Chris Chivers on the way in which children’s reading and children’s artwork interact.
To create a quality argument about the merits, or otherwise, of an author’s intention and to discuss these with others allows children to move beyond a merely descriptive catalogue of events. Framing questions based on ‘How… When… and Why?’ leads to a deeper understanding than just ‘What?’ By using books as the basis for artwork, children can be freed to externalise wider thoughts than are often voiced within even the best book conference.
When a number of people said that the display created for Helen Cresswell’s stand at the Wessex Children’s Book Fair in 1994 was interesting, unusual and eye-catching the children present swelled with pride. ‘Can you organise a display for three screens based on Helen Cresswell’s books?’ had been the organiser’s request. Having handed the task to a mixed class of 10/11 year-olds, taught by our deputy head, I thought I’d offer to help as the work was short-term and in addition to that already planned.
Children scoured the school and were pleasantly surprised at the number of Helen’s books in our library with Moondial and The Secret World of Polly Flint being the most widely available. These were made accessible for all the class to read over a three-week period. In that time some read one title while others devoured several, but they knew they had a common theme to discuss at the end of the time – to describe how the author used settings within the novel.
Scene-setting words were brainstormed, followed by the draft of a storyboard with the emphasis on backgrounds. The whole exercise could have stopped at this stage – the storyboards, when mounted, would have been an acceptable display in their own right – but each child was asked to create a large painting of one scene. It was at this point that a minor interference led to a major shift in the children’s thinking.
With several of the pictures’ horizons being absolutely straight, as is often the case, it was too tempting to ignore discussing the effect of folding the pictures. Immediately there were exclamations of surprise.
‘It looks as if it’s moving away.’
‘It has distance.’
This moved the discussion on to three-dimensional modelling and someone came up with the idea that we could create a stage set (These children had recently experienced puppet plays.) At least one child was enthused by the possibilities, working quicker than her peers and showing them what was possible. A head of steam built up as more children tried, with varied success, to create their own versions.
Backgrounds having been created, foregrounds developed through the addition of free-standing houses, trees, buses and characters. Eventually, static three-dimensional models were created which were then displayed at the Book Fair in Winchester. However, there’s always a nagging thought. What could have been the next step in the development of the task? Could each of the creations have been used as the basis for a puppet play involving the book characters? Could a script have been developed from the original storyboard? With the availability of Camcorders, what would be the possibilities of working towards animation?
The discussion generated through the activity was invariably book-based, focusing on the author’s intention within a scene. Sheer familiarity with the books improved the quality of the argument, with alternative hypotheses being offered, discussed and revised. Children are often left alone to enjoy a book (which may be an individual need). This solitary approach can be reinforced through a solo book review… but collaboration also brings its rewards.
Children might be asked to create a puppet based on the main character in their book and to tell the story through that puppet at a conference, with their classmates asking questions. They could create an environment or setting for the character to inhabit, and then make the story come alive through storytelling.
Such responses to literature would provide coverage of English from speaking and listening, through reading to writing with the capacity for drafting and varieties of presentations.
Probably someone will have had similar bright ideas already and I’d be very pleased to hear about interpretations of books that have involved puppets and animation. I’m convinced these can be important elements in exciting children as readers…
Chris Chivers is headteacher at St John’s Primary School, Rowlands Castle, Hampshire.
Helen Cresswell’s Moondial is available from Puffin (0 14 032523 9, £3.99) as is The Secret World of Polly Flint (0 14 031542 X, £3.75).
Readers interested in developing children’s ability to make their own books might like to take a look at a recent publication by Paul Johnson of the Book Art Project. It’s called Children Making Books (0 7049 0714 3), costs £3.50 and can be obtained from the Reading and Language Information Centre, The University of Reading, Bulmershe Court, Earley, Reading RG6 1HY. Cheques should be made payable to ‘University of Reading’.
Also available, direct from Paul Johnson, are two sets of hand-bound, colour-illustrated, story books produced by children aged 6 to 10. They come in a presentation box with acompanying notes and aim to encourage schools to do the same kind of work with their children. Book Box 1 and Book Box 2 cost £6 each (cheques to ‘The Book Art Project’) and are available from Paul Johnson, The Book Art Project, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester M20 2RR.