There’s a Tiger in the Garden by Lizzy Stewart

“This is just ridiculous. Tigers live in the jungle. Not in the garden. And even though there are dragonflies the size of birds and plants that want to eat us, and you are a very grumpy polar bear, there is absolutely, definitely, one hundred per cent no…. TIGER.” (There’s a Tiger in the Garden, Lizzy Stewart, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2016)

Parents, grandparents, and carers of young children everywhere will nod knowingly at the conflict between Nora’s words – “There’s nothing to do here, Grandma” – on page one, and the imagery of toys, colouring pencils, and books scattered all around the room, clearly marking that there is indeed plenty of things to do!

It is a difficult task to find activities for children, find enough of them, and sustain their attention in an age of digital stimulus and immersive technologies. And even with drawing pencils in her hand and her favourite toys alongside her, Nora is bored and needs help to find entertainment.

The clever thing about this story is that Nora’s Grandma, does not offer to set her down with a new activity or to take her out somewhere, she instead plants an idea in her head, a rather unbelievable one, and challenges her to prove her wrong with only the power of her sight, feet, and imagination. I saw a tiger in the garden earlier, she tells her, and dragonflies the size of birds, plants that can eat you whole, and a grumpy polar bear.

Despite thinking that Grandma has gone mad, she takes up the task of hunting these things down in the garden, but even when she encounters the dragonflies, the plants, and the polar bear, her imagination can’t quite stretch to thinking that the tiger could be real too. She seems to accept the reality of dragonflies, the plants, and the polar bear, quite readily when she can see them with her own eyes for the first time, but when she does finally encounter the tiger, her first thought is to question it.

There is something different about a tiger, something special that can’t possibly be real in the context of her Grandma’s garden. But the tiger has an answer to that one – how do you know what is real? This is a philosophical question that even adults would struggle with, let alone children, but author, Lizzy Stewart, knows how to get around this problem.

A child is much more willing than an adult to accept the tiger’s rationale of ‘you just can’t tell’ but if you believe it to be real, and that thing believes in you too, then that is your shared reality. An adult, of course, will question their belief, think they are mad, dreaming, or hallucinating from a sickness etc… but a child is much more willing to believe in whatever it is that makes them happiest. And the tiger certainly makes Nora feel happy.

To help the imagination along, however, Stewart, employs a mixed approach to the balance between text and imagery; some pages have a number of sentences to each image, and some will have very few, and some pages have nothing but images to tell the tale, and it is the latter that depicts Nora’s imagination in full flow.

The scene where Nora’s toy is almost eaten by the plants is told entirely by pictures to show the reader you don’t need a narrative to imagination, you can just close your eyes and picture it into reality. The painterly quality of the images helps in this regard, however, as well as the hide-and-seek approach to identifying the tiger; we as readers know that the tiger is out there before Nora does, so we are willing him into reality more so than the lead character is in order to achieve the pay-off of him being eventually found.

Stewart also cleverly recognises that imagination always needs a bit of help, and keen-eyed readers will have spotted that on the first page of the story Nora’s immediate surroundings inside the house she finds so boring, consists of toys that include a polar bear, a plant that out-sizes a bird ornament, a drawing of a tiger that Nora has penned, and a large ginger cat playing on the mat. Mixed with a mind that needs a little push to imagine more exciting things, these objects become the dragonflies the size of birds, the plants that eat you whole, the grumpy polar bear, and the elusive tiger in the garden.

Once an imagination is ignited there is no going back, and so by the end of the story Nora becomes the one to allay her grandma’s doubts about the tiger – maybe it was just a big ginger cat? Not only is Nora satisfied that the tiger is out there, but she is now willing to push her imagination even further and suggest that their are mythical creatures out there too. Imagination needs just a small flame, Stewart suggests, and a child will do the rest, with nothing off limits, which captures the magic of childhood perfectly.

For children too young to read, the imagery provides plenty of opportunity to spot various objects, identify colours and call out ‘can see you the tiger yet?’. Repeat reading is a must to really appreciate the images to the maximum and to think of other things that could potentially be lurking in the garden!

Recommended for a reading age of five onward.

There’s a Tiger in the Garden, by Lizzy Stewart, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2016

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