The belief that the best picture books can provoke multi-layered interpretations is gaining acceptance. Teachers are discovering that this deceptively simple form can produce depths of reading rarely seen when young children study full-length novels. Now, Pam Baddeley and Chris Eddershaw in Not So Simple Picture Books greatly strengthen the case for using picture books with older pupils.
Their transcripts of children talking with their teachers imply that junior children who lack the opportunity to reflect on the different meanings contained in picture books are seriously deprived.
The authors demonstrate beautifully that a text like David McKee's Not Now Bernard (a great favourite with infants) can be revisited as children grow older, and that the meanings which are implicitly apprehended by four-year olds can lead 10-year-olds to consider complex moral issues (what is a good parent?) and tease out the evidence for different ways of reading, using both verbal and picture clues.
What is exciting here is that the children's voices persuade us of the power of the authors' argument. Not only do we see sophisticated readings, but children learn to listen to one another, to balance one kind of evidence against another and to make tentative hypotheses.
This is not to underestimate the teachers' role. In almost all the transcripts a teacher patiently draws the attention of the children to features of the text that unsettle or disturb first readings.
I was struck by how often children explored adult behaviour - Rose, the elderly widow in John Brown, Rose, and the Midnight Cat, or Molly in The Not-So-Wicked Stepmother. The complexity of adults' relationships with children, stepchildren, husbands, and animals is subtly woven into these stories, waiting to be unravelled by readers.