Viewpoint Spring 2007

Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two Children Tell

by Virginia Lowe

(Routledge 2007
0 415 39724 3 ? pb)

a review by Maurice Saxby

When her baby Rebecca was born Virginia Lowe began a journal which she continued after her son Ralph arrived three years later. That journal carefully records in detail her children’s reactions to books from 13 weeks for Rebecca and 1 week for Ralph, from birth to age 8, with comments through to the children’s adolescence. From the outset the mother eschewed ‘labelling’ — point and tell — believing in the whole book experience of reading the text along with the pictures and allowing even the baby to react to that experience. She noted eye and hand movement, any sounds made and later the verbal and emotional response. Many of the books were read over and over again, sometimes with lengthy periods in between as many of the books were borrowed from the library so that the child’s initial reaction was compared with the later book experiences. The methodology was to keep the journal regularly and as far as possible on the spot. This present book is not a transcript of the children’s responses although they are often quoted but with the mother’s interpretation and at times comments on the situation. This is especially so when the two children shared a book experience and the age, sex and temperamental differences could be noted. Naturally Rebecca would at times comment on her younger sibling’s reaction. The two children displayed distinctive personalities.

It should be emphasised that both parents were highly literate and enthusiastic, dedicated to the project and that books were plentiful and part of the daily life of a professional family. Virginia, academically trained, had recourse to the professional literature of behavioural psychologists, linguists and literary experts. In her own right she is an astute psychologist and literary critic. Ultimately she was to draw on the content of her diary for her PhD thesis from which developed this present publication. The outcome is a most valuable and highly readable text sharing insights into children’s developmental behaviour patterns but which is also full of sound insights into not only literary discourse but the nature of reader response, bearing in mind always that her study is based on two individuals placed in a highly personal, perhaps even atypical situation. Nevertheless it is possible to back up certain assertions contradicting those of accepted ‘experts’ such as Piaget. There is therefore much valuable data not only to interest but also to challenge parents, teachers, academics studying literary theory and indeed anyone who believes in the power of story and the primacy of the book. Beyond a scholarly appreciation of the structure of the book there is the heart warming personality of the author shining through every page.

A loving, non-critical and accepting environment as well as a wide experiential background is paramount in establishing readers, as Lowe demonstrates — and that is crucial for teachers as well as for parents and is essential in establishing not only reading skills but an appreciation of the text, both verbal and visual. Out of such an environment Lowe, using the evidence of her journal, traces the development of true literacy from word recognition through to attaching meaning to both pictures and the abstractions of language and ultimately to a mature appreciation of narratology. Reality or ‘true’ is distinguished from ‘imaginary’ or make-believe — the suspension of disbelief — ‘are ghosts real?’ for example. There is the placing of oneself inside the story and extending the created secondary world into the known, experienced one; an understanding of cause and effect as demonstrated in a child’s everlasting ‘why’ which one hopes will with encouragement continue into adulthood. In this process the child is acquiring knowledge: the hard knowledge of the world, time and place; the soft knowledge of oneself and one’s fellows. Talk, questions and discussion, Lowe demonstrates, are important if not crucial to this development. A sense of perspective comes through the viewpoint of both author and illustrator. Hence comes the question, ‘Why will John Brown not look at the Midnight Cat?’ in the classic picture story by Wagner and Brooks? Therefore while the reader is being born so is the concept of the author, the mind behind the book — an attribute that is increasingly important in a technologically driven society. As Lowe says, ‘the relationship between author and reader is vital in the reading process for adults, and also for children.’ That is why ‘Meet the author/illustrator’ sessions are so valuable in schools at every level. Thus a sensitivity to style in both literature and art is developed be it recognising a Potter book or later a novel by Patrick White or a painting by Renoir. Through exposure, non-directive guidance and discussion comes the ability to detect irony and the subtleties of humour and ultimately an awareness of the ideology inherent in the text, as well as the development of ‘taste’, an aesthetic sense. All this is derived from an enjoyment of the created fictional world, the concepts of space and time manipulation which occur in current writing, the recognition of character traits and delight in language appropriate to the situation along with a response to emotionally stirring themes. That children are often true philosophers has long been recognise and is proven in this study.

In the latter chapters Lowe develops a theory of mind: an understanding that other people have minds and emotions which provide the motivation of their behaviour — in literature as in life. Such understanding develops through immersion in well crafted stories told with integrity to life in all its vagaries. The study demonstrates that early book experiences of characters in various predicaments and their reactions leads to an empathetic response to plot and to understanding people in the external world as well as within the private domain. Such insights and a spirit of open-mindedness is crucial in our multi-media world which increasingly is manipulated by ideological and commercial propaganda.

Identification with a literary character is not currently a fashionable concept. Lowe convincingly argues that through early experiences such as she documents, children — who grow into adults — get inside and empathise with book characters, understanding their thoughts and feelings. She even lists seven types of identification behaviour which include ‘self-character comparisons: attributes, behaviour or feelings’ to ‘the character quoted or referred to outside the reading session’ and ultimately ‘extended identification’. In this way caring, altruistic and purposeful individuals are nourished. An ‘Afterword’ by Virginia’s adult daughter, Rebecca, demonstrates indubitably that this can be so. ‘I still identify strongly with characters. Although not expressing this with games any more; I still feel as if I “am” a character that I have been reading about as I go about daily life.’ Although Rebecca argues that an adult can never hope to understand a child’s mind, it might well be asked to what extent can we understand the adult mind? We are all individuals but literature can help unlock an understanding of the motivations of others, the villains as well as the saints. Virginia Lowe invites her readers to feel, think and evaluate, even to empathise. Such is the stuff of true literature exemplified in Stories, Pictures and Reality.

Virginia's book Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two Children Tell has been published by Routledge (London) in November, 2006. You can order a copy from Virginia.