Teachers’ Notes for Crocodile River
reproduced by kind permission of Janet McLean, and by Jane Covernton, publisher, Working Title Press
By Janet McLean
Title: Crocodile River
Author: Diana Lawrenson
Illustrator: Danny Snell
From the age of seven Diana Lawrenson found she could supplement her pocket money by having items published on the children’s page of a Melbourne newspaper. Strangely, when she left school, a writing career never occurred to her. Instead she trained as a nurse and midwife. She worked at a remote hospital in the Solomon Islands where she wrote letters by Tilley lamp whenever the generator failed – which it often did for months at a time. Later she took positions in London, but gave up nursing shortly before her children were born. When they were small she began writing for magazines and newspapers, but it was not until her son and daughter had grown up that her first book was published. Most mornings Diana walks before breakfast to think about developments or fix problems in whatever book she’s working on. She is the author of a number of non-fiction titles, including It’s True! Your Bones are Stronger than Concrete and It’s True! Your Hair Grows 15 Kilometres a Year as well as two picture books Pickle, the Perfectly Awful Pig and Paraphernalia’s Present. She lives in Melbourne with her husband.
Danny Snell grew up in Adelaide, and trained at the Central School of Art and the University of South Australia before graduating with a Bachelor of Design (Illustration) in 1992. His first major picture book Whose Tail Is That?, written by Christine Nicholls, was shortlisted the following year for the Children’s Book Council’s Crichton Award for first time children’s book illustrators. His second book, the best selling Bilby Moon written by Margaret Spurling, was nominated as a Notable Book for 2001 and shortlisted for the 2001 Kids Own Australian Literature Award (KOALA). Since then he has illustrated as well as The Long Way Home by Emily Rodda, Scary Bear by Tania Cox and Seadragon Sea, also written by Margaret Spurling. He lives in Adelaide with his partner Louise and his two daughters, Leilani and Daisy.
Mature saltwater crocodile, East Alligator River, Northern Territory
Crocodile Riveris the story of a saltwater crocodile named Cranky and her struggle to survive and to grow big enough to find a safe place of her own to live. One day when Cranky and her brothers and sisters are big enough their mother leaves them to look after themselves. As Cranky searches for a new place to live she must catch her own food, make sure she doesn’t get too cold, hide from other crocodiles and hunters, and not get lost. At last, after an eventful journey she finds a perfect place to live where, one day, she will lay her own eggs.
Crocodile River has a sequential narrative structure – establishing the setting, introducing the main character, setting up a problem to be solved, and concluding with a satisfying resolution. From the start Cranky is faced with a series of problems that threaten her survival. The tension of the story is heightened when Cranky must survive on her own. This is a turning point in the story. From here on Cranky is faced with many problems – finding her own food, avoiding other crocodiles, hiding from hunters, being lost in the ocean. Another turning point occurs when Cranky finally overcomes all of these hurdles and reaches her own safe place. The use of expressive words and phrases, and poetic language create strong “word pictures” which heighten the tension and emotional impact of the story “Mother Crocodile scooped the hatchlings into her mouth…” “She lunged at the sea eagles swooping from the sky for snacks.” “(Cranky) swam off by herself along the wide and murky river”. “She swallowed snakes. She gulped goannas”.
The crocodile facts on the endpapers are a delightful feature of Crocodile River.
Crocodile River posed a few challenges for Danny Snell, most notably being how to make the crocodiles ‘likable’ because by nature they aren’t cute and cuddly creatures. He says “I wanted the mother croc to have a certain softness as she cared for her young – gently carrying them in her mouth and watching over them as they explored. And the babies needed to be accessible and cute without becoming a caricature”.
Danny Snell used acrylic paint on watercolour paper for the illustrations in Crocodile River. The design of the book alternates between focused events on a single page, and broad sweep double page spreads which bleed from the edges. The illustrations on the single pages give a more intimate understanding of the characters and of specific incidents. For example the picture on first page succinctly captures the mother crocodile’s protective instinct – within the ragged edge of the enclosed, earthy background, she curls around her eggs to keep them safe. By contrast the following double page spread provides a broad landscape view, placing the crocodile in a lush and potentially dangerous setting. Danny Snell uses colours that evoke the land, sky and water of tropical northern Australia – varying dark and light shades of blues, greens, pinks, ochres. The illustrations capture the drama of the Cranky’s quest for safety – pictures of Cranky looking for her own food, hiding in the mangroves, fleeing from other crocodiles. Cranky’s confrontation with the huge crocodile in the dark water at the bottom of the river is particularly dramatic. And the broad sweep and lightness of the next illustration (also a double page spread) provides a sense of relief and hope.
DISCUSSION POINTS AND ACTIVITIES
Crocodile River is a story about a saltwater crocodile. Diana Lawrenson says: “The story was inspired by my uncle who lived for sixty years in the remote Gulf District of Papua New Guinea. When I was a small girl in suburban Melbourne, he came south on leave and told me how he hunted saltwater crocodiles. He conjured images of being aboard his boat at night, cruising along murky, tropical rivers, searching for crocs. That sense of danger and excitement returns whenever I think of him”.
- Diana Lawrenson visited crocodile farms and used books and the Internet to research saltwater crocodiles. You can use these methods too. Look for more stories about crocodiles, told by people who have first hand experiences.
She travelled to the Northern Territory to see crocodiles in their natural habitat. In the Northern Territory there are a number of places that are home to saltwater crocodiles, including Yellow Water in Kakadu National Park, the Adelaide River and the East Alligator River. Find out where you can go to see crocodiles and visit if you can.
- Find out more about crocodile hunting. Is it different now than in the past?
- In the early 1970s saltwater crocodiles became a protected species in Australia and crocodile farms were established. Why did crocodiles become protected?
- Find out more about crocodile farming. Where are crocodile farms situated? What would you see on a crocodile farm? Why are the crocodiles farmed?
- While doing research for this story Diana Lawrenson discovered many interesting facts about crocodiles. She could not weave everything into her story. She says, “So rather than include a plain page of crocodile facts at the end, my publisher came up with the idea of placing them in colourful combination on the end-papers”.
- Using information you have found out from the book make posters or friezes about crocodiles. Different posters could include information about eggs, hatchlings, nests, habitat, eating habits, physical characteristics, dangers.
- Illustrate the posters / friezes using the style and colour palette of Danny Snell’s pictures.
- Before starting the final drawings for the book Danny Snell gathered as muchreference material as he could, including a couple of trips to the zoo, to drawing lots of crocodiles and gradually teasing out aspects of their character – working out how to make them look happy, sad, angry, nurturing etc.
- Follow this same process – find out as much as you can about crocodiles – facial and body features, shape, etc. Like Danny Snell make lots of rough sketches. Concentrate on depicting body language and facial expression that shows anger, sadness, happiness, nurturing, etc.
- When you are happy with a character lightly trace the image on to some good paper andthen, as Danny Snell does, add further detail and tone with a pencil and watered down paint. Finally add colour to refine the image.
- Draw expressive pictures of hatchlings and adult crocodiles depicting them in different situations – at rest, lunging for prey to eat, fleeing danger
- Crocodiles do not cry tears of sadness, but they do produce tears which are thought to clean their eyes. Talk about why pretend tears are called crocodile tears.
- Mature saltwater crocodile, East Alligator River, Northern TerritoryLook for other stories, poems and songs about crocodiles. Examples include Lewis Carroll’s How doth the little crocodile? and, If you should meet a crocodile; Look at the terrible crocodile; Please Mr. Crocodile can we cross the water? Many of these can be played as group action songs or finger games.
- Lotus lily KakaduWhen Diana Lawrenson was working as a nurse in the Solomon Islands, she wrote letters by a Tilley lamp, whenever the generator failed. Find out: Where are the Solomon Islands? What is a Tilley lamp? What is a generator?
- Diana Lawrenson had two crocodile experts, Dr Adam Britton and Dr Simon Stirrat, confirm the material she wanted to include. Dr Adam Britton’s website about crocodiles: www.crocodilian.com
All photographs accompanying Teachers’ Notes for Crocodile River ©Diana Lawrenson