Thursday, January 14, 2010

Watching for Clues

When we are in a country where we don’t know the language, we look for clues—visual clues. We watch the expressions on people’s faces to gauge whether or not we're communicating effectively, we observe the direction people are moving in to see where to go, and we take note of how others are using any unusual utensils for a meal we’ve never eaten.

A good picture book gives children hints as to what’s going on. The illustrations help youngest children become oriented to the setting and the characters. And if a book is funny, as with Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin’s Click, Clack, ABC, the pictures may work in tandem with the text, expand on the text, or create a contrast with the text to create humor.

For babies and toddlers, a good book makes them feel comfortable in surroundings that seem familiar, and then nudges them to discover new things. When humor is involved, they feel like they’re in on the joke. Toddlers look at the cover of Click, Clack, ABC and know they’re in a barnyard. They see the red barn, and the animals. They also see that the animals seem to be headed together in the same direction, and a cow is licking its lips. What could this mean? On further readings, they might realize that “a” corresponds with “animals,” “b” with “barn,” and “c” stands for the "cat" that’s playing with the ball of yarn.

Inside the book, there’s a great deal of silliness and humor. They find, for "g" and "h": “Goats grooming, hens helping.” Do goats “groom”? We’ve all seen animals in our own homes and neighborhoods, in zoos or on TV grooming each other. Dogs lick their puppies, cats clean their kittens, monkeys pick things out of their siblings’ fur. But here a yellow goat is combing the beard of a white goat—literally, with a comb! That’s funny! And two hens are “helping” by tying a kerchief around the neck of the yellow goat.

Cronin and Lewin take a child’s interest in letters, in being able to express themselves and communicate with others, and also their natural fascination with animals, and the information that they've likely already absorbed about the farmyard, and give children a chance to play. Afterwards, like the animals, children can take a well-deserved siesta (“Zzzzzz”).

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