Friday, November 4, 2011

Telling Stories with Words and Pictures - Guest Post

Tips on visual literacy from author/illustrator, Peter Carnavas.

Peter Carnavas grew up in Brisbane and on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. He later became a primary school teacher and taught for five years at Clermont State School. It was during his time as a teacher that Peter began to immerse himself in picture books and take his storytelling a little more seriously.

Peter’s first book, Jessica’s Box, was published by New Frontier in 2008. His tale of a little girl’s attempt to find friendship was shortlisted for the 2008 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award, the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s 2009 Crichton Award for Emerging Illustrators and was listed as a CBCA Notable Book for 2009.

Peter’s second book, Sarah’s Heavy Heart, was released in 2009, his third book, The Important Things was released in May 2010 and Last Tree in the City was released in late 2010. His fifth book, The Great Expedition, was released in May 2011.

Peter has presented at the Brisbane Writers Festival, Voices on the Coast Youth Literature Festival and the CYA Conference. He has delivered talks and workshops to many school children along the east coast of Australia. His books have been translated into many languages, including German, Italian, Portuguese, Taiwanese, Slovenian and Dutch.

Peter lives on the Sunshine Coast with his wife, two daughters and a scruffy dog that occasionally escapes.

Telling Stories with Words and Pictures
by Peter Carnavas

As an author and illustrator, it is my business to tell stories with words and pictures. In picture books, these two elements must work together to create meaning for the reader. This interdependence, the marriage of words and pictures, has always fascinated me and is what motivates me to make my own stories. In this article I hope to demonstrate how my books can introduce children to the ways in which words and pictures combine to make meaning.

Jessica’s Box
When I read the opening pages of Jessica’s Box to children, I always ask them where they think Jessica is going. They invariably answer correctly – to school – and wonder why I asked such an obvious question. I then explain to them that this is never mentioned in the text. They work it out by analysing the information presented: Jessica’s excitement and anxiety, her desire to make friends, the family’s conversations, the school bag on her back. Without realising it, children listen to the story but also construct their own meaning by reading the pictures and what is implied in the text. This is often called inferring, one of the most important skills children develop as readers. It is sometimes difficult to teach but children do it all the time and it is important for them to recognise when they do.

Sarah’s Heavy Heart
I love stories that say a lot with the opening line. This is what I wanted to do with Sarah’s Heavy Heart. It’s a simple sentence – Sarah had a heavy heart – but the meaning comes from its connection to the illustration, in which we see a girl hunched over, carrying an enormous heart on her back. The size of the heart emphasises her troubles but it is the white space surrounding her that drives it home. Everything around her is blank, empty, nothingness. When I explain this to children they immediately understand. I then contrast this opening with the final double page illustration: a full colour spread with a bright blue sky, rolling green hills and a smile on Sarah’s face. It’s an effective visual literacy lesson for children to learn and one they can easily identify and replicate.

The Important Things
There is a page in The Important Things which tells the reader that Christopher’s father is not around. This is purposely left open for children to interpret in their own ways, by using a phrase – his father had faded from their lives – accompanied by an illustration that reflects this (the colour faded from a photograph on the wall). The discussion that ensues is always interesting and, of course, should be dealt with sensitively. Children understand the feelings of the characters also by reading the illustration, including body language, expressions and a broom against the wall. Asking children what they know about the characters reveals just how much they infer while reading.

Last Tree in the City
The opening pages of Last Tree in the City do not mention Edward’s feelings towards the city but children understand clearly. With open questions – “What story is being told by the colours?” – children will answer and touch on many aspects of visual literacy and storytelling. They will tell you about the dullness of the city, the colour (and optimism) of Edward, the contrast between the boy and his environment and his subsequent feeling of isolation. They are complex themes but children understand them in picture books. The happiest page contains a slightly abstract phrase – Edward knew nothing but the tree – however children can hear it while reading the illustration and make perfect sense of it. This happiness is immediately followed by two spreads dominated by white space and, once again, children understand the emotional shift being told by the words and the pictures.

I have mentioned just a few ways in which these stories can be used with children in the classroom. The combination of words and pictures is a favourite theme of mine and it is something that children can grasp very well, as they are constantly reading into the illustrations and text in picture books. Through open questions and discussion, children can get a lot out of these lessons in visual literacy.
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