Break down the visual barriers

15th September 2000 at 01:00
PICTURE BOOKS SANS FRONTIRES. By Penni Cotton. Trentham Books pound;14.95.

he idea of teaching with picture books is nothing new, but using original-language picture books from other countries is a challenging and exciting proposition. Penni Cotton's book describes a project which she founded in 1996 with European Union funding. Her idea has become a reality. At its heart is the European Picture Book Collection comprising one or two books from each member state. Each has an original-language cassette, written translations into English, and practical activities.

How the collection can facilitate a European dimension in children's education - an EU recommendation - is one of the two main strands of her accessible, jargon-free book. The other strand is the support offered by the collection for teaching language and literature in the primary curriculum. Picture Books Sans Fronti res convincingly demonstrates how the strands are mutually supportive.

She starts with a theoretical rationale for using European picture books in upper primary classrooms. Cotton, who is based at the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature, argues that appropriately chosen picture books have the potential for helping young readers to become more discerning Europeans, that horizons are broadened by introducing children to new literary, linguistic and cultural elements, and that there is much to learn about other nations through the themes that permeate contemporary European fiction. She includes a brief history of the European picture book from the 17th century and tells us what makes a good one. She makes a case for their "travelability" and for recognition of their ability to enhance learning, and explains the problems of translation, and why there is a scarcity of translated texts available in this country.

Then she describes how and why the European collection was created, with its universal childhood theme of "friendship". She moves on o describe how to put its materials into practice. In response to trials in British schools, she has devised a framework for analysing the collection which she applies to each book. The method has its roots in semiotics, and is based upon selected concepts developed by theorists working in picture book analysis. The intention is to enable teachers to teach children how to "read" visual narratives on levels of exemplification and expression, as well on the surface. The primary focus is on the language of visual communication, since pictures are the point of entry for a child who will not understand the spoken or written languages of all the books.

Although the framework is sound, one category, "Types of picture book", needs expansion if it is to be applied to works outside the collection. As it stands, it refers only to books with specific metafictive features, or those with a parodic style, or an element of performance through their construction. Many, probably most, picture books are not of these types.

Cotton next takes her readers to the stage when the child has gained an understanding of characterisation, setting, plot, and values; now the linguistic links can be made, and the polysemic nature of the texts explored and exploited. We are given a model of examples of activities designed for use alongside a Dutch picture book, Kees en Keetje by Jantien Buisman. They concentrate on scrutiny of linguistic, literary and cultural elements. Finally, Cotton shows that the National Literacy Strategy is an ideal scenario for using the collection materials in schools and includes a six-week plan for doing so.

The project's aim is to put the collection into every EU primary school. Since not every teacher or pupil will have the opportunity to visit other states, intellectual travels are the next best thing. In the interests of mutual understanding, let's hope funding will be found and the sooner the better.

Jane Doonan


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