Jun 30, 2016

How Picture Books Speak to Us: Listening with our Eyes.

What IS a picture book, anyway? 
When I was invited to speak to a workshop of experienced teachers I found the room filled with the nearly unanimously opinion that picture books meant wordless books. 
I'll get to that category in a few paragraphs, but picture books are simply books in which the visual images function as an essential part of the narrative of the book as a whole. 
Do wordless books do this?
Picture books encompass every conceivable genre-- information, nonfiction narratives, poetry, storybooks, fantasy, alphabet books, concept books, and board books (usually considered a special category), among many others. 
But the vast majority of picture books include text, in one way or another-- from speech bubbles and paneled text images to formally framed text alternating with framed illustrations... and everything in between. That text combines with the visual narrative resulting in a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Chronicle Books, 2016

So why is the quirky duck-ish character so convinced that THIS IS NOT A PICTURE BOOK! Author/illustrator Sergio Ruzzier utilizes every inch of this book to answer that question. The book jacket poses not only the clever title and key characters but subtly presents the premise of the story in gray text. On the opening end papers the conventions of text are evident (word chunks, left-to-right progression with punctuation, and recognizable letter combinations). With each page turn we discover more of the premise: a book, a many-paged, text-only book, has dropped into their lives. Only once the title question is relevant does the title page appear. 
Despite his/her protests about text being too hard, together they attempt to make sense of a senseless letter scramble, gradually discovering recognizable words, concepts, scenes, and emotions. The journey a (new kind of) reader takes within its pages eventually returns them home, satisfied and pleased. 
The charming final chirp, "READ IT AGAIN!" confirms that those who really read text, finding within it powerful visual narratives, will come to love those "not-a-picture-books" every bit as much as they do actual picture books. The final endpapers reprise the story in words, this time clearly readable.
Here's what I had to say about it on Goodreads:
Lovable on so many levels, with questions of word-reading, meaning-reading, visualization, book concepts, and concepts of the book. Author/illustrator Ruzzier explores this and more in his minimalist, humorous, and re-readable-to-the-Nth degree picture book. (And it IS a picture book, regardless of the title or endpapers!)
As my post title indicates, this little critter personifies a reader learning to listen with his reading eyes, converting that content into the visual narratives s/he seeks. 

Candlewick Press, 2016
Many illustrators have built wildly successful, award-filled careers creating wordless books. Among them is Jeannie Baker, whose creations include many wordless picture books. Her latest picture book, CIRCLE, depicts the incredible-but-true story of the global-migrating godwit (shorebird). She incorporates minimal but lyrical text and a story-within-the-story of a boy, his community, and the interconnectedness of communities around the globe. 
The illustrations are themselves as all-absorbing as the godwits' migration patterns. 
Children and adults alike will seek out subtle visual details, speculate on artistic creation techniques, and imagine how the art compares to actual birds-eye-views and topography. 

It's books like these that build readers/listeners who expect that every time a cover is lifted or a page turned there will follow multi-layered and engaging content far beyond lifeless images and robotic text. That's the expectation that allows learners to take that scary step into books without physical images to actively create them as they read.

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Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.