I am not an artist, a creator, and certainly not a performer. Instead, I am here to represent all those who are the recipients of art, its audience, readers, viewers, listeners. I am here to celebrate those who re-create the work of art each time they encounter it. I bring these re-creators to you in the form of two young children, Rebecca and Ralph. I offer you some of their responses to picture books and my responses to their responses taken from records kept (usually on a daily basis) in a series of 26 journals (some 6,000 pages) from birth to approximately eight years of age. The children are 3 years, 3 months apart, with Rebecca being the elder.1
A ‘double dialogue’ applies particularly well to picture books, which are inescapably multivalent. They include pictures and words, and, for the pre-reader, oral performance as well, as the words have to be read aloud by someone else. So, there is usually also a double audience: the looking, listening child and the reading mediator. As with any work of fiction, there is also the double dialogue of the ontology or world of the story and its relationship to the external world.
Reading performances vary. There is the actor who enjoys playing all parts, putting on voices for every character, using onomatopoeia. And there is the person who prefers the words to speak for themselves as much as possible, the expressive but non-dramatic reader. I suspect you all, to a person, are the first variety – I am the second.
In the re-creation of a work of art, if it is a narrative, an important part is the filling of what Wolfgang Iser (1972) calls ‘telling gaps.’ We are often not even aware of these voids or openings, filling them without thinking about them consciously, but the child discusses the process, foregrounding it. This paper will first look at responses to perhaps the best known of all picture books, Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. Then it will discuss the different categories of gaps to be found in picture books.
The most discussed gap in Where the Wild Things Are is the absence of the mother. She is there in the words (“his mother called him ‘WILD THING’ and Max said ‘I’LL EAT YOU UP!’ so he was sent to bed without eating anything”). Sendak himself has said that this is deliberate, because he wants all children to fill the mother position for themselves. Neither of my children asked where the mother was, they were just happy to accept that she was outside the room (or the frame).
The other widely discussed gap is in the interpretation of the fantasy world, “the place where the Wild Things are”. The book does not say Max’s adventure was a dream, but many critics maintain that this understanding is essential to understanding the story as a whole. Aidan Chambers has said that “the profound meaning” of the book cannot be discovered unless one realises that “Max has dreamt his journey to the Wild Things, that in fact the Wild Things are Max’s own creation” (1985: 48). Although others find the dream explanation compelling, I prefer to read the story as fantasy rather than as a dream. One knows that the Wild Things are part of Max, an extension of his aggressive impulses which he has to learn to bring under conscious control, but this is a different level of interpretation from that of accepting the story as a dream (as previously argued in Lowe ). If one reads it as a dream – that Max fell asleep and all this was only a dream rather than an alternative world – the book loses its impact. The ‘dream’ explanation was never suggested to Rebecca and Ralph.
Rebecca had known the book since 1:6 (one year, six months), but had not heard it for some four months at 2:11 when I chose to read it at Playgroup. At the end, she asked “How did the forest get away from his bedroom?” This was her first querying of the basis of fantasy in any book. Until then, she had accepted the fantasy elements without query, as part of the story. My answer was “Perhaps it was just pretend” – meaning the whole story was a fantasy story and logical explanations were unnecessary.
She was 3:8 before the topic came up again, again at Playgroup, where this time it was one of the boys who asked how the trees got into Max’s bedroom. I suggested as before that it was just pretend, but Rebecca volunteered that it was a dream, which neither my husband nor I had suggested to her. It is interesting to compare this with another Australian child whose book responses have been thoroughly studied, Anna Crago. Aged 3:9, she did ask of Max, “Did he have a dream?” and her parents replied, “Yes” (Crago & Crago [1983: 209]).
By this stage, Rebecca had been querying for some months fantasy elements such as animals talking. For several weeks thereafter, she used the ‘dream’ explanation for fantasy or inexplicable incidents. For instance, in Lord Rex by David McKee, at Rex’s most ridiculous wish, to get a giraffe’s neck, she was slightly puzzled and asked, “Was it a dream?” [“I don’t know,” I replied, “Perhaps we’ll see at the end”] and, at the end, she decided, “I think it was a dream really” [“It could have been. Or perhaps it’s just a pretend story”].
When Ralph was 2:1, in a period of enormous enthusiasm for Where the Wild Things Are, hearing it several times a day for about a week, Rebecca (5:4) explained to him on the first page of the forest growing, “He had a dream!” At a reading four months later (Ralph now 2:5 and Rebecca 5:8), she remarked, “I wonder what he ate?” [“I don’t know”] “Anyway it was just a dream” [“Who said so?”] “Ruth” (her kindergarten teacher of the previous year) [“Well, she shouldn’t have. We don’t know that!”] I was disappointed this suggestion had been put into Ralph’s mind because for me it would spoil the story and, I assumed, would pre-empt him coming to his own explanation. She added, “Well, it must have been [a dream], because it couldn’t really have happened!” I had forgotten that Rebecca had offered the dream explanation previously.
Ralph looked for logical explanations within the story-frame rather than using the dream explanation. Beginning at 2:7, he had began to query the events of the story, “Where’s the bed gone?” and, by 3:3, “Why did a forest come there?” At 3:10, he asked of the forest’s appearance, “How did that happen?” [“I don’t know”] and volunteered a different kind of explanation: “Perhaps somebody planted some seeds and then somebody builded a house there [on top of the seeds].” At the same reading, he wanted to know, “What happened to the trees?” and when I turned it back on him, he said crossly, “You tell me! You think of something!”
Ralph never gave the dream explanation himself, or referred to it again, even with Rebecca present. He never found it satisfying and logical, as she had, and apparently her influence was less significant than his own personal way of reading a story. Several years later, Rebecca” (7:10) expressed her understanding clearly: “All books are real, even fantasy books, because you could say fantasy books are dreams” and, eleven days later, “The Wizard of Oz is a true story, you know, because it was all a dream.”
The original working title of this paper, “He’s Hiding,” was based on the following incident during a reading of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit:
|Ralph (3:10):||He’s hiding.|
|Virginia:||Where is he hiding?|
|Ralph:||He’s hiding in bed. Why?|
|Rebecca (6:1):||He’s hiding because he doesn’t want to take the medicine.|
This is a good example of an illustration with gaps. Both children had heard it before, though some months previously. Again, as in the case of reading Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline, the direction of regard of characters in pictures can sometimes indicate a gap. Ralph at age 3:6 demonstrated his understanding of this concept by playing with it. He was as eager to see Madeline’s scar as her school mates were. Yet they have a privileged view, standing on the far side of her bed. Ralph’s suggestion was, “Why weren’t they all around here?” – indicating the end of the bed. If they had been there, Madeline would be turned so that the book’s audience could see her scar as well as they could. Notice that he does not ask, “Why doesn’t Madeline face this way?” or “Why can’t we see her scar?” but refers to the audience in the book, equivalent to himself as audience, perhaps.
Partly hidden objects or people are another sort of gap. The most widely discussed example of the incompletely seen character is that of Peter hiding in the watering can in Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Carol White, a New Zealand girl, was the first child whose responses to books were studied in any detail. She had difficulty with this at 2:8, asking, “Where is the rest of him?” (White, 1954: 26). Another New Zealander, Cushla Yeoman, was one month older when she was asked, “Where’s the rest of his body?” and pointed to the can at once: “In there!” (Butler, 1979: 50). Anna Crago never asked about it (Crago & Crago, 1983: 157 and Maureen Crago, 1979: 155). At 2:3, Ralph volunteered “Dere y’is!” pointing to the ears showing above the can, during the second reading of one day. At the same age, in a similar Potter scene of a character hiding – Tom Kitten in the bed canopy – Rebecca pointed to the red bulge in the canopy and volunteered, “That’s the kitten’s bottom.”
Perry Nodelman in Words About Pictures comments that many books designed for very young children are “quite unlike the world as young children experience it” (1988: 34). He points out that the floors are not cluttered with toys, the highchairs not covered with food, objects are “clean and undamaged; the shoes…are unscuffed, the apples and flowers and toys undamaged and perfect” (1988: 34). Dick Bruna and Rosemary Wells are two authors and illustrators who fall into this category. Such gaps in the pictured world are either ignored and accepted by the child (and the mediating adult) or commented on and filled in. Children (and adults as well of course) see what they expect to see.
Unlike Nodelman’s baby books, there is plenty of clutter of Queenie the Bantam by Bob Graham. It seems that all the accoutrements of young childhood are there: toys, newspaper, and even poo, albeit chook poo, on the floor. But even here there are possible gaps for the individual children. The furniture is not the same as their furniture, their actual favourite toy is not there. They have to understand that this is a picture of how it is for some other children – Caitlin in this case. And they may fill what they see as gaps in their own way.
Another type of gap is that between the pictorial and what the words say. Young children often find it difficult to fill this gap, with the necessity of going against the imperative of the pictures. Dick Bruna’s very simple stories and basic, primary-coloured, Matisse-influenced pictures, have frequent indeterminancies to be filled. In The Egg, after various animals have claimed it, the egg’s “shell burst open. What do you think was inside it?” The picture shows the egg with a crack across it, but not its occupant.
In this case, the gap is made quite obvious by the rhetorical question, but answering a question posed by the text can be a difficult cognitive task. At 2:0, Ralph expected everything mentioned in the text to be illustrated, and, at the same time, expected everything in the pictures to be part of the text. Consequently, he had difficulty with Bruna’s question. The story was completely familiar, and he knew that there was a picture of the duck on the next page, but at that age he could only answer with what he knew was inside an egg, any egg – his word for “water” – “ba.” This continued over several readings through several days. At his next encounter, after a gap of three weeks, he again replied “ba”, but, as he turned the page and saw the duckling, he told himself, “No ba – duck!” He had had a similar problem with the title. Because the cover picture is of the duckling, he had always insisted that the book was called “Duck.” Two weeks later, now 2:3, for the first time he accepted the title without contradiction, and, in the same reading, he showed his understanding of the question as well. Laughing, he anticipated by giving the answer before it was even asked: “A duck, a duck” he shouted in triumph, and had a similar response at the next reading, the following week. From then on, he answered “duck” to the question with casual assurance. Rebecca had had a similar problem at 2:0, with animals mentioned but not pictured, on the page where the duckling first appears. She was able to recite the whole of the book’s text, given the beginning word, except for this page: “It wasn’t a cock or a hen, it wasn’t a cat or a dog. It was a little yellow duckling with a piece of shell on its head.” Here she could only say “duck,” not the negatives of the text.
A much more complex example occurred in The Mouse with the Daisy Hat by Ruth Hurlimann, her a retelling of Aesop’s “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.” In this, although the text states that he “never spilled a drop,” Felix is shown with his glass of red wine clearly spilling. I found this an irritating case of the words and the pictures being at odds with each other, and remarked on it to Rebecca (4:6) to see what she would say. She tried her best to explain it away: “Perhaps it [the glass] was coloured red, and that [the splashes] is some colour coming off and that is the colour that’s left.” Ralph’s understanding of it was quite different. At 3:11, he pointed it out himself, remarking “splash.” Then he thought for a moment: “He thinks he isn’t [spilling] but he is.” Only then did I realise that this was exactly right. Slightly tipsy, Felix is unaware of his spills, and here the narrator has taken the viewpoint of the character to express this. Rather than it being a mistake, the gap between the illustration and the words was to be filled in, just as Ralph did, as a witty comment on Felix’s personality and his state of inebriation.
Another type of gap is that where you have to disbelieve the words to understand the story. The reader-listener has to go against the imperative of the text. The words do not always convey the truth of the fictional world. At 2:4, Ralph listened to The Bears on Hemlock Mountain by Alice Dalgleish and illustrated by Helen Sewell) with Rebecca (6:7). At the end we recited together:
No bears at all
Of course there are no bears on Hemlock Mountain
No bears, no bears
No bears at all!
Arnold Lobel is adept at offering children their first taste of irony. Rebecca was given Frog and Toad Together at 3:8. On her return from grandparents, she told me, “There is one where they are brave” and, later that day, “They ran away because they were so brave.” When I offered to read “Dragons and Giants,” she told me, “This is the one where they were not afraid” (demonstrating that it was not the definition of ‘brave’ which was the problem). In Lobel’s story, Frog and Toad go for a long walk, meeting a snake who greets them with “Hello lunch!” They run back home and hide “for a long time, just feeling very brave together.” It is possible that Rebecca suspected this was unusual, not fitting her definition of ‘brave,’ because this is the incident and the wording which seems to have impressed her the most. It was not until she was 4:10 that she was able to articulate this, and even then it was my query which gave her the clue: [“Were they brave, do you think?”] “Yes.” Then followed a hesitation: “What do you think?” I returned it to her and this time she said doubtfully “No.” Next, with confidence and amusement, she responded, “No, they weren’t!” By contrast, Ralph (4:3) heard it read on the radio, where they actually ended by saying, “But they weren’t brave really.” There is no record of him coming to this understanding for himself.
The snake’s sinister “Hello Lunch!” amused Rebecca enormously at 4:10. She laughed and exclaimed, “They’re not lunch!” Lunch for her, and, it must be admitted for the anthropomorphic Frog and Toad as well, was something in the order of peanut butter sandwiches. The adult is laughing too, but (ironically!) for quite the opposite reason, which I explained to her as “They would have been the snake’s lunch, if he’d caught them!” In “The List,” Toad writes down everything he is to do in the day, but his list blows away. At 4:7 Rebecca was delighted with his “running after my list is not one of the things on my list”: “I can’t stop laughing!”
During the same reading of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit mentioned above, Rebecca demonstrated the filling of another gap or indeterminacy:
|Ralph:||What’s their father and mother’s names?|
|Virginia:||I don’t think they’ve got a daddy.|
|Virginia [either absentminded or trying to downplay the unpleasantness]:|
|Maybe he died.|
|Rebecca:||He was put in a pie.|
|Virginia:||Oh yes, by Mr McGregor!|
It is in fact death which is the gap here. Mrs Rabbit’s warning–“your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs McGregor”–sounds like quite a cheerful thing unless you really stop and think about it. It is up to the mediator sharing the book with the child to give the meaning.
There is a great temptation on the part of the mediator to fill these gaps for the child. It would be easy to say “Max had a dream,” just as Rebecca’s kindergarten teacher had. But children need to learn to fill the gaps themselves so that as readers they fill gaps, the indeterminancies, with hypotheses. This is how reading works, continually making hypotheses, guessing ‘what next,’ then having these guesses undermined by the author and being forced to make new ones, a process detailed by, for example, Margaret Meek (1988) in How Texts Teach What Readers Learn. Children are constantly underestimated: the Piagetian approach would claim that much of the material in picture books is well beyond the capability of a very young child.
Reading works of fiction involves filling gaps in the story itself, sometimes by continuing it past the printed, author-ised closure. Ralph, having heard the story of “The Little Half-Chick” at 3:11, was looking at The Fairy Tale Treasury compiled by Elfrida Vipont and Raymond Briggs two days later and came upon the coloured picture of the chick on the steeple. As a way of altering an unpalatable ending, he suggested, “If I saw that bird up there, I’d get a big enormous ladder and climb up and get him down.” Also at 3:11, on first hearing The Story of the Pied Piper by Barbara Ireson and Gerald Rose, Ralph was distressed by the little lame boy being left outside: “I’d run back and smash the lock open, so he could get in [and join the others].” But then he changed his mind: “I’d smash the whole place down, ‘cos I hate `nice’. And then I’d build a little pretty house and I’d marry him [the little lame boy].” At 5:1, he again felt it necessary to find an alternative solution. This time he suggested: “They [the townspeople] might have had axes with them and bashed the rock down and walked into the strange land.”
Sometimes the anxiety created by the text is mitigated by gap-filling. Particularly significant to both children were the Moomintroll stories by Tove Jansson. Attempting to alleviate threat, Ralph often constructed possible solutions at anxious moments in the stories. For instance, at 4:3, he said of Moominsummer Madness, “Moominmamma will come and open the cage, or else how could Moomintroll get out?” This is, of course, the speculation and anticipation which we all do when we read. Comet in Moominland concerns the arrival of a dangerous comet and its effect on the little creatures that inhabit Jansson’s world. Here, a gap is perceived by the children in the comparison of that world with ours. The idea of a comet’s effect on our world produced anxiety, partly because of the relative size of Moominland objects and ours. During the first reading of Comet in Moominland, Ralph (4:3) several times reminded his father, “Ah ha Daddy! I just remembered – I said I don’t want the comet bits.” On this occasion, Rebecca reassured him. “It isn’t really scary,” but he answered, “It is for me!” Fortunately, after a few days’ break, and with me reading instead of his father, he was happy to hear it to the end. On his re-hearing it at 5:1, long before we got to the final chapter, he anticipated it, now calling it the “best” chapter. But he went on to apply his ideas and his fears to our world: “Mum, seeing they’re so small, the rock would be that high, and their house about that high [holding his hand about ten centimetres above the floor], so the comet would have come down that close and gone back up to another country. So if it had been our house it would have come to there [pointing out the height], and we would have exploded!”
Finally, the whole book can represent a gap, if the child chooses to make up his or her own story to the pictures. In a sense, here, it is the child who creates the gap. These are creations inspired by, or based on, the works of art themselves. Rebecca (3:7) told Ralph (then aged five months) her own story to the pictures of Where the Wild Things Are. Several hours before on a walk, she had discovered a slater (wood louse) which, instead of grey, was “a different colour. It was a sort-of mauve.”
A forgotten word
for the listening/answering child.
(you who make
what is read)
“Of course I can
see the brown bear!”
Your question, read-maker,
rhetorical to you
is direct for me –
directed at me
by the text
and by its mediator
and also by you
the account of the moment –
read-maker, I –
I make of his created word
words of my own
onto paper –
“Can you see the brown bear?”
“A’course I can, Read-maker!”
1. For full details of the parent-observer process, see Lowe (1994). The mediator’s response to a child’s comments are an important part of the exchange. In this paper, square brackets will be used to indicate the adult’s reply.
Butler, Dorothy (1979) Cushla and her Books (Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton).
Chambers, Aidan (1985) “The Reader in the Book,” in Booktalk: Occasional Writing on Literature and Children (London: Bodley Head), pp. 34-58.
Crago, Maureen & Crago, Hugh (1983) Prelude to Literacy: a Preschool Child’s Encounter with Picture and Story (Carbondale: Southern Illinios University Press).
Crago, Maureen (1979) “Incompletely Shown Objects in Children’s Books: One Child’s Response,” Children’s Literature in Education, #, pp. 151-157.
Iser, Wolfgang (1972) “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” trans. D.H. Wilson, in Dan Latimer (ed.), Contemporary Critical Theory (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), pp. 434-456.
Lowe, Virginia (1979) “Where the Wild Things Aren’t: Books, Fantasy and the Three Year Old,” Kindergarten Teachers’ Association of Victoria News, vol. 4, pp. 12 & 15.
Lowe, Virginia (1994) “‘What are you Writing?’: The Parent-Observer at Home,” Signal, no.75, pp. 182-193.
Meek, Margaret (1988) How Texts Teach What Readers Learn (Montclair: Boynton/Cook Publishers).
Nodelman, Perry (1988) Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books (Athens: University of Georgia Press).
Paterson, Katherine (1981) “The Perilous Realm of Realism,” in Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children (New York: Elsevier-Nelson), pp.68-78.
White, Dorothy (1954) Books Before Five (Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research).