During the recent January Short Term, English teacher Marianne Hines and I co-taught a class we call "Picture Book Lit." Using Marianne's expertise in teaching literature, and my knowledge of picture books, publishing and recent trends, we guide students through the creation, interpretation and meaning of classic picture books, old and new.
Using excerpts from Inside Picture Books by Ellen Handler Spitz, and articles from the children's literature journal The Horn Book, students explore the basic question, "What makes a picture book an enduring classic?" Why do some picture books remain popular from generation to generation (Make Way for Ducklings, Madeline, Where the Wild Things Are)? How do authors and illustrators work together to create a whole that is greater than words and pictures alone? How does the work of an author/illustrator differ from that of a team? What are elemental themes that speak to children? How does a classic appeal both to children and the adults who will read them out loud? How does a quality picture book differ from an "illustrated story book?"
One of my favorite activities from the class is to hand out the text from a picture book -- just the words on a piece of paper -- and ask students to imagine the characters, the setting, the action and the number of pages the published book contains. Texts range from a mere 81 words (Eric Rohmann's Caldecott winner My Friend Rabbit) to nearly 900 words (Bill and Pete by Tomi de Paola). Comparing the students' guesses to the actual book is a powerful example of how in a successful picture book, neither words nor pictures alone tell the whole story. What do you think a talking toothbrush would look like?
At the end of the four-week class, students may choose from among several options for a final project. Some students create an annotated bibliography of picture books on a specific theme ("Friendship," for example, or "Death of a Pet"), while others research a picture book author or illustrator and teach the class about the work of this artist. Several students choose to create their own picture books, either as a single author/illustrator, or pairing up as an author & illustrator team. The finished book shows how well they understood the ideas presented in class.
This year a 9th grade author & illustrator team created a book inspired by the loss of The Mother Goose building, destroyed by arson back in the fall. The Goose was more than a classroom building to the 9th graders, it was their hangout -- the porch, commons and front yard were the places for freshmen to congregate during free time, and they've been "homeless" without it. Sarah and Anna Grace's book Geese and Cookies includes the theme of tragic loss of a home, the security and safety of a parent and the community of friends, and that everything will be ok in the end. The pictures add character details, action, story pacing and much of the dialogue. And check out those cute firemen!
Geese and Cookies
Words by Anna Grace Whitehead
Illustrations by Sarah Alice Davison