Thursday, November 21, 2013

Picture Books and Aesthetics



I write a lot about picture books and the role they can play in encouraging children to develop their philosophical thinking. I’ve been thinking about the special role of picture books for inspiring inquiry about aesthetics. Picture books are a unique mixture of literature and visual art, and generate the discovery of meaning through a combined visual and verbal experience. The whole of a picture book – not just its meaning or story, but its illustrations and book cover – provides fertile ground for thinking about aesthetic qualities and questions about art, beauty, ugliness, and elegance.

For example, in a conversation that lasted several class sessions, a group of second grade students and I discussed the picture book Fish On A Walk, about which I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog. The book has no text other than a pair of adjectives for each page spread – “Happy-Sad,” Brave-Afraid,” etc. – along with very detailed and often odd illustrations that tell their own stories. The discussion we had included topics that ranged from wondering about whether the paired adjectives were really opposites, to noting how the illustrations left room for many interpretations (Is the rabbit gripping the clarinet scared or brave?), to exploring how the pictures were capable of telling stories. Were the pictures effective in creating meaning? What makes art an effective way to communicate?

Children frequently pick up the smallest details of picture book illustrations, often overlooked by adults, and their careful examination of these illustrations may enhance children’s sensitivity to aesthetics. Looking at picture books is an opportunity to observe and discuss features like color, line, shape, and texture, traditionally the four elements of design. How do these different elements produce meaning? Distinguishing such qualities as the effect of the colors, the use of line, and the number of shapes can lead easily into discussions about how and why these elements affect the story’s meaning and our understanding of what’s being conveyed.

Some general questions you can ask children in a conversation about a picture book:

Are the pictures or the words more important in the book? Or do they both matter equally?
Do you like the pictures? Why or why not?
What about the pictures do you notice?
Would the story be different if it had no pictures? If so, how? [For picture books that have words: What about if it had no words?]
Do you think this book is art? Why or why not?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

I'm a Frog!

I'm a Frog is another gem of a picture book by Mo Willems, published this year. It's one of a series of books about best friends Piggie and Elephant Gerald. Willems' books are clever and thoughtful, and frequently philosophically provocative.

In I'm a Frog, Piggie tells Gerald that she is a frog. Gerald perplexed, responds, "I was sure you were a pig. You look like a pig. And your name is Piggie."

"I was a pig. Now I am a frog," Piggie informs Gerald.

"When did you become a frog?" Gerald asks.

"About five minutes ago," Piggie replies.

Gerald is beside himself.


Gerald begins to worry that he too might become a frog. Piggie reassures him by explaining that she is just pretending. "What is that?" Gerald wants to know.

"Pretending is when you act like something you are not."

Gerald is fascinated by this news. "You can just do that?" he wonders.

Why is Gerald sure that Piggie can't be a frog? He says that Piggie looks like a pig and her name is Piggie. Is this good evidence for concluding that Piggie is a pig and not a frog? How do we know something is a pig (or a frog, or a person)?

What does it mean to "pretend?" If we think we are something, does that make us this thing? Is what counts what other people think we are? What's the difference between pretending and lying? Why do we pretend? Can we pretend to be anything we want?

Last year in a kindergarten class, when asked if there's anything we can't pretend to be, one student claimed, "You can't pretend to be yourself, because you are yourself."