Of the many delights when sharing a book with a child, one of the greatest is experiencing that moment when they realize that they have got one up on the protagonist/ villain in the story. Often, this is provided in a picture book by the words telling one story and the pictures telling another. As well as being great fun, it is a seriously useful skill to master. Here are some favourites which give children practice in spotting an unreliable narrator.
Getting the whole picture
Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins
A masterclass in giving the child a voice in the storytelling. Rosie the Hen ploughs on regardless, seemingly oblivious to the carnage wreaked behind her…or is she? Read purely for fun at first, but maybe you could encourage speculation as to whether she is doing it deliberately, or it is a happy accident (or unhappy if you are more of a fox fan).
Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Browne
Another much-loved classic, with good reason. Benefits include naming of animals and fruits as well as a cracking story which needs the illustrations every bit as much as the words. The reader has the chance to feel clever by spotting which animal comes next (the curl of a monkey’s tail, an ear poking above the vegetation) and then observing which fruit it takes while poor Handa is completely oblivious. All is well in the end as her friend Akeyo ends up with piles of her favourite fruit and the animals are also well-fed.
A word of warning – it really is worth getting a proper ‘landscape’ copy of this book. I have a squarer version published under the Reading Together banner, and somehow it is just not the same.
Mog and the Baby by Judith Kerr
Any Mog book would probably come in this category as Judith Kerr very plainly sets out, Mog is a Forgetful Cat so the reader is one step ahead of him pretty much all the time anyway. But the extra pleasure here comes in the juxtaposition of Mrs Thomas claiming “Mog loves babies!” while the pictures show that Mog is far from happy with his visitor. Fear not, Mog comes good in the end by saving the baby and receiving a giant fish as a reward.
Not Now, Bernard by David McKee
A well-loved classic in which the reader has the advantage over the oblivious adults in the book throughout, just by virtue of paying attention.
The Bear Under the Stairs and The Baby Who Wouldn’t Go to Bed by Helen Cooper
More stories in which the text says one thing but the pictures clearly say another. The Baby may vigorously protest that he is still wide awake, but the pictures show the clear signs that he is very sleepy indeed.
Man on the Moon by Simon Bartram
Another variation on what is going on behind the narrator’s back. Lots of detail in the illustrations reward re-reading. The same author has also written Dougal’s Deep Sea Diary featuring under sea adventures.
No More Kissing! By Emma Chichester Clarke
A totally delightful book, but the cleverness part just refers to the final page where our anti-kissing hero admits, having just given his baby brother a kiss to comfort him, “It was lucky no-one was looking.” That’s what he thinks, young readers will know better! I have a huge grin on my face just looking at one page of this charming book, which somehow manages to have sympathy for the fussy relatives who love to kiss the baby, and the grumpy brother who does not.
The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson
The pleasures of out-knowing the hero come relatively late in this early chapter book. Children will readily identify with the hero, Plop the barn owl, but hopefully will also come to sympathise with Plop’s parents in their never-ending quest to keep him fed and entertained. They can join in with his refrain of “I do not like the dark AT ALL but…” and gradually realise that he is having to worker harder and harder to convince himself that he hasn’t changed a bit.
Identifying with a smart protagonist
The Shopping Basket by John Burningham
Such a strange book, but one of the joys of children’s literature is that talking animals and surreal situations need no explanations, you can just take them on trust. Steven is tasked by his hard-pressed mother to go on a shopping trip. He successfully buys all the required items but then finds himself threatened by a succession of animals into giving them up. He uses the environment around him (best use EVER of a 1970s-style wire waste paper bin) and the animals’ own foibles (“Me slow!” said the bear…) to prevent them from getting his shopping. The results of his skill are in the pictures, not the text, and revealed only once you have turned the page, allowing guesswork and remembering, which seem to cement the identification with the smart protagonist – similar in structure to Handa’s Surprise, but working in the opposite direction. (Added bonus – if you enjoy practising different animal voices when reading aloud, this gives them a great workout without knackering your vocal chords too much).
The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler
Many of Julia Donaldson’s texts give a starring role to brains (The Snail and the Whale, Tiddler and Room on the Broom just to mention a few), which is one of the reasons I love them so much, but this is the classic. A mouse dodges dangerous encounters with a fox, an owl and a snake by invoking the apparently imaginary threat of The Gruffalo, only to find half-way through that the creature is very much real and looking forward to a mouse sandwich. Our hero saves the day by capitalizing on his previous descriptions and correctly guessing that the Gruffalo’s brain is nowhere near as effective as its body, and makes his way back through the wood with The Gruffalo acting as a kind of bodyguard and scaring off all the other creatures. In the sequel the baton is passed to his daughter who shows similar skills by harnessing the power of moonlight and shadows. The not-so-hidden message here is that fortune favours the brave – as long as you are smart as well (and, in the case of The Gruffalo’s Child, that sometimes a little bit of adventuring is quite enough for one night).
Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler
This is kind-of the Inception of children’s picture books. Each character is shown enjoying a book, whereupon the characters in the book are also shown enjoying a book and it carries on until…it goes back to the start with Charlie Cook again. It’s really satisfying and as a bonus the books are not just story books but include a joke book and a recipe book as well. It’s not so much that it makes you feel smart, you just want to go “A-ha!” at the end when it arrives back at the beginning.
Gorilla by Anthony Browne
A deserved classic with plenty of smart visuals to spot (the repeated gorillas in places like the light switch and the cereal box) but also much more to ponder on. Does the toy actually change into a real gorilla, or is it all just a dream? How has Hannah’s Dad changed by the end of the story? Poor Hannah gets put through the wringer and the visual portrayals of loneliness are wretched, so a good one for an adult to read first to judge when a child is emotionally ready for it. Many of Anthony Browne’s books repay close reading, or re-visiting when you are a bit older. Another favourite of mine is Bear Goes to Town where you can have some fun guessing what Bear will do with his magic pencil next…or be terrified by the sinister guards he eventually out-wits.
All photographs taken by Barbara Thomas