Bookstores Abroad, Part 1

Leaving Washington, DC. August 2013.

Leaving Washington, DC. August 2013.

Attending the IRSCL conference in Maastricht, The Netherlands availed an opportunity to venture outside the comfort of my frequented local bookshops, Politics & Prose and Hooray for Books! Moreover, since I’ve begun to amass a collection of wordless picture books for both my teaching repertoire and current academic research on the topic of visual literacy, acquiring international titles serves these ends. I rightfully anticipated my visit to two cities in two European countries would prove fruitful. Adhering to one backpack rule, I prefer to travel light but at least I had the foresight to take a packable carry-on duffel bag for my return trip stateside. Although I didn’t anticipate the 26 pounds of hardcover books that I’d schlep for three hours through Philadelphia’s U.S. Customs & Immigration, I’m grateful to have had the occasion to explore the sights and shelves of a few European bookshops.

Tropismes, Brussels, Belgium

Beyond gardens and park benches, this was my first official stop in Brussels. As I approached the storefront, my eidetic memory flashed to a chase scene in the movie, Erased.  Indeed, it’s the same bookshop. Walking inside, I meandered through the various corridors and floors of books and stumbled upon a courtyard en route to the children’s book section.

Courtyard garden in bookstore.

Courtyard garden in bookstore.

Up a narrow flight of stairs to a top floor, I arrived.  White shelves brightened the space but the stuffy air pervaded every nook and cranny.  Determined to peruse every title, if need be, to locate wordless picture books, I finally asked a clerk for help, in French.  Now, French is the only subject in which I have received a “C”  and that was in 6th grade.  With the digital courage of Google Translate, I muttered “Excusez-moi, avez-vous un livre d’images sans paroles?” while holding up a book and repeating “sans paroles” She guided me to various shelves and within minutes I had a pile of books. Most strikingly, the size of these French titles, mainly oversized, varied from their American counterparts.

All smiles as I proudly display my finds.

All smiles as I clutch my finds.

Of all the picture books I browsed, I purchased a French Canadian title, La Mer by Marianne Dubuc.

Fast forward to September 2013. I’m teaching metacognitive reading strategies to my new class of first graders.  Using sentence frames, we’ve been practicing how to share our thinking aloud:

  • I see____.
  • I notice ____.
  • I think ____.
  • I predict ____.
  • I wonder ____.

While reading aloud La Mer, my classroom was abuzz with student-generated commentary. La Mer captured the wild imaginations of my students as they predicted the   escape of a flying red fish from the paws of its feline predator.  Did it matter to my students that the title is in French? No. Part of the wonder of this wordless picture books is how the visual narrative captivates child readers from a bevy of different cultures around the world. Returning to my travels…

Belgian Comic Strip Center, Brussels, Belgium

One of the greatest treasures I discovered in my grandparents’ attic was a box of early 1950s comic books belonging to my mom and Uncle.  From Archie and Veronica to Uncle Scrooge, I poured through every title in that box and begged my parents for more. From the late 1980s to early 1990s, I read every comic strip in the Sunday funnies, Garfield book, and Disney comic that came my way.  And my dad wholly supported this endeavor as he was the one venturing to the newsstand/comic book store on his business travels. Upon learning of a museum dedicated to comics in Brussels, Centre Belge de La Bande Dessinee (Belgian Comic Strip Center) I opted for this museum instead off Manneken Pis.  Clearly my childhood foray into comics just scratched the surface of this field. Two permanent exhibits caught my full attention, “The Invention of Comic Strip” and “The Art of Comic Strip.” The latter focused mainly on European comic strips but the former presented a general history as to the evolution of visual narratives. From Tin Tin and Spirou to the Smurfs, I walked away from the museum dumbfounded as to how entrenched European, specifically Belgian comics are in our shared culture.

Les Schtroumpfs

Les Schtroumpfs

While perusing the shelves at Tropismes, I stumbled upon a little wordless comic book entitled “Simon’s Cat On joue?” by Simon Tofield.  Laughing aloud in the store, costing 6.90 euros and measuring just shy of 6″x 6″, I just had to buy it. While browsing the Comic Strip Museum’s bookshop, I stumbled upon another Simon’s Cat title that I subsequently purchased. My laughter continued with this title too. Later in my travels, I mentioned my Simon’s Cat finds to some Children’s Literature scholars whom I had met at the IRSCL conference. Whoa! They thankfully informed me of this cartoon’s overwhelming popularity in the British Commonwealth (UK and Australia) and on You Tube videos; needless to say, I’m hooked. Here are my three personal faves…