Thursday, November 11, 2010
A beautiful book about physical disability
Selecting picturebooks for this month has been difficult. I wanted a theme, but at the same time I didn't. So I decided to look at titles which I always return to when I want to make a point about the variety of themes picturebooks offer us and the opportunity they provide for discussion and thought.
I start this November collection with one of my favourite picturebooks, Susan Laughs, created by an author illustrator team, who have worked together on many a picturebook, Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross. On the front flap of the dust jacket of my hardback edition it says:
"Susan laughs, she sings, she rides she swings. She gets angry, she gets sad, she good, she's bad. In fact, despite her physical challenges, Susan is no different from any other child."
The back cover reads:
"Without being condescending or preachy, the words, pictures and design of this very simple picturebook show that a physically disabled child is 'just like me, just like you'"
It's a truely beautiful book to look at, for Tony Ross' illustrations are sublime. Using coloured crayons, he's created very painterly images, cleverly cross-hatching colours together to give semi-transparent backgrounds. His figures are solid and full of character, and Susan in particular is a mixture of impish sweet. Ross is indeed a genius, not just because he can draw so well, but because of the humour he always brings into his work, whether in collaboration with an author, or when illustrating his own work. Susan laughs is no exception.
The front cover introduces us to Susan on a see-saw, if you open the book out you'll find the back cover is a continuation of the illustration. Daddy is sitting on the other end of the see-saw, he is pushing with his strong legs, and Susan's are dangling loosely. This is a visual message which will only make sense upon re-readings, and re-lookings. In my paperback edition, following front matter pages show two framed illustrations of Susan, her grin getting bigger and bigger until on the title page she's in full beam.
Once again these are images which will only begin to give meaning upon re-encounters - they are non-existent in the hardback edition which fewer teachers will be using.
The bummff on the back cover highlighted the "words, pictures and design" contributing to the simplicity of the book, and indeed design is cleverly put into use. Willis has written in verse, and Ross has ensured that the rhythm of the rhyming couplets is reflected in the illustrations, with each spread containing either two square images or four upright rectangular ones, in a sort of repeated pattern. So we are shown two spreads with large illustrations, then a spread with four smaller ones, several times over, visually supporting the rhythm with which we read in the words. Each illustration is self contained, framed on the page, leaving a white boarder for the rhyming text.
Here is an example of Ross' visual humour, in the rhyming couplet:
"Susan splashes, Susan spins, Susan waves, Susan grins".
Look at how he shows Susan in all these illustrations, with family and friends. My favourite is Susan imitating the Mona Lisa!
In the sets of four smaller illustrations Ross gives them a connecting narrative sequence, as you can see from the four I've selected below. At the end of the book, appropriately, as though it were also the end of a day with Susan, we see her in bed.
"Susan feels, Susan fears, Susan hugs, Susan hears."
And not once are we given an inkling that she cannot walk, so much so that when we see the very last page, and we read the words, we immediately go back and check, surely she was using her legs somehwere? But no... Susan really can do all those things and she's in a wheelchair.
"That is Susan through and through - just like me, just like you."
This title has been used in a children's literature and diversity project run through the British Council Young Learner Centre in Paris. The activities that have been devised can be downloaded here.
But for me, it's reading and looking which are key to this little gem. It's a picturebook to be shared, and then browsed over with or by individual children. The natural rhythm of the words and their rhymes, make it easy to memorize, and the pictures make us look and look again, with all sorts of visual treasures to discover, and smile at when we do.