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  • The Vibrant Triangle: The Relationship between the Picture Book, the Adult Reader, and the Child Listener
  • Tamara Smith (bio)

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Just this morning, I sat with my three-year-old daughter, Tavia, and read aloud Liz Garton Scanlon’s All the World. Tavia stood next to me on the couch, her toes tucked under my leg and her arm around my neck. As I read, Tavia pointed out familiar objects in the illustrations. “There’s a shell,” she said. “There’s a truck. There’s corn. I love corn.” We went on like this, slow and quiet, Tavia recognizing both beloved words and their corresponding illustrations, until we got to a double spread toward the end of the book. “All the world is you and me,” I read (32–33). Tavia stopped pointing at the book. “You?” she asked, pulling her hand out from under my neck and touching my face. “Yes,” I said. “Me?” she said, pointing to herself. “Yes,” I said again. She paused for a moment, and then, “Us?” she asked finally. “Yes.” And then Tavia began to flip back through the pages of the book, her toes wiggling under my leg as she saw herself in the story. “I’m a cousin,” she said. “I’m cold. I’m hot.” And then she flapped her arms like they were wings. “I’m a bird.”

A bird. [End Page 65]

Tavia and I and the picture book engaged together in a read-aloud experience, and through that process Tavia began to identify objects in her world, herself in the world, and the way the two are connected. Her imagination was fired up too—she was a bird after all!

I call this the “Vibrant Triangle”: this experience that unfolds between the picture book, the child listener, and the adult reader. I believe picture books are a unique form of literature. They are words on a page, like a novel, or a poem. They are also art, like a painting or a sculpture. However they are also one more thing—they are utteratures. Sheree Fitch—Canadian children’s book writer and poet—coined this word, which she defines as “all literature that is dependent on the human voice and a community of listeners to have its life” (qtd. in Lynes 29). These three elements, when woven together with a child and an adult, create the Vibrant Triangle.

Like its sister art form, oral storytelling, picture books are only fully realized in the presence of three requisite components—the story, the storyteller and the listener. In oral storytelling, the act of receiving the story often involves learning a lesson, which teaches a child a moral: something critical to the understanding of what is expected in life. Sheree Fitch takes this process a step inward. Her idea is that the “voiced, poetic language [of picture books] is participatory, communal and expressive of the child’s rite of discovery of his or her body” (30). “Within any one child dwells a ‘chorus.’ That chorus of five voices contains a range of ideas and emotions” (“The Sweet Chorus” 53). The chorus—which Fitch defines as I do, I think, I feel, I belong, I create— leads directly to I am. It represents the different pieces that make up the whole child.

When Fitch speaks about books that nurture a child’s rite of discovery of her body, she refers to those that can communicate with each of these voices. All the World is one such book. From its first pages, Tavia began to find her version of Fitch’s voices. She first connected with activities she does: “A moat to dig” and “a shell to keep” (Scanlon 2–3.) She then thought about times she had been at the beach. She articulated her memories of how she felt there. She drew parallels from these personal beach memories back to the text and illustrations on the page and, in doing so, felt a sense of belonging or connecting back to the world of the book. This entire process was one in which Tavia was creating her sense of self. And...