This Is Banjo Paterson
Tania McCartney explores the importance of dual narratives in children’s picture books
2 February 2017
Most good picture books have some kind of dual narrative going on, another story that's quite apart from the text. As visual narrative, illustrations should not be a direct reflection of the text—they should be so much more.
For a book like This Is Banjo Paterson, where young children are introduced to a topic that's not typical for their age, it was very important to get this visual narrative right.
A picture book illustrator is equally responsible for carrying the storyline and creating something new and nuanced from the text. A visual narrative lends depth, scope, emotion, humour, detail and so very much more, but most especially nuance. So much can be gleaned from a picture, which allows for vivid interpretation.
Illustrator Christina Booth is an expert at this.
When Christina and I created This Is Captain Cook, the first book in the series, I told her that I envisaged the book's characters being played by children. So, kids would take the roles of the real people from Captain Cook's life. She came up with the brilliant idea of setting the entire book as a school play.
This worked so very well, not only in terms of lots of extra 'happenings' along the way (including a well-meaning rampant chook!) but in terms of allowing modern children to more deeply connect with the story of Cook's life. His world, after all, is achingly removed from how children live today. Children need to relate to the characters in books, so they're drawn in and kept engaged. And the kids playing the roles in a school play certainly did that.
Similarly, Banjo Paterson's life is told in a backyard scene, with kids in full play swinging on the washing line, camping outside in a tent, picnicking on a blanket—things modern-day kids relate to. These elements allow kids to engage with a storyline that is set back in the Age of the Dinosaurs (at least, I'm sure that's how they'd see the late 1800s!).
The wonderful thing about working with Christina is that while I, as the author, can suggest how things might look (necessary in terms of accurately conveying the narrative, especially with historical books like this one), she takes those guidelines and expands on them in ways that surprise and delight me, not to mention our editors and eventual readers! That is one of her illustration roughs above.
When crafting the scenes for Banjo, Christina knew she needed settings that made the story shine but would resonate with the audience. ‘We went back to our childhoods, where playing dress-up and imaginative play happened in the backyard,' she said. ‘Where storytelling was practised and role playing was fun. Banjo was an outdoor kind of guy so it seemed to be a natural fit.'
When I mentioned the possibility of a backyard filled with horses, Christina considered horses in a paddock next door, but they would have just been ‘observers': ‘I always dreamed of owning a horse as a child,' she told me, ‘but alas, it was not to be, so we made our own horses—along with cubby houses made of boxes and branches, flying on the clothesline, playing under the hose, chatting with our neighbours. It was so Australian and that was the feel we wanted for this book. So, the homemade horses were born. Brooms, hobbyhorses, human horses!'
Christina also said she enjoyed placing backyard icons into the illustrations: ‘a Hills Hoist, a dog, a neighbour over the fence and the kids jumping fences to play with each other. A paddling pool, the hose. And what a delight to discover during my research that what we now call Totem Tennis was very popular in Banjo's time. Perfect!'
It's the little things that add visual dimension to a picture book and help children connect with story. What children see has an impact on what they enjoy, learn and retain—and picture books with images that are clever, entertaining, detailed and beautiful are the books kids will return to again and again. Kids get nuance, they really do. I love that This Is Banjo Paterson is resplendent with nuance, thanks to Christina's beautiful illustrations.
I also believe it's important to expose children to the lives of inspiring, uplifting, talented and memorable people. This Is Banjo Paterson brings to life the story of a remarkable man in a way that's accessible to even the very young. And a large part of that connection will be found in illustration—that divine visual narrative good picture books rely on.
I think we've achieved that with this book. Hopefully, Banjo would be proud.
This Is Banjo Paterson was released by NLA Publishing in February 2017