cover and who enjoys, it would seem, when he is not being the family’s pet, a busy social life.

In this narrative, with its understated delivery, there is no overt sense of an adult narrator intruding into a text that is neither moralistic nor didactic, to gain the young reader’s attention. Indeed, Burningham maintains a low profile throughout and leaves some gaps in the narrative, and this strategy can gently encourage young readers’ participation and allow their imagination to take flight and so contribute to the unfolding story. An instance of this can be found in the double spread discussed below.

Marie Elaine has long been curious to know where cats, especially Malcolm, go at night. When she finds Malcolm downstairs one night, therefore, dressed in his finery (and the cat bowl on the floor on his right can remind us of his double life) and discovers that he is going to a party, she begs him to take her with him. The mood of this exchange is low key, with Marie Elaine showing no surprise at finding the family cat transformed thus and having a conversation with him. Malcolm agrees to let her come to the party but insists that she wears party clothes and ‘getssmall’.

In response to Malcolm’s first request Marie Elaine rushes upstairs to her bedroom and returns wearing a fairy costume. His second request seems to be equally unproblematic, and here the text’s deadpan delivery states quite simply that ‘Marie Elaine got small’ and thus we see her in subsequent pictures. No apparent magic wand or talisman as there might have been in a conventional fairy tale. And here, perhaps, young readers might suggest how they think that it was done. And who could blame the amiable and sometimes put upon Malcolm if he feels, secretly, although this is not commented on in the text, some satisfaction that she has been, albeit temporarily, cut down to size.

Marie Elaine and Malcolm leaving the house  throughthe cat-flap. Copyright © 2009 John Burningham/Walker Books.
The cat-flap through which Malcolm passes every evening when he goes on his nightly prowl must seem, we might infer, to the now much smaller Marie Elaine, a magic portal through which she too can now pass into a darkening and unfamiliar night-time world. That their exit through the cat-flap is swift can be seen in Burningham’s sketchy illustration. Malcolm, experienced in exploring his territory nightly, is an expert guide, and the children (for now Marie Elaine’s friend Norman, who has also ‘got small’, has joined them) must now place their trust in him.

Burningham uses a variety of media including collage and photographs in this picture book, and these provide interesting textural backgrounds for the scratchy, energetic pen and ink drawings and for the applied cutouts. These lively, often painterly pictures, uninhibited in execution and sometimes with a naivety that has great charm, drive the narrative forward.

While ogres enliven some versions of the traditional story of ‘Puss in Boots’, Burningham’s ‘baddies’ in It’s a Secret! are three particularly ferocious dogs that Malcolm and the children have to pass in order to get to the party. This episode provides a very effective double spread that shows the three dogs, anthropomorphised, loitering by some refuse bins on the corner of an alleyway. Two of the dogs, one of whom is leaning languidly against a wall, are in hooded duffle coats, the third is wearing a ‘beanie’ hat, and all three have their paws thrust deeply into their coat pockets. There are, surely, some visual puns at play here: in keeping with the hoody theme, the term ‘hoody’ having associations with street gang culture, two of the dogs have heavily ‘hooded’ eyelids; and there is, perhaps, a connection between the aimless youths ‘wasting’ time and the ‘waste’ bins and cartons around which they are loitering. This double spread is wordless and while it reflects this, as yet, passive, motionless trio, it can also invite the young reader to take up the narrative and so discover something of the interplay possible between picture and spoken word.

There are no shadows in this picture – indeed, there are very few shadows in any pictures that Burningham creates – and, against the white of the page, the three figures stand out, a group united in a common cause, that is, waiting for something to happen. The dog on the right is looking over his shoulder as if in anticipation of the page turn that creates a pause in the narrative and adds dramatic power to the next double spread.

This shows the dogs, now appearing much larger, giving chase. Unlike Malcolm, they do not seem to have the capacity for human speech, and no longer being a parody of a gang of idle youths hanging around on a street corner, they have become, despite the clothes that they are wearing, a ferocious pack, the one leading them barking and baring its teeth. The text tells us that in making their escape Malcolm and his companions ‘rushed up the stairs’, and the jumble of lines depicting them thus conveys this. Poor Norman – oh, how we can empathise with him and thus become more involved with the narrative – is the last to mount the stairs and so closest to the pursuing dogs. It is his clearly drawn face with its alarmed expression, therefore, that we might focus on.

Of course, Malcolm and his companions do arrive safely at their destination, but not before they have had to escape the pursuing dogs via the rooftops, a crane’s rotating boom and down its lifting gear. No words accompany this very eloquent double spread. Drawn in loose, cursory pen lines that give their forms a lively, nervous energy, the three figures look small, isolated and therefore vulnerable, but not because of the dogs, who are now sitting, glum and ineffective, on a rooftop way below them, but because they are climbing down the crane’s lifting gear and hanging in mid-air. It is not difficult to appreciate the dizzying heights to which the trio has climbed, with the vast expanse of sky, which occupies much of the picture area, above them and the drop to the rooftops and, as we might imagine, the ground far below. But at last, with their ordeal over, the trio can anticipate the delights of the rooftop party that is about to start, and the cats already there welcome the children whole-heartedly and show them great kindness.

The party. Copyright © 2009 John Burningham/Walker Books.
There are some colourful, energetic double spreads in this picture book showing the party in full swing with cats dancing to music played by cat musicians and the two children happily joining in. The sharing of food frequently plays a pivotal part in books for children for these are communal occasions that can set the seal on friendship. Thus, the midnight feast, a beautifully balanced double spread, is the centrepiece of It’s a Secret!. The participants, and that includes Marie Elaine and Norman, fill much of the picture area. The viewer appears to be included in this scene as if seated at one end of the table, outside the picture area and opposite the motherly benevolent presence of the queen of the cats, regal in her golden crown, and an honoured guest who seems to loom over all as befits her position. The cats, surely each one usually inhabiting its own territory, have come together on neutral ground for this social occasion.

On their return journey, the trio, once again, make their way past the three dogs, but luckily they are now fast asleep. And these hooded ‘youths’ are not merely asleep but apparently totally soporific, having consumed what could be several cans of lager – or is it lemonade? The accompanying text does not comment, so viewers can draw their own conclusions.

The next morning, when Marie Elaine’s mother discovers her exhausted daughter, still in her fairy outfit, slumped on the sofa with Malcolm, now minus his costume, curled up fast asleep beside her, she comments in a matter-of-fact tone, ‘You look as if you were out all night with the cat’. Marie Elaine’s throwaway response is ‘I was’, adding ‘and I know where he goes at night’. But, of course, it was a secret so she couldn’t say where. Not, perhaps, the kind of exchange we might expect between a mother and her young daughter under similar circumstances in a conventional picture book. No anxious interrogation. No lecture.

Surely appealing to children and adults alike, John Burningham’s contemporary and witty fairytale-like picture book It’s a Secret! is imbued with generosity and goodwill, and has a restrained playfulness and pictures that sometimes speak louder than the words. Satisfyingly, Malcolm’s secret is shared with the reader/viewer who may hope that perhaps now Marie Elaine will treat Malcolm, as the family pet, with the utmost respect that he deserves – and that Norman will keep Malcolm’s secret too.

Works cited

Burningham, John (1978) Come Away from the Water, Shirley. London: Jonathan Cape.

–– (2009) It’s a Secret!. London: Walker Books.

–– (1978) Time to Get out of the Bath, Shirley. London: Jonathan Cape.

Thacker, Deborah Cogan and Jean Webb (2002) Introducing Children’s Literature from Romanticism to Postmodernism. London: Routledge. 

June Hopper Swain had been writing articles on children’s books for several years when she enrolled on the MA Children’s Literature Distance Learning Course at Roehampton University with Pat Pinsent as her tutor. She gained her degree in 2004. She has since written papers that have been published in the Journal of Children’s Literature Studies and the New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship. For IBBYLink she has written short articles, reports on exhibitions and reviews of children’s books.