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…

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.

Bluebird by Bob Staake

In my never-ending search to discover wordless picture book titles, I came across Bob Staake’s recently published Bluebird.  The soft pastel blue and gray palette invites the child reader into its pages. The simple geometric designs of the city, school, storefronts and park leave the reader focused more on the unlikely budding friendship between the characters, a sad little schoolboy and a cheery bluebird than the mundane setting.  The reader watches the little boy’s transformation from loneliness to happiness on account of the bluebird’s persistent companionship. Without the use of a single word, except for some environmental print, Staake delivers an evocative narrative. The brooding darkness of the woods foreshadows the tragic climax. Yet the story brightens to a cheery and unexpected ending.

I have never experienced a “lump” in my throat while “reading” aloud a wordless picture book to my students.   Bluebird is the first to accomplish such a feat!  It is this ending that I chose to explore with my students. Without judgement and having already established a trusting community of learners, I solicited my students to jot down a sentence or two (on a ubiquitous yellow Post-It) to reflect upon what happened to the bluebird.  Their candid responses were beyond my expectations. From the literal to the insightful and profound, here are a few of those reflections with my spelling in italics.

  • “He floow away to a nusxthr sad boy.” He flew away to another sad boy.
  • “the bully trogh the stick it hit bluebird He died. More birds came they lifted the boy the bluebird came alive.” The bully threw the stick. It hit bluebird. He died. More birds came. They lifted the boy. The bluebird came alive.
  • “the BLow Brd wit to the KLawd.” The bluebird went to the cloud.
  • “The kid let go.”
  • “He DiD Not Be cerFoL with The Bird so The Bird was ded.” He wasn’t careful with the bird so the bird died.
  • “He DiDe and Kam Bak to lif and He went in The klawd.” He died and came back to life and he went in the cloud.
  • “Bloo Brib was hrt anb fit bitr.” Bluebird was hurt and felt better.
  • “I think the bird went in the sky to hevin.” I think the bird went in the sky to heaven.

Sharing a wordless picture book like Staake’s Bluebird is reason why I have chosen such a profession.  It addresses weighty and universal themes of friendship, bullying, empathy, hope, loss and comfort within the safety of its illustrations. Bluebird is destined to become a timeless story that will resonate with readers of all ages.