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The View From the Art Director's Desk – A Visually-compelling and Highly-successful Picture Book

Think you know the story of Little Red Riding Hood? Well think again! This modern take on a traditional tale will have readers sitting up in their seats and laughing out loud! This month we talked to Scholastic picture book Art Director, Strawberrie Donnellyabout why she considers Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion by Alex T Smith a smart, funny and highly-successful picture book.

1 - It’s instantly memorable and engaging.

The opening spread is bold, graphic and hardworking. In two vignettes and 28 words it immediately establishes:
- the story  
which is familiar until you get . . .
- the twist
which is unusual and funny! This humour is reinforced by the ‘in-joke’ between the reader and the narrator. The line “Well, that’s what he thinks is going to happen anyway . . .” is very clever. It sets up the drama, it speaks directly to the reader (drawing them in, making them part of the joke before the story unfolds) and it succinctly establishes . . .
- the characters
from the spare art and text Alex instantly conveys that Little Red is fun, feisty and bubbly – the perfect picture book heroine – while the Lion is crafty, hungry and (sadly for him) not as bright as Little Red!

2 – The characters are believable.
With a deftness of touch, Alex creates characters that are immediate and engaging. It’s easy to relate to them and, importantly, to like them!
He achieves this in a number of ways:
- He takes recognizable, everyday acts and incorporates them into the story to help engage the reader.
The moment where Little Red dresses up the Lion is so reminiscent of a child playing dress-up with the dog (or with their dad!). The incongruity of the Lion in the dress also makes for a wonderful moment of humour in the art.
- He adeptly conveys expression and emotion in just a few pen strokes.
It’s impossible not to grasp the satisfaction displayed by Little Red, looking smug as a bug, revelling in her ability to have thwarted such a mighty (and naughty) adversary.
And with a single image, a single expression and moment of eye contract with the reader, Alex instantly conveys the emotion of the put-upon Lion, who can see his chance of dinner slipping away and is utterly powerless to do anything about it.

- He gives his protagonists convincing voices.
There are so many wonderful touches of personality that come through in the text. Here’s a lovely moment from the Lion:
The Lion outlines his VERY CLEVER plan and congratulates himself with a 'Well done' at the end. What an overly confident and naughty lion he is!

The reader gets a very strong sense that this Lion is a little too big for his boots and needs taking down a peg or two.
And here is a great piece of speech from Little Red:
Little Red waggled a finger.
“Well, trying to gobble up children and poorly aunties is VERY naughty. If your tummy was rumbly, all you had to do was ask nicely for some food.”
It’s the mimicry of the classic parental stance which makes this moment familiar, funny and empowering because, for once, it’s the child who gets to deliver the message!
- He takes his characters on an emotional journey
And what’s charming and reinforcing about this journey is that, by the end, Little Red and the Lion have become friends. This learning process isn’t laboured, the message of manners is subtly delivered in a fun and humorous way. And whilst they have both grown, there are still elements of their loveable personality all the way through. The Lion keeps his characteristic cheekiness, and Little Red her feistiness, right till the very end!

3 – The story is perfectly paced for the best dramatic impact.
There’s a great sense of dramatic escalation in the text, as well as visual variety in the art, which seamlessly combine to heighten the drama and build tension.

Alex isn’t afraid to use space to draw the reader in . . .

Here we have a resting scene, which at first glance looks calm and peaceful, but don’t be fooled! Follow the space, the shade, the line of the horizon and the last thing you spot is Lion’s eyes – that moment of tension is undeniable. There’s a tangible frisson before the page turn where the reader knows that the moment of tranquility is about to be shattered.

Alex also uses highly-detailed and immersive scenes to establish atmosphere . . .

This is a wonderful example of a successful and compositionally complex piece of art. It’s deceptively simple, but incredibly hard to achieve. There’s so much going on, it’s a feast for the eyes. There are lots of mini stories in Little Red’s interactions with the animals. There’s an abundance of characters and a wash of vivid colours. The heat of the palette perfectly conveys the heat of the savannah and plunges you straight into Little Red’s world.
All the elements involved on this spread gel to form one cohesive scene with a strong visual flow that pulls the reader across the plain and onto the next page.

And he is a master at deploying visual shocks at key moments in the text . . .
As the tension and drama builds, Alex utilises some clever visual devices to bring the action to a crescendo. He studied theatre and set design so brings this sense of visual drama to his art. He has a brilliant understanding of knowing which moments to capture and celebrate and does so in innovative and interesting ways.

Page rotations are a great way to build drama. Showing the perspective from inside the Lion's mouth looking out is very clever.

And, finally, he successfully marries art and text to maximize the action and escalate silliness.
There’s a wonderful sequence in the story where the Lion is increasingly upstaged and outwitted by Little Red as she styles his hair, brushes his teeth and puts him in a fabulous dress! The art perfectly mirrors this in a series of vignettes of increasing silliness.

In conclusion, why is Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion such a satisfying and successful read?
Firstly, it’s a widely varied and accomplished picture book both in terms of the art and the writing. It takes all the key building blocks of good picture book technique (a strong story, great voice, believable characters) and elevates these by employing an innovative story twist, unique settings, quirky turns of phrase and striking visual devices to make a thoroughly enjoyable, read-again picture book.

Credits: Text and illustration copyright 2015 Alex T. Smith
Design by Rebecca Essilifie
With thanks to Alex T. Smith for letting us feature his book, and Strawberrie Donnelly for her time.

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.
Check out the Cook Up a Picture Book Coaching Courses.


  1. I loved reading this. So helpful.Thanks Natasha.

  2. Nice post and most important paraphrase help for our work.

  3. Wow! Aesome writing on editing pictures. I work with Clipping Path Service but I never read such a nice post.

  4. Thank you for such a helpful article! Good to know what important features to keep in mind for any contemporary picture book.

  5. This is my new favourite picture book. I love it so much, fantastic twist, and very funny. Thanks for sharing your insight.


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