A reference guide to different children’s books that can help you tell stories of your work.
Since January 2020 I’ve been developing a workshop that I first delivered at #UKGovCamp about telling stories using the well known children’s book The Tiger Who Came to Tea.
You can find out all about it here, as well as how to run the workshop yourself:
I’ve been in the very lucky position that something about this resonated with people, travelled further than I could have imagined, and that I’ve been given several opportunities to extend my thinking at other conferences: #SDinGov, UX Bristol, and Dorset Council’s Festival of the Future (and if you’d like to see how to run the workshop I’d recommend watching the latter; the link will take you to YouTube).
In these workshops I take people through the narrative arc, a story structure designed to tell stories of change, something we “digital” people often have to do. In it we move through the points in the arc as we read the story, covering:
- inciting incident
- rising action
- push back
One point in the arc that can be easily overlooked is the push back. This is how our hero responds to a crisis, and eventually overcomes it (or doesn’t!).
I’ve started to realise just how imperative this part is to my message about telling stories. It’s not necessarily the crisis that’s important, or who wins or loses, but the way in which the characters push back against what is difficult for them. How the characters overcome their problems (or at least try to). Because, when something in our work goes wrong we don’t just walk away and admit defeat, there is always more to do.
I’ve started to really play up this part in the workshops, calling attention to how Sophie and her mummy push back against their problems by having an open and honest conversation with daddy. Their problem is literally solved through one conversation.
This got me thinking, how might we use other children’s books to drive home different messages with the teams we are running the workshop for?
And so (after this long pre-amble) I bring you this children’s book library, to help you pick and choose the story that best meets your needs based on how the main character pushes back against adversity.
I’m very happy to receive more recommendations and grow this out so that it becomes a useful resource, so please comment below or find me on twitter and let me know what you think!
1. I’d like to help my team trust their experience and be bold when solving problems.
Easy peasy, you need The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson — #classic.
In it, the Mouse goes on a journey, foiling a number of predators by using his imagination to dream up a story about a made-up creature, the Gruffalo.
However the mouse eventually meets a crisis when he discovers that the Gruffalo is not only real but wants to eat him “on a slice of bread”. So he comes up with an audacious plan.
Key message: The mouse’s learns from his previous experience which gives him confidence, he knows it makes him well placed to beat the Gruffalo through being imaginative and bold.
2. I’d like to help members of my team to feel brave enough to take the initiative.
In The Snail and the Whale (also Julia Donaldson) a crisis occurs when the whale becomes beached in a bay. The snail has no choice but to be brave and journey on her own to get help — despite previously telling the whale how she feels “so small”.
By getting help she gets the Whale back in the water and safe. The snail is bold and brave.
Key message: Despite being small the snail is brave and takes a chance. Even though we are all individuals our contribution to solving problems matters.
3. I’d like to show how people with different skills can come together to be an effective team.
a. In The Go Away Bird (Julia Donaldson) the the main character reaches a crisis when a bigger bird comes to eat her. Thankfully her friends, all very different to her, come to her rescue and they work together to scare off the big brown bird.
You night use this if you’re a digital team working in central or local government trying to get traction with another team either in a policy or service area.
Key message: the Go Away Bird’s crisis is averted by having a strong network who she can rely on to pull together and solve problems as a team.
b. You could also try Sharing a Shell (yes, another Julia Donaldson book). In it a hermit crab, anemone and bristleworm team up so that they can live happily together in the rockpool. It’s not easy, they have a falling out because they don’t value one another’s contribution, but in adversity they realise that they are reliant on one another’s skills. It all turns out ok in the end.
Key message: we all have different skills and experience that can come together and compliment one another, understanding one another’s skills makes us a stronger team.
4. I’d like to help people understand that change takes time
I feel like, if you’re a digital person who has had to sell the value of your work into your organisation, Green Eggs and Ham (by Dr Seuss) will resonate with you.
Sam-I-am, the main character, tries and tries to convince the other (unnamed) character to try green eggs and ham. This includes describing a number of exciting scenarios that they could try it in, like in a cave or on a boat… with a goat.
The other character hasn’t tried green eggs and ham before but knows he doesn’t like it (sound familiar?)
Eventually Sam-I-am reaches a compromise that the other character will just try the green eggs and ham to see what they think. Turns out he likes them afterall — who knew?!
Key message: Sam-I-am is tenacious, offering up a range of options again and again that the other character could try.
[I mean maybe you could argue that this is coercion and that Sam-I-am wears him down against his will, but I would prefer to argue that he just bounces back from setbacks and ultimately ends up opening up the world for his friend — who can now eat green eggs and ham in a variety of scenarios that he may not have previously imagined.]
5. I’d like to help people to think about solving the right problems
One of my absolute favourite children’s books is Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise (by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Jean Jullien). The lead character, Hoot Owl, is hungry so uses a series of elaborate disguises to try and catch some prey to eat.
Unfortunately Hoot Owl is repeatedly unsuccessful, leading him to hunt down some delicious pizza instead.
Hoot Owl’s bluster and bravado when trying to catch his prey can be a useful way to demonstrate how sometimes our egos lead us to trying to bite off more than we could chew (or at least we would if we could just catch our food first).
Key message: The problem to be solved is not using an amazing disguise, dressing up to catch a prized meal, it’s that he’s hungry. By looking at user needs, not wants, we can see that the problem can be solved in a much more straightforward way.
6. I just want to double down on how important stories are.
The purpose of the Tiger Who Came to Tea workshop was to show how you need to find the magic in your story so that it resonates and carries between people. Its aim is to reinforce Bobette Busters message “Carry the Spark” and help people to see how their stories can inspire and encourage others.
So if you want to double down on this, I recommend Tiddler, The Story Telling Fish (by Julia Donaldson, again).
It’s basically The Boy Who Cried Wolf — but under the sea. Tiddler is always late to school because he makes up stories and tells them to his classmates. Nobody believes them and some people are disparaging but Little Johnny Dory likes the stories and tells them to his granny.
One day Tiddler gets into real trouble, but nobody is really that worried because he is always late, so nobody comes to look for him! Tiddler pushes against adversity when he hears some sardines telling one of his stories. The stories had been told again and again and passed between different sea creatures a shrimp, a whale, a herring, an eel, a lobster, a seal, a starfish and a place — who was told the story by Granny Dory — and takes him back to his classmates.
Key message: Stories resonate, they carry on and inspire people. Tiddler uses his imagination and his storytelling skills to solve his toughest problem. Working in the open and sharing our work helps people to understand and help us to solve problems.
Update 1/11/2020 —
Thanks to everyone who got back to me on Twitter with suggestions for stories. I’ve included them below.
Mr Bunny’s Chocolate Factory by Elys Dolan, recommended by Nail Vass.
If you want to have a conversation with your team about prioritisation and about pushing more work through a system rarely results in quality.
If you’re looking for a book about using the right tools for a job, then I highly recommend Stuck by Oliver Jeffers. In it, a young boy gets his kits stuck in a tree, so goes to get a ladder to get it out, unfortunately after throwing it up there, the ladder also gets stuck in the tree.
If you’re looking to help a team understand about trying a lot of things in alpha, I’d recommend The Mixed up Chameleon by Eric Carle.