Monday, March 19, 2012

Wordless Storybooks: Caldecott, Chris Raschka, Peter Spier

Books without words can be perfect for developing storytelling
Annie Ho 

I recently attended a read-aloud training workshop in a community centre on the other side of town, where the participants were primarily mothers from low-income families. A question came up from a mother regarding her own reading skills. 

As she did not have a lot of formal schooling, she worried that when reading aloud to her child, she would come across too many words that she didn't know. One of my immediate reactions was admiration for this mother. She was aware of her own limitations, and yet she was still keen to improve herself and play a role in expanding her child's mind through books.

The workshop leader said that reading aloud is not about verbatim reading and perfect pronunciation. It's completely acceptable, and often more enjoyable, to deviate from the text and add your own words. She also had a great tip for all parents reading aloud to children: to be familiar with the book by reading it on your own first. Such familiarity can prevent stumbling across unfamiliar text, and help you ask your child the right questions for a more interactive storytelling session.

Wordless picture books are another wonderful alternative for parents who are not proficient readers. These books can capture the attention of impatient toddlers as well as spur the imagination of older children to come up with different storylines at each 'reading'.

The Caldecott Medal has been awarded annually since 1938 by the American Library Association for the best illustrations in children's picture books. This year's honour went to a wordless picture book: A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka. 

Through simple watercolour illustrations, it tells the story of a little dog who loses her favourite ball when a bigger dog destroys it. Every child who has ever encountered the loss of a cherished item will relate to the little dog Daisy's realisation that something she loves is gone for good. Children will understand the ways she copes with the devastating yearning for her big red ball.

One of my favourite wordless picture books is Peter Spier's Rain by Peter Spier, whose illustrations are incredibly rich in detail. Spier has authored a number of children's books with very little or no text, including Noah's Ark, which is also a Caldecott Medal winner.

Rain depicts the course of one rainy day. The first pages start with an older sister and a younger brother playing in the backyard, then running into the house as the rain starts to pour down. The illustrations are detailed, and some pages contain half a dozen different scenes on one page. The storytelling possibilities are endless. When my daughter was two years old, our focus was on the colour of the rain boots and pointing to familiar animals like dogs, cats and birds. When she was three, I used the illustrations to introduce new words. Now at age four, my daughter loves to see this visual sequence of a single day, ending with the children getting ready for bed. 

Rain resonates with me because it bears a strong resemblance to how I remember my youth. It reminds me of my childhood in Vancouver, and inspires memories of long summer days spent with my brother. 

Visual narratives help children to understand and follow a storyline. Even though 'a picture is worth a thousand words', it takes a gifted illustrator to use pictures to tell a story. Would it be too banal to rephrase the adage as, 'A coherent series of pictures is worth a million words'?

Annie Ho is a board governor of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation devoted to improving child literacy through reading aloud to them and providing easy access to the best children's books for underserved communities across Hong Kong

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