Of Brown Bears and Mice and Picture Books: Reading Words and Pictures with Children
My favorite part of working at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is reading aloud with children. I lead The Carle’s regular storytime programs, and I’ve also traveled to hundreds of schools and libraries modeling The Whole Book Approach, an interactive storytime model that I developed with the goal of getting people to think and talk about the picture book as an art form. Since September 2001, nearly 25,000 children and adults have participated in such outreach, ranging from professional development programs for teachers and librarians to visiting storytimes for students of all ages.
Although my aim is to lead storytimes that feel more like discussions than performances, I appreciate that many picture book artists draw parallels between the picture book form and theater; indeed, Will Hillenbrand has described the picture book as "the theater of the lap." Extending this idea, if the jacket is the coming attractions poster hanging outside of the theater and inviting the audience in, then the endpapers (the papers pasted down on the inside of the cover) are the overture not an auditory overture heard from an orchestra pit, but a visual overture to the art of the book.
Thinking about all of this, I started pointing out the endpapers in Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? and invited children to talk about them. At first I simply heard them say that they saw "lots of colors" as they took in Carle’s bright horizontal bars of color, and I connected this observation to the book’s focus on naming and showing colors to the reader. Then one day, when I slowed down enough to let a child expand upon this observation, I heard,
"That’s the order of the colors of the animals in the book."
The other children nodded, but I just sat there dumbly staring at the endpapers. Here was a book I’d read at home and at work hundreds (thousands?) of times, and yet I’d never noticed this. I’d seen that the endpapers utilized Carle’s palette, but I’d never recognized that they were a graphic table of contents.
"You’re absolutely right," I responded when I recovered, and I rededicated myself to slowing down and letting storytime become discussion time. I realized that there was a lot I wasn’t seeing, and that I needed to give children the time and space to share and explore all that they could see. Not only did this enrich their own group reading experiences, it allowed me to see and appreciate picture books in ways I couldn’t have achieved on my own.
For example, once I read Leo Lionni’s Frederick to a second grade class. I love this book about a field mouse with the heart of a poet, and I thought I knew it inside out until a child showed me all I had missed and allowed me to get to know Frederick, and myself, a little better.
On the fifth doublespread, Frederick announces that while the other field mice are busily gathering nuts for the winter, he is "&collecting colors, for winter is gray." The bottom of the page is dappled with small, colorful flowers, but the picture is dominated by the wintertime gray that Frederick anticipates with the changing seasons: large gray stones stretch across the pages, and Frederick sits on the wall they form with his back to the reader and to the flowers, while the field mice form a chain across the rest of the wall, hoisting nuts to one another.
I asked the class to talk about how words and pictures work together in this page opening, and I thought that they, like groups before them, would mention how the compositions focus on the gray stone wall and the gray mouse bodies anticipates the grayness of winter and therefore visually echoes Frederick’s words. And then I heard,
"Frederick is looking at the flowers to gather all those colors."
Hmmm. I quickly assessed how to proceed. Frederick’s back is quite clearly to the flowers at the bottom of the page. I thought that the child must have misunderstood the picture. Maybe he thought the rounded ears on top of Frederick’s head were eyes? Or maybe he had identified a different mouse as Frederick?
"Do you mean that this mouse Frederick is looking at these flowers?" I asked pointing to each.
The boy gazed at me with patient pity. "No. Frederick has his back to us and to those flowers, but he is gazing out at the meadow beyond the wall. That’s where all the flowers he sees are, I bet. We can’t see them, and the other mice can’t see them, but Frederick can."
I exhaled. Of course. The first line of text on this page reads, "And when they saw Frederick sitting there, staring at the meadow&". I’d never realized this. I was such a blasted field mouse, diligently working away, while this child was Frederick incarnate allowing me and his classmates to see flowers and colors beyond the stone walls of our imaginative landscapes.