“Thinking is a bit like swimming because it takes a while to get good at it but soon you can go deeper.” (Marlee, aged 9). [quoted on pg. 8]
It would be silly for me to say that the quote above gives you all the reasons you need to buy this book; that in reading it, you’ll know exactly how Marlee came to feel this way. It might also seem like an especially cheeky way of getting out of writing this review. But still, it speaks volumes about the content of this book. Mary Roche has created a bright, engaging, and academically rigorous study of the powerful role that picturebooks play in the primary classroom. She has just been has been highly Commended for its significant contribution to the teaching of English at the UKLA academic book awards.
Ever since I attended a revelatory course on the power of developing talk through art and saw the benefits in class, I’ve place great stock in the value of high quality dialogue in the early years and primary classroom led by visual prompts. In an era of high stakes accountability and a not-so-slimmed down – thank you very much – curriculum, the critical and central role of speaking, listening – thinking even – can fall prey to the relentless march towards the next prescribed element of our relatively girthy English and maths programmes of study. Fairly regularly, I am asked to speak about the best ways in which to provide stretch and challenge for children or to share some tried and tested ways in which to foster the highest standards in writing. At times, there is almost a tangible sense of disappointment when the “magic bullet” that I offer centres on choosing excellent texts, and giving the time and space to appreciate and explore them through careful dialogue around their explicit and implicit messages. In fact, it has often been described as “brave” to take the time to share a book and spend quality time on it. The longer we spend thinking about this notion, the more inevitably sad it seems.
Roche believes very firmly in the power of the good and great of literature, focusing here on mining the eternally rich literary seam of the picturebook. The status of picturebooks has never been higher, fuelled by combination of years of thought-provoking, beautiful releases and a rapidly growing community of picturebook advocates (see below for a selection of blogs/websites). Roche’s book serves as a fantastic primer for getting the most from the best of this exciting form. It provides a theoretical foundation (both in terms of pedagogic and formal concerns) and covers the use of critical thinking and dialogic approaches to deepen children’s understanding and their own use of language. The book is alive with real classroom practice and a sense of purpose (“…to deepen understanding of more equitable forms of literacy pedagogy”, and to develop readers “who can look beneath the surface and challenge any assumptions and premises that may be hidden there and who can examine their own assumptions and discuss them with others.” That sounds good to me). Through its case studies, anecdotes and appendices, it offers up a bevy of books ripe for exploding young minds, in the best possible sense. Some of these books are tried-and-tested widely-known classics, but I have Mary to thank for subjecting my debit card to further abuse in the pursuit of new, unknown pleasures. It even has me excited about a book about eels -I certainly didn’t see that coming.
This book joins the ranks of some of my favourite writing on children’s reading – from Aidan Chamber’s Tell Me through to last year’s Opening Doors to Famous Poetry and Prose by Bob Cox. All share the same message: it may well be “brave” to linger on a good book in the primary classroom, to enjoy it and then explore it in depth, but to use a time-honoured quote, fortune favours the brave. More importantly, it will favour the children in your charge. Highly recommended.
Discover new Books through Blogs and Twitter
Besides the usual websites that we recommend to help find the next great book to set your class alight, there’s a vital and growing community of blogs and websites devoted to the best of children’s literature. Here’s a list of some of the very best:
Follow on Twitter (warning: may harm budgets!)
@ playbythebook – everything book related for children
@magpiethat – picture books, picture books, picture books
@pbooksblogger – picture books, illustration
@pbookmakers – takes you behind the scenes
@Mat_at_Brookes – children’s books advocate par excellence
@marygtroche – well, naturally, the author of Developing Critical Thinking herself
@maybeswabey – aka The Book Sniffer – picture book fanatic
@librarymice – book lover and blogger
Blogs and Websites
Mrripleysenchantedbooks.com – an extensive listing for other book-related blogs. Not all for children but plenty of interest for primary.