Toddler Takes: Brendan Wenzel and Perspective
I've decided to bring my picture book reading team (toddler + me) to the blog to do some reviews of our favorite read-alouds. Here's our latest!
It all started with They All Saw a Cat. My husband and I bought this book pre-baby, when we were stocking up on titles in Spanish (that version is Todos Vieron un Gato). We're a cat-friendly family, so it was an impulse buy for sure. Later, when Baby was old enough to be listening to picture books, we started with the cat and then moved on to the stone, and to insects! I've discovered that Wenzel repeats a number of textual and illustrative techniques throughout his books with great success.
In They All Saw a Cat, we follow a cat on its journey to an unknown destination. A number of other creatures notice the cat on its way, and the list of viewers adds to the wondering of where the cat is going and why. This is not a tale of high drama; it's more of a list book where you can use your memory to count back through all the animals that saw the cat.
The other titles we have since added to our literary rotation are Some Bugs, the board book version, and A Stone Sat Still (pictured in Spanish, above). In Some Bugs, we're introduced to the many bugs that can be found in a backyard, grouped by shared characteristics: some bugs fly, others click, others hide, etc. In A Stone Sat Still, we see a stone from different perspectives. Similar to the cat, we observe other animals interacting with the stone, but in this case, the stone is passive, and the action is happening around and to it, while it sits still.
The illustrations sell these books. I read They All Saw a Cat a few times through before I really processed what was going on in the images. And what's going on is pretty great! Different animals notice the cat, such as a bee, a worm, and a bird; each animal gets their own page and perspective shift. So, for example, when the bee sees the cat, the page is illustrated in pointillistic style reminiscent of how light is refracted for bees; whereas when the worm notices the cat, the vibrations the cat is making while walking are the emphasis of the image, and the bird notices the cat from, unsurprisingly, a bird's-eye view.
This shifting perspective continues in A Stone Sat Still, where different descriptors are used for the stone, based on what animal is passing by: rough for the slug, smooth for the porcupine, a throne for the wildcat, a map for an ant, for example.
Some Bugs has a slightly different angle than the other titles. Instead of showing different animals interacting with the bugs, we're introduced to different bugs based on their shared characteristic and we're shown a bit of their habitat. Only at the end do we see that they all share a backyard ecosystem. Of note in this book is that there's a ladybug on all pages, so there's a fun I-spy aspect built into the pages.
None of these titles are stories in the sense of having a character facing a challenge and overcoming it, with the typical plot arc and what-have-you. Engagement is driven instead by the natural environment, interest in animals, and how they are portrayed in the illustrations.
They All Saw a Cat was one of the first stories my toddler could “read.” He learned to recognize the various animals who see the cat very quickly, and because the narration is a repetitive list, he was able to jump in and state which animal saw the cat at appropriate times. What satisfaction.
A Stone Sat Still is a newer book for us, and actually has more advanced vocabulary than we typically use to describe day-to-day objects, so this book has some room to grow with us.
Some Bugs was repeated as an anytime story for weeks. Again, due to the high repetition of the text, my toddler was able to master the structure and jump in with contributions, in this case, verbs, as each bug does a different action. He quickly found the ladybugs on each page, but that hasn't stopped him from wanting to point them out and talk about them each time through.
The insects of greatest interest are the bugs that curl up (pillbugs/roly-polies, which I didn't know the word for in Spanish, so he calls them roly-polies in Spanish too!) and the ants who carry a whole picnic of food into their home. We had met roly-polies while out and about on walks, so he was fairly tickled that they showed up in a book; he likes to roll up his fist and slowly uncurl it as we talk about the page. The ants are highly engaging because he can recognize all of the food they are carrying away and pretend to eat it too.
I find it interesting that these books use highly repetitive text to then introduce one characteristic that changes. This is a great device because, as my toddler demonstrated, readers of all levels can participate to some degree in the reading of these books. They can help with the repeated frame, or the animals they can recognize, or other aspects they have memorized out of interest.
I also appreciate how these books develop an interest in our natural world without being nonfiction texts. They are accurate without losing the sense of story. This expands their usage beyond casual reading to allow for classroom use in a variety of ways: a focus on English syntax, animal studies, environmental studies, lots of room to grow!