What makes a good picture book great?
Like all good picture books Dangerous!, by Tim Warnes, is deceptively simple.
The story goes like this . . .
The story goes like this . . .
Mole loves labelling things. Then one day, he finds a strange thing. A lumpy-bumpy thing. A lumpy-bumpy thing with snippy, snappy teeth! What will Mole label this strange thing? Why, it’s DANGEROUS of course . . . or is it?
But what is it that elevates this lovely story from being simply good and makes it great?
This month we asked Little Tiger Press publisher, Jude Evans, to pinpoint the elusive x-factors that made her want to acquire this wonderful book.
1 - The story brought a fresh idea - straight from a child’s world - to a picture book text
The genesis of Mole’s love of labels came from a simple technique that teachers in nurseries and reception classes use - they label objects in the classroom to help broaden a child’s vocabulary and introduce them to new words.
By applying this in a picture book setting, Tim replicates a recognisable moment from a young child’s life. It makes the character and motivation of Mole immediate and engaging for young readers.
Mole’s obsessive use of labels is a subtle and fun way of introducing children to the wealth of vocabulary available to them. It makes a game out of applying words to objects in a way that is empowering – and hopefully inspiring – for children.
Talking about, naming and describing objects - as Mole does in the story - encourages children to take an active interest in the world around them.
2 - The story encourages children to challenge and question first impressions
When Mole first meets the crocodile he’s baffled. He doesn’t know what it is or what to call it. So he starts using all the adjectives he can think of.
|Mole labels the unusual thing 'squidgy, spotty, peculiar, mysterious, scaly, knobbly and gargantuan'|
And when he sees its long claws and sharp teeth Mole decides that the Lumpy-Bumpy Thing must be DANGEROUS.
But there’s a stark difference between appearance and reality.
The Lumpy-Bumpy Thing is far from dangerous, he just wants to play. In fact, he thinks Mole’s wonderful.
Contrary to Mole’s first impressions, the Lumpy-Bumpy Thing is more friend than predator.
This shift in perspective brilliantly highlights the danger of making assumptions based on how things look, and gently prompts the reader to question how they make judgements themselves.
3 - It also encourages children to think about the impact of words
The text uses three strong words at strategic points to maximum effect:
It shows children that words, no matter how small, have great power, and urges them to consider the cause and effect of the words they use.
4 - Tim’s choice of characters are both unusual and recognisable
The unlikely combination of a mole and a crocodile was bold and fresh.
The contrast is visually delightful - they are polar opposites in their shape, scale and texture.
And while both characters are endearing, funny and authentic, their personalities are at odds too!
Mole is fastidious, orderly and neat - everything must be ‘just so’.
The Lumpy-Bumpy Thing is charmingly chaotic, jolly and a bit silly.
But what makes both engaging picture book characters is how real and recognisable they are!
5 - Mole’s emotional journey is another great discussion topic for children
When the Lumpy-Bumpy Thing disrupts the order of Mole’s world, Mole is cross and lashes out at the Lumpy-Bumpy Thing.
|Mole is so cross that the Lumpy-Bumpy Thing has eaten all his labels he cries:|
'You're a slurpy, burpy, lumpy, grumpy, greedy, naughty . . . THING!'
It’s only when his words make the Lumpy-Bumpy Thing cry that Mole stops to reflect on his actions.
He considers why the Lumpy-Bumpy Thing acted in the way he did. Mole realises that he overreacted and that he was mean.
This important moment of self awareness leads to forgiveness and friendship.
6 - The fresh approach to storytelling is complemented by Tim's art
One thing that immediately stands out is the expression Tim captures in the looseness of his line. He brilliantly conveys mood and emotion in his characters' body language.
His use of perspective and cropping brings a wonderful visual variety to the book, making sure that each page has drama and impact.
He also turns the challenge created by the difference in scale between the two characters to his advantage, with some striking compositions.
So in summary, what makes a good story great?
It's about giving a narrative added depth by imperceptibly weaving in extra elements, whether that's:
- an original concept or twist,
- fun learning,
- important and pertinent themes for discussion,
- strong, believable characters,
- or preferably all of these!
When there's more to a story than just the narrative, that's when you know you've got a great book!
With special thanks to Jude Evans for her time
and Tim Warnes for letting us use quotes and images from the book.
If you want to know a little bit more about how Tim came up with the idea for Dangerous! and see some character sketches and alternative cover ideas click on this link to his website!
Natascha Biebow is an experienced editor, mentor and coach, who loves working with authors and illustrators at all levels to help them to shape their stories. www.blueelephantstoryshaping.comCheck out the Cook Up a Picture Book Coaching Courses.