Shouldn't children should sit and listen when a picture book is read to them? That’s certainly how children’s books used to work. Adults wrote, and perhaps read, them, and children received them, whole and pre-digested. But we’ve got cleverer at the games that can be played between story book and child in more recent times.
We all know that the best picture books give opportunities for young children to join-in with the storytelling. Think of the simple genius of Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo in which the animals aren’t named in the text, and it’s for the child to open the flap and name the camel that’s ‘too grumpy’ and the frog that’s ‘too jumpy’ and so on. That clever leaving of story spaces to be filled by the child is a way to give small children a taste of being a story teller, and also gives them a feeling of ownership over the story; they’ve contributed vital parts to the whole story, and that’s powerful and fun! See Polly Dunbar’s PBD blog on the subject http://picturebookden.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/chicken-or-egg-by-polly-dunbar.html
But here I want to consider picture books which get children doing a different kind of talking; talking about themselves.
I’ve recently become involved in the wonderful charity Home-Start. http://www.home-start.org.uk . Home-Start works by training volunteer parents to pair-up with families with young children who are struggling for some reason. Multiple births, post-natal depression, illness, bereavement, distance from friends ... there are multiple reasons why some struggle in that vital stage of family life. Home-Start volunteers give whatever help the parent wants. It may be taking the children out to give the parent a break, it might be listening to the parent and discussing things, it might be accompanying parent and child to family centre sessions, it might simply be doing the shopping or the washing up. But it will often involve talking with young children, or allowing time for the parent to have some ‘quality time’ with their child.
When there’s a family crisis, one vital thing which can get lost or forgotten is communication with young children. When people are preoccupied with problems, important ordinary conversations about everyday life might not happen. A shared book can give an occasion for conversation between parents or other adult carers and children. Even in families with no particularly pressing problems, we all know how you can ask a child what they did at school today, and the answer that comes back is often, “Nothing.” Sometimes it simply takes too much energy, or things are too complex for a child to explain, so children don’t tell what might be bothering or exciting or puzzling them. Of course parents might not be telling how they feel about things either.
I don’t know how far the ‘Sally is Being Bullied’ (I’ve made that title up) sort of book does help a child who is being bullied. It might, but my suspicion is that many children would react against something that labels their problem so bluntly. Besides, a book of that kind often doesn’t have a story, or, if it does, it’s a story steered around an agenda rather than coming from character. It won't be fun.
Since my ‘You Choose’ book, illustrated by Nick Sharratt, was published twelve years ago, I’ve heard again and again from parents and therapists how that book has proved a fun way to get children talking about themselves, as well as simply talking and improving their vocabularies. With that in mind, I wrote my new book ‘What Will Danny Do Today?’, illustrated by Sam Usher.
What Will Danny Do Today? follows a child, Danny, through a day, from getting up and deciding what to wear, off to school where lots of options offer themselves, to after school fun with Dad, and finally a choice of book for bedtime. Each spread is busy with possibilities. So, for example, when going to school, there are ordinary options, the child walking with Mum and a baby sibling in a pushchair, there are the more unusual options, going to school via a zip-wire from your bedroom window to the school entrance, and there is also, if you notice, the shy child, alone at the school gate and not sure about stepping through it. Which of those does the child reader identify with? Or wish that they were like that one? This is a book that can be played purely for laughs. Or it can be played straight. Or it can prompt discussions about aliens or detectives or stealing or whether one should eat ice-cream for breakfast, or much more.
Which other books to get children talking about themselves can you all recommend?