Storytelling to Promote Picture books

Sandhya Rao, Senior Editor, Tulika Publishers
in Writer and Illustrator, New Delhi, Oct-Dec 2003 & Jan-Mar 2004 (reproducing her talk at the Storytelling Seminar and Exhibition to Promote Books organised by AWIC in September 2003)

The topic assigned to me is Storytelling to Promote Picture Books. I would like to qualify the topic further or rather take it to its logical destination, so that storytelling is seen not merely as promoting picture books, but also in a general sense promoting reading through picture books so that it culminates in a love of reading books for life. 

          All those who perceive children's books as something less than literature, all those who view children's literature with a patronising gaze, will possibly object to this kind of extension of meaning of the theme. Picture books are for little ones, beginning readers, they will say. Children need pictures in books when they are young because they need help to read, and pictures help them to do that. But once they are set on the path, picture books have played their part. So what's all this about creating readers for life? That comes later, with literature with a capital L. That's what many people will say.

          We are all familiar with this tune, so we won't flog it further. However, I would like to ask why, then, is the Indian film industry the second largest in the world? Why do adults flock to the flicks, sometimes dragging along their unwilling children, kicking and screaming into the cinema hall? What is cinema but a story in pictures? And why do websites feature visuals so prominently, even the most scholarly and technical ones? What do pictures do to websites that usually only adults visit?

          Having said this, I must also draw attention to the fact that in many publishing circles, particularly in the Indian languages, the perception is that pictures are not necessary. The feeling is, "Oh! This space could have been taken up by text, because children need to read."  The idea of reading pictures belongs, I suppose, in the realm of high sophistication that goes with highly developed/progressive societies. Here in India, where questions are more connected to literacy, it is natural that the word is seen to be of primal importance. It is important to keep this in mind while speaking of picture books and books for children.

          Stories stand at the centre of human life, and storytelling is as old as time. The need to make and share stories is as natural  as life itself. The Indian experience has traditionally acknowledged this sacred space: as sacred as the space acknowledged for visual representations of stories. Look at Pabuji no phad from Rajasthan, the chitrakathis of Maharashtra, the leather puppets of Andhra, the yakshagana of Karnataka, the kathakali of Kerala, the kathavachaks of north India, the koothu of Tamilnadu, the patachitra and jatra of Bengal; look at floors, walls, cloth and canopies, filled with stories drawn in different styles and told through the spoken word, through dance and music. The nature of human beings is to look for and respond to the visual. And where none exists, to create it.

          With the introduction of paper and its use on a regular, commercial basis, of course, the world of picture storytelling was revolutionised. Picture books found their space in the world, certainly of children. 
          What is a picture book? It is a dialogue between two worlds, the world of images and the world of words. It is also a space for dialogue between generations: the artists and writers who create them and the children for whom they are mainly intended. To connect with that audience, picture book makers pare their ideas down to their simplest terms, the fundamental essence, to their clearest possible form.

          And these are mighty standards as anybody who has attempted to do picture books would know. When these standards are striven for, we know that the best picture books are for all times, for everyone. As Satoshi Kitamura, the Japanese illustrator says quite unequivocally, "Because I like pictures, I like stories." He believes there ought to be a holistic culture that does not divide adults from children, and he says that he does picture books for everyone, not children alone. 
           Another amazing Japanese illustrator, Mitsumasa Anno speaks of how, in a counting book for little ones, he adapted shades of 19th century French illustrator Jean-Francoise Millet's painting The Gleaner of women working in the fields. He said that the child would not immediately know this was anything special, but later, when the child grew up he/she would make the connections.
          As Eric Carle has said, "The effort always is to put something extra into the picture." Look at Micky Patel's Procession, for instance. And Pulak Biswas would certainly be able to tell us what he puts into pictures, and why.

          What do the best pictures do for us? As Margaret Meek says: "We discover in stories ways of saying and telling that let us know who we are. So, before they even attempt the first stages of literacy, children have heard and told many stories."  When we know what artists and writers have put into their picture books, the fact that stories stand at the centre of language and learning comes as no surprise.

          The great advantage, as far as ordinary mortals (!) are concerned is that picture books make it possible for everyone to be good storytellers. And you don't even need to have a good memory! Anyone who has shown a picture book to a small child, pointing to pictures, pointing to words, so that before long the child sees language and pictures rising from the pages, anyone who has had this experience knows what miracles picture books can create.

          Trotsky Marudu, the immensely talented and versatile creator of the images for a innovative bilingual picture book called Line and Circle said once when we asked him how he managed to create images that were so sparkling, so spontaneous and so attractive to children and adults across the board, "Well! I saw the book as a folk toy. So I tried to bring the dynamism of folk toys to the pictures." And this isn't even a story book in a conventional sense; it is a concept book with a highly sophisticated narrative. With his simple expiation, things fall in place and we begin to understand how picture books are the natural extension of storytelling, and how they must eventually lead to creative thinking and expression. 

          How else can it possibly work? Imagine, the child in your lap, your arms holding her, the book propped up in front, and both of you touching and feeling the story on the page. Your voice softly reading, stopping, interacting, reading again, finger pointing. This is language learning, and has a great deal to do with emotion and the development of relationships. Adult and child are engulfed in a unique experience of intimate and joyful 'connecting' which sets the pattern of relationship between two people.

          As Dorothy Butler, the author of the timeless Babies Need Books, says in the context of communication problems that often confront adults and adolescents, :"All this can be avoided by the early forging of relationships, by establishing the habit of give and take. This does not mean that problems won't arise. It merely means that the human beings concerned will have ways of coping with difficulties which may lead to the deepening rather than the damaging of relationships." This forging of relationships can and needs to happen early in the child's life. Intimacies may vary, but they can be generated in the lap of a parent, a sibling, as social worker, a teacher, a workshop facilitator, a volunteer. 

          Human beings are capable of abstract thought because they possess language and the quality of an individual's thought depends upon the quality of that language. And that is what we are talking about when we say that storytelling not merely promotes picture books as objective, which indeed it can and does, more importantly, it promotes a long-term commitment to a life of thinking/thought.

          When stories are told in the right ambience and with the complete involvement of the teller and the listener, it opens the listener's ears, eyes and mind to the next story and the next book. We see this happening time and again at Goodbooks Bookstore, a very special, exclusive-for-children bookstore and activity centre in Chennai. When we first embarked on the Reading Trail programme, the agenda was to promote reading among small children. So we brought all the books our children had grown up with to the bookstore and told stories to little ones for a while as they sat, stood, lay surrounded by our much-thumbed books from home.

          The youngest ones were as little as two and a half years. Most of them had been exposed only to their mother tongue — Tamil or Telugu or Malayalam and in some cases, Hindi. For the sake of common ground we told in English, but liberally mixing Tamil/Hindi/whichever language we were comfortable with, or the resource person knew. Recognising the multilingual nature of the group, of respecting the language world of each child, showing pictures from the books — we always make sure we tell stories from books for the most part. This helps the children connect with the story, understand and follow comfortably. It also prompts them to ask questions about colours, shapes, clothes, whatever, and they often express their own feeling towards the developments in the story.

          Children always ask of so many things: 'Is it real? Is it real?' Somehow they seem to float in the eloquent space between dream and reality. The best picture books, therefore, keep the child's sense of wonder alive, while at the same time help them negotiate their feelings and responses to the developments in the story. 

          Now this is the most popular workshop at the bookstore. Not simply parents, but children themselves come asking for Reading Trail!

          Once the children gain confidence in 'reading' the books, in assimilating and understanding the stories they hear, they are quick to connect with the range of books available at the bookstore and elsewhere. They will bring books from home to share. The connection has been made. Anything can trigger off a familiar feeling and just being able to recognise helps the reader empathise in a familiar, comfortable, secure way.

          A friend who works in Corporation schools was speaking of how traumatising the environment could be. She spoke of a school in which local liquor used to be brewed at one end of the classroom. That's the the quality of life, the environment in which so many children in India attend school. We are trying to set up book corners in several such schools where we would do storytelling and activities. "How will such things work in this environment," the friend said. "But there's one story the children want all the time, a story about two girls, one with one hair and the other with two," she added referring to one of our books. She said how the children would want to look at the book, delight in the picture and the fantasy of the story.

          So, when listeners are able to anchor with stories, with picture books with a degree of familiarity and security, there is absence of fear, of fear of the unknown. That's when picture books start working. And then there's no stopping the effect.

          Anyway, as word of Reading Trail spread, parents brought more and more children to the bookstore saying, "My child simply won't read. Do something." Then when parents, and even teachers, saw how the child slowly began to be interested in stories, in pictures and in the books themselves, they too began to look at these books and at others more carefully. Slowly, they too have started to respond to the stories, to the pictures, to the experience of reading a picture book with all the senses. 

          Again, going to the best for reasons as to why picture books can be compelling. Eric Carle worked on some books with Bill Martin. Most people would know Brown bear, Brown Bear, What do you see? Well once when Carle and Martin were working together, Martin said to Carle, "Eric, what do you think of this? Da da da da da DAH! Or da da DAH da da DAH?" Carle asked what on earth he was talking about. "I always do the rhythm first, before the words..." Martin replied. It is the heartbeat, repetition and rhyme. That is why so much popular music, film music is so catching, I suppose. It's the same principle with picture books at one level.

          It's just not through conventional storytelling, though, that connections are made and sustained. It is also through music and art and writing and puppets. We see this happen time and time again at Goodbooks. For instance, there is an ongoing workshop called Kathalaya at Goodbooks that focuses on young children as storytellers. Here too we see how interactive sharing of picture books enables children to draw on existing skills of storytelling in both their own language and their new language as they attempt to retell the story that they can see in the pictures.

          After all, stories do not offer single meanings. They form interlocking sets of meanings and children listening to a story search for these meanings and then their shifts. They now tell their own stories and themselves in the books they read/the stories they share.

          With wordless picture picture books, children might need just a little push. The reader is the narrator, and is, in that sense, creating the story as he or she goes along. Sometimes children might find it difficult to tell or make up a story. But with an anchor, such as a lead-in, as for example, "Once upon a time", they are nudged into moving from the visual to the verbal more easily. When the possibilities for narrative are strong, they really are able to tell the story of the pictures. Slowly, they see books as toys not to beat to shreds or break to pieces, but to play with. When they engage in play is when they are on the road to recognising the 'bookness' of books!

          It is a misconception that picture books are uncomplicated texts. Look at any of the really great picture books; they are anything but simple stories, simply told. In fact, picture books often work on levels that are beyond the scope of other books. For instance, we read the pictures through the words and the words through the pictures. Very often, the subjects are highly topical, and reflect on issues such as environment, disability, alienation, loneliness, love, longing for adventure and so on, all of which are familiar themes of drama, literature, painting. They evoke emotional and aesthetic responses in children.

          Speaking of the advantages of the picture book medium, Maurice Sendak says, "The author can deliver different but simultaneous stories, even purely visual stories. Authors and illustrators also employ a range of devices including juxtapositions, irony and humour in the relationship between text and illustration and that as a result they are being spoken to directly as experienced readers who know how to 'read' these complexities." It certainly takes more than an 'inner child' to make a picture book that lasts, resulting from a range of influences: the traditions, the arts, the crafts, the popular, the high aestheticism. All these transform the art of picture book making into a language the children/readers of many cultures may enjoy.

           I cannot emphasise enough the importance of authentic images (and text) vis-à-vis cultural expression. If this does not happen, these could be seen as stories of faceless people and places, and leading to stereotyping at several levels of meaning. Very often, parents impose their own 'attitudes' on to their children. 
          Conversely, it's not unknown for foreign publishers buying the rights of Indian books to change pictures, colours, and so on because they feel these colours/pictures do not work in their culture. What is multiculturalism about if not an equal exchange of images, of ways of life? And do children resist these 'differences' to such a great extent that they will not even pick up something that's different? Are these but fancies/preconceived notions in our adult minds?

          In this connection, I would like to raise a question that was debated at a recent conference on children's literature organised by Chatterbox magazine in Chennai. Do we give children what they want? Do we know what they want? Opinion on this was quite evenly divided.

          However, I would like to sound a note of caution, courtesy Dorothy Butler, while attempting to answer this question. She says, "How are we to know what will terrify and amuse? We can't. Each of us must find our own way through this maze and none of us is likely to emerge without having turned into a wrong alley, and been obliged to back out hastily. Sometimes we can use our experiences to avoid later traps, but not always, and we run a risk in applying any rule too firmly. One of the greatest of these is that we will transfer our own trepidation to the child by our careful screening of situations and characters. Another is that we will become so assiduous in shielding the child from any situation which we suspect may frighten him, that his literary diet will become more and more insipid as the months roll by."

          I would like to end with what the American illustrator Tana Hoban has to say on the subject of wordless picture books. She works with photographs and phonograms. "My books work well with kids with learning disabilities, " she says. "There is no threat of the word on the page. If there are captions, there is a chance the child may get it wrong or take time to focus, to understand. But when there are no captions, the picture, say of some mode of transport, could be well be called a car, an auto, transportation, anything. Having no words liberates a child to a certain extent. A picture by itself will elicit a personal response that will get him going. I like to think that my books promote young children to talk, to express themselves."

          That then is the goal — to help each child express herself/himself.