Critical Thinking With Unreliable Picture Book Narrators

No Bears and This Is Not My Hat
Both book covers Candlewick Press

The other day on a library outreach visit, I brought a bag of bear books to a small preschool class. I told them it was a bag of bear books, but then I pulled out No Bears by Meg McKinlay. “This book, on the other hand, has NO bears,” I said. “Ella doesn’t like bear books, so she’s made sure there are no bears in her book.”

Of course, there’s a bear right on the cover, and that’s the point. The bear not only remains in the book throughout, it takes an active role in the story our narrator Ella is telling. Ella doesn’t—or refuses to?—notice, though. She continues to insist that there are no bears in her book.

The kids in preschool are taught over and over that they’re not supposed to talk or interrupt when someone else is talking. Then I come in and confuse everyone by often encouraging my audience to shout out unprompted, as long as it directly relates to the story we’re reading. This time I could see confusion in the eyes of the more obedient children as they watched a story unfold in direct opposition to the story I was telling in words. But a couple more impulsive kids shouted, “There’s a bear right THERE!”

Candlewick Press

I gave them an exaggerated calm-but-firm look, and said, “There are no bears in this book. Ella said so,” and continued to read. Gradually the kids started to grin, and more shouted out, “There’s the bear! Look at the bear!” I pretended not to know what they were talking about until we got to the end.

“You know?” I said. “I’m proud of you all for keeping your eyes open and paying attention. Even though you were told there were no bears, you stuck with what you could see was really true.”

It struck me what an important skill this is in a world where higher-ups—from politicians to ad executives to, yes, even sometimes parents—are always trying to convince you to believe what they want you to believe, regardless of the exact facts. And picture books are the perfect format for practicing such brain-strengthening exercises. Your brain has to reconcile input from two different sources. Sometimes it’s simple: the text and pictures tell the same story, one or the other adding something to the narrative that one source couldn’t do on its own, but there’s no cognitive dissonance. Other times the pictures make you work a little harder.

I used this example before in my post on wordless (or, in this case, nearly wordless) picture books, but look at Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins. The text is simple to the point of being boring. A chicken crosses the farmyard. But the pictures tell a much more complicated story. You realize the book isn’t actually about the oblivious Rosie, but the hapless fox chasing her and being thwarted at every pounce. There’s much more going on here than the text leads you to believe. You have to look closer.

Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins
Simon & Schuster

Or maybe what you see and what you hear are directly contradictory. Mo Willem’s Pigeon books already encourage their readers to talk back at them, but in Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late, and even more so in The Pigeon Needs a Bath, the reader can see the Pigeon isn’t being honest.

The Pigeon Needs a Bath by Mo Willems
Disney-Hyperion

The criteria for the Caldecott Award specify “Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept” and “Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood, or information through the pictures,” which you might think means the pictures should match the words. But sometimes the theme or concept is better expressed by pictures that don’t match the text exactly, but highlight the mistakes of the characters or narrator instead. Two Caldecott Medalists pop to mind immediately, awarded for having done just this. First, Peggy Rathman’s Officer Buckle and Gloria shows us a police dog who spices up her human partner’s safety presentations, unbeknownst to him. The text never outright states what Gloria is doing, highlighting Officer Buckle’s cluelessness. When he finally figures it out, again the text merely hints at what the pictures show in full.

Penguin Young Readers

The narrator of Jon Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat doesn’t even get a chance at redemption, maybe because it is an obnoxious little thief whose pride definitely comes before its fall. As the little fish rushes ahead in its gloating pride, the pictures hang back and let us watch its fall begin to unfold, as each bragging affirmation is contradicted, one by one.

Candlewick Press

Klassen’s illustrations are always good for a study of irony and contradiction, whether through the subtle facial expressions that expand the story of his latest, We Found a Hator the outright surprises in his collaboration with Mac Barnett, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. If ever there was a book with pictures that make you yell, “But…!” at the text, it’s that last.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole
Sam and Dave keep looking for something spectacular, but there’s nothing for them to find down here, is there? Candlewick Press.

Mac Barnett himself has a habit of teaming up with artists who will contradict his texts to humorous effect, perhaps none so directly as Adam Rex. Chloe and the Lion is nothing less than a battle between text and artwork, but even in the less-outright-confrontational How This Book Was Made, Rex skewers Barnett’s words.

How This Book Was Made
…or is Rex skewering himself? Disney-Hyperion.

I could easily devote this entire article to various combinations of Klassen/Barnett/Rex, but I should probably spread the love out a little more.

Like, I love sloths, but even if I didn’t I think I’d love the way the narrator of Sparky! by Jenny Offill insists her pet sloth really is far more exciting than he actually behaves.

On the other hand, David Wiesner’s Caldecott-winning Three Pigs take a far more active role in their own story, deviating far from what the original tale says happened.

A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever by Marla Frazee compares what the grownups think vs. what the kids think, which means it’s definitely full of laughs.

When I was searching for images for this article, I stumbled upon a review GeekDad Jonathan Liu had written of both No Bears AND Chloe and the Lion years ago. When I told him what I was doing with them now, he suggested, “Here’s another really great one: How to Be a Hero by Florence Parry Heide!” I haven’t seen this one yet, but I trust his judgment, so there’s another suggestion for you!

No matter how extreme—or not—the contradiction between words and pictures, reading a picture book is a good exercise in making sense of a narrative. In research, it’s always important to corroborate your information between more than one source. Picture books give you two different sources at once, helping you get the full story through comparing the two.