While working in the bookstore at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA, I learned to look at the pictures of picture books. I mean really look. The Carle uses an education model called “Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS)," which encourages viewers of art (in any form...illustrations, paintings, photographs, etc.) to ask these questions when looking:
1) What’s going on in this picture?
2) What do you see that makes you say that?
3) What more can you find?
These simple questions help facilitate critical thinking, observation skills, and discussion. As a word/story oriented person myself, this strategy really opened my eyes to looking deeply into the art. Ironically, this is what most children do naturally- as they are being read to, they are hearing the story while studying the picture with their eyes, not distracted by having to read the text on the page. They are able to glean information from both the story and the picture, simultaneously. Naturally, this makes perfect sense- it is the brilliance of the picture book format. But as we grow older, we are less likely to spend time on pictures, as they are removed from our primary reading materials and only used as a secondary means of communitcation. Thus, as adults reading picture books with children, and as interpreters of our larger world, it is important for us all to look closer at the cues around us, not just at the information given to us in words or what meets the eye at a moment’s glance. I find that I can call upon VTS not just in experiences with art and books, but also in engaging with the world around me each day. Look. Notice. Culitivate awareness. Gain knowledge. These are things I am consistently working to do.
When reading picture books with children, the VTS method can be helpful as a prompt to increase focus & engagement. You may be surprised at how much they notice- and the interesting discussions that these prompts lead to!
What lead to this reminiscence was a rereading of “The Night Gardener” by Terry & Eric Fan. In this book, the art begins telling the story before the words. The stage is set on the first 3 pages- A grey, dreary road called Grimloch Lane; a man with a ladder; a sad boy sitting outside of a large brick building. On the fourth page, it is night, and there is color- we see the man with the ladder, the ladder leaned against a tree, the man holding shears. On page 5, the title page, we see the man climbing the ladder and beginning to trim the tree- outside of the brick building, bearing the words, “Grimloch Orphanage.”
There is so much information we can collect from just these pages- all before the story’s text even begins! And when it does begin, it doesn’t disappoint- the story continues, and we follow the boy and the Night Gardener- as the days, the trees, the colors, and the people in the town change. It's a heartfelt tale about kindness, inspiration, and community- and how a simple act of caring can make all the difference. The story is told through the feel of the art as much as the words, creating a true beauty of a book. It's almost an intro to magical realism... in a world where the real can be magical (which is our world, right?)
This is a perfect book to try using Visual Thinking Strategies on- you may just find a deeper and enlightening way of reading and seeing! Best of all, VTS doens't feel didatic- it is truly an interactive, organic process that lets the imagination and the art take center stage, all the while harnessing real-world skills like observation, critical thinking, and using context clues. I hope you enjoy this book, and this mini introduction to VTS! Look for "The Night Gardener" on an upcoming "Best of" List.
If you want additional activities to go along with this book, you can find printable activities, provided by the publisher, here!