The Power of ‘Showing’ Stories

In June the 2022 YOTO Carnegie Greenaway Children’s Book award winners and readers’ choice were announced. The Carnegie winner was Katya Balen’s October, October, and the Greenaway readers’ choice was The Midnight Fair, a wordless picture ‘written’ by Gideon Sterer and illustrated by Mariachiara Di Giorgio. It is interesting to note that a wordless book does in fact have a writer. Someone who develops the concept and the story with a plot and characters. For story The Midnight Fair truly is. In it a group of woodland animals – bears, deer, badgers, squirrels, foxes, hedgehogs and more – watch from a forest as trucks head across a field to set up a carnival fair. Later that evening the animals, under cover of darkness, watch the lights and humans and activity until the humans leave and the fairground watchman turns off the power. Then the animals emerge from the shadows, climb through the fence, switch the lights back on and proceed to have a marvellous time. They ride the roller coaster, cruise on the swings, zip around in giant teacups. They scoff popcorn and candy floss, toss rings over static swans and win prizes like giant teddies and goldfish in bags. Facial expressions and body positioning indicate moments of real character and obvious movement. Although the animals copy human children/parent actions, they also display their own special ways. Three small characters walk arm in arm, stuck together by a pretzel. And a hedgehog waddles by with licorice allsorts and other sweets stuck to its quills. It is fascinating that a wordless picture book can communicate humour, movement, and passage of time as it does. Readers will have no problem understanding the story. In fact, a wordless book may invite more discussion and interaction between parents and young children. The Midnight Fair is a delight, and an example of the worth of wordless books.

By contrast, October, October is a literary book aimed at middle grade readers. Whilst young readers like those of The Midnight Fair, and older readers in their teens, have lots of choice when it comes to books, the middle grade age group does not. So, it is significant to see this book winning the award. The protagonist is 11-year-old October who lives with her father off the grid in a forest. That is until her father is rushed to hospital after an horrific accident. October must then go to live with her hated mother in London where there is little in the way of a natural environment. And she must attend school for the first time. The story weaves in several threads, many, though not all of which, are tied up at the end. The open-endedness of certain aspects is a theme of the book. A brave and perhaps unusual one for this age group, but one I feel is important. Because life simply is not a neat and tidy affair at any age. Apart from the characterisation and the multilayered yet easy-to-understand text, what I most appreciated about Balen’s writing was her careful attention to ‘show don’t tell’. Writing courses urge writers to craft stories using ‘show’ – actions, dialogue, body language – rather than ‘tell’ – wordy descriptions. Balen does this throughout, resulting in an immersive reading experience in which the reader lives the tale and enters the character’s head. To some degree, as a result, October’s experience with a wild owl, her befriending of a boy at school, forgiveness of her mother, grieving for her injured father, and more, are like The Midnight Fair’s evocation of a clear and emotive story.

These two books, obviously loved by young readers, will be appreciated by adults and writers of children’s book. A real pleasure.