A Contradictory Little Fish

This past weekend I had a fabulous time presenting at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators ‘Prairie Writer’s Day’ in Chicago on crafting an inspired picture book. We talked about what makes the picture book a unique art form, which is the interplay between words and pictures. The words and pictures should harmonize with each other, each serving a unique function.

This is Not My HatI used Jon Klassen’s brilliant little number ‘This is Not My Hat’ to show a use of the contradictory storytelling technique.  Contradictory storytelling is where the words and pictures say the opposite thing – there’s a contrast between what the character perceives and what the reader is seeing. This can build suspense, show irony, or create humor. This seems to be a less common way of telling a story, it’s certainly not fitting for most stories, but ‘This is Not My Hat’ was the perfect opportunity to utilize the technique.

The book is written from the point of view of a little fish who has stolen a hat from a big fish. He believes he will get away with it. The first two spreads echo the information that we’re given.

Spread 1: “This hat is not mine. I just stole it.” Picture: Little fish with little hat.
Spread 2: “I stole it from a big fish. He was asleep when I did it.” Picture: Big sleeping fish with no hat.

From this point forward, his dialogue begins to contradict the information we’re getting from the pictures:
Spread 3: “And he probably won’t wake up for a long time.” Picture: Big fish with eyes open.
Spread 4: “And even if he does wake up, he probably won’t notice that it’s gone.” Picture: We see the eyes of the big fish looking up to his missing hat.

We continue to see the big fish on the tails of the little fish, who is confidently scheming to get away with his thievery. It’s like we’re watching the horror movie scene with the girl walking into the dark basement where the killer is hiding. We can see what she can’t, which builds suspense. It also makes for an interactive reading experience, using humor that both the adult and child reading will love.

This technique for this story is important, because (SPOILER ALERT!) the punch line is that the little fish gets eaten by the big fish. In a story told traditionally, I’m pretty sure kids would be scarred for life watching a happy little fish swimming along, only to get suddenly swallowed by a large fish on the last page. Because it’s set up early on that this fish is increasingly wrong on each account, we know ahead of time that his declaration “I knew I was going to make it”, would show us a different result. Since we’re prepped for this and brought into the joke early on, the terrible outcome is funny, instead of tragic.

Writers and illustrators, consider trying the contradictory story/picture relationship to build suspense, add humor, or show irony in your picture book.

If you can think of other picture book titles utilizing this technique, I would love to hear about them in the comment section below!


Eliza Wheeler

Eliza Wheeler is the author-illustrator of MISS MAPLE’S SEEDS (Penguin), which debuted on the New York Times Best Seller list. She also illustrated Holly Black’s Newbery Honor winning novel DOLL BONES (Simon & Schuster), Pat Zietlow Miller’s picture book WHEREVER YOU GO (Little Brown), Mara Rockliff’s picture book THE GRUDGE KEEPER (Peachtree), and Tricia Springstubb's new middle grade series CODY (Candlewick). Eliza received the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Grand Prize Award for best portfolio at the 2011 SCBWI National Conference. Eliza is a northern Wisconsin native currently living with her husband in Los Angeles, California. See her work at www.wheelerstudio.com


  1. Eliza, I enjoyed your presentation last Saturday! Thanks for coming out to my neck of the woods. I’m off to the library to check out THIS IS NOT MY HAT . . . and I’ll hang around to read more picture books.

  2. Thank you, Eliza. Your posting and the postings from other illustrators are informative to me. I’ve always appreciated picture book illustrations and how they work with the words to strengthen the appeal of and complete the book. Postings such as yours but the spotlight on the thought and skill behind the illustrations.

  3. Eliza, I love irony created by juxtaposition! The PB Poor Doreen is an example of contradiction not between picture and text but between what the main character thinks is happening and what the narrator and reader know is happening. What are you thoughts on authors who are not also illustrators using the technique John Klassen employed in This Is Not My Hat?

    • Thanks Charlotte! Thanks for the suggestion. Our blogger, Jill Esbaum, also wrote about the voice in ‘Poor Doreen’, I can’t wait to go check it out.

      As for authors who are not also illustrators using this technique, this is where the use of art notes would be appropriate (and necessary). Art notes are usually placed in brackets like this:
      “And he probably won’t wake up for a long time.” [Illustration: Big fish with eyes open]

      Also mentioning that this is a contradictory text in your letter to the editor would be helpful when introducing your concept, so they aren’t confused going into it.

      This would

  4. Hey, Eliza! I love that kind of humor. Marla Frazee does it to hilarious effect in “A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever.”

  5. We loved, loved, LOVED having you at Prairie Writer’s and Illustrator’s Day, Eliza! I enjoy the contradictory humor in This Is Not My Hat, and it really resonates with kids.

  6. Me, too! And, as usual, a post has me thinking: Ooh, I want to try this myself!

  7. Yep! I want to try this, too. It is so immediately engaging! I’ll be watching for the other suggestions of contradictory books. Thanks, Eliza!

  8. Just working my way through blog posts that I missed during the end of year frenzy… I love this way of identifying the play between text and illustrations in this book.
    One of the things that I love about this stratgey’s use here is that on one level the book is very much about guilt and the rationalization that it can breed. Which is very familiar — both to kids and adults!
    The contradictions between illustration and text are so key to creating and conveying that dynamic, with the contradictions making it both powerful and funny.

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