A recent donation of early 20th century children’s books to the Redwood held some well-kept treasures in American education. Among titles like Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Black Beauty, were some teaching materials from the 1940s, most notably, Our Story Book and Our Picture Book. As the opening page explains: “The purpose of Our Picture Book is to prepare children for reading by giving them an opportunity to express themselves about the pictures. Through seeing these pictures, talking and hearing about them, children will acquire a wealth of concepts which will serve them when they begin their reading in Our Story Book.” Author Gertrude Hildreth of the Columbia Teacher’s College, designed these two books to work together. The images from Our Picture Book are almost exactly identical to the images in Our Story Book, helping the child associate repetitive words and scenes with learning to read on their own.
Our Story Book, 1940.
These books were designed so a large group of children could all see it at the same time, perfect for a classroom setting. Picture books really only came into existence about 140 years ago, despite the fact that pictures have been linked to human storytelling and historical record for thousands of years. Randolph Caldecott (a name some of you might recognize) is actually credited with being the first to transform the use of image as a way to tell the story, instead of just as a decoration, or representing something the text already described. Maurice Sendak describes Caldecott’s work this way: “He devised an ingenious juxtaposition of picture and word, a counter point that never happened before. Words are left out- but the picture says it. Pictures are left out- but the words say it. In short, it is the invention of the picture book.”
The size of this picture book, and the fact that it was designed as a teaching tool, lets us know that many schoolteachers probably used the same types of books for a generation of baby boomers’ education. After the end of World War II, young men came flooding back into the country, married early and started their families. The accompanying increase in children demanded a closer look at education, as did our competition with the Soviet Union. More efforts were dedicated to science and mathematics in national curriculums, but the understanding of early literacy was also changing. As it turns out, there is much more to letting a child look at pictures and describe what they are seeing than learning to read.
Our Picture Book, 1940.
By allowing a child to look at the pictures and create their own story, you effectively introduce early literacy skills like comprehension, story building, vocabulary and active listening, as well as developing interpersonal skills, a sense of personal narrative and experiential reference. Government studies have been conducted in the past few years, on the benefits of children interpreting stories on their own through pictures, and it provides an excellent talking point for parents with their offspring. These types of exercises also build critical thinking and analysis skills. Asking a child, “What is this character feeling? How do you know?” helps them focus on facial expression and body position, improving interpersonal skills, for example. As a government study published in 2008 concludes: “Children’s reading of wordless picture books may provide a glimpse into their understanding of literacy-related activities, as well as insights into the sense-making processes they use when navigating texts. In general, wordless picture books give the opportunity for children to read books with multilevels and multiperspectives of understanding. Most importantly, these books allow children to navigate the story on their own and to bring in their own understanding of the world to the texts. What can be more motivating to children than having the sense of freedom and confidence to navigate ‘their own ship’?” (Arif, 125.)
Our Picture Book, 1940.
These conversations and the way we look at children’s education now, is rooted deeply in the work started by Randolph Caldecott and Gertrude Hildreth, juxtaposing pictures as storytelling devices with a textual story. Babies born today are part of the most visual generation ever – they are constantly bombarded with stimulation, in almost every situation, and thus, their perception and relationship to images as storytelling devices is much more immediate than anyone else’s. The Redwood Library has an extensive children’s collection, some of which are wordless picture books, for just this reason. We encourage you to come into the Redwood Library Ballard Annex and explore our collection. These beautiful primers are available for viewing and research with a reference appointment.
Our Story Book, 1940.