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Monthly Archives: March 2014

Picture books in the high school library: Fantastic or foolish?

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While reshelving book the other day, I overheard one girl question the necessity of picture books in a high school library (I am a library aide at a secondary college). ‘We are in high school,’ she exclaimed. ‘Surely we are too old for picture books!(or something to that effect)’. One of the librarians calmly explained that we keep a collection of pictures book for our ESL and learning support students, and for a unit of English where students explore picture books.

Picture books provide other curriculum benefits as well. Susan M. Landt in her article about using picture books in Geography points out that picture books are a great way to engage student and to introduce certain topics and subjects. She goes on to say that picture books are often thought of as being redundant after students are advanced enough to read novels. Trevor Cairney believes  this tendency to see picture books as childish ignores the complex themes and literacy and visual devices that authors and illustrators use. He promotes the continued use of picture books as supporting literacy and creativity;

‘Picture books are important for children ages 0-12 years, so don’t neglect them or disregard them in a perhaps well-intentioned, but misguided desire to improve your children as readers. Remember books are foundational to language writing, knowledge, thinking and creativity as well. They represent one of the best ways to offer children multimodal experiences with text’– Trevor Cairney

I would go further than this. I think that picture books have merit for all ages, not just those aged 0-12, and not just for those who are studying writing or language. As an artform, picture books often give an insight into an aspect of the human condition, history, or natural history which can be forgotten or overlooked in the adult world. Picture book illustrators and authors have a fantastic ability to refine stories into a form that is clean and relatable. Combining this form of storytelling with illustrations provides an extra level of meaning.

I think it would be fair at this stage to point out that I have a background in the visual arts,  and have a passion for illustration of all kinds. I will freely admit to spending more time looking at the illustrations than I do reading the text. But is this necessarily a bad thing? Children’s book illustrators (the accomplished ones, not the Disney spin-offs. My intense dislike of Disney picture books is a whole other post!) are often overlooked as artist, and while their subjects and style can be a bit cutesy at times, their skill and imagination is awe inspiring. Here are some titles that I am loving at the moment:

‘Peggy’ (Anna Walker, Scholastic)peggy

Peggy is a story about an adventurous chicken who strays into the city and has a day of fun and new discoveries, but is glad to finally find her way home. The illustrations are soft watercolours embellished with graphite, coloured pencil and collage. The pages alternate between full page illustrations, storyboard like grids and small drawings on almost blank pages. This style of layout gives the book visual variety and combined with a repetition of graphite lines, gives a sense of movement to Peggy’s journey.



‘Octopuppy’ (Martin McKenna, Omnibus Books)


Octopuppy (not to be confused with Octomom!) tells the story of Edgar, who really wants a puppy, but ends up with Jarvis the octopus. Jarvis refuses to act like a dog, despite being entered into a dog show, and embarasses Edgar, by juggling, playing the piano and ballet dancing in front of the judges and other contestants. The illustrations in Octopuppy are digitally produced and consequently are more polished than the hand drawn illustrations in ‘Peggy.’ However, McKenna’s attention to detail really makes the story of Jarvis and Edgar come alive and the fanciful end pages showing Jarvis in a variety of costumes is  endearing.



‘Laika, the astronaut’ (Owen Davey, Allen and Unwin)


If you have a soft spot for dogs, this book may bring a few tears to your eyes. It is the true story of Laika (pronounced like+a) the stray dog who is recruited into the Soviet space program and  lost in space on her first mission. There is a beautiful, heartwarming twist at the end which I won’t spoil. The illustrations stick to a muted palette, but this choice suits the retro style of the illustrations perfectly.





‘The Rules of Summer’ (Shaun Tan, Lothian)


I have had a bit of an art crush on Shaun Tan for a while now, all thanks to this book, which I initially didn’t like much at all. While I enjoyed his quirky and beautifully rendered illustrations, I found the storyline annoyingly unfathomable. But, after reading it a few times, I decided that it was a story of a little boy who makes mistakes, pride, apology and forgiveness set in a bizarre and colourful world.




We all have fond memories of picture books from our childhood. Being read to by a parent or grandparent, or endlessly pouring over a favorite. Why does this have to stop in adulthood? Next time you are in a book  shop, why not buy a picture book all for yourself? I say be selfish! don’t give it to the kids, keep it as a special gift to your imagination and sense of joy!



Libraries Dewey it better…..

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A couple of months ago I had a interesting conversation with a company rep about the Dewey Decimal systems in schools. He was very critical of some school decision to remove the Dewey Decimal system from its shelves, and sometimes even the books as well (you can read about that here).

I don’t remember ever formally learning how to find books using Dewey, but after two undergraduate degrees and most of a master’s degree, and a job as a library aide, navigating Dewey  comes  as second nature. However, I can definitely see how attempting to find a book in the non-fiction section can be daunting, especially to those who are still learning about numbers and the alphabet.

There is much discussion in the Library and information sector about the relevance of Dewey, particularly in the primary school library. Holli Buchter in her article ‘Dewey vs. Genre Throw down’ ( my apologies to those who are unable to access this article) outlines how her school replaced Dewey with a genre based system, which organises non-fiction based on its subject. Kaplan’s (et al) article, ‘Are Dewey’s day numbered?’ also recounts how a primary school abandoned Dewey for  a similar system.

Both articles are enthusiastic about the increased patronage and circulation after the change to a genre based system and recount how students were able to navigate their way around the non- fiction without the help of the librarian. Buchter’s article explains that  this experience of success for students helped to alleviate feelings of failure and anxiety created by the confusion of the Dewey system and  creates seamless links between classroom learning and research. Kaplan (et al) mirrors this idea, saying that students achieved an ‘aha’ moment when they found the information they were looking for independently.

These libraries are identifying a need in their client base and being flexible and creative in their solutions. By doing this they have achieved an environment which supports the student’s learning and develops a safe, interesting place where students can delve deeper into the subjects that inspire them. However, what happens to these students once they move beyond these libraries? The library experience (hopefully) doesn’t end in primary school. How will these students cope when they move into High school, or  public or academic libraries?

While Dewey can be daunting, even to those who are used to it, it does provide the library with a consistent  way of organising resources. Shirley Bateman also points out that Dewey is universal, meaning that students can conceivably access information in a variety of libraries and  it can accommodate a multitude of subjects in a detailed way.

Maybe the Dewey vs Genre argument can’t be solved with a black and white solution. Maybe some libraries need to the strictly DDeweyewey, while others need a Genre system or a combination of both. The ultimate goal is to achieve an environment where the clients are able to find what they need, and provide an enjoyable (or at least satisfying) experience. I think, however, that school libraries need to be mindful that they are establishing the habits of future library users and that Dewey is likely to be in that future.

What do you think? Are you comfortable with Dewey? Would you prefer a browsable, genre based system?