“To read the artist’s picture is to mobilise our memories and our experience of the visible world and to test his image through tentative projections…It is not the ‘innocent eye’, however, that can achieve this match but only the inquiring mind that knows how to probe the ambiguities of vision.” (Gombrich, 1962: 264 cited in Arizpe and Styles, 2003, 2015)
Reading Grandad’s Island by Benji Davies allowed my inquiring Year 2 class to explore a fascinating new world and prompted me to remember two very special men…
A few months ago, I was completing a series of lessons with my Year 2 class on Benji Davies’ wonderfully moving picture book Grandad’s Island.
This group of lessons has probably been one of the highlights of my teaching career so far. Firstly, I think this is because it was my first successful attempt at carrying out whole class reading over a sustained amount of time (about six weeks). We use VIPERS, created by The Literacy Shed, to help develop our sessions and I felt that I had implemented this structure effectively. Secondly, the children really enjoyed the story, which created a shared excitement and buzz within the classroom.
What was especially lovely was the children’s engagement with the book – their investment in the characters, their lines of enquiries and, quite frankly, the pleasure they seemed to derive from exploring each page of this stunningly crafted narrative. The children were utterly enthralled, desperate to find out about Grandad, Syd and the beautifully wild, thick jungle full of exotic birds and creatures they visit.
They were excited that there was a big metal door in Grandad’s attic and eager to predict and draw where the door might lead to. Actually, they were amazed even before that – that Grandad lived at the bottom of Syd’s garden and Syd could visit whenever he wished. How lucky! They decided that Syd and Grandad must have a very special relationship.
They made some interesting observations about Grandad, his life and interests, picking up many visual clues which I had missed. Was he a sailor? An artist? An explorer? They were excited to discover that the big metal door in the attic led to a tall ship with ‘an ocean of rooftops all around’. Many of them believed the island was in fact magic, as Grandad no longer needed his walking stick when he arrived. Because of this, one child decided that Grandad was actually an evil pirate in disguise, leading Syd on an adventure to find treasure! Some thought that, as the island was hot and tropical, Grandad’s ailments had been cured by the sunshine and warmth – explaining the carefree manner in which he cast aside his walking stick.
The book certainly developed what Michael Rosen calls ‘intratextual skills’ or ‘harvesting’ – the ability to relate one part of the text to another and find clues along the way. One boy was beside himself to discover that he had already seen the animals helping to build the shelter…in Grandad’s attic!
“Turn back! TURN BACK!” he yelled joyously. “The tortoise was in the attic! It was a teapot! A giant tortoise teapot! And the chimpanzee! Look! Now they’re alive!”
What did it mean? Was the big metal door in Grandad’s attic of memories and curiosities really a magic portal that turned inanimate objects into living, breathing creatures? Had Grandad taken the contents of his attic to the island? If so, why? Cue lots of excited chatter and debate!
They were impressed too with Grandad’s painting and expressed their own longing to visit the island and play in the tumbling, cascading waterfalls with Syd.
Up until this point, the sessions had been brilliant. The children had drawn colourful pictures to predict what might be on the island, written immersive descriptions of the jungle, developed their vocabulary (not many knew what an ‘attic’ was and enjoyed discussing what ‘an ocean of rooftops’ might look like). They had nudged each other and giggled over all the things they spotted in Grandad’s dusty attic and gasped at the beauty of the island – I had displayed the book on the interactive whiteboard for maximum effect.
One part of our class journey with this story has particularly stayed with me. It was a Friday and we were finishing off our final few sessions with the book – a theme week and other timetabling pressures meant that I was spending a morning exploring the book in order to catch up. Not that I need much of an excuse to do this! Delving into a book, spending time with the characters and enjoying exploring a picture book is my favourite thing to do with a class, so I was more than happy to spend a morning doing so. My mum, a retired teacher, was there too. She still comes into my class every Friday and helps out – marking spelling tests, taking groups out, making me a coffee at break time, being my sounding board and generally keeping the class organised!
I was reading to the class and had reached the part of the story where Grandad tells Syd that he is thinking of staying on the island. Up until this point, I have to admit that my reading of the book had been rather superficial, reminding me even now that revisiting a story, re-reading it and allowing ourselves time to slowly pore over the illustrations is vital and time well spend.
I read out the following page:
I suddenly found that I had a lump in my throat and I had begun to cry. My children looked at me and I wiped the tears away.
“Erm….excuse me…I…” I muttered.
I was completely stumped. Why was I crying? I felt embarrassed, flustered, hot and like I had lost control.
As one girl later commented, “This book has made me feel sad and I don’t know why.”
My mum looked at me, with tears in her eyes, then nodded with determination and, thankfully, seamlessly carried on reading to the children, while I turned away and dried my eyes.
I managed to compose myself and, on reaching the end of the story, when Syd receives a mysterious envelope, asked the children what they thought might be in the envelope. “A letter from Grandad!” they chorused. It had to be! They soon set about writing their own letters in the role of Grandad and it was at this point that I had to leave the classroom. Once again, I had started crying. I sat in the toilets for a while sobbing, feeling very foolish.
When I returned, under the expert guidance of my Mum and an LSA, my Year 2 class had begun to compose their letters from Grandad to Syd, writing things like:
“I’ll be here next week and I’ll hug you so much. It’s great here with all the colourful animals. But don’t worry, I’ll bring back a present.”
“I’m happy here Syd! The animals are looking after me and I’m having fun!”
“I will try and visit you. I feel nothing without you and you are my most precious kid.”
“I have been captured by predators so I won’t be coming back. If you want to save me, in the treasure chest there is a big, golden key…”
“I’m always here for you and I’m happy here and the animals are looking after me.”
“I know it was hard leaving and even though you can’t see me I’m always here…”
I thought later about why I had become so emotional. I hadn’t up until this point thought much of the significance of Syd hugging Grandad ‘one last time’, the darkened skies when he sails back home alone and the fact that Syd’s return ‘seemed much longer without Grandad’. But having explored the book alongside my class, reading it aloud and seeing the children make their own connections with the characters and story, I had finally made a connection of my own to the themes of loss, grief and saying goodbye, which are subtly weaved throughout the story. Despite spending a long time reading the book and planning a series of lessons around it, I hadn’t made an emotional connection to it until now. I had been carried away by the book’s exotic colours, radiance and the seemingly simple story.
What the book allowed me to do is open up my own attic of memories, prompting me to remember both my Grandads. They were very special to me and were the embodiment of safety, love and family. Grandad Eagleton taught me to laugh, collected conkers for us and told us not to worry about anything (“If worrying did me any good, I’d do it all the time!”). I have a clear memory of him helping with the washing up after Grandad Allen’s funeral and making jokes with an aunt. His easy ways, laughter and warmth were just what was needed on a difficult day. We used to enjoy playing hairdressers with Grandad Allen (who was pretty much bald!), whilst he watched the horse racing. He used to make my Nan laugh a lot. I remember him introducing me to his ‘Footballer’s Dinner’ – mash potatoes with a fried egg on top. I felt very grown up and loved when I got to sit next to him at the dinner table and have my own ‘Footballer’s Dinner”. I know they were both very proud of us, loved my family dearly and left a terrible hole in the fabric of our family life when they died.
I can very much empathise with Syd’s confusion and sadness when he says goodbye to Grandad. I was only eleven or so when my both my Grandads died, one suddenly and one of cancer. I remember feeling very bewildered, cross, sad and lonely without their guidance and smiles. I was sad to see my mum crying and in pain and life, for a while, certainly seemed bleaker and darker. Indeed, in Grandad’s Island, Syd’s journey back home alone is fraught with churning waves and rolling, dark clouds, much like grief itself and the process of saying goodbye to our loved ones.
I asked my children if they thought Grandad would return and almost all of them thought that no, he was happy on his island and the big, metal door in the attic had vanished anyway.
Perhaps books are a bit like Grandad’s big metal door, leading to worlds full of wonder, adventure and colour. They often prompt us to ‘mobilise our memories’, and in doing so remember and treasure our loved ones, whilst making unexpected connections. How lucky that we get to share this experience with our children and the children we teach!
I never got a chance to say goodbye to my Grandads. I like to think that both of them are somewhere on an island faraway, where the waterfalls cascade and a large chimpanzee serves them tea, or maybe even a ‘Footballer’s Dinner’. Perhaps I’ll see them again one day.
Until then, like Syd, I shall continue to try and steer my ship safely home, weathering the storms, and filling my own attic of memories with laughter, music, art, books, love and maybe even a giant tortoise teapot.
If you’re interested in whole class reading and using picture books in your own class, these resources, articles and books may be useful:
Children Reading Picturebooks: Interpreting visual texts by Evelyn Arizpe and Morag Styles
Illustration: A Theoretical and Contextual Perspective by Alan Male
Developing Children’s Critical Thinking Through Picture Books by Mary Roche
The Cool Web: The Pattern of Children’s Reading by Margaret Meek and Aidan Warlow