Looking at the Whole Book


As I wrote about yesterday, on Saturday I attended the Horn Book at Simmons conference.  One of the speakers was a classmate of mine when I was a student at the Simmons Center for the Study of Children’s Literature.  Megan Lambert now has one of those dream jobs in the children’s literature field.  She works at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts.  Through her job, Megan has explored reading picture books with children in innovative ways and has developed and taught the Whole Book Approach.   On Saturday, I had the opportunity to hear her talk more about this way of reading picture books with children, and came away with new ideas for story time at Inly.

As Megan explained, the Whole Book Approach is a way to integrate children into story time. The traditional idea of reading a story as an “adult performing for children” is reconsidered and reimagined. In this approach, the story reader is the facilitator.  It’s a slower activity to be sure, but it’s a conversation rather than a performance.  You begin by thinking of the picture book as a visual art form.  The facilitator asks open-ended questions and raises questions about the design and construction of a book.  As an example, Megan pointed to Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans and Rapunzel retold by Paul Zelinsky. Both of these picture books are “tall” (or portrait) books. Rapunzel’s story of life in the tower would not be as effective in a horizontal (or landscape) format.  A book about a tower should be tall.  Conversely, Chris Van Allsburg’s holiday classic, The Polar Express, works far better as a horizontal book.  The train’s length and the journey are important elements of the story.

When Megan reads a story with children, she focuses their attention on the endpapers, the layout of the pages, and other elements of the book.  As she pointed out, this approach isn’t the only way to have a story time.  In fact, while I often point out design elements to  our 1st through 5th grade students, I usually read straight through with younger children.  It’s magic when kids start to “see” a picture book differently. I’ve had many experiences when children point something out that I never noticed or they interpret something in a new (and interesting) way.  When I arrived at school this morning, I pulled Rapunzel off the shelf. Megan inspired me to get a few kids to take another look at that tower.


6 thoughts on “Looking at the Whole Book

  1. Oh my, with all due respect, the dissection of children’s literature, and more specifically, children’s picture books, is better left to the college classroom and master’s thesis papers. How can a child get lost in a story when they are asked to dissect author’s intent, illustrator’s methodology, et al? A good book is meant to be savored, absorbed, and so enjoyed as to want to turn it over and begin again. This type of book exercise is fantastic for keeping adults interested, motivated, and engaged, but in my opinion not child-driven in the least.

    • Thanks for your comment. While I appreciate what you are saying, I think there are many reasons to talk about the “whole book” with children. First, I would suggest that this is not an activity for every story time. Sometimes, as you pointed out, it’s best to just let the story unfold and be absorbed by listening. However, there are other times when a lesson in “visual literacy” can be just as enjoyable and encourage children to see in a whole new way. Obviously, I don’t talk with children (nor is Megan advocating) that we talk with children as if they are graduate students in children’s literature. The approach is definitely age appropriate. But, my experience is that children love being “in” on something. For example, this morning (thinking about this response) I picked up a copy of Duck and Goose by Tad Hills. The title page begins the story by showing the duck and goose both approaching the ball in the center. Why not point that out? I would simply say “Look at what the author did! He began the story here rather than on the first page.” Not a long lecture – just an invitation to look more closely. Kids are looking at so many images every day and their attention is divided in a million ways. If I can encourage them to slow down and pay attention, then this approach can be a valuable way to talk about books.

  2. Pingback: Horn Book @ Simmons Colloquium: The Recap | Library

  3. Short answer, I love including the “visual learning” child in the story time in a participatory way with this kind of dialogue. As a visual learner myself, I have done something like this over the years in public libraries, as I feel it honors the illustrator. There are times when I did the reading of the picture book as if it was only about the words. Those times you lose the visual learners. So, I say, it’s time to balance that out. First you need to identify the various learning styles we each have and address all of them in programming and communication. See:
    Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice by Howard Gardner (Paperback – Jul 4, 2006) and
    Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century by Howard Gardner (Paperback – Sep 18, 2000) Gratia

    • Thanks for your comment. You make a good point about “honoring the illustrator.” I agree completely. Books are naturally shelved by the author’s last name, but there are so many times, I think: I wish the author and illustrator could receive equal credit! And, of course, you are right – this kind of sharing supports the visual learner.

  4. Hi Shelley–

    Thanks so much for posting about this and for your work bringing people into dialog around good teaching and good books.

    Nicki–I would never suggest that The Whole Book Approach is the best or only way to read aloud, but it’s been incredibly illuminating and gratifying to see what happens when I invite children to consider all the elements of a picture book as we read together. I do not want the approach to have the effect of explaining a joke and killing its humor in the process, so my role as facilitator is to allow the process to happen organically and to strike a balance between sharing the book and allowing it to act as a provocation for children’s reactions.

    In some ways I see this work as bridging the gap between reading at home–where a child might have more opportunity to “interrupt” with questions, comments and ideas and also might be able to turn pages (forward or backward) to set the pace fo the reading–and reading at school or in a library where storytime might be more likely to ask them to listen quietly and at a physical distance from the book.

    I won’t say more here, but if any readers would like more resources, you may contact me at The Carle at meganl at carlemuseum.org

    Megan Lambert

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