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.  Amazon.com. Web.  10 May 2013.

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