Monday, October 1, 2012

Words and Pictures

Today in my Children's Literature course we began a two-week unit on picture books.  To give us a good body of texts to read together, without making my students buy even more books than the already huge number I had already ordered, I browsed online and chose a large, handsome anthology called The 20th Century Children's Picture Book Treasury: Celebrated Picture Stories to Read Aloud.  It contains dozens of classics like Make Way for Ducklings, Madeline, Curious George, Where the Wild Things Are, Millions of Cats, and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.  We would be all set!

But when the book arrived in the mail, I found it disappointing in certain respects.  While the first few picture books in the collection are reprinted exactly as published, with every spread present though miniaturized (with perhaps four spreads to a page), others had the full text but only selected illustrations from the original picture book.  And none of them looked or felt the way a real book feels.  Oh, well, I had already submitted the book order.  It was too late to change my mind now.

What I did instead was make a virtue of necessity and use the very shortcomings of the anthology as a teaching tool.  I went to the well-stocked children's room of the Putnam County Public Library and lugged home as many of the original picture books as I could find and carry.  Then I lugged them all to class today to launch our picture book unit.  I put the students into small groups and gave each group four different picture books to read aloud to one another.  They were instructed to compare the experience of interacting with the real book with the experience of interacting with the book in its anthology condensation, as well as to notice what it was like to experience the book aurally rather than in silent reading.

We had some great conversations together about how features such as trim size - the size and shape of the book - affect us, and whether a book is oriented horizontally or vertically - and the use of color (or lack thereof).  The students were struck by how much the pacing of a story was affected by the shift from real book to anthology presentation: they missed the page turns that require the reader to slow down and pause; they missed the way that each spread invited parents to offer commentary on the picture, pointing out features the child might otherwise miss.  We even talked about the change from the warm brown/sepia text and art of Make Way for Ducklings on the cream-colored pages of the real book to the black-and-white reproduction in the collection: so much less warm, losing so much of its self-consciously old-fashioned charm.

I think I would do this class the same way again, ordering the same treasury (which really does provide an amazing number of texts for the price) and doing the same comparison to remember why we love real books so much - and why, at least for the picture book set, e-books will never replace the pleasure of holding a child on your lap, turning pages together.


  1. Claudia, that sounds like an excellent lesson plan, with one exception: the inclusion of "Millions of Cats". In my opinion, this is one of the most horrible of all children's stories. It has a happy ending in which the old man and the old woman live happily together with their homely little cat. But at what cost!!?? A horrible cat holocaust in which trillions of cats murder and eat one another. Even though the cat holocaust is triggered by the foolishness of the Old Man, he and his wife take no steps to intervene or even show remorse.

    Should I believe that this holocaust is the just result of the trillions of cats' vanity? Is the one homely surviving cat the Noah's Ark of cats, ready to establish a new cat society free of vanity? Apparently not, because the Old Man and Old Woman end the story praising their new pet as being the most beautiful cat in the world.

  2. Great analysis of MILLIONS OF CAT, Scott! But remember that one of the purposes of my class is to get students to engage in just this kind of ethical analysis of a text - so now I plan to share your reading of the story with them to see how they respond. We're going to talking about the explicit message of a text as well as the messages that are conveyed to children in a way that the adult creators of the tale may not at all have intended. I think this is a great text for doing just that. :)

  3. I'm sorry to have implied that the lesson plan wasn't useful for teaching. I was only joking that "Millions of Cats" is so traumatizing, that it may be difficult for your students rationally analyze its ethics in the face of its horror.

  4. Scott, we spent half the class on it, inspired by your post, and we had a terrific discussion. :)