If you’ve spent much time reading to kids, you’ve probably noticed they like to hear the same books again and again. They take a real pleasure in knowing the story. Oddly, this is a pleasure that we adults sometimes forget, especially if it is a book we find a little tedious. But for kids, that knowledge is comforting. They know what is coming and enjoy the anticipation of it. They don’t mind being a little scared because they know it’s all going to work out. And they get to feel the fear, or bask in the warmth, or laugh at the jokes, over and over again.
I’ve heard this called re-readability, and though I think that is probably an awful word, the fact of it cannot be denied. One thing I learned from this repetition was how re-reading can deepen your understanding of a book, particularly the illustrations. Once you know what is going to happen, you can take your time and really look at what you’re seeing.
How does the image reflect the text?
How does it differ from it, or counter it?
And, more specifically, what might be going on in the illustration that is not part of the text at all?
These little second stories—or sideshows as I am calling them here—are usually comprised of some small detail: an extra character or a repeated object that appears multiple times throughout the book, and they tell you some other story than the one that appears in the text.
One of the first times I saw this was when my friend Steve pointed it out while he read Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann to his daughter. Steve is a gentle, generous guy, but not one to lavish praise on anything he doesn’t love. So, when he said, “Look at this, this is great,” I knew he meant it. What Steve showed me was the sideshow in Good Night, Gorilla.
Good Night, Gorilla is a fantastic book, and you probably already know it, but just in case you don’t, here’s the skinny: It’s nearly wordless, but SO full of sweet story. In it, a young gorilla steals the keys from a zookeeper who is putting all the animals to bed. As the zookeeper says goodnight to each one, the gorilla follows behind, unlocking their cages. The liberated animals, in turn, follow the gorilla to the next cage until the whole parade of them follow the zookeeper back to his house and try to go to sleep in his bedroom. Lovely.
But the second story, or the sideshow, has to do with a mouse, a balloon, and a banana.
In the first spread, we see the gorilla filching the keyring from the zookeeper. But we also see a mouse tugging on the string of the balloon, which is wrapped around the bars of the gorilla’s cage and tied, at one end, to a banana.
In the next spread, the gorilla has unlocked his cage and is free, but so is the balloon, which is gently floating out of frame. Meanwhile the mouse is cradling the banana and following the gorilla. Over the next five frames we watch that balloon get smaller and smaller as it moves up into the night sky, until about midway through the book, when we see it as just a pink speck next to the moon.
And all this time we’ve seen the mouse lug around this preposterously large banana, with, it seems, no intention of eating it.
On the last spread, after Gorrilla and Mouse have snuck back into zookeeper’s bed for a final goodnight, we see the banana for the last time, or, at least, the peel.
Who ate it? Gorilla? Mouse? Both?
I’m not sure for certain, but the fact that it’s gone marks the end of that little story, wrapped up just in time for the end of the book.
Now as I type this, I hear you saying, David, wait. That’s not a story. A balloon floats away? A mouse lugs a banana? Where’s the conflict? Where’s the all-important arc?
See, this is one of the great things about sideshows. They don’t necessarily need all that. They aren’t vying for our attention the way the first story is. Presumably, your book already has all that in the main story. The sideshow is just that: a little something extra happening on the side. It can be as simple as the balloon floats away.
One of the points of it, besides just pure fun for the illustrator, is that it gives the reader something else to look for. I can’t tell you how much delight my kid has taken over the years in pointing out how, page after page, the balloon gets smaller and smaller, or the mouse toddles around after the gorilla. It’s one more thing for readers to track as the story unfolds, and since it is kind of hidden, kids enjoy looking for hints of them in progressive spreads as the main story unspools.
Two other sweet little sideshows in Good Night, Gorilla are even less plot-dependent, but, to my mind, equally charming. First, the fact that the keys and the cages are color coded. Gorilla’s cage is orange. Fittingly, so is his key. The giraffe’s cage is green. Guess what color the key is?
The second is even more dear.
The animals all have little stuffed animals in their cages, and each stuffed animal corresponds to its owner. So the armadillo has a little stuffed armadillo and the lion’s cage has a tiny stuffed lion. Looking for the toy in each animal’s cage becomes one more of this book’s tiny sideshows.
What I am learning is to look for opportunities in my illustration to put these extra little playful moments to work, to figure out ways to make them appear on multiple pages so that they become something a kid can look for in addition to the main story. And I am learning that these sideshows can be very simple, unburdened by the need for dramatic plot or conflict.
The sideshow is like a secret hideout where your illustration goes to play.
Do you know of picture book titles that make use of sideshows?
Share them below. I’d love to make a big list!