Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Newsletter

Volume 2, Number 1. January 1997. Page 2.

Written by Carol Hurst. Edited by Rebecca Otis.

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Featured Subject: Picture Books in the Classroom, PreK-9

We'll all agree that picture books have an important role in every classroom. The wonderful combination of visual and textual story that picture books offer is a valuable literary experience. I use picture books to introduce themes or areas of study throughout the curriculum from the preschool level to high school.

Think about it. If you start a unit of study on conservation by reading aloud a novel like Jean George's Everglades, it's going to take about three weeks to get through it. Better to use that kind of experience for sustaining interest while the research is going on. If you start with a reading from the textbook, you'll seldom get them motivated for much. Movies and TV shows are all right, but they take us out of the print world for starters.

Begin with a picture book such as Dave Bouchard's The Elders Are Watching and you've touched the poet in their souls and made them think about the earth with which we've been entrusted. And, you've done that in about twelve minutes of enjoyable reading with gorgeous pictures. Furthermore, when you turn the kids loose to do their own investigations, some kids are going to have to go to simpler texts than others. By starting with a thin, non-threatening book, you've already validated the sources for all those less able readers.

So picture books are a treasure, but they do present their own particular set of problems, don't they? First of all there's the problem of how to physically share the book. If you stand up in front of a group of children to read the short text on the first page, you can't turn the page without hearing choruses of, "I can't see! Let me see!" You can stop and slowly walk around the room letting each child look at the picture but, by the time you get back up there and finally turn the page, the mood has been broken. Few kids can even remember what the story said so far.

Alternatively, if you flash the picture quickly while turning it from side to side, they may remember the text but nobody except the kids in the very front have a clue as to what the picture shows. Some teachers have developed the skill of turning themselves upside down so that they can read the text while simultaneously showing the pictures but this contortion is often ludicrous and hardly enjoyable for the teacher and may not be comfortable for viewers either. Reading the text while bent over the book means reading the print upside down and seldom does that make for fluency.

Cover Art

What's a teacher to do? If it's a book where appreciation necessitates viewing text and illustration together such as Where the Wild Things Are, I like to sit in a low chair and gather the children of any age on the floor as close to me as possible. Kindergarten kids are used to that setup but even for eighth graders, chairs just get in the way. Some teachers prefer a story circle but that's not really optimal for picture book sharing. I like them close and all facing the same way -- toward the book and toward me.

I let them look closely at the cover and make oral observations about what they see and think. You can carry the prediction thing too far but some predictions usually occur and we discuss them briefly. I can then read the text and turn the book over for them to quickly absorb the illustrations as we go without letting it take too long. If the book is really good, that brief viewing is still not enough and I encourage the kids to take longer careful looks after the first go-through. Often they see things I've missed and enrich future readings of it for me as well as others. They know that the book will be accessible for as long as they need it.

Many times, however, the text and illustrations can be viewed separately on the first encounter. Books by Chris Van Allsburg, for instance, fit this category. In those cases, I stand in front of the class and read the text as if there were no pictures. I tell the kids before I start that I first want to concentrate on the words in this book and that they'll get plenty of time to look carefully later. After the reading and discussion, individuals or small groups can look at the illustrations and reread the text.

Other times, I introduce a picture book without reading it aloud, just describing it briefly or telling the kids what attracts me to the book. Then I structure discussion groups to deal with it. Often, I've assembled ten or more picture books that effectively deal with different aspects of a theme, genre or subject.

Three children of any age and one picture book can be set up with these roles: one to concentrate on the text, reading it aloud; one to concentrate on the illustrations, pointing out details as the book is read and the third to point out what the other two miss. They make notes as they go and then move to a different picture book, sharing their observations when I call the class back together as a whole group. We enter their observations on charts for each book and then suggest that every child should revisit one of the picture books to better understand it. Many times kids who were not particularly thrilled by a book have missed some detail which was important and the whole group discussion brings it out. This activity has the added effect of teaching kids to make careful observations of a picture book and not whip through it unheeding its special contributions.

Author/illustrator studies of picture book creators can lead to observations about their techniques and styles, influences of other artists in the fine arts field as well as that of illustration, and discussions about topics, symbols and objects that recur in their work. Learning a bit about the author's life can sometimes help us understand his or her books better. I think it's always important to help the kids discover what the author is attempting to do in any book. What he or she wants us to understand or ponder is really the deepest level of a book -- theme, in a literary sense, if you will.

With older kids, it's sometimes possible to find a picture book that gets at things like genre, theme, climax, anti-climax, prologue, epilogue, passage of time and literary techniques such as flashback, foreshadowing, cliff-hangers, irony and satire which can be more difficult to identify in longer works. Where the Wild Things Are, for instance, is a fantasy which gives us pictorial foreshadowing. There's a drawing of a wild thing on the wall of the house before Max's adventure begins. It's a hint of the plot to come. The climax is right there in the wild rumpus. The anti-climax is clearly identifiable as Max finds himself back in his room with his supper waiting for him, still hot, which indicates that the whole adventure may have occurred in a moment or two, contrary to the earlier equation Max makes between time and distance.

Other books by Sendak and almost any work of Van Allsburg and Anthony Browne are good places to look for such subtleties and conventions.

A few other things to keep in mind when using picture books in the classroom:

  1. A picture book is usually a child's first introduction to art. We can't afford to make that introduction with mediocre or poorly conceived books. Make your choices carefully. Subject is not enough.
  2. Picture books can and should be brought into every curriculum area. You could look through your plan book for the next week and find a picture book to introduce or strengthen every single concept and subject on it.
  3. Any book is fragile. You can kill it or the enjoyment of it by reducing it to a ditto page or book report, forcing your interpretations down anybody's throat, or overusing it. Keep the touch a light one and you'll open doors as well as books.
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