Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Power of the Picture Book: Andy Plemmons

When a picture book is read aloud, a certain kind of magic is created between the words and visuals floating through the air between the audience and reader. As a librarian who reads books aloud to kids everyday, I enjoy seeing picture books that I’ve enjoyed as a solo reader suddenly take on a new life when they are shared aloud with a group of readers. Sometimes I’m surprised what lines prompt a reaction or which image nudges a plot prediction.
I’m in the fortunate position to be both a librarian and a dad.  When I get a picture book advance reader copy or a new shipment of books for the library, I can read aloud these books to a 4 year old and 6 year old audience before reading it aloud to a class. I’ve read aloud picture books to both of my children since before they were even born, and I’ve watched the magic of what it means to grow from listening to the words and talking about the pictures to being the listener while my child reads to me.
My four year old has been especially worried about being a reader. Many times he has looked at a book and said I don’t know how to read.  However, the power of the picture book has proved to him that reading is not just about reading the words.  
I was fortunate to get an advance copy of Little Red by Bethan Woolvin and published by Peachtree Publishers.  Little Red is a version of little red riding hood, and its pages are filled with images that use just 3 colors: red, white, and black. Little Red is a clever girl and doesn't adhere to the rules of sometimes naive fairy tale characters.  She isn't fooled by the wolf for one minute and has her own ideas of how to handle every situation.  The wolf has a massively long snout that shows off his extra sharp teeth, and Bethan Woolvin zooms the reader into a two-page spread of the wolf that will make you feel like you are being swallowed too.  She does the same thing with Little Red to show off Red's subversive thinking in action.  
When I took Little Red home, I first read it to my 4 year old son. He immediately fell in love with the story and had to read it again the very same night. He had a love/hate relationship with the wolf and loved to shout out "EAT YOU WITH!" when I turned the page in that part of the story. Little Red also has a repeating line: "which might have scared some little girls, but not this little girl". It only took a couple of readings for him to discover this line and read it along with me every time. My son is a wiggle monster and it is sometimes hard to get him to sit still for a book or even pick out a book to read at bedtime. However, every night since taking Little Red home, he has requested to read it. There's something magical about the simplicity of the text and illustrations, the subversive nature of Red (which is a bit like him), and the element of getting "eaten" that demands his attention.

Peachtree sent a cute little paper basket filled with cupcake wrappers, a red velvet recipe, and cupcake toppers. These quickly became toys to continue the story beyond the pages of the book. He took all of them out at supper at stuck them in his bread and began telling us all a story over dinner. It made me realize as a parent that I often go beyond the book at school but I don't do it nearly enough at home. Something as simple as a paper cutout of a book character became an avenue for imaginative story-based play, and it really wouldn't take much effort for me to do that with more books.

Reading is an experience, and my son has seen that even though he might not be able to read every word on the page, the power of the picture book allows him to retell the story using the visual cues, extend the story with his own versions of the plot, and recite pieces of the story that offer repetitive or memorable text.

My 6 year old daughter also joined in on the fun of Little Red by listening along as I read.  It did not take her long to be able to read the entire book by herself, so now she wants to share it with every person she can. She reads it to me, her mom, and her brother.  We also brought it along with us to Thanksgiving at my mom's house. My daughter's great grandmother came down to visit and of course was delighted by a reading of Little Red. It was magical to watch my daughter, who I've read to since before birth, suddenly be the reader.  I think she read the book three or four times to her great grandmother, and then I watched as they started talking about what happens "between the lines" of the pages.  Her great grandmother shared the story of the woodsman from other red riding hood stories and they began to wonder if there was a woodsman anywhere in this story or why there wasn't.  I've always loved my grandmother's knack for storytelling.  When I was little, she would open up magazines, art books, or picture books and storytell beyond the edges of the page.  It was fun to see her reprise this talent with my daughter.

There's no way that I could have known all of the magic that was hiding inside this one book without opening it up, sharing it aloud, and carefully looking for the miraculous.  As a librarian, I take this experience and think about the push I see some families and educators make for students to move beyond picture books to more complex chapter books.  We all have something to learn from picture books.  To dismiss them as text only for the youngest readers is like shutting a door to imagination, possibilities, and connections.

As we leave Picture Book Month, I invite you to look at the picture books around you. What magic is hiding inside? How are you sharing them with the readers in your life? How are you encouraging readers beyond the pages of the book? I write these questions because they are what I'm considering for myself right now thanks to Bethan Woollvin, Little Red, and my own family. Happy reading!

Andy Plemmons is the school library media specialist at David C. Barrow Elementary in Athens, GA. He reads and creates with students in PreK-5th grade.  Andy’s students are often seen skyping with authors, guest speakers, and the developers of the tools that they use in class.  He also collaborates with libraries around the world.  Some of his honors include the 2016 Library Journal Movers and Shakers, Georgia Exemplary Elementary Library Media Program, finalist for School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year, and the 2015 National School Board Association 20 to Watch.  You can follow Andy’s work on Twitter @plemmonsa or on his blog Expect the Miraculous,