Perhaps one of the best Barefoot books for boosting literacy, Out of the Blueis a wordless book by celebrated illustrator Alison Jay. Page by page, Jay’s striking alkyd oil paint and crackle varnish artwork tell the story of a young boy who lives in a lighthouse with his father. After a fierce storm shakes the seacoast, the boy’s beachcombing adventures take a surprising turn! Out of the Blue is more than just another picture book: richly detailed and elegantly plotted, it’s a memorable work of magical realism for children. Plus, it’s a picture book for the twenty-first century: children need tools to learn to analyze and interpret the visual media that permeates our world, from commercials and billboards to comic books and films.
And a wordless book like Out of the Blue is the perfect tool.
Out of the Blue as Visual Art
Have you ever heard the saying: the best way to learn something is teach someone else? That’s exactly how wordless books work. When children read a wordless book aloud, they’re both the storyteller and the audience! As kids watch the story unfold, their brains works to identify important visual details on the page, interpret the abstract meaning behind those details and express that meaning in words—a process that strengthens not only their verbal skills, but also their visual and analytical skills.
As with any work of visual art, the key to Out of the Blue lies in its visual details. Like any story, Out of the Blue features a beginning, middle and end; a protagonist, an obstacle and a goal. To make the perspective and plot points clear, the illustrations draw on Western conventions established by Renaissance painters and used widely by today’s filmmakers, comic creators and other visual artists–for example, the window imagery on the second spread frames the protagonist in order to align the reader with his perspective.
Spread by spread, Jay’s illustrations also parallel the Hero’s Journey, described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and since adopted by Hollywood screenwriters as their baseline plot arc. (Take a look at Out of the Blue’s second and seventh spreads in particular to see what I mean!) Thus, reading Out of the Blue introduces children to the structure and motifs they’ll see over and over in visual media, from superhero films to Super Bowl commercials.
Of course, once you identify key details, you have to figure out what they mean! Reading a wordless book is an interpretive exercise, which means that no two people will read it the same way. Readers invariably find their own meaning in the visual details.
For example, consider two different reviews of Out of the Blue: Publishers Weekly says the beached octopus was tangled in a net, while Kirkus Reviews suggests that some inconsiderate biped has “netted it to the ground.” The former emphasizes passive human mismanagement of the environment, the latter active abuse. Those are two very different stories!
In this way, kids and grown-ups alike bring their own meaning to the visual story—as they do to any film or comic book, but a wordless book makes this interpretive process more obvious. By reading a wordless book themselves, and then listening to someone else read it, children will discover that there is always more than one way to understand a story, always more than one thing it might mean.
And the more you read Out of the Blue with the children in your life, the more the book’s little details will come to life—and the more you’ll boost your kids’ visual literacy.
Catch the wave of excitement!
We’re not the only ones excited about the power of Out of the Blue to build visual literacy! In her guest blog post, Barefoot Books Ambassador Laurie Mattaliano outlined how wordless books develop children’s literacy skills, including visual literacy:
Because these books relate a story entirely through the illustrations, they encourage children to apply visual literacy skills, and not only draw inferences from what is pictured but also respond to the quality of the pictures and note details that adults sometimes miss.
Book blogger Melissa LaSalle also praises those tell-tale details in her review of Out of the Blue: “As with any great wordless book, it takes several ‘readings’ to grasp all the details and sub-plots at work here.” For a closer look at those vital visual details, check out this great fan-made video!
But it’s Ambassador Pam DeCicco’s daughter Lydia who really nails it in her YouTube reading of Out of the Blue: “As you can see, there are no words in this story, so I’m making up the story off the top of my head! And if you don’t like my story, you can buy this book and make your own!”
You said it, Lydia!
So get ready to help the kids in your life build strong visual literacy skills with Out of the Blue! We’d love to hear about the different stories the children in your life find in the book. Share your favorites with us in the comments below!
Do you ever wonder how you’ll keep up with our ever-changing, information-saturated world? How you’ll teach the children in your life to navigate its twists and turns? How they will gain the skills they’ll need to thrive in our complex present and uncertain future?
We do, too. Through recent chats with teachers, we’ve discovered that encouraging your children or students to read nonfiction is an effective way to prepare them for our brave new world. In addition to opening “possibilities” for children, nonfiction builds skills vital to twenty-first century literacy, particularly the ability to teach themselves. “The ability to discover information and tools for yourself,” as technology teacher Vanessa Vosburg explains, “is absolutely vital in our constantly-changing world.”
Whether you’ve got an avid or reluctant reader on your hands, it’s easier than ever to find great nonfiction books your children or students will love, thanks to the recent boom in children’s nonfiction publishing. So help give him or her a headstart on developing twenty-first century literacy by following these easy tips:
- Find nonfiction books that “specifically relate to his or her interests,” Ms. Vosburg says. “The topic could be a traditional academic area, such as a scientific book about animals, or just something the child is passionate about, such as a favorite movie or music group.”
- Don’t shy away from nonfiction picture books, Ms. Vobsurg suggests, as they “grab kids’ attention”—even the littlest ones!
- “Encourage your children or students to share any interesting facts they learn while reading,” Ms. Vosburg says. “Ask them questions about the topic. Having kids retell parts of books to you will help build their paraphrasing skills and cement their understanding of the material.” It’ll also give you an opportunity to ask discussion-starting follow-up questions. The more practice kids gain discussing topics that interest them now, the more capable they’ll be as adults of participating in the conversations that will shape our world’s future.
- Read intentionally—and interactively! Walk your children or students through how to navigate a print nonfiction book, from the Table of Contents to the Index and everything in between. Ask them how the book’s organization makes the topic easier to understand, as in Wonderful Words—or, as in our World Atlas, even adds meaning (Find out how here!). Grab multiple pens in various colors and index cards; in one color, write each of the book’s main ideas or major sections on a different index card; then, in a different color, write each individual section’s main ideas on a different index card. Work your way through the book like this, then lay all the cards out on the floor. What can you see now about how the author constructed the argument or narrative? Then grab all the cards and toss them in the air! Rearrange them at random on the floor and take another look. How does reordering the cards show new relationships between the ideas? Then, imagine that you’ve just Googled a keyword related to this topic; all the cards on your floor represent a small fraction of the different webpages that appear in the search results—and they may be buried under hundreds of less reliable, relevant or interesting results. How would you find the pages you need? How would you know which ones to read? Which is most important? Which is most relevant? Finally, without referencing the book, try to reorder the cards to reconstruct the book’s main narrative or argument. How does this help you think about the way you gather, analyze and synthesize information online?
- Help your child or student follow her interests from one medium to another. If she’s already adept at navigating a print nonfiction book, help her research the same topic online, at the library, even on YouTube or Netflix. It may sound counterintuitive, but reviewing the same or similar content on a different platform—such as reading our print World Atlas and then exploring the mobile and tablet app—opens up new avenues of understanding. By interacting with a topic on more than one medium, you’ll not just learn new facts about the topic, but you’ll begin to see how authors have to structure their text differently on different media platforms, and how that difference impacts what you learn from the text as the reader.
However you incorporate nonfiction into your children or students’ reading routines, keep it fun! As media theorist Henry Jenkins explains, “In a hunting society, children learn by playing with bows and arrows. In an information society, they learn to play with information.” So give them children’s nonfiction, and let them play! With strong twenty-first century skills, your children or students will find today’s fast-paced, information-saturated world an endless source not of worry, but of wonder. Empowered by children’s nonfiction, they’ll keep on teaching themselves, learning and adapting and thriving, all throughout their lives.
“What does print nonfiction do for children that a web or mobile resource can’t?”
This question concluded our previous post about children’s nonfiction, in which we chatted with three teachers about why nonfiction is great for kids. Among other things, we learned from elementary and middle school technology teacher Vanessa Vosburg that children’s print and digital nonfiction work together to build vital twenty-first century literacies.
What is twenty-first century literacy?
Ms. Vosburg defines twenty-first century literacy as the ability to participate in and contribute to our information society. “It’s not just creating a PowerPoint based on information you’ve read about animals,” she says. “It’s starting a discussion on the topic, noticing trends and patterns. It’s understanding why those patterns are important and what they mean in the big picture.”
“Previously,” she explains, “elementary school students would memorize facts, like the fact that polar bears live in the Arctic and penguins in the Antarctic. Now, we’re teaching children to participate in discussions and use their innate reasoning skills to understand why a polar bear lives in the Arctic, and why that fact is relevant to their lives.”
Developing twenty-first century literacy is thus as complex a goal as our twenty-first century world. But, parents and teachers: don’t feel overwhelmed! Children’s print nonfiction lays a strong foundation on which kids can build the twenty-first century skills they need to succeed in school—and the rest of their lives.
Reading print nonfiction teaches children “how to teach themselves.”
When asked which foundational twenty-first century skill is most important for children to learn, Ms. Vosburg says, “I want my students to know how to teach themselves.”
So Ms. Vosburg prioritizes showing her students how to “use their computers for research, especially finding reliable sources and incorporating information from multiple sources,” she says. It’s no easy task. “For children, researching a topic online can be overwhelming,” she explains. “There’s so much information readily available in our digital age that narrowing down where to look and then deciphering a digital source can frustrate students, especially younger children. Not only do they need to comprehend the material, but they also need to judge whether or not a website can be trusted as a reliable source. But I’ve found that the wider the variety of nonfiction children have read, the easier it is for them to grasp these skills. Early exposure to nonfiction empowers children to find answers to their own questions for themselves.”
One way reading nonfiction empowers children is by teaching them how information is structured. A novel’s structure is emotional and story-driven; a website or app’s information architecture is intuitive and user experience-centric; but one can argue that a print nonfiction book’s structure is rational, designed to present content in a logical way. Often, a book begins with an introduction that provides context for the argument and ends with an epilogue that recaps the argument and its importance. In between, chapters discuss related, but distinct topics, which logically progress from beginning to end.
For example, our World Atlas begins with three introductory spreads that provide context: “The Story of Our Planet” offers geological context; “Mapping the World,” historical context; and “The Oceans and Continents of the World,” geographic context. The Atlas ends with a glossary that reinforces key terms used throughout the text. Between, distinct spreads feature each region of the globe, moving from oceans to land mass, with Oceania as a transitionary region. Each spread includes the same categories of information—“Physical Features,” “Climate and Weather,” “Natural Resources,” and so on. The spreads move in a logical order from region to region from beginning to end. And the structure itself has meaning: the ocean-to-land organization emphasizes the fact that Earth’s five oceans, despite their lack of permanent human civilization, are just as diverse and important as the seven continents.
Reading a nonfiction book like the World Atlas or Wonderful Words, Ms. Vosburg says, “gives children an overarching view of how information and themes are structured. Instead of seeing facts in isolation—which is easy—they can see how each fact ties into the next, how larger topics flow together and how all the parts combine into the whole.” Children who understand how facts relate to each other and to larger concepts will have greater success doing Internet research, where one keyword search leads down a rabbit hole into a network of diverging, overlapping and intersecting tunnels. When children understand how one small fact can contribute to a larger argument or narrative, they can more readily identify which of the dozen scattered scraps of information they’ve found is most important, and can more effectively combine those scraps into one holistic whole.
As it provides this “big-picture view” of information, Ms. Vosburg explains, reading nonfiction helps children learn to think for themselves. Children who read nonfiction find a larger realm of understanding open before them: they can use their “critical thinking skills to form their own opinions about the information presented and see how it relates to themselves,” Ms. Vosburg says.
Moreover, reading nonfiction helps children use critical thinking skills to identify reliable sources online. “Being exposed early to print nonfiction material increases a child’s understanding of the structure, language and style of digital nonfiction,” Ms. Vosburg says. Since a logical argument or unbiased historical account has the same basic characteristics in any medium, a child who is familiar with print nonfiction will be more likely to gravitate toward logical, unbiased information online. Thus, reading nonfiction in elementary school helps children “overcome many of the common struggles they have with independent research in middle and high school,” Ms. Vosburg says—and throughout the rest of their lives.
Ready to wield the power of children’s nonfiction to empower the kids in your life to build twenty-first century skills? Keep your eyes open for our next post on nonfiction—Ms. Vosburg will share her top tips. You won’t want to miss it!
If you fell in love with fiction as a kid, you might be surprised to learn that children’s nonfiction is booming. This summer, Publishers Weekly suggested that children’s nonfiction is “having its moment,” due in part to Minecraft’s continued popularity and Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction. Meanwhile, literacy advocates like the Federation of Children’s Book Groups and Scottish Book Trust are raising the profile of children’s nonfiction in the UK.
Still, when you imagine reading nonfiction with your children or students, you might be a bit bewildered. Curling up with nonfiction sounds about as exciting and enlightening as reading a phone book. Why even have the Yellow Pages in the Google age?
But the fact is that nonfiction is good for kids. So is fiction, of course; the two are complementary, not mutually exclusive. As teacher and storyteller Karyn Keene puts it, “Fiction opens other worlds; nonfiction opens this one.”
To find out how nonfiction “opens” our world for kids, we asked teachers to share the concrete ways they see nonfiction impact their students. Here’s what we learned:
Nonfiction sparks kids’ inherent curiosity.
Has a preschooler ever driven you nuts by repeatedly asking, “Why?” If you’ve ever been around a four-year-old for even four minutes, you’re probably nodding. As elementary technology teacher Vanessa Vosburg explains, “Children have a natural desire to learn about the world around them and are highly motivated to explore materials that will answer their questions.” Thus, giving kids easily-accessible knowledge in the form of children’s nonfiction ignites their natural desire to learn.
For example, the labelled illustrations in Wonderful Words give children an easy way to learn the names of different objects, people and places. Familiar sights are labeled, like swings and skateboards; as are potentially less-familiar ones, like hummus and a hearing aid loop sign. When a child learns words for objects she’s never seen, her world expands. With a jolt of joy, she realizes that the adventure of learning will never end.
Nonfiction develops contextual knowledge, helping kids to make connections.
It’s difficult to absorb new information when you have no context for it—no place to put a city on your mental map, or no culture in which to place a person. For this reason, young children have a distinct disadvantage when encountering new places, people or ideas. Fortunately, nonfiction books give children the factual knowledge they need to process new ideas effectively and face the world around them with curiosity instead of fear. As history teacher Emily Anderson explains, reading nonfiction in early grades “helps kids to make connections more easily as they get older.” In other words, the more you know, the more you can know—and the more fun learning becomes!
For example, our World Atlas’ illustrations locate familiar people and places in their geographic context alongside less familiar landmarks, which enables a child to weave new facts into her existing purview. With each colorful spread, the reader’s tapestry of knowledge expands, and with it, her comprehension of our complex world.
Even today’s world needs to be understood in the context of yesterday’s. Since we can’t understand the present without the past, our Atlas explores how each region’s climate and geography has influenced its cultural development. By introducing kids to the forces that shaped the past, we prepare them to understand the present and identify ways that they, too, could impact the future.
Kids discover real-world heroes.
Speaking of the past: There’s nothing more motivational than a true story. Nonfiction shows children “real heroes and real people in both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances,” Ms. Anderson says. When a child reads about the incredible achievements of real people like Rosa Parks, Ada Lovelace, Cesar Chavez or Leonardo da Vinci, he realizes that even he, too, could do the extraordinary.
“Seeing these real people gives kids heroes to look up to, people whose heroics they could achieve themselves,” Ms. Keene says. “Nonfiction could inspire our future social activists or research scientists.” In this way, she adds, nonfiction “opens doors of possibility for children.”
But wait: what does print nonfiction do for children that a web or mobile resource can’t? That was our next question for elementary technology teacher Vanessa Vosburg. Find out her answer in our next post!