“Children, Children, What Do You See?”: A Whole Book Approach to Reading Picture Books with Children
By Megan Dowd Lambert
Earlier this month I attended the Merry Maple Celebration on the Amherst Town Common with my family. As we listened to the ARMS chorus sing holiday songs, I recognized several of the young singers and many faces in the assembled crowd. This wasn’t just because I’ve lived in Amherst for more than a decade, nor because my daughter attends the middle school; my familiarity with so many gathered together was born, in part, of my work at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, where I led at least two storytimes per week for nearly a decade. My work there centered on my development and dissemination of a storytime model I call the Whole Book Approach, which is the subject of my book, Reading Picture Books with Children: How to Shake Up Storytimes and Get Kids Talking about What They See (Charlesbridge 2015).
That festive evening in Amherst, I stood watching a group of moms take photos of their sons, now lanky twelve-year-old instead of the small boys who used to clamor for space on the rug by the chair where I sat to read picture books with them at The Carle. “I should’ve brought something to read aloud tonight!” I quipped.
As I relate this anecdote, I’m careful to note that I read with these boys and their peers at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, not to them, a distinction that highlights how I strive to make children’s responses to picture books an integral part of storytime. In literacy circles, the Whole Book Approach and other such interactive shared reading transactions are considered “co-constructive” or “dialogic,” as opposed to “performance” models in which children listen as an audience, with all discussion (if any) reserved for after the reading. There’s value in both approaches, so I’m careful to say that the Whole Book Approach isn’t the best way, or even a better way, of reading aloud; it’s one intentional method that uses art and design to prompt and center children’s responses to the picture book as a visual art form.
Now I teach at Simmons College (including in a satellite graduate program in Children’s Literature housed at The Carle), and I miss leading regular storytimes, but I still pop in now and then to practice the Whole Book Approach. I use open-ended questions inspired by Visual Thinking Strategies, also used in The Carle’s gallery programs, to prompt critical thinking:
- What do you see happening in this picture? (to ground us in the visual)
- What do you see that makes you say that? (to ask for evidentiary thought)
- What else can we find? (to prompt kids to dig deeper)
Throughout the storytime I also direct kids’ attention to picture book design and production elements like endpapers, or whether a book is laid out in a portrait (vertical) or landscape (horizontal) orientation. This helps them consider how every part of a picture book contributes to how it tells a story or conveys information. With this work, I strive to:
- foster children’s critical verbal and visual literacy skills;
- empower them to assert their own ideas and questions;
- enable them to read against texts;
- and inspire them to think about the creative process and, by extension, their own creativity.
Lofty goals? Perhaps, but years of experience let me reject the notion that conversation punctuating a reading ruins it, or that critical thinking is somehow opposed to taking pleasure in story and art. The key is to keep this inquiry-based, interactive storytime approach fun and kid-centered, so I follow children’s cues to support their engagement and enjoyment. One constant source of inspiration is a desire to make storytimes in museums, schools, and libraries feel more like the playful, interactive reading I share with my six kids at home. The books we’ve read together hold, not just stories and art, but memories of the conversations they’ve sparked, and that’s why we hold them so dear.
All but one of my children were with me and my husband at the Merry Maple Celebration this year (my eldest is away at college in Boston). They dipped in and out of conversation with us and the other parents, and as our talk turned to books, we shared some kids’ preferences for dystopian science fiction, and others’ love of graphic novels, how some of our kids love absurd humor, and others gravitate toward nonfiction.
“She still reads stacks of picture books every day,” I said in reference to my ten-year-old, and the other parents nodded in recognition.
“My son (nearly 12-years-old) lets himself indulge in them especially if I’m reading with his little sister,” said another mom.
Picture books have so much to offer readers, and it’s a misconception, at best, that we must move beyond them as we grow into reading other kinds of books. My book about the Whole Book Approach has reached a broad audience of teachers and librarians, artists and writers, but it’s also found a readership with parents and other caregivers who are finding new ways to engage kids of all ages with picture books and to enliven storytime at home.
“You’ve made rereading the same picture book for the umpteenth time not only tolerable but exciting!” said one reader’s email. As a picture book author myself (A Crow of His Own, Charlesbridge 2015 and Real Sisters Pretend, Tilbury House 2016), that’s some of the best feedback I’ve ever had! So to paraphrase Carroll’s Alice, here’s to books with pictures and to the conversations they can provoke when we gather together to meet in the pages of a book and to talk about all we discover.
Megan Dowd Lambert a Senior Lecturer in Children’s Literature at Simmons College. She is the author of Reading Picture Books with Children: How to Shake Up Storytime and Get Kids Talking About What They See, which introduces the Whole Book Approach to storytime that she developed in association with the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. She writes for Kirkus Reviews, Embrace Race, and The Horn Book and is also the author of two picture books: A Crow of His Own illustrated by David Hyde Costello (Charlesbridge 2015) and the winner of a 2016 Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor; and Real Sisters Pretend, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell (Tilbury House Publishers 2016). She lives with her family, including six children ages 1-19, in western Massachusetts.