Picture Book Writing and the Unreliable Narrator

I just finished reading Whobert Whover by Jason Gallaher, illustrated by Jess Pauwels.  I picked it up because an agent I’m scouting recommended it as a great picture book mystery.  Picture book mystery?  You bet.  And it is totally age appropriate.

Whobert Whover is a detective but he’s not the best at his job.  In fact, he keeps finding clues that he’s sure mean something but they don’t.  He’s an unreliable narrator.

Typically, we think of unreliable narrators in teen and adult books.  These are narrators who intentionally deceive the reader.

Whobert is certain that he is telling the truth but he is woefully mistaken.  Because of this, what he says is misleading.  A young reader who doesn’t look at the illustrations will be fooled.  A reader who does study the illustrations will be a step ahead of Whobert.

For example, Whobert sees Perry lying on the ground.  Perry doesn’t move when Whobert prods him so Whobert assumes Perry is dead.  Perry, a possum, is only playing dead as observant readers will note when they see his eyes follow Whobert across the page.  Whobert gets so excited that he molts.  When he finds his own feathers, he thinks they are a clue and accuses a duck of attacking Perry.

This goes on for one clue after another.  Whobert doesn’t mean to mislead anyone.  He’s confident that he is correct, but he is oh so wrong.

How else might a picture book character be unreliable?

  • Perhaps the characters misinterprets or misunderstands what is said ala Amelia Bedelia.
  • The character might also misremembers something that was said or get things in the wrong order like a game of telephone.
  • Perhaps the character only has part of the information needed to fully understand what is going on.
  • Or the character might have misread something.

A picture book character can be unreliable while doing their best to be just the opposite – no duplicity needed.  Of course, a small like to keep from getting into trouble?  That could blossom into something huge.