Gabby Dawnay & Alex Barrow discuss the joy and knowledge in children's picture books and striking the right balance between image and text.
‘Of all our joint projects, these are definitely the most fun to do,’ says children’s writer Gabby Dawnay of the picture books she has created with illustrator Alex Barrow. ‘We have total control of the imaginative process.’ If I had a Dinosaur, a delightfully escapist fable about a little girl who acquires a titanosaurus as a pet, was published earlier this year. It’s full of jokes, puzzles and mind-teasing curiosities, in both the text and illustrations, which stretch the reader’s imagination, and play with ideas of fantasy, imagination, and reality.
Yet there’s no shortage of illustrated children’s books about dinosaurs. What stands out here is not just the charm of the concept, but the seamless and organic integration of image and text in the way the story is told. This starts on the first page, where crucial words in the rhyme scheme are replaced with pictures. ‘It’s important for us to show how words and images work together, and give younger kids an opportunity to participate in the reading,’ explains Dawnay. ‘The book becomes more of a shared experience, or conversation.’
For younger readers, this is a charming story about a topic four year-olds find perennially fascinating. ‘I tried really hard to make it graphically strong, so that kids will go back to it,’ explains Alex Barrow. Children who can read, and discuss the story in more detail, will find, when they do go back, a wealth of intriguing details. There’s a dynamic relationship between the space occupied by text and image on the page throughout. ‘The dinosaur is pushing the text out of the book,’ points out Barrow, referring to several pages on which the narration curves around the looming shape of the huge creature, which is threatening to obliterate everything. ‘The text is all lines till the dinosaur appears, then the dinosaur curves the words round his body.’
‘The text only just fits – we’re playing with scale,’ adds Dawnay. ‘Scale is a huge theme. We’ve constantly got a cat there by the dinosaur, always outlining scale, with tiny plastic dinosaurs as well. She’s reading a book about dinosaurs.’ Sometimes the pet dinosaur is larger than the girl’s house; then he’s sitting on her parents’ sofa. ‘Kids can pick up on the scale, and discuss the reality of having a dinosaur.
The little girl is very practical, feeding and accommodating her pet. Kids really enjoy those details.’ One teaser was carefully planned. About half way through, there’s a page showing the huge pile of greens the little girl has to feed her dinosaur every day. Among the broccoli stalks is a single blue sock. We think nothing of it at the time, till we meet the little girl’s father few pages later, and he’s missing a sock.
‘It’s never the adults that spot inconsistencies,’ Barrow explains. ‘There is an idea we’ve both taken from [the magazine] Okido,’ Dawnay adds, ‘which is not to spoon-feed, and encourage the readers to question and engage. We’re deliberately not making everything super-obvious, so the children will talk.’ ‘We’re always thinking about how we can use the medium of a picture book to teach,’ explains Barrow. The story begins and ends with the little girl in bed, and there is, says Barrow, ‘a sense the whole book might be a dream. Perhaps the dinosaur is in the girl’s imagination.’
Surprisingly, such complex integration of text and image mostly arises spontaneously. Dawnay and Barrow have been working together for twelve years as part of the creative team on Okido, an arts and science magazine for children. ‘We did have several meetings about the missing sock,’ Dawnay admits. ‘Occasionally we’ll work from the same desk, physically getting the rhythm of the story: a strong beginning, and a good ending,’ says Barrow. ‘But otherwise it just works,’ says Dawnay. ‘I never say it’s not how I saw it, even though we’re layering words and images together. It’s exciting to see how it becomes something else.’ Magazine work, and the discipline it entails, is important preparation, says Barrow: ‘It means we’re not precious. We understand that not everything can fit.’ It doesn’t always work this well. ‘I have known projects where the illustrator wanted the text vanished to the corners of the page,’ Dawnay explains. ‘It was criticised in reviews. It’s a skill combining two. Both have to earn their place on the page. In the best picture books, the text and images are both essential’.