Thursday, May 14, 2009

Key Themes in Children's Literature - Problem Solving

Many children love to solve problems. Children's authors are smart enough to work this out and tap into this interest as one of many ways to engage children with books. There are many forms of problem solving that authors have used. In this post I'll outline a few examples.

1. Solving mysteries by cracking codes or using deductive logic

This is one of my favourite forms of literature-based problem solving because in cracking codes, the reader is being invited to use varied problem solving skills. The contemporary master of this genre is Graeme Base. While some of his books also fit into some of the other categories that follow, my favourite examples are where he requires the reader to use language codes and deductive logic to work out an important part of the storyline. His latest wonderful example is 'Enigma: A magical Mystery'. In this multi-layered story Bertie Badger helps his grandpa (alias 'Gadzooks the Great') to solve the mystery of what has happened to his top hat, cape, wand and magic bunny rabbit, which have all been stolen. While at the narrative level, Bertie resolves the problem with a special new type of magic show with the delinquent rabbit; the reader is left to solve the mystery of what happened to all the objects throughout the story. Who stole them and where were they hidden? Only by cracking a code, using it to decipher a new language and searching the illustrations page by page, can the reader solve this additional layer to the mystery.

Another example of this genre is Graeme Base's 'Eleventh Hour: A curious Mystery'. When Horace turns eleven, he plans a birthday party at a grand house. He invites eleven friends and makes an eleven-course feast to be eaten at eleven o'clock, but only after playing eleven games. But when it's time to eat the feast, it has vanished. The reader is invited to turn back the pages, and look at each picture for clues to solve the mystery. Who is the guilty one?

2. Mathematical puzzles and problems

There are many examples of books that also use maths or basic physics to encourage engagement.

a) Counting puzzles - Some authors embed the need for repetitive counting as part of the book. Peter Pavey's wonderful book 'One Dragon's Dream' is typical. While it is essentially a counting book, on each page a new number is introduced. But by adding a mass of creative detail he encourages the reader to look closely at every page. The complexity of the objects increases from page to page with every item there in the quantity that corresponds to the number in focus.

One dragon had a dream
that two turkeys teased him
three tigers told him off
and four frogs seized him

Children love to enjoy the rhythym and language as they inspect each page to make sure that they can find, for example on the page for the number '4', each of the four frogs, four trees, four penguins, four bottles and so on.

b) Physics and logic - Other books encourage the reader to solve a basic physics problem. Pamela Allen invites her readers to consider why the water is flooding the floor in 'Mr Archimedes' Bath' as each animal hops into his bath. Mr Archimedes climbs in with a goat, a wombat and a kangaroo. In amazement he observes that the water continues to rise and eventually ends up on the floor.

"Can anyone tell me where all this water came from?"

And of course eventually, "Eureka!" he cracks the mystery. He exclaims with joy:

"We make the water go up."
Another wonderful example of this type of book is Rod Clements' 'Counting on Frank' in which Frank spends his life trying to solve problems to do with area and capacity. Frank speculates about many things. How many dogs identical to his own would it take to fill his room? How many of his Dad could he squeeze into a television? How long it would take to fill his entire bathroom at bath time? Frank one day puts these skills to a very practical use with a good outcome.

3. Solving a real life problems

Some stories simply encourage the reader to consider how to solve a practical problem. In Ronda and David Armitage's 'The Lighthouse keeper's Lunch', Mrs Grinling has a big problem. Each day as she sends her husband's lunch along a flying fox from her home to the lighthouse, some pesky seagulls steal the food that she has carefully packed. How will she keep them away?

That evening Mr and Mrs Grinling decided on a plan to baffle the seagulls.

"Tomorrow I shall tie the napkin to the basket," said Mrs Grinling.

Similarly in 'Alexander's Outing', Pamela Allen invites her readers to work out how Alexander (a duck) can be extracted from a hole that he falls down as he roams around the city. The solution? Just think about water and ducks. How would you get him out of the deep hole?

4. Spot the inconsistencies or hidden details

This is an even more basic form of problem solving. Sometimes it involves hunting for details, usually in the pictures (sometimes in the language). This in effect helps children to want to turn the page, to predict what will come next, to anticipate. These are foundational strategies for reading comprehension (see my post on comprehension here).

A good example is Janet and Allan Ahlberg's 'Each Peach Pear Plum'. The story works at multiple levels. There is a simple narrative line throughout that involves the reader going on a journey of discovery; a type of 'I Spy' adventure through a land of familiar nursery rhyme characters. The Ahlbergs have relied on children's knowledge of common rhymes and stories ('The Three Bears', 'Cinderella', 'Bye Baby Bunting' etc) and played with connections between the characters, rhymes and stories (a simple use of intertextuality). The book ends with everyone together at a picnic in the forest. The back cover blurb makes the intent of the book clear:
In this book
with your little eye
take a look
and play 'I spy'
Another variation is the quest for hidden details in a book. Probably the most famous example of this is Martin Handford's book 'Where's Wally?' (or 'Where's Waldo?' in the USA) that led to a series of books that have been popular for over 20 years. The books consist of a series of complex full-page illustrations with hundreds of tiny people doing many things. The aim in each book is to find Wally which is always difficult as he is well hidden. Wally always dresses in a red and white striped shirt and beanie (hat). He carries a wooden walking stick and wears glasses. Readers are also invited to find items that Wally loses in each scene, including his walking stick, backpack, binoculars, books, camping equipment and his shoes.

A different variation on this type involves the author/illustrator inserting things that don't make sense, that simply don't match reality. 'Wacky Wednesday' by Theo LeSeig (Dr. Seuss) is a classic example where on every page the young reader scans the page to find the crazy things that are happening. As they hunt for the next weird thing that are practising basic visual recognition skills as well as having heightened engagement to simply persist with the reading and to want to turn the page.

The benefit of these books

The great benefit of books that focus on problem solving or logic is that they offer another way to engage children with books. As well, they teach many language concepts, reinforce basic mathematics and science and encourage inquisitiveness and creativity. Teachers will find that books in this thematic area are wonderful springboards for other learning, including artistic expression, drama and writing. For example:

Children will love creating their own 'Where's Billy?' or 'Where's Skye?' books.
They will have fun creating their own 'Wacky Wednesday' (or Tuesday!) books.
The will spend hours working out Graeme Base's codes and then after decoding the examples in a book like 'Enigma: A magical Mystery' will enjoy creating their own code and writing secret messages.
They might like to come up with other solutions for Mrs Grinling to solve the problem of the seagulls.

There are endless possibilities that spring from books of this type. One final thing. Boys love these books so they offer yet one more way to heighten their interest in books and reading.

Related links

Remembering Literature on World Maths Day (here)

Previous posts on Key Themes in Children's Literature (here)


Eva M said...

Hi Trevor,
As a Senior Children's Librarian in California, your blog has been a source of great inspiration to me. And although these blog awards are a bit dorky, I just wanted you to know that I've given your blog a "One Lovely Blog" Award! It's for great blogs one has newly discovered. Here's the post -
Eva M.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Eve, always glad to hear that someone reads and likes my blog posts. Trevor

Anonymous said...

Genial post and this post helped me alot in my college assignement. Gratefulness you on your information.

Pam said...

I am an adjunct instructor at a local college, teaching Educational Psychology to Elementary Education majors. I love children's books, particularly picture books, and am looking for ways to introduce different concepts of ed.psych. using them. For example, a book on cause and effect of one's behavior to illustrate behaviorism and/or stimulus-response, etc.

Any ideas pop into your mind?


Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Pam, I assume that you are thinking of using these books with adults to demonstrate the concepts? Trevor

Pam said...

Yes, exactly. I am thinking of this as a way to teach a concept, while simultaneously taking the opportunity to add to their repertoire of children's literature in the process.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Pam,
Thanks for clarifying. I suspect there are many books that you could use. Off the top of my head I thought of Dr Seuss who explores many psychological concepts including identity in 'I Wish that I had Duck Feet', status and our desire for it in 'Sneetches', and human hostility and conflict and how it is situated in human selfishness in 'The Zax' 'belonging'. 'The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek' by Jenny Wagner also immediately came to mind because of its exploration of identity and belonging. And then there's Robert Ingpen's classic 'Idle Bear' that is a conversation between two bears about reality and how we understand it. My best advice is to spend some time in the kids section of a library and you'll find many books that explore or play with such concepts. Perhaps I could do a post on this at some stage. Thanks for your interest. Trevor

Pam said...

Trevor, these are great ideas, and a wonderful starting point. Yes, I shall sit down soon in the children's section of my local library and do just as you suggest.
I will continue following your blog. Hope you do post some more sometime on this general topic. Thank you ever so much!