A leap in the dark

28th February 2003 at 00:00
An imaginary rabbit can be the catalyst for a series of literacy lessons, as Jane Doonan reports

Aldo By John Burningham Red Fox pound;5.99


This story is a challenge for Year 2, but a rewarding one. Aldo is a child-sized rabbit, a cross between a cuddly toy and a grandpa figure; he's the imaginary friend of a girl who conjures him up to comfort her when she feels lonely or is bullied, or when her parents quarrel.

Aldo takes her to wonderful places where she isn't scared - a sunlit meadow, a lake, and above the town at night where they walk on a tightrope.

The text is a monologue, possibly an interior one, narrated by the girl.

There is no linear story. The narrative structure is like a series of scenes, which record the rough with the smooth; evocation of mood and feeling is paramount in the illustrations. John Burningham's picturebook lends itself particularly well to teaching English, PSHE and citizenship.


Aldo meets all four reading objectives for "Understanding texts" (En2) particularly with reference to looking for "meaning beyond the literal". At first, the pupils who shared Aldo, being familiar with the anthropomorphised animal convention, saw the rabbit as a real presence.

Gradually they noticed that Aldo never speaks and his silence made them think. Then: "Maybe it's because it's a secret he's there?" Although that hypothesis was a long time coming, a shift of approach followed; the story came to be viewed as a wish-fulfilment fantasy, and discussions began beyond the literal level.

As the relationship between the words and images is highly ironic at times, the use of inference and deduction came into play. Looking at Aldo and the girl on the frozen lake at sunset, one pupil said: "Mummy wouldn't let her out on her own, and rabbits can't skate, so it has to be a dream." But a picture of Aldo and the girl on the tightrope stretched interpretative skills to the limit: did it represent the girl's idea of being extremely daring, or might it infer that having a secret friend could lead you into danger, or both? The pupils had decided they couldn't take the girl's words at face value, and the reason why not lay in the images which showed how she felt.

Finding answers to "How do you know what she is feeling?" focuses attention on both the representational icons and the abstract elements of the artwork, and encourages reflection. As one child pointed out, the lines in which the girl is drawn are shaky at times, even though she says she's fine. The treatment of background or settings is important: some scenes are resplendent with paint, and others are stark white empty space. Teachers might exploit the ways in which plot, narrative structure and themes are developed, since Burningham's book is not a conventional story with a formulaic pattern. In addition, he expects his relatively inexperienced readers to tolerate ambiguity and accept an incomplete ending.

In young children's literature, narrators tend to be more reliable than Aldo's. And although we expect children to identify with and learn from characters who are designed especially to carry lessons for life, children can be taught the skill of detachment and learn to read books objectively as well as subjectively. Aldo positively encourages such development.

"Writing tasks" (En3) might include autobiographical or fictional prose or poems on topics such as a best friend, an imaginary friend, a perfect treat etc.

PHSE and citizenship

The skills children exercise in "Group discussion and interaction" (En1) can be put to good use in the PSHE and citizenship programme: "Preparing to play an active role as citizens" and "Developing good relationships and respecting the differences between people." Both encompass anti-social behaviour, the effects of personal actions upon others and caring for other people's feelings. A discussion might begin with asking whether the girl's imaginary friend is a good way of dealing with the experiences of loneliness and bullying.

Jane Doonan writes and lectures on illustration in children's books. With thanks to Joyce Williams and pupils, Westbury Infants School, Wiltshire John Burningham's new picture book, The Magic Bed, and a 40th anniversary edition of his first picture book, Borka, are published by Jonathan Cape, pound;10.99 each

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