“Is it a real story?” by Virginia Lowe.

Children’s growth in the understanding of the reality/pretence dichotomy has never been recorded longitudinally. It is still often maintained, not least by followers of Piaget, that children do not understand the difference between real and pretend until they are about seven (the concrete operational stage). On the other hand, more recent cognitive psychologists have noticed that if you listen to children talking, and watch their pretend play, rather than set them tricky tests, there is evidence of their understanding much earlier. This study looks specifically at two young children’s understanding of the reality of texts and pictures, but the results are applicable to the whole question of how they understand epistemology. 2006-reading_with_mum2.jpg - 20012 Bytes

Among the questions that are addressed are: How do preschoolers respond to books? When do they understand that someone wrote and illustrated them? And that it is the writing that carries the words? How do they differentiate realism from fantasy? Do they recognise the individual artistic style of different illustrators? What do they find funny? How do books influence their pretend play? When do they begin to ask “Is this a real story?”

With exposure to many books and listening to their stories over and over, they gradually come to realise that “Animals don’t talk” or “Dogs can’t drive cars”. This does not affect their pleasure in stories with anthropomorphised animal characters, but is just another interesting aspect of narrative to investigate. The children produce lists such as “My favourite not-real characters”, or they say of a story they’ve just invented “It’s a joke because it couldn’t really happen”. All of these are the words of my son before he was four. 2006-Baby_with_book.jpg - 12191 Bytes

The children also demonstrate their ability to recognise the style of different illustrators and even different authors. And they are highly critical of illustrators’ mistakes. Ants with eight legs, snails with four eyes, trees with white trunks are commented on. Sometimes the illustrations do not follow the text, with different numbers of objects illustrated, or deliberate gaps left between the words and the pictures, to be filled in. There are even forms of irony within their grasp.

The emotions of characters are identified from their facial expressions, beginning with actual tears for sadness, and the not alert/alert dichotomy, which my son expressed as “cry/awake”. They go on to define expressions as “mischievous” or “jealous”.

Humour is not just slapstick. The children also show an appreciation of wit, word play and character-based humour. The children bring their stories into their games, and into their lives, even to the extent of taking on book characters as alter egos.

My study Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two Children Tell (Routledge, 2006) discusses these aspects of the reading experience. It is based on a reading journal I kept from birth until adolescence, though the book only covers up to age eight.

This will be of interest to parents and grandparents, and particularly to kindergarten and early primary teachers, as there is no other longitudinal study of books and children which includes a boy. There is also no other where two children are shown interacting and influencing each other’s responses, nor any book-long study on the subject of their reality understanding. 2006-reading_on_floor2.jpg - 30512 Bytes

Stories, Pictures and Reality urges adults not to underestimate children’s ability to understand. Children should be exposed to interesting words to taste and enjoy, and to complex concepts to think about. Plots, which are always about human intentions or desires, lead to an early understanding that other people have minds. And through it all, they will also come to realise that that some things are true, some not, and this has to be a good thing.

At a time when real and fantasy worlds invade children’s lives through television and computer games, this makes a strong argument for sharing conventional texts with children, as Henrietta Dombey notes. “All teachers of young children should read it to give them a sense of the long-term power of the reverberative text”. And in her Foreword, Margaret Meek says “As the children engage in conversations about particular aspects of particular texts, we see the cognitive and imaginative capacities of young children as they explore the world of fiction.


vl-7.jpg - 19644 BytesDr Virginia Lowe has lectured in children’s literature, English and creative writing at various universities, and now runs a manuscript assessment agency, Create a Kids’ Book. Her book, Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two Children Tell is due to be published by Routledge in November 2006. It is the first longitudinal study of children’s responses to books which deals with a male, discusses two siblings in equal detail, records their interaction, begins in infancy, and looks at growth in understanding the reality status of books.

You can order a copy from Virginia.