Wordless Picture Books and Their Offerings for Initiating Literary Prowess

Wordless Picture Books? Click on the link below: Panel includes insight from award-winning author/illustrators Henry Cole, Raúl Colón, Marla Frazee, Stephen Savage, and David Wiesner.

Wordless Picture Book Authors Discuss Their Art

Out of This World: David Wiesner’s Postmodern Literacy Initiative Style

By P.B. White  June 16, 2016

At 11:21 P.M., a man in his pajamas sits eating a sandwich and drinking a glass of milk. His eyebrows are arched and tense with concern, and his eyes are fixed on images in the sky outside his kitchen window. Images of flying frogs atop lily pads wave as they pass his window. Immediately the reader is aware that this man is confounded and keenly aware that he is in a pictorial work of fiction.

This self-conscious and conscientious awareness within a text is indicative of meta-fiction, and the ontology of postmodern style poses this confrontation of colliding worlds. The reader is left to decipher the reality and fantasy collision; a new reality where one fights to maintain one’s logic while a fantastical spell actively seeks to capture one’s speculation.  According to the International Reading Association & National Middle School Association, a picturebook provides “opportunity to read across a variety of types of texts, thus promoting students’ reading ability” (“Middle School Teacher’s Guide” 2001, p.3).  Through his use of metafictive devices paired with a postmodern style, David Wiesner’s (often) wordless picturebooks initiate literacy education while offering bibliotherapy.

Postmodern style challenges the traditional styles in which readers are most familiar. Like the 11.21 P.M. introduction of Tuesday, a David Wiesner book which introduced this article, Wiesner’s books present alternative “architectural” formats for constructing new meanings and promoting new literacies. Let’s explore the metafictive devices often found in the postmodern style within three of David Wiesner’s books: Tuesday, Sector 7, and Flotsam. Let’s looks at their contribution to initiating literacy while offering discussion for bibliotherapy.

In their study of identifying the process of imagery transfer, Gabrielle Simcock and Judy DeLoache tested whether toddlers could imitate specific target actions on real-world objects after viewing picturebooks. Using 132 children who ranged from ages 18 to 30 months, Simcock and DeLoache measured the ability of two groups of children asked to construct a rattle after viewing both color photographs and colored pencil drawings. The study revealed that the children were able to imitate the action depicted in the book. While this study favors comprehension exclusive of phonetic exercise, theorist like Goodman embrace “whole language” development and Rudolf Flesch (Why Johnny Can’t Read 1955) favored returning to phonics after the reading by sight or “look-say” method failed readers presented with new words. The question still remains; what constitutes early reading success?

Phonological sound structure which relates only to speech, and the phonemic awareness method which includes recognizing the units within a sound are interdependent and both have been recognized as foundational to a student’s ability to read but offer little speculation to the prearticulation of language development. In her quest to determine imagery transfer and its ability to initiate reading, Dr. Christa van Kraayenoord created an assessment entitled “Story Construction from a Picture Book,” in which she measured the abilities of Australian children to formulate meaning from pictures. Van Kraayenoord measured six aspects, including “initial examination of the book, remarks about the pictures, elaboration, metalinguistics, revision strategies, and identification of themes or morals.” Her research determined that the standardized reading test scores of the children measured (age 5 and 6) reflected a marked improvement some two years later (May 2001). The study suggests that images play an integral part in initiating literary responses.

In regards to visual representation in children’s literature, Denise Agosto (1999) differentiates between “parallel storytelling,” where the text and illustration tell the story, and the “interdependent storytelling,” where readers have to consider both the text and illustration to comprehend the story (267). Sylvia Pantaleo’s University of Victoria’s study on children’s visual responses to eight picturebooks (including Tuesday) and their ability to verbalize the stories implements Agosto’s categorization schemes to evaluate students’ visual and written responses. The study determined that “for seven of the eight picturebooks, at least one-half of the children’s visual and verbal texts were categorized as interdependent storytelling”(2003). They determined that children needed time to process “how to read illustrations [and to] talk about the art in picture books…Analyzing visual text, and the relationship between word and image makes demands on what are often called ‘higher order reading skills’ and involves deep thinking”(Arizpe & Styles 2001).

While this study concludes that children need time to process text and image, David Wiesner’s work promotes preliminary cognitive skills that do not discriminate but initiate higher thinking skills due to the implementation of metafictive and literary devices consistent with postmodern style as defined by Michèle Anstey (2002). These devices include

  1. Non-traditional plot structure
  2. Using the pictures or text to position the reader to read the text in a particular way, for example, through a character’s eyes or point-of-view
  3. The reader’s involvement with constructing the meaning of the text
  4. Intertextual  references which require the reader to make connections to other books or knowledge in order to better understand the text
  5. Varied design layout and a variety of styles of illustration

Wiesner’s metafictive devices include multiple narrators, intertextuality, indeterminacy, self-refentiality, non-traditional format, contesting discourses, and stories within stories. The fictional literary elements explored will consider theme, plot, setting, and archetypes as well as the rhetorical and literary devices to include: personification, analogies, metaphors and foreshadowing.

In his book Tuesday, the surreal images whirling beyond and around the realistic images of a man eating a late night snack present a dichotomy for Wiesner’s reader. Using Anstey’s definition, the most obvious visual representations of metafiction in Tuesday includes non-traditional format layout, indeterminacy, and multiple narrators which offer a playful use of point of view. The visually illustrative metafictive devices are elements or subsets within these postmodern tendencies that become the literary catalyst for initiating thought. This imagery transfer according to Nigel J.T. Thomas’s search on pictures and consciousness states:

In Aristotelian psychological theory, images play much the same role that the rather broader notion of mental representation plays in modern cognitive science. He [Aristotle] held that mental images play an essential role in memory and thought: memory is the recall to mind of images of past events, and ‘It is impossible to think without an image.’ He also held that images underpin the    meaningfulness of language, and play a key role in motivation. (446)

If we cannot think without images, picturebooks present the perfect vehicle for initiating thought. In the beginning of the book Tuesday, Wiesner instantly offers the literary element of plot introduction through the eyes of various town residences. The invasion of airborne frogs is viewed by a man eating his late-night snack, an elderly woman in her living room, and other unsuspecting residents. The metafictive device of multiple narrators helps to introduce various points of view and according to Wiesner;

The progression of time unfolds the plot via double- paged formatting. Visual editing involves discovering the way to break up the rhythm of the book; the way your eye tracks across the page…my books are very dense with information with big double-page spreads that have a lot going on. You really have to sit and look very carefully…like in Tuesday, where the frogs are flying up in the air, and there’s a panel where they’re spinning somersaults and flying into the town, chasing the birds, really moving quickly across the page. So taking into account how your eye is going to read the position plays into it, too. (“TSWP” par. 4)

Not only does Wiesner use multiple narrators to construct various view points, he additionally utilizes the postmodern technique of doublespread format which oftens excludes borders and frames. It is not uncommon for Wiesner to utilize multiple frames or even pictures within pictures (as in Flotsam). According to Maria Nikolajeva, “the wide range of layouts contributes to the dynamism of the story… [and] multipanel doublespreads create a sense of progression, and can also convey two or more simultaneous actions or events, and even different points of view” (Pantaleo and Sipes, 63). These multiple frames initiate what Nigel Thomas refers to as mentalese, “the hypothetical, innate and unconscious, language of thought” (“Visual” 456). In Tuesday, frogs are pictured in paneled frames which depict an incoming invasion, and the reader can quickly assess the fast progression of time. When the frogs have been creating chaos for five hours, the reader can further imply that another day is beginning with the rising sun upon a corn field image on the following pages. The story within the story (another metafictive device) continues as the frogs enter the house to find a grandmother sleeping in her armchair. The concluding pages reveal disgruntled neighbors, detectives, emergency vehicles, and hound dogs who have been called upon to unravel the mysterious aftermath of lily pads strewn across the neighborhood streets. During this “reading” of images, the reader is often unaware that he or she has actually been following a pattern of “story grammar” or structure that introduces setting, plot, and characters. Judith Graham (1990) believes we need to recognize the “part that illustrations in a picture-book play in the literary development of a reader” ( 7)and “…illustrations in picture books can teach narrative convention” (Graham, 1990; Meek, 1988).

The final pages again pose a time stating, NEXT TUESDAY, 7:58 P.M., and the reader is left to reflect upon a flying pig silhouette as seen on a barn door which is an example of foreshadowing.  Additionally, there is no closure in this last scene of the book. This metafictive device called indeterminacy, prompts the reader to “fill in the gaps” and guesstimate what will happen next Tuesday. This speculation generates predictions and critical thinking, both of which are precursors to reading.

Metafictive devices require the reader to actively engage in the reading experience by filling in gaps (Iser, 1978) or creating and generating predictions and what Michèle Anstey refers to as “indeterminacy of illustrative text, plot character or setting” (447, 2002). Wiesner’s wordless images offer open ended interpretations or multiple meaning possibilities which can expand comprehension if readers are allowed to respond with other classmates.  Sharing image interpretations as a cross cultural social experience in Galda and Beach’s research suggests that children acquired “various social practices, identities and tools in picturebook read aloud sessions which help[ed] in the “construction of meaning” (2001, 66).

Readers may also glean understanding from the representation of social hierarchy that is established in both Tuesday and Sector 7.  In Tuesday, the parental bull frogs await the return of their much delinquent “children” that return to the pond in the wee morning hours. The adult frogs are seen tapping their “fingers” or appendages in anticipation of their “children’s” return. This hierarchy is again apparent in Sector 7 when the young boy is ushered up to the authority’s office to receive his reprimand for introducing his childish ideology of cloud reform. These images of the adult frogs or adult factory managers may serve as metaphors to represent authority figures or signals to signify various social and hierarchical practices. For elementary readers, social hierarchy may be gleaned.

Wiesner whimsically plays with the traditional literary elements of plot, character and setting, but adds the metafictive devices of intertextuality, self-referentiality, multiple narrators and non-traditional format in his book Flotsam. He employs images with subjective imagery or with what Saussure’s theory recognizes as a “signifying system,” which is capable of initiating word association. Readers become semiotic decoders every time they open a picturebook. In Flotsam,  a barnacle encrusted camera washes ashore and settles at the feet of a curious boy who sits staring out at the sea, but it is not just a literal object; it must be decoded by the astute reader. Intertextuality is apparent when a closer look at the camera reveals the name Melville is realized. Wiesner is indeed implementing an allusion to the famous story of Moby Dick written by Herman Melville. The ominous eye of a giant whale watches the camera float by in a multi-paneled illustration which playfully illustrates an iconic and ironic reference.

Self-referentiality, another metafictive device is evident throughout Flotsam as well. Not only does the boy take a picture of himself while holding a photo within a photo of a girl holding another picture of a boy holding a photo, but images of the children taking their own pictures typifies self-referentiality.  Flotsam offers depictions of social connections through culturally diverse geographic locations dating back to the Gibson era. This sort of illustration promotes multiple interpretations as each character’s perspective portrays life under the sea according to his or her brief possession of the camera.  Each child has had his or her own experience with the camera and has documented his or her journey aiding in the development of plot as Wiesner’s imaginative “story grammar” (Alverman 217) continues to follow the journey of the underwater camera.

Dr. David S. Miall whose studies concluded that the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for “anticipation and the contribution of feeling to the functions of the right cerebral hemisphere” plays a central role in interpreting the complexities associated with reading and that interpreting the complexities of imagery is a sort of “grammar” which initiates the early stages of reading (280). Readers are challenged to negotiate the pictorial elements to include color selection (chosen to represent tension, gaiety, fear, etc.), line intensity and stroke patterns which are “analogous to a succession of segmental phonemes that constitute a sentence… However, unlike a proposition formed by words, the constitutive pictorial elements are not fixed like…letters of the alphabet, but are fluctuating marks traced on a surface, inflected by subjectivity” (Arika, 7). In Flotsam the reader is challenged to assimilate the illustration of the underwater mechanical fish and may question why a mechanical clockwork fish is swimming with the other fish. The reader knows that there is no such thing as a mechanical fish, but he or she is prompted to question his or her own logic; one may even use imagination to ponder the possibilities of that which lies beneath the ocean. As the boy continues to survey his pictures, he discovers an octopus in a lounge chair, starfish caught in their early morning exercise, and finally, aliens dancing with seahorses and a clockwork fish. The conflicting discourse of a colliding reality and fantasy prompts an adjustment in schemata.

According to Louise Rosenblatt, reading any literary work requires an aesthetic stance which capitalizes on the transaction “…in which the reader selects out ideas, sensations, feelings, and images drawn from his past and synthesizes them into a new experience…” (1989, p.40).  Indeterminacy is introduced when the boy hurls the camera back into the ocean. The reader is left to “fill in the gaps” and make inferences as to the journey that is yet to occur.

In Sector 7 Wiesner uses the metafictive devices of disruption of time and visually contesting discourses not in the traditional sense of text conflicting with image, but images contesting each other. The reader is asked to infer when they view the boy’s journey as he departs into the sky with his new cloud friend. Their rendezvous at the cloud factory is illustrated through most of the book which seemingly last more than a few hours; however, the boy returns to his classmates’ fieldtrip which realistically should have ended. The reader must infer that only a few hours have passed.

Visually contesting discourses unfolds as students on a field trip arrive at the Empire State Building. A cloud at the top of the building befriends a little boy, and together they take a journey to the cloud’s home or factory in the sky.  In a unified deviance to the norm of the dictatorial staff that runs the factory, the clouds contest the mandate for standard cumulus, stratus, cirrus, and nimbus and their variations. The boy agrees to design new forms for the clouds, and soon the clouds take on the appearances of sea creatures. The factory staff at Sector 7 is outraged, and the boy returns to New York. While text and illustration are not in discourse, it is apparent that there is discourse on two levels: the boy leaving the company of his unified classmates to be part of a journey beyond their reality, and the cloud’s protest to the uniformed and dictatorial staff and their mandate to control the cloud’s formation. These protests are illustrated examples of postmodern theory which considers that which transcends the norm. Michèle Anstey states that the postmodern picturebook has “contesting discourses which require the reader to consider alternate readings and meanings” (447). The discourse provides an opportunity for reader-response beyond the literal images. While students benefit from a working vocabulary which is often needed to articulate, the ability to identify details within the images translates to other disciplines. Melissa Thibault and David Walbert note that not only are observation skills needed but the ability to employ critical thinking techniques.     Critique, useful in considering what should be included in an essay in Language Arts, is also a part of examining a visual image. Deconstruction, employed in mathematical problem solving, is used with images to crop and evaluate elements and how they relate to the whole. Discerning point of view or bias is important in   analyzing advertisements and works of art. (“Reading” par. 5)

The contesting images create a familiar sensation of discord. The images seem to be “screaming” their dissatisfaction with each other. The visuals may help students to assimilate and reduce the “language load” (Miller & Endo, 2004) which facilitates learning especially for English language learners (ELLs) (Wood & Tinajero, 2002).

Picturebooks may also be used to visually teach literary and rhetorical devices. Connections for synthesizing concepts may be accomplished through the theme. In all three books the theme of a journey is evident. In Sector 7 a little boy journeys to a cloud factory. In Tuesday frogs journey out of their world or pond and invade a neighborhood. In Flotsam the reader follows the journey of a camera into the deep abyss of the sea. Rhetorical or literary devices like personification are used when the frogs enter the home through the chimney and begin to watch television even controlling the remote with the extension of their tongues. The stretching starfish are completing their morning exercises, and octopi read books in recliners in Flotsam, while lantern fish use their extensions to light the living room under lampshades.

In Sector 7, disgruntled clouds show anger, fear and resentment to the bureaucratic mandates of the factory personnel.  In Tuesday frogs behave like pilots navigating their lily pads to their destination of choice. Irony is apparent at the end of Tuesday as the reader is made aware of the potential for flying pigs the following Tuesday. Allusion, or a reference to a famous person or event, is apparent in Tuesday when a flying frog is seen with a makeshift Batman cape. Allusion is again apparent in Sector 7 when the young boy develops the film and discovers frames that have children holding pictures of other children who are in turn holding pictures of other children. The picture dates back to the Gibson Era. Another allusion or intertextual reference in Flotsam may be evident in that the camera found by the boy is labeled Melville Underwater Camera; it was Herman Melville who wrote the story Moby Dick about the sailor Ishmael and his voyage to capture a monstrous whale. This iconic whale may be what Wiesner was illustrating in his depiction of a whale with an ominous eye that watches the camera pass him.

Many creators of postmodern books utilize these intertextual images which help the constructs of thought while offering wit.  In Chokoladeeskapade (“The Chocolate Escapades” 1998), a small book in a background illustration bears the title “Uncle Tom’s chocolate cabin” (Nikolajeva 68), and Anton elsker Ymer (2006), by Liliam Brogger, uses format to depict antonyms by placing opposites on either side of a spread (Nikolajeva 68).

Postmodern books not only afford educators the opportunity to initiate literacy through prompting the prearticulation necessary for reading, or the patterns for understanding story structure, or visual conceptualizations for literary devices, but the illustrations may also offer bibliotherapy. Picturebooks offer opportunities for realizing expressions at both the unconscious and conscious level which may allow students to articulate their struggles. Stress points can be identified to include achievement and self-efficacy, the need to communicate, and social and personal fears associated with alienation and loss. Teachers may employ what is known as “developmental bibliotherapy” where discussions about the texts are encouraged. Hugh Crago recognizes Freud’s approach called ‘the talking cure’ as beneficial to helping students formulate thought through their reader-response (Hunt 180). G. O. Ireland was one of the first theorists to propose that literature might be a resolution to helping student’s contend with inner turmoil (Cook, Earles, Vollrath, & Ganz 2006). According to Herbert & Kent (2000), bibliotherapy can promote personality growth and development. Opening the channels for discussion helps promote social unity and personal awareness.

In Flotsam readers may glean camaraderie from the illustrations of the various children represented in the film upon development. The multicultural representation of children projects a socially unified perspective which may serve to strengthen interpersonal skills and social communication.  Sector 7 indirectly teaches how to respectfully disagree while imparting interpersonal skills and strategies associated with dealing with authorities. This is evident from the illustration where the boy is being led away by the arm up a stairs where he is assumed to be disciplined by the factory bureaucrats or authorities. The scene resembles a child being led by a principal to his/her office. The boy looks over his shoulder and waves good-bye to his cloud friend, much like a child might wave good-bye to his classmates. This subplot may prompt a social or political response from a reader who empathizes with the boy who is seen listening to the complaints of the clouds and their wish to take on a more creative form in the sky. This revolt may serve as a sign or a metaphor for social reform and closely parallels any student’s own wish to dictate their creative space within their environment. Reader response at this point may include discussion on rebellion, conformity, isolation, or even hopelessness. The reader may recognize that the clouds are under the jurisdiction of the factory bureaucrats much like students are under the jurisdiction of teachers and administration. The bureaucrats are even illustrated with megaphones, rulers, charts, and they are dressed in a uniform manner. The women sport long black skirts, reminiscent of witches.  Their style is iconic with “old fashioned” hair buns while all of the men wear white collared shirts with black ties pinched in at the neck, blue vests, and black pants. Denise von Stockar states, “The iconographic elements constitute the message of a picture which corresponds, from a linguistic point of view, to the letters, as graphic elements, that come together to form words, then sentences, then paragraphs and chapters of a book” (Ibby 2003).

In scene after scene the characters’ facial features express disappointment, disgust, anger, and even outrage. The illustration of an apparent authority sneers angrily into the eyes of the little boy as he is backed into his cloud friend. His cloud friend is being sneered by a woman authority with black beady eyes. She holds a pencil and pad in hand, and she charts his noncompliance. The scene is reminiscent of two boys caught in the act of what is seemingly being charged as disobedience or non-conformity, is perhaps childishness and nothing more. This sort of scenario is played out every day in both the elementary and secondary classrooms. Readers may identity with the predicament that is presented which closely resembles the ambiguously drawn lines of implied policy that is mandated by administrators and staff in many schools. Wiesner drew the factory to reflect “architecture from Grand Central Station, the old Penn station, this great old building where they used to store trolleys. But it started with this drawing of these guys working these big machines, and there’s a lot of steam”.(“The sky’s the limit” par. 1).  The images offer a metaphorical analogy for a bustling environment much like the school buildings within most major suburbs or cities. The steam offers another sign for reflection and interpretation. Not only do the sights and sounds offer an opportunity for metaphorical analysis, but a therapeutic response may be shared by way of catharsis when discussing the visual elements.  Whether discussing a text openly with peers or assimilating an individualized encounter, Hugh Crago maintains that “the ‘merging’ of reader and text will occur when the correspondence is partly or wholly metaphorical” (Hunt 185).

A child may vicariously experience self-empowerment when viewing the response of the clouds after the boy returns to the Empire State Building. The boy’s creative toil was not in vain as the clouds have now revolted to take on the creative forms that he introduced. Fish, cats and classmates look on in amazement at the modernized and creative forms that the clouds boast to include: giant blow fish, angel fish, octopi, squids, and other sea creatures. The illustration of the boy drawing new forms for the clouds may be seen as self-efficacy (the belief in one’s ability to achieve a goal) which is representationally transferable. A reader may feel empowered by the young boy’s ability to reform a system. This self-efficacy according to Bandura (1997) comes from four sources: mastery experiences, vicarious experiences and social persuasion and affective states. Literature has the power to increase self-efficacy (self-concept and self-esteem) development which in turn may affect academic behavior and performance. This development of self-efficacy affects interest and according to Lent et al (1994), suggests “interest in a particular academic…activity depends in part, on the outcomes that are anticipated to result from participation in the activity, along with the relative value or importance of these outcomes to the individual” ( p.91). In Flotsam, the reader vicariously experiences the interchange of children from other decades. This affords the reader an opportunity to enter into a social exchange of identity. The camera has journeyed to the Americas, China, Japan, Norway, the Artic, and the Caribbean.

If readers are not to judge Wiesner’s books by their covers, perhaps they can judge them on their literary merit which unfolds through the journeys within the pages. Wiesner’s postmodern style coupled with his ability to utilize metafictive devices to include narrative framing (stories within the story), disruptions of traditional time and space relationship, intertextuality, indeterminacy, contesting discourses, nontraditional format, and multiple narrators result in new literacies prompted by the re-assimilation of new schemas while offering bibliotherapy.

Just as the camera is returned to the sea by the little boy at the end of Flotsam, the metaphorical implication suggests that limitless new discoveries await our interpretative responses, and that we are only subject to our willingness to open a picturebook and turn the page for a new journey.

 References upon request.
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