Diverse Literature and Picturebook Making in the Writing Classroom

By Angie Zapata

My personal curiosities for diverse picturebooks as mentor texts were inspired in part by a question posed in the book In Pictures and in Words by Katie Ray. Ray asks, what if we were to teach the fine art of writing through illustration? I further wondered how teachers and parents might look to diverse picturebooks as model texts for doing so, and if in turn, students might be inspired to integrate their ways of being, doing, and speaking as composing resources. Alongside two similarly interested classroom teachers, I explored how young writers leaned on diverse models of writing and design to produce their own picturebooks. We found that students were quick to take up the ways diverse authors and illustrators folded their lives and languages into their books and book making processes, and that the students also learned about the fine art of writing.

One picturebook maker at work…

During the writing block in his 3rd grade classroom, Efrain selected Dear Primo by Duncan Tonatiuh and then closely inspected the mixed photograph and material collage style of the illustrations for 20 minutes. He mimicked the profiles he observed in Tonatiuh’s illustrations as he sketched in his artist’s notebook.

The next day, Efrain sorted through the scrapbooking paper stacked on the back table. He selected a few patterned squares and then brought them back to his desk.

When Angie inquired into his plans for the paper, he shrugged and explained, “I don’t know, I was just trying to fold.” In the moment that followed, one square, red-bandana patterned paper floated and folded delicately in Efrain’s hands becoming different shapes. He used his fingers, pressing and scoring the paper to make neat edges, at times pressing on the paper along the edge of his desk. The paper bent and became a different shape as well.  Delighted with the new shape, Efrain repeated the process with other papers. The four different sized and colored papers became four different, miniature do rags, a piece of cloth folded or tied to cover one’s head (Zapata & Van Horn, 2017).

Efrain repeated this composing process many times and produced several miniature do rags. Some of these artifacts ended up in Efrain’s pocket, others in the hands of his friends, and the rest dressed the characters in his final picturebooks. Like Tonatiuh’s collage style, Efrain pasted the paper do rag on the heads of the characters in his illustrated scene. With his pencil, he added a speech bubble coming from one character’s mouth. He wrote, “Ay, give me a beat!” reflecting the hip-hop influenced language variety he and his brother practiced daily. The final written and illustrated scene is a dynamic, material display of his life and languages in picturebook form. Efrain reminds us that when we offer writers high-quality, diverse literature and value picturebook making as an act of composition, students’ can be inspired to reflect who and how they are in the world across their writing and designs.

Picturebook making is a complex, intellectual, and highly creative act of composition

The synergy between words and images within picturebooks is what makes reading picturebooks and, in turn, picturebook making uniquely demanding. Marrying print and illustration to achieve a cohesive narrative requires intense imagination and intellectual work. Picturebook makers work hard to balance word with image, and to convey a plot or message through both. In addition to crafting with pictures and words, diverse authors and illustrators also craft with culturally specific languages and designs. Studying this process demands in turn, that students consider issues of cultural and linguistic authenticity when composing. Time for flexible improvisations with art materials, languages and notebooks, as Efrain demonstrated in the opening vignette, thus becomes necessary for students to thoughtfully and creatively fold their languages and lived experiences into their illustrations and writing.

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Picturebook making mentored by diverse literature can evoke students’ lives, languages, and literacies as resources for composing

To ensure a more accurate portrayal of the world we live in, and to inspire students to leverage their own unique histories and languages in the writing classroom, students’ access to high-quality, diverse literature is essential, and I argue, a moral imperative. Culturally and linguistically specific picturebooks in particular animate experiences and meanings that can not always be evoked in Standardized Written English printed-texts. Like diverse picturebooks, recently published graphic novels featuring diverse characters similarly bridge picture and words together in ways that highlight the richness of diverse cultural and linguistic experiences and histories. When students appreciate and inspect the themes, languages, faces, families, habits, and homes reflected in pictures and words, they can be mentored to produce drawings, writing and composing processes that mirror the intimacies, knowledges, and languages in their own lives. Reading diverse mentor literature can also introduce students to new worlds and ways of living they may not otherwise encounter outside of school.

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Picturebook making can support the teaching of writing.

Learning about and mentoring writing alongside picturebooks can make writing craft tangible and discernible for writers of all ages and can ultimately (through thoughtful instruction, inquiry, and discussion) bridge understandings of design to writing. Craft conversations can be extended when mentor picturebooks reflect diverse illustration styles. For example, teachers and their students can inquire into how select use of culturally specific, illustrated motifs evoke certain affects, histories, people, and places, and consider how those designs matter and enhance the picturebook. Inquiring into how cultural and linguistic specificity in illustration serves the larger narrative can bridge students into explorations of how cultural and linguistic specificity can also matter when writing. When we open up our classrooms to diverse mentor picturebooks, we broaden students’ writing, imaginations and hearts to the beauty and brilliance of our diverse world and affirm voices and histories not featured enough as models of fine writing and design.

Angie Zapata, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Missouri.   Her research and teaching focus on literature for children and multimodal/multilingual composition studies. zapatam@missouri.edu

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.

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