Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Place of Picture Books for Readers of All Ages

This is a revised version of a post that I wrote a couple of years ago but the message is still in need of repeating. I want to pick up on my previous comment that many parents move their children on from picture books far too quickly. Even many teachers encourage their children to 'move on' to chapter books almost as soon as they become proficient and fluent in reading. I've always felt that this was a bad idea, for a range of reasons, that all stem from four myths that drive this well-motivated error.

Myth 1 - 'Picture books are easier reading than chapter books'. While some are simple, they can have very complex vocabulary, syntax and visual images & devices.  For example, Nicki Greenberg's graphic novel adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' is in effect a print-based staging of Hamlet's struggles with truth, meaning, morality and action. She brings the play to life in a riot of colour and visual acrobatics that makes 'Hamlet' accessible to new teenage and adult readers. And the text of Maurice Sendak's 'Where the Wild Things Are' is a single sentence that is extremely complex, with a mix of embedded clauses, direct speech, unusual verbs and rich metaphor. Good picture books often use complex metaphors to develop themes, and the limitations of the number of words used requires the author to use language with an economy and power that many chapter books simply don't attain. The subtle use of image, word, page layout, colour and text layout variations can create sophisticated texts. Graphic novels and electronic picture books like 'The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore', which I've reviewed previously (here), are taking this to a completely new level.

Myth 2 - 'Illustrations make it easy for children to read and they reduce the need to read the words'. While illustrations do work in harmony with the words and can use 'stripped down' language that allows greater use of images, the interplay of illustration and words is often extremely complex, allowing the reader to discover new meaning each time they re-read the book, often over a period of many years.  So a child can read John Burningham's classic book 'Granpa' as a simple story about a little girl and her grandfather, but can revisit it years later and discover that it tells of the death of the little girl's Grandfather. And many adults may never see the underlying themes in children's books, like that of death in 'John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat'.

Myth 3 - 'Getting children reading longer texts earlier will maximise their reading growth'. Not necessarily! While having the chance to consolidate reading skills by reading lots of similar chapter books is good, pictures still have a place. In fact, pushing a child too quickly into long chapter books isn't necessarily best for young readers. At the point where readers 'take off' and want to read everything, to give them a series of books is satisfying for them and reinforces their knowledge of the world and knowledge of language. But this can offer less stimulation than good picture books and less challenge in terms of developing comprehension ability (see my post on 'Emerging Comprehension'). Picture books present multiple sign systems in one text. The parallel use of language, image and many other devices (e.g. colour and print layout), stimulates creativity and the imagination in ways that chapter books cannot. A book like Graeme Base's 'The Sign of the Seahorse' uses language, brilliant illustrations, a play text structure and other devices (including a map and hidden clues), to offer a complex text to be explored, read, enjoyed, 'worked out' and revisited many times.

Myth 4 - 'Picture books are just for children'. Not so! Pick up any Shaun Tan book and you might at first read think, "Wow, is this a book for adults?" 'Tales From Outer Suburbia', 'The Arrival', 'The Lost Thing', in fact any of his books, have a depth and richness that can 'stretch' and challenge any child or adult. My first reading of his more recent book, 'Rules of Summer', left me perplexed and with so many questions I had to read it again, and again to grasp the depth of this deceptively simple story about the relationship between two boys (one older and more dominant than the other). This is a story about rules and power with Tan's characteristic images prodding your imagination at every turn of the page. Like all quality picture books it can be entered by readers of all ages and leave them enriched in different ways.

While the majority of picture books are designed for readers under the age of 7 years, more and more are written for much wider readerships and the rapidly developing genre of the 'Graphic Novel' (see previous post here) because they allow the author to use word, image and other modes (including related audio, video and music) to create more complex tellings of the story the author has in mind.  For example, books like 'My Place' and 'Requiem for a Beast' and 'When the Wind Blows' were never meant just for children. In fact, Matt Ottley's book was actually meant for high school readers. The great thing about picture books is that children and adults can both enjoy them, sometimes separately, and sometimes together. The latter is an important way to grow in shared knowledge and understanding as well as a key vehicle for helping children to learn as we explore books with them.

So what do Picture books do for older readers?

Picture books communicate complex truths in relevant and economical ways - 'Harry and Hopper' by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Freya Blackwood helps readers of any age to have a light shone on the challenge of accepting and dealing with death so that life for those left behind can move on, even though death changes things in big ways.

Picture books offer special pathways to deal with deep emotional challenges and springboards for discussion - 'Dandelion' by Calvin Scott Davis (illustrated by Anthony Ishinjerro) allows the inner pain of bullying and the fears it brings, to be visited and opened for reflection and growth.

Picture books also enliven and reintroduce wonderful classic short stories - Oscar Wilde's 'The Selfish Giant' is made fresh and relevant again through the illustrated picture book of Ritva Voutila. This tale of forgiveness is enriched by Voutila's contribution. So too Ted Hughes classic 'The Iron Man' is enriched with the illustrations of Laura Carlin and the graphic and paper craft design. 

Picture books bring the power of image and graphic layout to words in ways that add layers of meaning that would take thousands of words to communicate - Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks work 'The Dream of the Thylacine' shows this with great power when Brooks surreal images of the now extinct Tasmanian Tiger have embedded within them grainy black and white photographs of the last miserable creature caged in a Tasmanian zoo in the 1930s.

Picture books can achieve things at times which the novel cannot - Irene Kobald & Freya Blackwood's brilliant picture book 'Two Blankets' manages to offer insights into the inner struggles of a girl who arrives from a war-torn nation to he strangeness of a new land. It is primarily through the metaphorical use of an object - a blanket - that the author and illustrator jointly communicate a significant story about the strangeness of language and place in a unique way.

Summing up

It is good to encourage younger children to progress to chapter books as they become proficient in reading, but we shouldn't simply discard picture books once they can do so.  The stimulation and challenge of the mixed media opportunities that picture books offer are very important for language stimulation and development as well as creativity and the enrichment of children's imaginations.

Picture books are important for children aged 0-12 years, so don't neglect them or discard them in a perhaps well-intentioned but misguided desire to improve your children as readers. Remember, books are foundational to language, writing, knowledge, thinking and creativity as well. They represent one of the best ways to offer children multimodal experiences with text.

I would love to hear of your own favourite examples that cross the ages.
Other reading

Previous post on 'Requiem for a Best' and graphic novels HERE

Previous post on 'Emergent Comprehension' HERE

All my posts on picture books HERE


katswhiskers (KatApel) said...

My teenage boys are great readers, devouring a rich range of genres... and sharing insightful observations as a result. But I often find a pile of picture books stacked beside the reading chair... or under their beds. And if I borrow picture books for myself, from the library, they are never where I left them. I love it!

Clio said...

One of the most powerful ways to evoke my children’s childhood is through the books that we shared. When I turn the pages of these books (which of course I’ve kept – for my grandchildren!) memories of what my children did, said, liked or felt come flooding back. When my son started at nursery, our routine consisted of him choosing one book to be read to him before I went off to work. He chose the same book every day for the first six months! Wondering what he was still getting out of the experience after the umpteenth reading, I came to understand that the appeal was that he knew exactly what was going to happen and that reading the same book brought a comforting sense of structure to the day. Fortunately, it was a great choice – Shhh! by Sally Grindley. This clever retelling of the Jack in the Beanstalk story has a child’s-eye perspective, flaps to lift and a surprise ending. He also loved the large-format, handwritten text and unusual layout of the wonderful Babar books. However, he couldn’t bear to look at the death of Babar’s mother, we would just skip that page.
My elder daughter had a prodigious memory and would object strongly if anyone tried to do the same with her favourite stories. Two books that we took on a holiday when she was two and read again and again come to mind. Beatrice and Vanessa by John Yeoman, and with lively illustrations by Quentin Blake, is a tale of two friends, a sheep and a goat, who feel their lives are boring and seek adventure. In the end, their wanderlust is satisfied and they decide that home and the familiar has much to commend it. The other was Yellow and Pink by William Steig, a fantastic picture book that engages with big questions about creation and evolution in a way that is stimulating for children and adults.