Sometimes I take life too fast. While most people who spend their time reading pictures books stare at the pictures in amazement in wonder, oftentimes I find myself reading the words and glancing at the pictures before I move on. Unless it is a picture or illustration that particularly captivates me, I rarely spend much time looking at them. The thought of reading a wordless picture book and then blogging about it actually kind of scared me. Alas, I have read Sidewalk Circus (Published in 2007) by Newbery Medal winner Paul Fleischman and Kevin Hawkes, and I have a few things to say. I adore the thought of a man who want the highest award for children’s book has put out a children’s book without the words!!
This story, and it really is a story, begins on the title page when you see the words “COMING SOON… WORLD-RENOWNED…GARIBALDI CIRCUS!!!” All the words that you see in this story are environmental print, meaning they are signs, posters, billboards, and other things that occur within the context of the setting. Although we never see the fabled Garibaldi circus, Paul Fleischman and Kevin Hawkes does give us a circus taking place on the streets. We are presented with a little girl who is sitting on a bench, waiting for a bus. She begins to stare at the different people in the street, and we are given a glimpse of what she is seeing. For example, there seems to be a construction worker of some sort with blueprints in his hands. When we look in his shadow, however, we are given a ringmaster who is calling out with his bullhorn. The book passes, and the illustrations show us the extraordinary in the everyday. A man walking on a steel beam becomes “The Great Tebaldi—Prince and Tight Rope Walkers.” We are often given glimpses of the girl’s emotions as she is in awe of the tight-walker, or laughing at the little boys who seem to be clowns. In the end, the little girl gets on the bus and a little boy takes her place, once again reveling in the Sidewalk Circus.
Having the right illustrations are always important, but never so much as when you are talking about a wordless picture books. Normally, a book will say something along the lines of “Written by _________ and Illustrated by _______________.” In this book, however, it says that it is “Presented by Paul Fleischman and Kevin Hawkes.” I’m not exactly sure how the work was divided up in this book. From what I can tell, the illustrations are all crafted by Kevin Hawkes. Perhaps Paul Fleischman played more of a visionary role in the process. I was unable to find anything to support my thoughts! The illustrations aren’t just supporting text; instead, they are carrying the story. When you look at the pages, there is a lot going on. It really does feel like a circus. As a man is falling off a ladder (a stilt walker in shadows of course), we see a woman juggling, as well as a dog being walked who has the shadow of a lion. These pages practically beg you to sit for a spell, and I am hoping you will, too.
After having read a wordless picturebook, I really think that these books are great, and not just for emergent or struggling readers. The best thing about a wordless picturebook is that the reader is the one who gets to decide the story. As readers, we are always allowed to take what we want out of a story and leave out all the rest. In a wordless picturebook, however, the reader constructs the story. You can’t simply rush through the pages, reading the words at lightning pace and then saying, “I’m done.” You have to savor the pictures, notice the details, and work through everything in your mind to create a complete story. On the back, you will noticed that the suggested ages for this story are 5-9. I think that definitely bolsters my original thought that this isn’t simply a book where you look at the pretty pictures, it is a story with a plot where we must create meaning as readers. Older kids will be able to take a great deal for this story, as will younger readers.
In Tanny McGregor’s Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading, she maintains that when we teach children reading strategies we need to start with concrete representations, and then move to abstract. She recommends that we use wordless picturebooks to teach strategies before moving on to books with words. I cannot help but think what a great book this would be to use for retelling and summarizing. I can imagine using this story in my classroom, stopping at each page and ask the students, “What do you notice?” At the end, we could summarize this story and relish in the thought that we just told a complete story without having to have an author tell us about it!
I read books as a reader, a writer, and a teacher. When I read this book, I can’t help but think about the ramifications it could have for struggling writers. When students get into fourth grade, they think that they should be writing the same things they think they should be reading—long tomes that they actually have no desire nor capability to read just yet. What a glorious way to show them that pictures in our story can carry so much meaning. We can actually create an entire story out of nothing but pictures! Children who hate to write can be encouraged by using wordless picturebooks like Sidewalk Circus as mentor texts, carefully crafting their own stories with pictures. Then, when they are done, they can tell the story to a teacher or another friend. All of a sudden, “I don’t know what to write about” is no longer valid because they have already crafted an entire story! I have seen it work, and I definitely want to incorporate more wordless picturebooks into my writing class. My next unit of study is going to be a picturebook unit, and Sidewalk Circus seems like the perfect place to start!
I think that overall we need to recognize that not all picturebooks are meant for small children, and neither are all wordless picturebooks. These books can help our children to construct meaning and to work towards becoming stronger readers in a way that is less-threatening. Okay, fellow teachers in the blogosphere, what are your favorite wordless picturebooks, and why?