If I had a Dinosaur, written by Gabby Dawnay and illustrated by Alex Barrow
If I had a Dinosaur grew out of a comical two-page story Alex drew for Okido magazine that we extended into a longer, rhyming tale for the book. It’s about a little girl who imagines what life would be like with the pet of her dreams. This is no ordinary pet but a humungous creature, ten times the size of an elephant – a titanasaur, no less – the biggest type of dinosaur ever discovered! (The inspiration came from watching Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur on BBC Earth.)
In a (large?) nutshell, it’s a small story about a big pet. A pet that just about fits inside the book. Not only was it fun to imagine people’s reactions to such a huge, unusual animal, but also to explore the everyday practicalities – and the little girl is nothing, if not practical. She considers transport, games, training and even adapting the family home for a dinosaur. What would she feed her pet and how would he get enough water? And there’s of course one, giant issue she’d definitely have to watch out for . . .
I love that Alex draws the girl as being so unflappable and self-possessed! And because the story is written in the first person, every child can put themselves in her shoes – she’s not such a ‘big’ character that it’s all about HER or even the dinosaur – it’s all about the reader’s experience – what would YOU do in the circumstances? (No surprise to learn then, that one of my favourite children’s books ever – as well as my own kids’ – is John Burningham’s Would you Rather…?)
And because we wanted to engage children in the story in a way that made them feel more like participants than observers, we also chose to use pictures instead of a few key words on the very first page to ‘draw’ (ha-ha!) them from the get go. So even kids who can’t yet read can join in reading! And we decided to leave the book’s ending open for discussion instead of rounding it off too neatly for the same reason. One of my favourite bits of writing a poem or story is seeing the illustrator’s take on it; what exciting, visual narratives and perspectives will Alex add? The relationship between the words and the pictures is possibly the most important aspect of books for young children – kids so often pick up on details, harmonies and dynamics that adults don’t even notice – and when they are perfectly in tune, something very magical happens.
The way Alex and I work together is relatively unusual; although I always write the words and Alex draws the pictures, the books have come about in lots of different ways. We often develop them through brainstorming ideas and sometimes we keep going like this throughout the process of making the book, a bit like fitting a jigsaw puzzle together, with all the different elements creating the whole. Sometimes the words lead the pictures and sometimes the pictures lead the words, but whatever way, it usually happens intuitively and spontaneously.
The crucial thing to both of us is that our stories and pictures will ignite children’s imaginations and take on a life outside the pages of the books. Which is why reading a bedtime story to children is so important. At the end of the day, when all work and play has finished, it is a chance to settle down for some quiet, precious time together, to share a story and have a moment’s pause for thought, for some small adventure from the safety of home and the pages of a book – to question and wonder, discover and unwind before a good night’s sleep full of dreams.
(Alex and Gabby have worked together on Okido magazine for over 8 years and have created four books together so far, with a fifth on the way.)