Friday 10 February 2017

The Unexplainable Joy Of Comparing Books

Regular readers of this blog will know of the journey I've been on with reading. And now, having a good solid year of reading behind me, I'm really reaping the benefits. Of course, each book I read is a benefit in itself, but now I'm beginning to experience particular moments of awe and wonder. I know exactly what causes these moments but as yet am undecided on why they occur. I can't quite put my finger on what is so joyous about what essentially is this boring-sounding lesson objective: to make comparisons between texts.

A few years ago, every KS2 test had that part at the end where children were required to make comparisons between the texts they'd read during the test. The last of the current interim objectives for reading states that children should make comparisons within and across books although the KS2 reading test framework only asks that children should make comparisons within the text (and last year's test didn't test this at all). I recently wrote about pairing non-fiction texts with fiction texts but as far as I know teachers always paired fiction texts with other fiction texts - this is common practice.

I recently read the excellent 'The Goldfish Boy' by Lisa Thompson and I was struck, not by similarities (it's a highly original concept) but by the links I naturally made to other texts as I read. I was told of children trying to solve a mystery which occurs on a single street during the summer and was reminded of Michael Frayn's 'Spies' (a novel for adults and one of the best books I read last year). I read of a boy who lives with the guilt of feeling responsible for a younger brother's death (not a spoiler as this is revealed early in the book) and instantly recalled Patrick Ness' genre-defying 'More Than This' (and was also caused to reflect on the links between this and the latest series of 'Sherlock'). I made more overarching links to current favourite with teachers, 'Wonder' by R.J. Palacio, as both books deal well with the treatment of those who live with medical conditions.

Whilst reading 'Hitler's Canary' by Sandi Toksvig with my class I read 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' by John Boyne with my book club (Friday lunchtime, read and discuss, read two more chapters before next week). Initially the links to be made were so strong that we all commented on how we kept forgetting which book it was we were reading: both set during World War Two, both a first person account told from the perspective of a young boy (Bruno or Bamse), the first chapters in both even mention the boys dressing up as ringmasters and performing plays! The links as we read became deeper: they each provide a different view of the Holocaust, with each book deepening the children's understanding of the other.

The next fiction text I will link to 'Hitler's Canary' will be a picture book: 'The Whispering Town' by Jennifer Elvgren and Fabio Santomauro. It's another account of how the majority of Denmark's Jews were smuggled out of the country to safety during World War Two; the Danish people working together to resist the Nazis. I'm hoping it will give the children the opportunity to engage with historical events in a different way. I'm no expert on picture books (seek out people like Mat Tobin and Simon Smith for people who really know their stuff) but I believe they harbour the potential to engage children at a deep and meaningful level within their few pages. 

Deborah Wiles said, "Telling stories with visuals is an ancient art. We've been drawing pictures on cave walls for centuries. It's like what they say about the perfect picture book. The art and the text stand alone, but together, they create something even better. Kids who need to can grab onto those graphic elements and find their way into the story." I'm hoping these visuals will further spark the imaginations of the year 6 children and that they will feel that thrill of finding two stories that link. One of my favourite authors, Philip Reeve, said, "Even tiny children looking at a picture book are using their imaginations, gleaning clues from the images to understand what is happening, and perhaps using the throwaway details which the illustrator includes to add their own elements to the story." Just imagine the potential impact a series of linking texts, including picture books, could have on a child's imagination and understanding.

This blog post, unlike others of mine, is more of a statement of intent than anything. I've experienced that unexplainable excitement of making links between texts I've read and I want the children I teach to feel it too. I intend to be more intentional about is, seeking out and providing them with a rich tapestry of high quality fiction texts, many of them short to ensure breadth, to expand their mental library. Many of the children I teach have not been brought up on picture books and bedtime stories as I was - I feel it is my duty, and my privilege, to continue to share the joys of reading with them, with the hope that this will create a life-long love of books.

So, a couple of questions remain to be asked: when have you experienced that strange elation of making links between two or more books? Which fiction books do you use as paired texts in class? Perhaps you can even answer that which eludes me: why is it such a good feeling when I make a link between two books? I'd love to hear from you in the comments section below!

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