When I first started to think about the back-of-book extension activities for Raccoon Retreat, I knew I wanted to do things differently from Raccoon Rescue. The glossary quiz and other activities were fun and a good way to engage kids in processing the story, but were very text-based. I wanted to come up with something that might engage readers who enjoy a more visual, interactive approach.
It wasn’t a big stretch to come up with the idea for a maze. (I mean, if I could code, or could afford to hire a developer, there’d be an app…) Raccoon Retreat is the story of a journey, and it made sense to incorporate details from the story as waypoints to help kids participate — even navigate the characters’ movements.
Illustrator Christian Barratt agreed, and we got to work!
Deciding on details
A few things factored into our decision-making:
- Audience age groups
- Book format and sizing
- Which story events to use
“A maze is made difficult and fun by how many wrong turns and red herrings there are, which is why complexity is always better, within limits, obviously,” Christian told me. So, while we initially had talked about a single two-page spread, we ultimately went with two!
This enabled Christian to add in “some good twists and turns and misdirects… winding tantalisingly closely past 4 images across one double page spread and 4 on the next… a little bit of ‘choose your own adventure’ page turning happening as you choose which maze track to follow between pages,” he said.
To accomplish this, Christian simplified the moments he’d already illustrated, making them recognizable without being overly complex given scale: “Almost as if it’s a cartoon version of the ‘real life’ captured in the book,” he said in an email. We ultimately settled on the following story elements:
- Falling tree – criss-crossing and winding branches
- Deforestation wasteland – the path between fallen debris and stumps
- Berry bushes – path through berry bushes and bug and berry distraction dead-ends
- River/fox encounter – path is across adjoined sandbars to avoid flowing river in gaps
- Owl attack – path between lots of fences and bushes
- Group feeding – path between animals and feeding bowls
- Kitchen – path through human legs, angry cats, and fallen brooms/appliances
- Reunion/shed – path through fallen house/tree debris
We also agreed to make the river and the dirt path literal maze elements. “It expands into this idea that I like, of breaking the maze into a kind of loose ‘map’ of the whole adventure,” Christian said.
“A replay of the story and all its drama, in maze form”
Part of our negotiation centered on the fact that I’m not particularly visual; I’m words-oriented, and it can be hard for me to conceptualize images in the abstract. My take on it was the difference, in a videogame, between having completed the main storyline and continuing on to an open-world journey that is less impactful but still immersive.
Christian concurred, but his take was that the mazes “represent those threats turned up to eleven, so that increase needs to be represented as [more] potential wrong turns in each maze.”
Further, by tying the maze much more closely to the storyline, he provides “… another way to see the same journey over again, not as a new journey or a further exploration of the world,” he explained — a kind of “search and nostalgia… the mental challenge of ‘spotting your favourite moments’ from the story,” he said. “It was like revisiting my favourite characters, after the big effort of reaching the end of the adventure.”
His point, though, was the drama of each moment, in particular demonstrating the story’s / series’ key theme: “…humans don’t realise the threat we pose to animals,” he told me, “so it’s important to remind the readers of this message in the supplementary materials.”
How it all worked out
Christian has done a great job encapsulating each event, and drills down into a raccoon’s-eye view of the kits’ journey. It’s a very visceral representation of how arduous this journey might be when you slow it down and look at each step rather than anticipating the next scene (as I tend to do as a reader).
One of my favorite maze aspects is the way Christian has made each event unique, where each maze segment has its own little goal, all leading to the ultimate ending. The way he’s used the artistic elements is really original, with some great variation in textures and patterns.
“I see each maze as a metaphorical representation of the kits’ journey through each story beat,” Christian explained. To that end, the stages aren’t contiguous, but still easy to follow. It lends a sense of jumbledness that I think the raccoons would feel in this brand-new home range, but they figure it out together.