What Do You Mean? by Pippa Goodhart

How much does it matter that children understand every word that we write in picture books?


One quick answer is that of course picture book readings are a wonderful way for children to learn language as it's used in context. For that reason we wouldn’t ever restrict texts to only the language that children already know. But what if none of the text makes sense to them?


When I was a child our family picture books were Phyllis Krasilovsky’s 'The Cow That Fell Into The Canal', Robert McCloskey’s ‘Make Way for Ducklings’, and the Brian Wildsmith ‘Alphabet’. But my mother’s Swiss cousins also sent us some beautiful Swiss picture books with Swiss-German texts. I loved them! Here is one called ‘Knirps’, by Max Bollinger and Klaus Brunner. 




I understood the name ‘Peter’ amongst the writing, but that was the single word in the whole text that I understood. However, I understood enough of the story to be captivated by it. 



 Look at some sad opening images, which surely any child could understand –



Then comes lush colourful nature. I don’t know what is happening to Peter at these points (he's not in the pictures), but I filled those gaps with my own ideas –


 Before we end, returning to less lush colours, but this time a distinctly happy ending mood –



What is it that Peter has written on the blackboard? I still don't know.


My children grew-up loving ‘Pingu’ as tiny five minute television adventures about penguin Pingu, friends and family. Rather as The Clangers spoke in breathy hoots, Pingu and company speak in expressive musical notes. We perfectly understand what they are saying to each other, at least in terms of emotions.


Carson Ellis’ much more recent ‘Du Iz Tak?’ picture book similarly uses invented word sounds, but a good reader out loud of this picture book makes it totally accessible to young readers. They understand what is being communicated between the insect-human characters.




And of course young children are much more used to not understanding than we adults are. Language is new to them anyway, its sounds just beginning to have meaning, and finally enabling us to use those words to express things for ourselves. 


There are many wordless picture books which let the pictures do all the communicating. But do you know of others where words are there, but in non-standard text ways that still speak to children? 



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