As someone whose degree and training is in children’s librarianship, it was with interest that I started Megan Dowd Lambert’s new book, Reading Picture Books with Children: How to Shake Up Storytime and Get Kids Talking about What They See. Lambert lays out what she calls an approach—she’s clear that it is not a curriculum or prescriptive method—to sharing books with children that celebrates the visual art form that is the picture book.
I admit to being wary at first, because I’ve heard too many educators over the years talk about interrupting a story to grill children with curricular questions—that is, analysis at the expense of story-flow. Then, as I started the book, my guardedness turned to delight. I was happy to see that Lambert’s approach is about reading with children, not to them, and that she calls it the Whole Book Approach, because she’s slowing a reading down to ask children to respond to all parts of a picture book (text, art, design) and to see, she writes, the “rich narrative potential of picture book art.”
It’s about building visual literacy skills and respecting the picture book as the unique art form it is, engaging children in brief, seamless discussions about the book’s endpapers, front matter, typography, jacket, etc. and how these elements contribute to the story. Lambert built this approach, based on Visual Thinking Strategies, while leading storytimes at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.
Now a senior lecturer in children’s literature at Simmons College, Lambert says librarians have responded positively to her approach. “People are excited,” she tells me, “to think about picture books in new ways and are eager to build on their skills. I try to emphasize that I don’t advocate the Whole Book Approach as a better, or best, way to lead storytime. Instead, I offer it as an intentional approach to sharing picture books with children in order to make their responses central to a reading, especially with regard to art and design.”
If it sounds like a storytime that involves lots of conversation, you’d be right. Lambert invites this. She sees the storytime reader more as discussion facilitator than storyteller, the “conduit through which children receive text and access the art and design of the book.” Her goal, she explains, is to let children’s responses to picture books guide the pacing of the reading. “Time and again, I’ve found that this approach leads to rich discussion—not just about story, art, and design, but about the broader contexts for children’s diverse responses to picture books.” And if her approach is not fun or altogether not working, Lambert says she merely switches gears. “I never, ever want Whole Book Approach storytimes to feel like killing a joke by explaining its humor,” she explains.
Striking is how much Lambert believes in picture books and the power they can have in children’s lives. Acknowledging that we read picture books for entertainment value, as well as for what they can teach us, she adds that we also read picture books for their ability to provide us with a meeting space, one “where children and adults can come together to encounter artistic representations of humanity. That sounds rather lofty, I know, but I really think it’s true. We create art and share art, because it helps us express visions of ourselves, our values, our history, or hopes. I resist any notion that this communication must be a one-way street, given from adults on high to children below; as children encounter picture books and their stories and art, I want to empower them to critically engage with the ideas, ideologies, and representations that text and art communicate and to delight in how sharing books and talking about them can foster their own thinking and creativity.”
Lambert is particularly happy about three things as a result of putting her thoughts on the Whole Book Approach into print. First, it thrills her to see others use the approach. “As much as I take pride in the work I’ve done to develop and document my work,” she says, “I don’t want the Whole Book Approach to seem like it’s just something I do, and I want others’ experiences to serve as models for people interested in giving its techniques a try.” Secondly, she’s pleased that a portion of the proceeds from Reading Picture Books With Children go toward supporting the Carle Museum, since the museum gave her a platform on which to develop her approach. Lastly, she’s grateful to Charlesbridge, who published the book. “The stakes were high for excellent book design,” she explains, “but Susan Sherman executed a remarkable outcome. (Everyone should take a look under the book jacket to see the casewrap and then examine how the endpapers correspond with the use of color throughout the chapters.)”
There’s a lot more Lambert wants to do. On April 23, she’ll lead a presentation and discussion at the Carle about her book in association with the annual Barbara Elleman Research Library lecture. She’s also working on other writing projects and has recently delved into the world of Twitter. She’s thinking about how she especially wants to do more to support calls for diversity in children’s literature. In general, she hopes that her advocacy of “empowering children to communicate their ideas and questions, to listen to others, to back up their ideas with evidence, and to reconsider their own readings, will also empower adults to do the same—at storytime and in other times, too.”
Lambert’s biggest take-away from using her approach with children at storytimes and with her own six children is a powerful one: “[These children have] affirmed my belief that the codex picture book will not just survive, it will thrive, in the digital age.”
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.