Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Marvellous Imaginations: Extending Thinking through Picture Books

As ever it was great to be at the NCRCL/IBBY national conference at the weekend. I’m a huge fan of picture books and all they offer, and make sure they feature highly on lots of my training courses training courses, so I loved the fact that the day was all about them.

klausThis is Klaus Flugge, long-standing champion of innovative picture books, with IBBY’s John Dunne and a cake in honour of Andersen Press’s 40th birthday.

Picture book expert Martin Salisbury was the first speaker. He talked compellingly about the importance of visual thinking. He celebrated the increasing blurring of the lines between writing and illustration and championed today’s pioneering breed of picture book makers who help readers see and understand the world in exciting new ways. He showed us some fabulous illustrated texts – I was delighted that one of these was The Girl with the Parrot on Her Head by Daisy Hirst – and threw in some very pertinent quotes. Here’s Saul Steinberg: ‘Drawing is a way of reasoning on paper.’ This is Corbusier: ‘I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster, and leaves less room for lies.’

Lecturer Vivienne Smith told us picture books can and should be play. She drew out the parallels between them. Play in early years education is freely chosen and self-directed, spontaneous, whole-hearted, creative and imaginative, explorative, and a context in which learning happens. Exploration and playfulness are certainly not embraced in current discourse around reading, yet they are how children learn. Practitioners should aim to create playful readers, to combat the impression children can now get all too easily, that reading is just about getting the words right. Children need playful books that playfully challenge their thinking and help them learn they can make a difference. ‘Playful reading animates texts; roots texts in the imagination; allows texts to become significant and useful to the reader. Play gives texts an afterlife.’

We were then privileged to hear an inspiring panel of speakers discuss the power of picture books to develop children’s thinking, understanding and empathy. Miranda McKearney of Empathy Lab, Nicky Parker of Amnesty International, Harriet Goodman from Philosophy for Children and the chair, author Sita Brahmachari extolled picture books for providing a platform for raising questions and helping children to explore abstract ideas and concepts, as well as difficult issues and emotions. Picture books can fuel a sense of social justice and teach children that more unites than divides us. Mirror by Jeannie Baker and There’s a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins, both of which I love and use a lot, were held up as just two examples. Picture books can create compassionate and critical thinkers who grasp the meaning of fairness and will be better able to stand up against bigotry and violence. Wonderful stuff!

Parallel session followed, and I was inspired again by the one I attended on how an international collection of silent picture books (or books without borders, to use Sita Brahmachari’s excellent phrase for wordless picture books) has been used to enormous effect with migrant children in Lampadusa and has galvanised children in a village in southern France. How moving to see the picture books the French children made for the children in Lampadusa being handed over. The IBBY Silent Books project aims to promote books as a tool for integration. Lovely to hear some of the ways in which that aim is being fulfilled.

Lunch next, and a chance to catch up with friends and colleagues, and to talk to some inspiring publishers. Then we heard lots of very positive NCRCL and IBBY news. The IBBY international congress in New Zealand sounded amazing.

It was good after this to listen to two illustrators talk about their craft. Laura Carlin and Carol Thompson were very interesting on the huge amount of thought and creativity they put into their books, so that they give enjoyment and provoke thinking and understanding.

Next Louise John Shepherd and Charlotte Hacking from CLPE explained the Power of Pictures project. This is helping teachers discover good picture book creators and learn how to read picture books, particularly interpreting the pictures. It is giving them confidence to use them and providing ideas for exploring them with their pupils. I frequently talk about the value of picture books in terms of inference and critical thinking, so was pleased to hear these benefits highlighted. I really liked this quote too, from Perry Nodelman: ‘The words tell us what the pictures don’t show, and the pictures show us what the words don’t tell us.’

I used to be a volunteer with the Reader Organisation, so was very pleased Jane Davies, its founder, was speaking. After telling everyone about the brilliant shared reading approach, and a wonderful project with looked after children, she outlined the latest Reader initiative, a fabulous story barn in Liverpool, ‘a place where reading helps imagination run wild’. I really want to visit it.

The conference drew to an end with a brief speech from Nicholas John Frith, winner of the inaugural Klaus Flugge prize for the most exciting newcomer to picture books illustration, and then that amazing cake. What a day!