The Watertower – suspense and belonging in a small town

The Watchtower cover

Published in 1994, The Watertower was written by Gary Crew and illustrated by Steven Woolman. The narrative follows an adventure by two boys, Spike and Bubba, who explore a watertower which overshadows the town of Preston. Whilst the boys share a youthful bond, they actively separate themselves from the town. Readers are unsettled by the shifting orientation of image and text on each opening which is accompanied by circular coloured tiles and sepia thumbnails of the incessant watertower. Not all picture books are suitable for a young audience …

Read the work of my current senior English class. Some paragraphs and ideas need further refinement. We used these questions to frame out thoughts on selected openings.

Analysing Picture Books


Symbols and rituals are shared experiences that help foster a sense of belonging among members of a group. The initial opening unusually contains publishing details as well as situating the story in Preston, but more specifically Shooters Hill. White lettering, THE WATERTOWER, takes prominence at the top of the page in stark contrast with the black border and background. A sense of neglect is created through the adjectives of ‘rusted … warped and leaking’ and reinforced by the dilapidated objects beneath the tower. Colours are soft – wispy white clouds and faded orange grass – blurring reality and causing readers to engage emotionally with the menacing environment.

intriguing? suspense? objectified? offers? personification? unconventional? foreground? background? low angle positioned as powerless? repeated circular symbol?


Belonging is shaped via relationships between people and places. In the second opening, we are drawn to the face of the foregrounded male figure. Reflecting the tower, his glasses invite us to follow his gaze across the streetscape. The central figure becomes important when we locate him at the end of the bench. Closely seated with uniformed workers, his slouched posture sets him apart and, significantly, he lacks the circular symbol which binds the community. The highly saturated illustrations, using realistic colours of orange, contrasting with a cool blue, take us to a typical rural setting.  Beneath the image, the white text begins with “One summer afternoon” offering an illusion of familiarity and comfort. The energetic protagonists are introduced – Spike Trotter and Bubba D’Angelo – and we recognise the two boys separating themselves from the townsfolk through their sense of adventure. Spike’s dialogue reveals his mother’s warning of danger, yet Bubba’s mother ‘couldn’t have cared less’ leaving us with lingering doubts. We are also introduced to the sepia toned thumbnail which reinforces the tower’s sinister presence.

dialogue reveals contrasting attitude of mothers and final line shows

from the eye’s perspective as if the tower is watching


An absence of any sense of belonging can generate feelings of isolation and disaffection. The opening reveals Bubba climbing up the watertower ladder, to exit through the hatch. The ghastly green and dispersed black portrays the felling of eeriness for the viewer. We empathise with Bubba due to being in danger. The naturalistic scene of Bubba climbing allows us to feel as though we are present with him. The reoccurring circular symbol is present within the ripples in the water that seem to stalk Bubba from below. Branching algae have the sinister armlike connotation as though they are trying to drag Bubba to them. The long-shot from below reinforces that Bubba is a small insignificant other within the tight-knit community. Bubba’s dialogue of “Where are you Spike?” portrays that Bubba is alone, and is struggling to belong. The light of the hatch has meanings of eventual acceptance, as long as he conquers each barrier he faces.

Through the use of various visual techniques, the illustrator engages the viewers, leaving them wanting more. Opening five shows Bubba climbing up the ladder after swimming within the murky water tank. An illuminating golden ring of light of the opening contrasts with the shadowy, atramentous insides of the tank. The eerie green colours are distributed within the image, amplifying a rank industrial feel from the pipes. Our point of view allows the audience to question whether they are indeed the monsters stalking Bubba, as our gaze is drawn upwards toward the ever-present spiral leading to the watchful watertower. An extraterrestrial tone appears as Bubba is scared of what lurks in the water the “eddied and swirled”.


Social isolation occurs due to a refusal to conform and is problematic in a small town. Opening eleven’s most salient feature is the man in the foreground, holding the pitch fork, who along with the rest of the townsfolk is staring in the direction of the watertower, shown in the window’s reflection. Our protagonist – Spike Trotter – is running in the opposite direction, ostracising and excluding himself. This action suggests running away in fear which is promoted by the words “it’s not safe here.” Lack of the watertower symbol on Spike, which is shown on all the townsfolk, demonstrates his detachment. The high modality and highly saturated image push the idea of realism, associated with children’s books yet the irregular shaped image and black border contrast to the white lettering and creates a sinister atmosphere which leaves the reader unsettled as it doesn’t match or expectations.


Throughout The Watertower, the story follows two boys, Spike Trotter and Bubba D’Angelo as they go for a swim. After Bubba loses his pants, Spike fetches some from his house. When he returns, Bubba is not the same. The picture book challenges a reader and compels them to look deeper. The reading style is interactive but could confuse, especially a child.

The image on page 13 demands. Despite the participants looking elsewhere, up at the watertower, it creates interest and mystery. We are placed in a subjective perspective as the people involved are at an intimate distance and the point of view is as if we are looking up at them. This could suggest we are small or weak, we don’t belong. The watertower symbol is repeated up to 5 times throughout the image; in the iris of two and again on the hats of two men. This binds the participants and signifies their belonging to some kind of group or cult.

The illustration is naturalistic because of the high colour saturation, high modality and the candid pose. However, the ‘creepy’ smiles on the participant’s faces, which is the most salient feature, could be unsettling to some. We begin by looking at the closest face of the woman, which is towards the left. Behind her, a satellite stretches over the whole left side of the page. After scanning the eerie expressions from left to right, the viewer would finish at the watertower in the reflection of a man’s sunglasses. This is the only clear indication of what is being looked at.

IMG_0941The final opening fails to re-assure us that there is a satisfying end to the narrative. Both boys appear confused and unsettled. Even though it would seem that Bubba has completed his adventure satisfactorily by shutting the hatch with a ‘thud’, the water ominously “eddied and swirled”.

Gary Crew

For more information on picture books, and alternative worksheets and questions, see my earlier blog comments on Fox and Voices in the Park.

8 responses to “The Watertower – suspense and belonging in a small town

    • Jacob, do you mean the final image? As written, this ending creates discomfort for the reader – but that is my reading. What are your thoughts? Which emotions does this evoke? Does it open up different ideas about how people may be constrained within their everyday lives?

  1. Hi multimodalme, do you have any understanding upon why Gary Crew wrote this book and how it relates to Australian culture?

    • When analysing or developing a critique for a specific text, the reason behind the author or composer’s work is not as important as your understanding of the use of different language features. The important themes of this text are universal, and understood by many, rather than being a feature of Australian culture.

    • The final opening in the book is the final image. I outline my thoughts about the ending in the lines that follow this image. It may be an interesting activity for students to draw another opening that ends the narrative – there would likely be a wide range of ideas captured as a suitable ‘ending’. This activity has worked well in the past with the picture book Fox that is suitable for middle year classes. The Watertower is a much darker tale, though.

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