I recently taught a 2-credit graduate course on the Whole Book Approach in the Simmons at The Carle program. I’ve taught it several times before, but this was the first time I did so under a 4-day intensive schedule. I had 7 students, and the course included times for them to observe me leading Whole Book Approach storytimes. It was a blast! I hope to find the time to blog about the course in more detail, but for now, I want to share a storytime story about kids’ responses to a new picture book, Snappsy the Alligator Did Not Ask to Be in This Book, by Julie Falatko and illustrated by Tim Miller.
The group was a lively one, and we’d already read two other books: the sweetly hilarious Mother Bruce by
Ryan T. Higgins, and the gorgeous and aptly-titled My Heart Fills with Happiness by Monique Gray Smith and illustrated by Julie Flett. I loved the connections children had made between these very different books (one about a grump of a bear who finds himself parenting goslings, and the other a board book centering First Nations people in culturally conscious verse and breathtaking collages that resonate with familial love). They noted how each book ends with a beach scene, and they also pointed out how they share a theme of happiness arising from familial love. I was charmed by this out-of-the-box intertextual thinking, which affirmed my resistance to structuring storytimes around themes of my choosing, and I might have ended storytime there quite happily (with plenty of fodder for blogging…I could, and hope to, write more about those books soon). But, I decided to read Snappsy, too. Ultimately, the kids didn’t find common ground between this book and Higgins’ and Smith/Flett’s, but they gave new depth to my thinking about Falatko and Miller’s metafictive book and its reptilian protagonist’s angst.
We started by looking at the jacket, which introduces Snappsy on the front and the intrepid chicken narrator on the back. I then removed the jacket to show the kids the case underneath, which has humorous illustrations underscoring Snappsy’s displeasure and the chicken’s determination. While the kids at storytime were interested in the differences between the jacket and the case, I quickly worried that they might be a bit young for the metafictive play that begins in the book’s very title—how could a character object to being in a book? They didn’t have much to say…yet.
When we looked at the endpapers, they called out a list of activities they saw Snappsy engaged in, and then as we progressed into the book, I knew I’d need to ask questions to get them to respond to the different levels of the story—Snappsy’s disgruntled, speech-balloon dialog, and the (initially off-stage) chicken’s narration. When I reached the spread where an exasperated Snappsy says “You are really cheesing me off!” I wondered if the children knew what this (funny) phrase meant, so I asked them, “How does Snappsy feel here?”
“Sad and mad.”
Were their replies.
“Why do you think Snappsy is sad and mad?” I followed up, wondering how (if) this group of preschoolers would grapple with the metafictive layers of storytelling.
“He’s mad because he’s not a real alligator,” said one child.
“Why isn’t he a real alligator?” I asked, intrigued.
“Because he wears a tie!” said one child.
“And he doesn’t walk down low on all his feet,” said another little girl.
“So why does that make him sad and mad?” I asked, trying to connect the dots, or prompt them to do so.
“Because he isn’t a real alligator who is scary,” was one child’s response, and the once-rambunctious group around him all solemnly nodded in agreement.
AHA! Snappsy the Alligator did not ask to be an alligator, you see. He’s a person in alligator’s clothing, a gentle homebody of a guy who’s misread, miscast, and misunderstood. In resisting a suspension of disbelief that would have them simply accept Snappsy’s anthropomorphism, the children at this storytime engaged with a serious part of this silly story’s essence: Snappsy’s attempts to define himself and his story in the face of someone else’s efforts to wrest that control from him. While they did laugh at the story and the art, and they objected to a party without cake (conceding, “but pudding is good party food, too”) their reading was ultimately an empathetic one. They aligned themselves with Snappsy—and what more could a guy ask for?