By Laura Vida Wilkinson
Here is 4-year-old me. Engrossed in a picture book about wizards, I am oblivious to both my younger sister and camera-wielding mother. Other books in the same Usborne Story Books series are spread out beside me. This photograph was not staged; rather, it illustrates one of the best elements of my childhood: my parents loved books and surrounded us with them. I still remember my father ceremoniously whipping out a large, hardback copy of Babar the King (Jean de Brunhoff, 1933) from under his bed one morning. Unable to read the script, de Brunhoff’s illustrations made the greatest impression; they could be poured over later in my own private retellings. From an early age I also chose my own books and treasured them. Folding pages over as markers and scribbling on books were simply not on. I am still happiest when surrounded by visually appealing, well-written books; the anticipation of a book is very much part of the pleasure.
This summer, I presented Wizards (pictured above) to various reluctant readers in P3 with remarkable results. Immediately hooked by the front cover, every single child was drawn in, keen to read the illustrations first. Poking her head around the door, one astonished parent remarked: “She never does that with me!” Her child was reading aloud fluently and with (uncharacteristic) enthusiasm! She was completely under the spell of the book. Yet picture books such as these are underrated despite being integral to phonics reading programs such as Read Write Inc. Many children today feel ashamed to read books with pictures when they should have advanced to Chapter Books. There is a falsely held belief that children need to grow out of picture books, the sooner the better. By looking in more detail at ‘Wizards’, I want to illustrate the educational value of picture books. There is a reason why images abound on social media and in printed magazines and newspapers: they make text more accessible.
On its cover, Wizards features a brightly coloured wizard reading a large book of spells. Subliminally, reading is linked to magic. Did Usborne’s consultants at the Centre for the Teaching of Reading (University of Reading) have a hand in this? Perhaps children’s illustrator Stephen Cartwright needed no advice there. His decision to surround the wizard with small, active creatures is genius: children are drawn to moving animals. A frog peeps out from behind a jar of worms. There are mice, a dangling spider, a cat, a poster of a bat and yet more revolting worms- yuk! Meanwhile, above a burning candle sits a vial of purple potion which drips into a hanging jar. What could be more thrilling?
Six short stories (2-8 pages long) are included in Wizards. There is a short but entertaining introduction to the different kinds of wizard. Then the stories get longer as the child’s confidence and enthusiasm grows. The book closes with a visual puzzle: help the young knight negotiate the correct bridges, crossing a magic river to rescue a mystery lady. There are no princesses or unicorns to disenchant the boys here! The final, unexpected page surprises the child with a question: This magician has made a man disappear. What will he reappear as? I wonder what? Thus the child is encouraged to keep imagining; the manifold possibilities of words are opened up here.
The storytelling in Wizards is episodic with clear, concise language. Each manageable chunk of story has an accompanying illustration. Thus a child who cannot yet read will still be able to follow the story and even retell it. Unknown words can be guessed at allowing the stories to flow. Most words are decodable and there is a good smattering of HFWs (High Frequency Words) such as ‘was’ and ‘saw’ for practice. Potentially new words (miser, orphan etc.) crop up sporadically so that a child’s vocabulary is extended. The plots tend to be funny with an element of slapstick. In one story, a wife is last spotted chasing her husband with a mirror. The child is left to imagine what will happen next. In another, Zog (the Wizard’s helper) foolishly administers the wrong potion, leading a bald man to sprout long orange hair. On his return, the Wizard furiously tips the rest of the potion over Zog’s head. Hilarious.
Ultimately, each story offers an escape into an intriguing yet comical magical world. The combined achievement of the Usborne team (Rawson, Cartwright et al.) is to enable the sort of escapism that is commonly reserved for more advanced readers. For a teacher, such books offer endless possibilities for creative writing, drama and discussion, all of which enable a child to explore and articulate other worlds. The last thing a struggling reader needs is to be overwhelmed by a page of solid text. Images are key since they engage, intrigue and lure. Whereas words are often off-putting to a child who lacks confidence, pictures are both inviting and encouraging. Black and white alone can alienate; colourful pictures enthuse, involve and entertain. Thus I would argue that parents and teachers alike should not distinguish so readily between picture books and chapter books, books and magazines. Neither is inherently better than the other. By encouraging hierarchy, adults discourage children from reading picture books such as Wizards. Such books are instrumental in conjuring up lifelong readers.
By Laura Vida Wilkinson