An Exercise in Futility

Welcome to my 1st grade classroom library.

Welcome to my 1st grade classroom library.

As a ten-year veteran teacher, you’d think that my classroom library would have reached some semblance of order amongst the controlled chaos of teaching first graders. But, alas, it is like grasping at straws. I’ve never counted the picture books; however, I estimate there are between too many and not enough.  Perhaps I’ve spent the GDP of some poor nation-state over the course of a decade as I seek to provide my readers with a vast selection of picture books from which to choose. Regardless, seeing a reluctant or at-risk reader happen upon a picture book of interest and pore over its pages during self-selected reading is an immensely fulfilling moment. Maintaining such a voluminous classroom library raises questions about organization, access, space, and upkeep. Here are the stats that provide insight into a 1st grade classroom library:

  • Estimated total picture-books: 2,500-3,000
  • Number of tubs: 78
  • Number of Bookshelves: 5
  • Number of wire book racks: 2
  • Number of books inaccessible to students: 110
  • Leveling: Fountas & Pinnell and Rigby PM
  • Experiencing a child reader enjoy a self-selected picture book title: Priceless

The Boy and The Airplane

Dust jacket cover. 2013.

Dust jacket cover.*

If I could relive the rich conversation in today’s read aloud even once in the remainder of my teaching career, I’d be a happy. Quick rewind. A few weeks ago, I discovered a newly published wordless picture book title while scouring the shelves of my local (independent) children’s bookstore, Hooray For Books! in Alexandria, VA. From the seemingly innocuous sepia-toned dust jacket that resembles brown paper wrapping, to the spare brown ink and dark red drawings on a background of muted beiges and grays, A Boy and The Airplane by Mark Pett may be understated in its appearance but it relays a powerful visual narrative. It is a must-read for all primary classrooms.

Ripe with opportunity to prompt child-initiated responses, this wordless picture book’s sequence of illustrations enables a reader to construct and negotiate meaning and to interpret the visual narrative.  Differing from traditional picture books that rely upon the codependent relationship of the text and words to convey meaning, wordless picture books, generally speaking, rely on the sequence of illustrations to delineate the narrative.  Concomitantly, it would seem that in traditional picture books words deliver the temporal nature of the narrative and the pictures address the spatial nature. Although theorists suggest that words and pictures yield both types of information.  Thus, the illustrations in A Boy and The Airplane are solely tasked with the integration of time and space.  Pett succeeds in conveying this temporal and spatial sequence in the visual narrative.

Permit me to provide a brief interpretive summary of this narrative. In the beginning of the story, a nameless boy receives a boxed gift from an unknown sender.  In the verso (left) of the opening double spread, a leg in movement indicates an unidentifiable person walking away upon delivering a gift of an airplane to the boy featured in the recto (right). The boy’s love of this airplane is apparent as multiple pages are dedicated to his play.  The problem arises when the airplane lands on a roof.  Trying a ladder, lasso, baseball, pogo stick, and fireman’s hose, the boy fails to successfully retrieve his airplane.  Saddened, the boy laments under a tree when a seed falls in his lap.  This seed spawns a novel idea of retrieval. He plants it and patiently awaits for the seed to grow. An initial change of seasons signifies the boy’s initial patience awaiting his plan to come to fruition.  Years pass, as is evident by the increasing physical maturity of the boy who stands before the growing tree. Alas, as an old man donning a white beard, the tree is tall enough to reach the roof (that has also weathered with time).  The old man finally retrieves his by beloved airplane from his childhood and begins to play with it just like the little boy he once was.  But he stops. He re-gifts it for a little girl in the final verso double spread and is seen walking away in the recto. The inclusion of a little bird alongside the boy aides in delivering spatial information to the reader.  The bird as well as strategically placed grass leaves anchor the horizon line to provide the reader with a sense of space in the frameless illustrations. (A keen student shared that the bird didn’t seem to age but rather it “must’ve had a lot of life cycles.”)

In my classroom, the conversation began with the peritext.  The moment I slipped the dust jacket off the book, my student began to debate the changed front cover.  Some reasoned that the boy had just opened a present while others disagreed upon stating that the boy was playing in a sandbox.  When I “read aloud” any wordless book to my students, we first do a silent read from beginning to end.  Then, we discuss our interpretations and constructions as we re-read it page by page.  In this rereading, one little boy commented “The boy is going crazy.”  “What do you mean?” I questioned.  “There are four boys in the picture,” he replied as he touched each one. “Why do you think the author drew four boys?” I asked. “He is playing like an airplane. It shows he is having fun.”

Awesome.  A first grader just recognized a picture book convention of position.  Repetition of character on the page denotes not only decreased control but increased playfulness on behalf of the boy. Many “oohs” and “aahs” were vocalized when we reached the page in which the airplane is flown and appears in the foreground while the boy is diminished into the background.  One child commented that that was his favorite part because “it looked so real. Like it was happening in real life. It never came back down for a long time.” That change of position signified the marginalization of the boy vis-a-vis the airplane. In other words, a shift of power or control.

Oh no! Airplane on angled roof in foreground. Diagonal roof evokes tension. Diminished size of boy in background denotes loss of control.

Oh no! Airplane on angled roof in foreground. Diagonal roof evokes tension. Diminished size of boy in background denotes loss of control.*

Here is a sampling of some more student written and spoken reflections–What is your favorite part? Why do you like it?–captured after the student-led discussion.

  • I like Whne He turned Big because He can get the airplane. (I like when he turned big because he can get the airplane.) 
  • My favrot part was when he gave it to a girl. because the store stars all over agin. (My favorite part was when he gave it to a girl because the story starts all over again.)
  • The Boy was playing with the airplane. I was playing with the ball and I kick The ball so hi. (The boy was playing with the airplane.  I was playing with the ball and I kicked the ball so high.)
  • I like when the boby triy his hol life to got the aplin because the aplin lndid on the roof. (I like when the boy tried his whole life to get the airplane because the airplane landed on the roof).
  • “My favorite part is when it goes over and over like a man gave him a plane and the gave the girl a plane and the story never ends.”
  • i like the part wen He got The present. Because He was Happy when He was old to. (I like the part when he got the present because he was happy when he was old too.)
  • My farit Port wuz win his PLan wuz in the roy Bekus He shriaretg to get it but not his mom and dad. (My favorite part was when his plane was on the roof because he tried everything to get it but not his mom and dad.)
  • My favorite part is when the old man decided not to fly his airplane and instead gave it to the little girl because I think the girl enjoyed it veeeeeeeery much like the boy enjoyed it before it got stuck.
  • “My favorite part is the end.  The old man’s butt reminds me of bear’s butt from Chicken Butt’s Back.”

The complexities of student’s visual meaning-making are evident in these responses that range from subversiveness, empathy, and inferences to personal and text-to-text connections.  As to the typologies to classify these classroom experiences, Sipe (2008) notes such a generalizability of student responses may not be readily achieved (p. 34-5). (I am currently studying the available research on these typologies and their classroom application to promote visual literacy).

*Pett, Mark. The Boy and The Airplane. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013. Web.  10 May 2013.

That Is Not A Good Idea!

My fondness for Mo Willems harkens back to my Summer 2010 graduate class, Art of the Picture Book.  As a culminating project, I had to select, research, analyze, and critique a collection of picture books by a children’s author.  Who would be the lucky recipient of my studies? The prolific pillars of children’s literature were obvious choices for my classmates–Eric Carle, Rosemary Wells, Jan Brett, Kevin Henkes.  But I desired to select an author that would implicate my first grade students’ preferences.  One day I noticed all my copies of Mo Willems’ books were checked out of my classroom library and in the eager hands of my students.  There was a hush over the classroom as my students were just mesmerized in reading these books.  In an impromptu conference, I asked a student why this particular book, Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct was selected for self-reading.  The student responded, “It’s by the Pigeon author and I’m reading it so I can find the Pigeon.”  A-Ha! Analogous to the “Hidden Mickey” phenomena at Walt Disney World, the searching for the hidden Pigeon is a must-do activity for all of Willems’ picture books readers. I wondered how this Pigeon character came to possess my students with such a steadfast fascination.  Fortunately, it didn’t take months of research to figure out origins of this hidden Pigeon phenomena.  One read of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! to a roomful of six-year-olds will compel any person to become a fan of Willems’ Pigeon.

Pigeon has an attitude.  According to Willems, “the Pigeon hates it when I don’t make a book about him.”  So what is a pigeon to do? “He gets very, very frustrated,” explains Willems in an online video interview, “so whenever I’m working on another project, while I’m not looking, he sneaks into the project that I’m working on.” (Barnes & Noble)  This crafty pigeon appears in every book illustrated by Willems.  Maybe this is just Willems’ homage to the Pigeon that launched his career and debuted as a 2004 Caldecott Honor Book.  Regardless, this hidden Pigeon has young readers searching him out with fervor and honing those reading skills of making text-to-text connections on a very basic level.

I can personally attest to this growing hidden pigeon phenomenon.  Every school year as a new class of first graders enters my reading domain, finding the Pigeon reaches cult-like status.  Albeit, costuming oneself as Pigeon on character dress-up day aides this process.

Fast forward to Willems’ latest endeavor, That Is Not a Good Idea!  It breaks the mold of literary conventions just like his previous postmodernistic works. Harkening back to the days of silent films, Willems fashions That Is Not a Good Idea! as a movie in picture book form and features the plight of the wide-eyed damsel-in-distress, Plump Goose, at the hand of an evil villain, Hungry Fox.  Borrowing from cinematic conventions, intertitles of white typeface with graphic, abstract borders on black background narrate the story and present both the main characters’ inner monologue and outer dialogue.  Interspersed within the narrative is a gaggle of boundary-breaking goslings, introduced as Baby Geese.  Together, Baby Geese and reader comprise the collective audience watching this suspenseful narrative unfold.  With increasing despair, Baby Geese warn “That is not a good idea!” as Plump Goose accepts each of the Sly Fox’s invitations. The reader echoes Baby Geese’s sentiments and similarly voices alarm.  But why?

Not only do the descriptors of the characters’ names infer narrative arc, “Hungry” and “Plump,” but the illustrated characters are reminiscent of Beatrix Potter’s naive and overly-trusting Jemima Puddle-Duck when introduced to the dapper sandy-whiskered gentleman, a cunning fox. From clothing–Jemima is dressed in a blue poke bonnet; Plump Goose is dressed in a peasant-like blue kerchief–to the invitation to his home and a promise of dinner, the plots parallel one another. Such an understanding compels the reader to connect the two stories. A reader may even connect That Is Not A Good Idea! to Little Red Riding Hood, albeit a wolf has to be substituted for the fox. To a child reader the difference between a fictional fox and a wolf is negligible; in both tales these canines species represent the evil character seeking to commit a wrongdoing to an innocent female victim.

Potter, Beatrix. The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. Frederick Warne: London, 1908. Web.

Potter, Beatrix. The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. New York: F. Warne & Co., 1908. Print.

But unlike Potter’s classic tale or Little Red Riding Hood, Willems delivers a comedic and unexpected twist that turns the readers’ rendering of good versus evil on its head. It is this humorous ending that initially confused most of my english as second language readers (“ESOL”)–not because of the complexity of the plot but rather due to the use of the masculine objective personal pronoun “him.”  A brief clarification of the difference between “him,” the Hungry Fox, and “her,” the Plump Goose, had my ESOL students giggling with understanding.  I figured the confusion necessitated a second re-reading.  The second time around resulted in uproarious laughter from all.  Yes!!! And so, I questioned my students to reflect–What is your favorite part? Why do you like it?–using the sentence frame: I liked when _______ because _______. Here are three of the responses:

  • “I liked when the Baby Geese yell ‘That is really really really NOT a good idea!’ because I was thinking that too!”
  • “I liked when I saw Pigeon hiding on the bridge (illustration) because I knew he had to be in the book because Mo Willems wrote it.”
  • “I liked when the Plump Goose tricked the Hungry Fox because I thought the Goose was going into the soup but the Fox’s head went into the soup.”

Lastly, in reading That Is Not a Good Idea!, I wondered if the setting, reminiscent of an old-European city, pays homage to Willems’ Dutch roots.  In sharing Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion with a friend of mine who works at The Netherlands’ embassy in Washington, D.C., my Dutch friend identified the location of the photos as being in Breda, his childhood hometown. I may have to enlist his help in determining if the setting is real or imagined. Nonetheless, the subdued pastel hues of the background contrast the bright yellow Baby Geese and provide the reader with a visual break from the narrative as it cuts to the audience. This helps the reader to comprehend the role of Baby Geese and why they couldn’t intervene on behalf of the victim.

In my humble opinion, Mo Willems has become the Dr. Seuss of the 21st Century in penning wildly popular children’s picture books. That Is Not a Good Idea! delivers guaranteed laughs.

Willems, Mo. Interview by Barnes & Noble.  “Meet the Writers: A Conversation with Mo Willems.”  Pigeon Presents!  Hyperion Children, n.d.  Web.  10 Jul. 2010.