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The Whole Book Approach Meets Critical Literacy

We’re happy to feature this guest post by author Megan Dowd Lambert. In addition to many other accomplishments (see her bio. below), Megan, in association with the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, has developed the Whole Book Approach, a process building on Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) that focuses on the picture book as a visual art form, and explores with children the picture book’s “materiality” as a way of making and expanding meaning. Discover more about the approach in her book, Reading Picture Books with Children: How to Shake Up Storytime and Get Kids Talking About What They See (Charlesbridge 2015). This piece is adapted from an essay in Megan’s forthcoming collection Book Bonds: A Family’s Reading Life, and from a piece called “A Message from Megan,” which she wrote as part of her development of new Whole Book Approach Storytime Sets for grades Pre-K – 5 with educational distributor Steps to Literacy. The Sets are available for pre-order for the 2020-2021 school year.


“Books do not simply happen to people. People also happen to books.”

~Louise Rosenblatt [1]

The Whole Book Approach is a co-constructive storytime model rather than a performance-based one--or put another way, it's a way of reading with children, as opposed to reading to them--and I'm always careful to stress that there is no one right way to do it. Inspired by scholar Louise Rosenblatt (quoted above) my hope is that the Whole Book Approach can help teachers and other adults let children "happen" to books by making kids' voices as important to the storytime experience as the books themselves are. I therefore advocate that adults strive to center children's responses to picture book art and design during shared readings. 

This striving is achieved, in part, through open-ended questions inspired by Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) [2] and Dialogic Reading [3] techniques that prompt children to read pictures, reflect on design, and engage in metacognition to assert evidentiary thought, a cornerstone of critical thinking. What I’ve found time and again is that by welcoming children to talk about art and design and affirming that I care about what they have to say, they are empowered to take risks in their learning. In my experience, children often first comment on characters, and the shifting of power from the adult reader to child readers can invite students to critically engage with picture book characterization because they don’t feel they must defer to the adult response or interpretation of the story. When this happens, the Whole Book Approach’s structural and aesthetic inquiry gives way to, or becomes entwined with, ideological discussions about representations of race, gender, class, and other aspects of identity.

Given these possibilities, I’ve become increasingly invested in the potential for Whole Book Approach storytimes to engage in Critical Literacy. To paraphrase Drs. Paulo Friere and Donaldo Macedo [4], Critical Literacy holds that when one reads a text, one also reads the world; or, put another way, one brings one’s reading of the world to one’s reading of the text, and then in a generative cycle, one can bring that reading of the text back to the world. There’s an obvious connection to Rosenblatt’s notion of “people happen[ing] to books" here, and to what Drs. Wanda M. Brooks and Susan Browne call “culturally-situated reader response”[5] in their excellent piece in the journal Children’s Literature in Education. Another recent piece of scholarship in Language Arts by Drs. Vivian Vasquez, Hilary Janks, and Barbara Comber builds on this foundational work to assert “Critical literacy as a way of being and doing,” [6] with the key points that: 

  1. Texts are socially constructed from particular perspectives; they are never neutral. 
  2. The ways we read text are never neutral. 

My book doesn’t explicitly address Critical Literacy, but some of the storytime discussion plans for titles in the Whole Book Approach Storytime Sets do build on scholarship in this vein. I intentionally included such content in the plans because my picture book curation was consciously aimed at including a range of books by diverse authors and illustrators who employ varied styles and approaches to content. To paraphrase Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop [7], I believe that all children need books that can act as mirrors of their own experiences, and books that can act as windows or sliding glass doors into others’ experiences. I am also mindful of the fact that prioritizing books by and about BIPOC in collection development and curriculum is just the first step in enacting antiracist pedagogy. Doing so has the potential to uplift BIPOC students and to transform White students’ learning by encouraging them toward true empathy, which must be premised on listening to the voices of BIPOC. But just putting diverse books on our shelves, or even reading them aloud isn’t enough. 

To expand on this point, I turn to a story about my teenaged son’s experience in his ninth grade English class. No, they weren’t reading picture books, but his experience reading Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun, in school can shed light on my point about how Critical Literacy practice with its awareness of links between the text and the world is essential to students’ learning. While my son enjoyed reading the play itself, and noticed its title’s reference to Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem,” he shared that it was uncomfortable for him as a Black student to sit in a majority-White classroom listening to his classmates read the play aloud in what he termed “Black southern dialects,” that sounded like so much mocking.

“I can imagine that’s really hard,” I told him. “You deserve to learn in your classroom, and how can you learn if you’re feeling so uncomfortable or if you’re distracted from the text by other peoples’ readings?” 

He got nervous. “I was just venting,” he told me. “Please don’t go and email my teacher or do anything crazy!”

The no emailing request was one I couldn’t fulfill, though I promised Stevie I would be measured in my response. “I’m a teacher, too,” I told him. “And if one of my students were feeling this way, I would want to know.”

Stevie’s teacher responded to my email with compassion, and he immediately reinforced with the class that they were to in no way mock or enact caricatures of the dialogue as they read aloud.

“Is it any better?” I asked Stevie after hearing about this turn of events.

“Yeah,” he said. “And he was really cool about it. He didn’t say anything about me or your email or anything.”

The relief in my son’s voice was palpable, and I was relieved, too, since I’d taken a risk in going against Stevie’s wishes to contact his teacher. Critical Literacy asserts that when we read a text, we are reading the world because the text is a reflection of its time and place of production, and because we read that text in the context of our lived experience. My son, and all BIPOC, need and deserve to see their realities reflected back to them in literature and to have the contexts in which they read be seen and honored, too. Stevie’s teacher recognized that truth, which enabled my son to build trust in him, and therefore to learn from him. 

It follows that Whole Book Approach storytimes and other co-constructive models for shared reading can only be successful if they honor the contexts that child readers bring to texts. I encourage educators to turn to the work of scholars like those I’ve cited here to help you create safe, nurturing learning environments for all of your students so they can be active constructors of meaning during your shared readings. To this point, here are some tips I offer in my Whole Book Approach trainings to help educators support children’s critical engagement and risk-taking in their learning:

  1. Welcome diverse, and perhaps conflicting, responses—without enabling false equivalencies; 
  2. Be willing to stretch beyond your own readings and interpretations in order to allow students a full range of responses, ranging from the celebratory to the resistant in their readings; 
  3. Attend to power dynamics within the reading transaction while respecting: 
    • the authority we adults have over all children in our society; 
    • children of marginalized identities voicing concern about exclusion, and the need to hold space for their critiques as they make themselves vulnerable in asserting them; 
    • children of marginalized identities voicing concern about representation of “mirror” characters, and the need to hold space for their critiques.

For additional inspiration and resources on leading, see the “Reading Picture Books with Children through a Race-Conscious Lens” webinar I co-led with Sarah Hannah Gómez for Embrace Race, and check out "Using K-3 Picture Books to Talk About Race & Racism With Children" for documentation of rich, VTS-informed storytime discussions emerging from the Diverse BookFinder.

As I continue my own storytime practice, I’m always eager to see what happens when I meet with children in the pages of picture books, and I’d love to hear about your storytime experiences too. Please reach out to me at my website, www.megandowdlambert.com, or find me on Twitter to let me know how you and the children in your life are “happening” to picture books.

——

Megan Dowd Lambert earned her MA in Children’s Literature at Simmons University (formerly, Simmons College), where she taught in some capacity for more than a decade. Her experiences as a White mother of seven children in a blended, multiracial, queer, adoptive family inform her work as a children’s book author, reviewer, and educator. Megan reviews and writes for Kirkus and The Horn Book, is a consultant with EmbraceRace: A Community about Race and Kids, and serves as a member of the Curation Team of OurShelves. Megan’s books include Reading Picture Books with Children: How to Shake Up Storytime and Get Kids Talking About What They See (Charlesbridge 2015); and three picture books,  A Crow of His Own and A Kid of Their Own, illustrated by David Hyde Costello, and Real Sisters Pretend, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell (see link to this book in our collection below). Her essay collection, Book Bonds: A Family’s Reading Life, will publish in 2022.

Footnotes

  1. Rosenblatt, Louise. “The Acid Test for Literature Teaching.” In Making Meaning with Texts, Heinemann, 1956, 2005, pp. 62-71.
  2. Visit the Visual Thinking Strategies homepage to learn more about Dr. Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine’s innovative work, which greatly influenced my development of the Whole Book Approach.
  3. See this link for more information about Dr. Grover Whitehurst’s development of Dialogic Reading.
  4. Freire, P. and Macedo, D.P. “A Dialogue: Culture, Language, and Race.” Harvard Educational Review Vol. 65, No. 3, Fall, 1995.
  5. Brooks, Wanda M. and Susan Browne. “Towards a Culturally Situated Reader Response Theory.” Children’s Literature in Education: An International Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 1, Mar. 2012, pp. 74-85.
  6. Vasqeuz, Janks, and Comber. “Critical Literacy as a Way of Being and Doing.” Language Arts, Volume 96, Number 5, May 2019.
  7. Bishop, Rudine Sims. “Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors.” Perspectives: Using and Choosing Books for the Classroom, vol. 6, no. 3, Summer 1990.
Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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