There’s something magical about picture book time and the bond it creates between storyteller and listener. As parents, librarians, and teachers share language and illustrations with children, they introduce the essential elements of story while listeners learn that words on a page have meaning. Together, they marvel over the art, whether lushly painted or rendered in simple lines. But what might children discover if encouraged to take an even closer look at a picture book’s visual components? In Reading Picture Books With Children: How to Shake Up Storytime and Get Kids Talking About What They See (Charlesbridge, 2015), Megan Dowd Lambert demonstrates how the very young can engage in sophisticated discussions about design elements that add meaning to text. Using her “Whole Book Approach,” “a co-constructive (interactive) storytime model centered on the picture book as a visual art form,” developed during her tenure as an educator at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Lambert applies Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) throughout her story sessions to support critical thinking and inquiry skills. The author shares more about this approach with School Library Journal.
With the Whole Book Approach, storytime is a cooperative adventure between reader and listener that joins dialogic reading with Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). Can you talk about the techniques and what brought them together for you?
I first learned about VTS in 2001 from the founding director of The Carle, Nick Clark. I was finishing my graduate work in children’s literature at Simmons College with an independent study project at The Carle where I was able to assist the museum staff as it developed its Reading Library collection and drum up interest about it with local educators, families, and libraries. Nick told me about his plan to implement VTS in the museum’s programs and materials, and I was intrigued.
I liked how VTS took an inquiry-based approach by turning the typical museum tour on its head: instead of having a guide tell a group about a picture, the docent asks the group open-ended questions to invite them to make meaning of what they see. I started rethinking how I was leading storytime. Instead of structuring it around a theme, I wanted to frame it around a range of picture books and to use VTS questions and techniques to invite children to critically engage with the picture book as a visual art form. I started asking kids to reflect on endpapers, layout, why some pictures cross the gutter and some don’t. It was very exciting!
When I started travelling farther afield on behalf of The Carle, teachers and librarians began asking for professional development on the topic. One librarian said that what I was doing reminded her of the Public Library Association and the Association of Library Services to Children’s use of dialogic reading in their (then brand-new) Every Child Ready to Read® @ your library® initiative. Some describe dialogic reading as “Hear and Say” reading because it asks children to respond to texts as they are read aloud. I realized that the storytime model I was developing might be thought of as “see, hear, and say” reading because I was integrating a focus on the visual elements while inviting kids to make meaning of all they saw and heard.
One of the elements kids can immediately identify is the physical size and shape of a picture book. You wrote about a four-year-old who explained the portrait orientation of Madeline by saying, “That book is so tall because of the…heightful tower!”
Yes! That’s a favorite anecdote in the book. I remember that day very clearly, in part because the museum’s director was giving some donors a tour, and they stopped in at the story program and saw this remarkable child in action. I promised them afterward that he wasn’t a plant! The little boy couldn’t find the right name for the Eifel Tower, but we knew exactly what he was talking about and we all smiled as we witnessed his creative, critical thinking in action.
Layout is a design element that very young children can engage with. I had a toddler look at Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and hunch his shoulders up and down like he was inching along from left to right across the landscape orientation of the book. I’ve had kids look at Christopher Myers’s Wings (Scholastic, 2000) and describe how the book needs a portrait format to accommodate the tall buildings of the urban setting and to emphasize the flight of the winged protagonist.
You also tell a story about Mo Willems’s Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale (Hyperion, 20014). A child seeing Trixie waving her arms in distress after Knuffle Bunny goes missing asked, “Why does she have so many arms?”
In this case the child was confused about Willems’s use of a comic convention to show movement. Voicing confusion is just as important as moments of clarity and insight. After all, how well can a child attend to the story if she’s hung up on why a character has suddenly sprouted new appendages? That day I turned the question over to the group and another child explained that Trixie was just waving her arms around while having a fit.
Yes, you mention in your book that when there’s a question during a reading, you “steer the quandary back to the group.” What happens when you use that strategy?
I often think about how much power we adults have over children’s lives and learning, and I like to try to give some of that power to kids so that they can engage with books on their own terms.
Ideally what happens is what I described happening with Knuffle Bunny. This part of the approach is rooted in VTS and its efforts to let a group build meaning from a work of art instead of having an adult hand down an authoritative reading. Sometimes, a group doesn’t immediately correct an aberrant reading, and I might then step in to ask more about what they see. Asking more questions usually provokes deeper reading, and deeper reading provokes new insights. But I’m not troubled if a group doesn’t get to the reading I might have in mind, or even one that the illustrator may have had in mind. I believe that meaning exists not in artistic or authorial intent, nor in art or text, but in the space between the reader and the image or the text. This opens up art and texts to multiple, and perhaps contradictory, meanings since we all bring our own life experiences and knowledge to bear upon a text or a work of art.
You compare the book jacket to “a coming-attraction poster hanging outside the theater.” How do you encourage children to talk about cover art and why is that important?
I quote illustrator Will Hillenbrand who calls the picture book “the theater of the lap” and extend this metaphor to the book jacket as a “coming-attraction poster,” and the endpapers as a “visual overture.” A good picture book jacket should have a posterlike quality that attracts attention and provides some information to viewers without giving away too much. I often open a storytime by getting kids to talk about the jacket art. This allows them to speculate about the story before it begins. I don’t want to impose my own reading, thematic or otherwise, on kids; instead I want to engage them by prompting them to make emotional and cognitive investment in the experience of looking at art and talking about it. This creates what the founding Curator of Education at The Carle, Rosemary Agoglia, called “leaning in moments” of engagement and anticipation.
I recently read Kevin Henkes’s Waiting (HarperCollins, 2015) at The Carle after talking about the jacket, which features a group of small toys on the front and a single toy cat on the back. The cat doesn’t reappear until several pages into the book, and when it did a child exclaimed, “I was waiting for that cat!” (I write more about this on The Horn Book’s Calling Caldecott blog.)
I was impressed by the playfulness of the Whole Book Approach. For example, when exploring typography, you write about “deliberately resisting” the loud voice of a character represented in bold type by whispering instead. Simple but effective.
Very much so! People often talk about doing voices for characters in order to deliver entertaining readings, and I like to do that, too, but this is a technique that I’ve found very effective in getting kids to think about how typography evokes voice.
The key to keeping things playful is to keep children and their responses at the center of your program. In my book I quote DC librarian Wendy Lukehart, who described looking at art as cognitive play. I just love that idea. We can think of the picture book as a playground, as a meeting space where children and adults can come together to talk about art, stories, design, and anything and everything that they provoke in our hearts and minds.
While reading your book, I immediately began to look at old favorites in new ways. Any words of advice for teachers or librarians who want to give the Whole Book Approach a try? The book includes a resources section with practical tips for leading WBA storytimes, sample questions, a glossary, and suggestions for further reading. For now, here are a few concrete ways to start incorporating WBA into shared reading:
Use VTS-inspired questions to read a picture book image—perhaps the jacket, or maybe an interior spread: What do you see happening in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that? What else can we find?
Begin with the endpapers! Endpapers often give us clues about the art. Even asking why the endpapers are a certain color can provoke connections to jacket art. I often ask kids, “Can you make a color match?” between the color of the endpapers and the jacket art. In my own picture book, A Crow of His Own (Charlesbridge, 2015), illustrated by David Hyde Costello, the endpapers are the dark green shade of the protagonist rooster’s tail feathers. This trains the eye to look for that color on interior spreads so that the reader can always find Clyde.
But most of all, keep it fun and tell kids that you need their help to talk about art and design. Let them know that you want their responses as part of the reading and that they don’t feel like they have to wait until the end of a book to speak up. Then just dive in—and please be in touch on my website www.megandowdlambert.com or on Twitter @MDowdLambert to share your Whole Book Approach stories with me.
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