One of my PGCE tutors recently began her introduction to the world of children’s literature by spinning the saddest of yarns. She told the tale of a gift and a talent for reading, of being led at an early age away from the comfort of picture books and into a new world of…chapter books [Insert Thunderclap here]! Of growing up with pages upon pages of prose, with just a smattering of illustrative accompaniment. Of leaving behind the ‘childish’ world of picture books as she had grown out of such things.The reason I have been able to recall this story in such emotive detail is because it is also my own! I have grown up with a severe lack of nostalgia surrounding picture books due to being moved to more ‘age-appropriate’ texts from a very early age.
Now, both the tutor in question and I would be at pains to inform you that we loved the books we read growing up, but we would also point to this as the reason for our current ‘condition’. There can be no doubt about it: I am a PictFictAddict! Before I outline where I’m going to be heading with my future posts in this ‘series’, I thought I’d share just three reasons of many why, over twenty years late, I finally LOVE PicFic!
Ok maybe this seems pretty obvious, but one thing that picture fiction offers over your regular ‘chapter book’ is, of course, the artwork. There really is something for everyone here! Want instantly recognisable illustrations that complement the story? Look no further than the trademark creatures and landscapes of Axel Scheffler (I love the varied landscapes in The Snail and the Whale!), or the distinctive, charming jottings of Oliver Jeffers (Lost and Found anybody?). Want your pictures to add meaning or provide tension with (or blatant opposition to) the words? The hilarious ‘hat’ series of Jon Klassen awaits your perusal (I caused a stir in a lecture by declaring the latest offering, ‘We Found a Hat’ my favourite…)! But more than simple enjoyment, the skill of ‘reading’ and interpreting pictures is an incredibly valuable one for pupils of all ages. It is quite conceivable that in offering an illustration to a class of children, each will bring their own unique interpretation which can lead to fascinating conversations – conversations where the teacher and child come as equals to the discussion.
It is my own humble opinion that the person who says ‘I don’t like picture books’, makes as much sense as the person who says ‘I don’t like food’. There is such a massive range of genre, writing style, content matter, illustration technique, page layout etc. that there really is something here for everyone! From books to develop empathy (see ‘The Arrival’ or ‘The Matchbox Diary’), to stories with the simple, yet wonderful, aim of making us laugh (The ‘Pigeon’ series), to books which help children appreciate and enjoy rhyme and rhythm (I do love ‘The Highway Rat’!), there is a picture book to match any need or desire. And it is not just for children! One of my favourite picture book creators is Shaun Tan (that name will crop up regularly in future posts!). He wrote this in an essay about who he writes picture books for:
Picture books are synonymous with Children’s Literature. But is this is a necessary condition of the art form itself? Or is it just a cultural convention, more to do with existing expectations, marketing prejudices and literary discourse?
There is no doubt that picture books connect with and enthrall younger readers in a way some other kinds of texts do not. How many of us have taught or come into contact with the child who insists you read the same book over and over again? Working as a 1:1 in Reception I could retell ‘Peace at Last!’ from memory, and often did! However, to limit the picture book only to children under 7 (for example), is to downplay just how much picture books have to offer. I LOVE using picture books to teach children of all ages, but they also speak to me personally. The picture book really is a remarkably flexible form not just of literature but of art.
Ok, I’m going to finish with a practical but overlooked one here – you can finish it in one sitting! This may seem lazy, but how many of us, and by extension how many children, have decided against reading a book because we are put off by how time-consuming it would be to read it? Anyone with a passion for reading History books like me just gave a hearty ‘Amen!’, no doubt! In life and in school, time is precious and increasingly squeezed, and to be able to read a whole story in one sitting can be extremely satisfying. I do not mean to say that shorter books should, therefore, replace longer ones, but I think we are denying children something special when we tell them that from this point on they will be expected to only read books that require several sittings. It takes great skill to introduce, develop and resolve a narrative in just a few pages, and the re-read value of the best picture books is immense!
Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting short reviews of various picture books that pass my way, and offering my incredibly basic thoughts on why they are fantastic and how they might be used in class, over and above the obvious: enjoyment! I won’t be pushing these as hard as other posts I write as they will be fairly frequent (until placement kicks in with a vengeance…) and I don’t want to be a pest (I’m so British!)… so when they arrive please do share and add to my thoughts on them! And disagree with me if you are so inclined! I do not in any way claim to be an ‘expert’ on picture books, and certainly not the Children’s Literature ‘genre’ in general, but I do believe that knowing and enjoying them is so important for teachers as we seek to enthuse the next generation of readers. I hope that my reviews will help, as others’ recommendations have me!