Using Pictures for Narrative

Rules of Summer Quest

One of the things that I frequently speak to parents about is using narrative as a way into reading. For those reading age children we label as ‘reluctant’ readers (and I grimace here), sometimes the key is not to thrust prosaic text upon them and hope they will eventually read it, but to reach out to them through love of narrative before text. Because in the end, some of the skills we glean from reading, such as empathy, we get through understanding narrative. We want children to be able to pick apart a narrative – to deconstruct what’s happening, what might happen, what if something happens, and why it’s happening. Narratives are all around us, whether they be in a fairy tale app, a soap opera on the television, an advert trying to sell us something, or the story of our day. One brilliant way to discuss narratives with children is to use a picture book that leads by illustration, or one that doesn’t have any text at all. You can take your time to decipher what’s going on rather than turning the pages as soon as the words are read, which we, as parent readers, have a tendency to do all too quickly.

Two books that lead by pictorial narrative are:


Quest by Aaron Becker
This is the second wordless picture book by Aaron Becker, the first being Journey, and although Quest is seen by many as a sequel to the first, it works equally as a stand-alone title. I’m loathe to explain too much of the narrative here, because the beauty of the book is to look at the pictures and without saying anything let your children have a go at telling you what they see, what they think is happening, and their predictions. You’ll be surprised how different it can be to your own perceptions. For those who want a brief guide before borrowing/buying the book, it depicts two children in a fantasy landscape who draw on the magic of their tools to transport them across their world and to seek answers so that they can rebuild the kingdom and restore the rightful king to his palace. It’s a fantasy adventure, drawn with depth and imagination. The front cover is typical of that within; images of the boy and girl on each spread with their purple bird in a mystical place with nature and man-made structures colliding, and magical things happening. My favourite picture is that of the children swimming underwater accompanied by their bird and finding their own Atlantis beneath the ocean. As expected, the pictures are detailed, use colour and light in intriguing ways, and draw in the eye to numerous things on each page. The action is non-stop – each picture has motion and plot development – and there’s a map/guide to which my readers kept flicking back. A true adventure in pictures. To buy the book from Waterstones, click here, or see the Amazon sidebar.

Rules of Summer

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan
Shortlisted for the 2015 CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal, and by highly acclaimed artist Shaun Tan, this is a stunning picture book. For those who are aware of Tan’s work already, it delivers on your expectations – the right amount of surreal fantasy, emotional landscapes and sense of foreboding. In fact, much of Tan’s work could be taken to be fairly nightmarish for a sensitive child – so do beware.
Each page (even the cover and endpapers) depicts two boys, one who is clearly older than the other. The book starts with a simple line: “This is what I learned last summer”, and then proceeds to state the rules learned, accompanied by Tan’s distinctive surreal imagery. For example the rules include: “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline” and “Never be late for a parade”. Throughout the book it is clear that our focus is on the relationship dynamic between the two boys. At first they seem playful, but the mood changes as friction grows between the two. In fact some of the images are particularly menacing. After a while it appears that the small boy is prisoner, and only after a considerable time lapse does the bigger boy come to help, with the rule: “Always bring bolt cutters”. At the end there seems to be some redemption and forgiveness, although the last line is particularly ambiguous: “That’s it”. At this point the two boys are shown watching television together with drawings on the wall of things that have previously seemed to be real and menacing in the landscapes – perhaps Shaun Tan showing that they were merely figments of the boys’ play landscapes. On the other hand, Tan has stated that the whole book doesn’t necessarily have a linear narrative, and that each picture is a standalone story. What is clear is that the book shows the relationship between the two boys – be they friends or brothers. It asks the reader questions: what is the dynamic between the two, from whose point of view is the landscape drawn? And with whom do you most identify – the bigger or the smaller boy? The title also asks questions. What are rules? Are they useful or not? Are they self-imposed or dictated from afar? Are they rules from life experience or simply rules in a game? Only one thing is for sure, this a childhood world we are inhabiting. The images come from the children, and there are no adults present, merely other shapes or beings.

I haven’t said much about the actual pictures – this is because they need to be seen! But the use of colour and light is magnetic – from the yellow heat of the title page, to the dusky sky at nightfall, to the intense shadows created by the sun in the backyards, to the illuminated fantasy land in “Never forget the password.” The muted pastel greys and whites when the smaller boy is taken prisoner are haunting, whereas the vibrant fruit of the still life near the end is warming and intense. Most of these could be artworks hanging on your wall. In fact, I’ve visited The Illustration Cupboard in London and viewed some of Tan’s artworks just so. They are stunning. To buy the book from Waterstones, click here, or see the Amazon sidebar.

Once you’ve read one of these with your children, it’s amazing how much enthusiasm they’ll find for the next book – and then you can gradually start introducing a little text as well – through picture books, comics, graphic novels and illustrated books. Then the magic of the text will start to become apparent as well, as the reader begins to create their own pictures in their heads from the words on the page. And then the reader takes their own flight of the imagination and the seed of wonder of books is sewn….