Lampedusa’s first silent picturebooks collection was at the heart of a recent IBBY UK/IBBY France/IBBY Italia project. Created almost by accident, it moved at a whirlwind pace, surprising all those involved and instigating much pedagogical cross-cultural co-operation. Livres sans Paroles: Destination Lampedusa was set up in the small book-town of Montolieu, in the south of France, as the theme for its 2016 festival of children’s literature. This short article will briefly outline the rationale for setting up the project; focus on the selection of books for each of the three classes in Montolieu’s primary school; describe how a few of the books were used in the classrooms and library; mention the involvement of the artists in their workshops to facilitate the creation of the children’s own silent books; and summarize events that happened during the three day children’s literature festival in Montolieu. Finally, it will reflect on the implications of projects such as these for extending imagination with silent picturebookss, crossing boundaries and facilitating greater cultural understanding.
Rationale for Setting up the Project
The idea for creating Livres sans Paroles: Destination Lampedusa began in a discussion with IBBY UK about how to promote IBBY Italia’s Libri Senza Parole: Destinazione Lampedusa. Links were discovered with a painting entitled Lampedusa which was made by an artist in Montolieu. It just so happened that the association Montolieu Village du Livre was searching for a theme for its next three-day children’s literature festival and the local primary school was wondering how they might best help the children of Lampedusa. Contacts were then made with IBBY France in Paris and the IBBY Executive in Switzerland and, in what seemed like no time at all, arrangements had been made for the books to be used in Montolieu’s primary school during the first half of the autumn term, 2016. Once this had been organized, links were made with three local artists who agreed to work alongside the children as they “read” the wordless picturebooks. The reason for this was that, together with the teachers, the artists wanted to glean ideas from the visual stories in the Collection that would help the children to make their own silent books for the children of Lampedusa.
Selection of Wordless Picturebookss for the Children
Once the 108 books in the first silent book collection arrived in Montolieu, they had to be read and selected for age-range suitability before being distributed to the school and library. In advance of reading the books, the teachers and librarian explained to the classes that the silent book collection was created for the children of Lampedusa, who had to flee countries that were at war and many of them spoke different languages—hence the need for stories without words. Then, over a period of six weeks, practically all the visual stories were read throughout the school, [End Page 44] with special attention being given to the themes and presentation of each silent book, whether it is suitable for the Cycle des Apprentissages (3–6 years); Cycle des Apprentissages Fondamentaux (6–9 years); or the Cycle des Approfondissements (9–11 years). In France, particularly in small villages, the librarian has very close contact with the school; and in Montolieu, the bibliothécaire spends a great deal of time in liaison with the teachers, both in planning book-related activities and choosing/sharing the books to be read.
Using the Books in the Three Classrooms and the Library
Initially, the children had the opportunity to read the visual narratives together in class, without commenting on the story. After the first reading, the older children were asked to summarize the story that they had created in their minds from the visuals, whilst the younger children discussed what they thought was happening on each page. Subsequently, they had the opportunity to discuss the stories in pairs and either create a written version of their own, tell another group about their story, or draw their own interpretations of what they had read. On several occasions each week, the children had the opportunity to share specific books with their teachers, in small groups or alone. Also, the books were available to be read at all times in the classrooms.
Some of the older children were concerned about not being able to read or even guess the titles of the books; others were rather perplexed that some of the books had to be read from right to left, instead of left to right. Fortunately, a list of all titles was available in English as well as the language of origin, so it was possible to translate all of them into French. This meant that, when discussing the books, the teachers could ask the children what the likely content might be—a great help when ‘reading’ many of the visual narratives. The first book chosen for the top class, Why? by Nikolai Popov from Russia, is an excellent example. It is a visual narrative about the futility of war and how misunderstandings can cause unnecessary conflict. The pastel greens and yellows of the opening pages quickly change to dark browns, greys, and black as the war rages, leaving the two protagonists, a frog and a rabbit, alone to survey the disaster that has destroyed their countryside. On reading this story, the children became totally involved and wanted to ask “Why?” after the final page, suggesting that the question should not only have been at the beginning but also at the end of the book. Their interpretations of individual images were incredibly insightful, perceptive, and imaginative—some even saw spirits departing from the animals’ bodies as they left the battlefield in puffs of smoke.
The first book chosen for the middle age-range class also concerned conflict and misunderstanding. The brilliant yellows, bright reds, and undulating terrain [End Page 45] of the enormous African savannah contrasts with the tiny dark main character, whose positioning in the bottom left-hand corner of the front cover emphasizes his smallness and perhaps vulnerability. My Lion is a story about the friendship between a young boy and a lion who, in spite of their differences, accept each other as they are… but others do not, and conflicts arise. These conflicts were much disputed by the children as they shared the book with their teacher. Initially, she showed them the visuals and, subsequently, asked them to tell the story page by page. Perhaps not too surprisingly, there were many differences of opinion in both the interpretations of the visuals and individual comments about the conflict. Several of the children were influenced by the ideas of others, but many of them remained faithful to their original interpretations, particularly over the final images and on whether the adults accept the unusual relationship.
A large number of the silent books were shared with the children in Montolieu’s library; one of their favorites being Closed for the Holidays, from Italy. A young boy and his family are about to leave their home to go on holiday but, unlike the children of Lampedusa, they know that they will be returning. This is signaled by cheerful expressions on the family’s faces, their small suitcases, the bright colors, and more importantly, the photographs of other family members on top of a small cupboard. The tidiness and warmth of the setting suggests that they will be returning to the stillness of the home where they have their treasured belongings. Once the family has left, however, movement begins. The relatives, who until now have been imprisoned in the photographs, begin to come to life and take advantage of the empty house. As they are tiny, they have great fun swimming in the sink, sunbathing in the oven and warming themselves on the gas hob. Playing with the children’s toys, similar in size to themselves, is also part their escapade, until they have to return to their photograph frames when the family returns….
The theme of coming home is also central to the first wordless picturebook to introduce the silent book collection to the youngest class. In Mr. Porcupine Seeks Shelter from the Rain, from Thailand, the main character is looking for a home and is helped by several other animals to seek refuge. Mr. Porcupine’s story was helpful in explaining that the children of Lampedusa also had to find shelter and needed help from friends to find a home. Presented in the form of a counting book, this visual narrative was the inspiration for creating a similar story for the children in Lampedusa.
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Artists’ Workshops for the Creation of Children’s Own Silent Books
As well as reading the visual stories, the idea began to develop of creating three wordless picturebookss (one per class) for the library in Lampedusa. These books, it was hoped, would tell the children on the other side of the Mediterranean a little bit about Montolieu. The chief protagonist in this part of the project was “Harillo,” creator of the painting Lampedusa. He spent a great deal of time with the children in his workshop and in their classrooms, helping them to plan their silent picturebooks and design the characters. The older children’s narrative—Montolieu, My Village—builds up a visual narrative of their village, each page adding a little more to the final collage. The middle age-range group decided that they would like to create their own version of a classic French tale, and so created Little Red Riding Hood of Montolieu. In each case, the children made black and white sketches and Harillo chose specific elements of each child’s work, colored them in, and transformed them into a coherent visual story.
The youngest class was helped by another local artist, who worked with them in Montolieu’s modern art museum to create their silent book: The Mini-Beasts of Montolieu. His flair for the unusual complemented Harillo’s style and—together with a local illustrator (who helped the older children to add movement to their characters), the teachers, and the association Montolieu Village du Livre (who helped the children bind their books)—three very professional visual narratives were created.
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The Project’s Conclusion
At the end of six weeks’ very hard work, the children gave a presentation in the modern art museum on the first evening of Montolieu’s children’s literature festival. This was in front of an audience of over 150 parents, children, and the general public. They spoke about some of the silent books they had read and how the visual stories had given them ideas for creating their own wordless picturebookss to send to the children of Lampedusa.
The second evening of the festival was dedicated to explaining both the project and the work of IBBY to the general public.
On the third day, and throughout the three-day festival, the complete Silent Book Collection was displayed by the Association Montolieu Village du Livre in the Musée des Arts et Métiers du Livre for the general public to “read.”
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Projects such as this create the possibility not only for intercultural co-operation and sharing stories from around the world but also for children to learn more about what is going on internationally. As well as developing literary skills, wordless picturebookss can help children globally to empathize with each other, share cultural childhood similarities, and celebrate the differences. The work of IBBY in promoting international understanding through children’s books is paramount, and this project could not have become such a success without the support of IBBY members. Through silent picturebookss, they have helped to extend the imaginations of children from diverse cultures—thus crossing boundaries and facilitating greater understanding of their neighbors across the seas. [End Page 49]
DR. PENNI COTTON is Senior Research Fellow at NCRCL, where she is responsible for European research projects. She is Director of the European Picture Book Collection which won the award of Innovative Reading Promotion in Europe in 1997, and the European School Education Training course. She has worked on several other EC projects related to European children’s literature and has published many articles on the subject. Her frst book Picture Books sans Frontières (2000) explains much of the rationale behind her work. She has contributed to the organization of many European conferences—including Littérature Européenne pour L’Enfance et la Jeunesse in Montolieu Village du Livre (France), where she lives for part of the year.