ASK A PICTURE BOOK EDITOR Making a point (and packing a punch)

The news is full of stories about political upheaval and uncertainty. We find ourselves bombarded by tales of aggression between counties and we witness images of mass migration as people travel in search of a better life. It can be hard to find ways to broach and breakdown such tough subjects with children. It’s also increasingly important to help children understand the changing world around them.

This month, we take a look at five books that are great springboards for tackling challenging ideas and consider how the authors and illustrators manage to weave big ideas into successful narratives. 

Can I Join Your Club? by John Kelly, illustrated by Steph Lebaris

Can I Join Your Club? by John Kelly and Steph Laberis is wonderful for starting conversations about diversity and inclusivity. The main character, Duck, is looking for new friends so he decides to join a club. But he can’t roar like a lion, or trumpet like an elephant, and he’s got too many legs and wings to join Snake Club. 

Rejected at every turn, Duck comes up with a brilliant plan. He’s going to set up his own club – one where everyone is welcome. Using his cast of animal characters, John Kelly expertly depicts what it means to be excluded. Steph Laberis’ illustrations show the joy of inclusion and acceptance of difference. Because the brilliant thing about friendship is the fun that can be found in new experiences and cultures. 

The hook is strong, but simply delivered in an immediate and pertinent way – perfectly pitched for young readers.

The Conquerors by David McKee

The Conquerors by David McKee is a thought-provoking book for exploring ideas about integration, aggression and pacifism. The citizens of a small country give a conquering army such a warm welcome that the straight-laced, regimented ‘conquerors’ can’t help but enjoy the time they spend in this small nation. They learn new songs, eat new foods and find new ways to dress. And when they return home, they bring these new experiences with them, so that in no time, the ‘conquerors’ of the BIG nation look and sound just like citizens of the little country. It begs the question – who conquered who? 
The simple art, strong, spare text and restricted palette make very clear the peaceful cross-pollination of culture and the blurring of lines between those who seek to impose their identity through brute force and those who seek to spread theirs through love and friendship.

Green Lizards vs Red Rectangles by Steve Anthony

Green Lizards vs Red Triangles by Steve Anthony poses important questions about peace and the point of war. The big, graphic, blocky rectangles are fighting with the green lizards. We don’t know why. That’s just the way it is. 
From Green Lizards vs Red Triangles by Steve Anthony

The bold colours and strong shapes masterfully show the push and pull of dominance between the two sides and the stark, powerful text highlights the growing awareness surrounding the futility of the conflict. “WHAT ARE WE FIGHTING FOR?” one lizard finally asks. It’s a good question to ask!

A Forest by Marc Martin

A Forest by Marc Martin is a beautifully-illustrated springboard for discussions about the impact humans have on the natural world. 
from A Forest by Marc Martin

The spare text and delicate artwork explore the ramifications of greed and the destruction that humans can bring. It’s an important reminder to consider the world in which we all live.

The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts illustrated by Christian Robinson

The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts and Christian Robinson is a heartwarming text about the power of speech and understanding the impact of your actions.

Hardly anyone notices Sally McCabe, but Sally notices everyone and everything. And she does little things, which initially go unnoticed, to make the people’s lives around her better. It’s the smallest actions, from the smallest child, that make the biggest impact and finally garner her the recognition and gratitude she deserves. 
From The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts illustrated by Christian Robinson

The setting and the scenarios instantly engage a young reader and it’s a hook that can be amplified to a global scale. It’s a tale that celebrates and champions the actions of an individual, encouraging everyone – even a child – to make small changes for the greater good.

In summary . . .  

There’s always space to work challenging ideas into picture books. The key to creating a successful story is to embed the concept in a plot that is immediate, pertinent and understandable for a child, whilst ensuring it engages young readers by avoiding a patronising tone or approach. In each example above, the words and pictures together SHOW the progression from the initial situation to its alternative outcome, bringing the message home to young readers in a fun, artful way. 

 It’s often the most succinct and brief texts that pack the strongest punch – demonstrating the power of well-honed and crafted stories.

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
Check out the Cook Up a Picture Book Coaching Courses.

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