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  • Beyond the Bedtime Story:In Search of Epistemic Possibilities and the Innovative Potential of Disquieting Picturebooks

In this article I consider the innovative potential of disquieting picturebooks to catalyze critical inquiry and as an alternative to more quieting texts and practices that orient toward knowledge as a thing known. I examine five disquieting international picturebooks that take up sites of struggle in different locations and posit that each offers a different epistemic invitation to readers. The five different invitations I describe are: embracing ambiguity; opening to hurt; pausing for interruption; witnessing resistance; and hearing silences. I view this not as an exhaustive typology but rather as an exploration of the range of the kinds of disquieting that are important to critical inquiry. As some of the first texts children encounter, picturebooks make marks on experience that extend into tacit theories about reading and knowledge. I argue that disquieting picturebooks can be viewed as a form of innovation that offers varied and particular epistemic possibilities for the children and communities that read them. The picturebook, with its defining verbal and visual synergy, has particular affordances for conveying the complex simultaneity of struggle and hopefulness and for serving as a platform for social sharing and collective engagement.


inquiry, picturebooks, epistemology, ways of knowing

Literature for children has the power to both reveal and transform—to make new kinds of knowledge about and action in the world possible. As an educator, I am always in search of picturebooks that embody this potential in unique and interesting ways and am always honing my intentions in a landscape of text that is as vast and varied as our ideologies of childhood. Speaking to the complexity of this landscape, Kimberly Reynolds argues that children’s literature is a “curious and paradoxical space,” a space that is “simultaneously highly regulated and overlooked, orthodox and radical, didactic and subversive.” While twentieth century children’s literature emerged largely out of the desire for a protective space for children, the 1970s saw a shift toward a belief in the power of the imagination [End Page 33] (see Colomer; Kümmerling-Meibauer; and Silva-Díaz), an expansion of the genre, and its increasing presence in the school curriculum. The new century brought post-modern picturebooks, radical change (see Pantaleo; Goldstone; Dresang and Kotrla), and an orientation to the child as agentive meaning-maker. A more recent turn is what I explore in this article as an innovation toward more honesty in picturebooks for children, honesty “about the true complexity and difficulty of the world we are asking them to share with us” (Nodelman). I refer to this innovation as a kind of disquieting, an opening up that involves an invitation to readers to question and rethink what we understand to be true and ordinary and for whom and to generate knowledge from the resulting sites of struggle. In search of the kinds of literature that might offer such invitations, the purpose of this article is to conceptualize and explore disquieting picturebooks as one ongoing innovation that expands epistemic possibilities for children and their teachers.

This article has its genesis in the children’s literature classes I teach at a graduate school of education, where pre and in-service teachers are invited to think deeply about their criteria for text selection and to keep questions about how knowledge is generated central to teaching. The project of each class, designed as critical inquiry, is rooted in the assumption that even the youngest of children should be encouraged to uncover social injustices, examine social and political realities, and not accept prevailing conditions without question (Comber and Simpson; Vasquez; Allen). Across my classes, I have consistently found that the impulse for quieting exists in tension with the fundamental impulse for critical inquiry. That is, the impulse for quieting bumps up against the impulse for dialogue, and the impulse for comfort bumps up against the impulse for the kinds of discomfort that are necessary to rethink, reconsider, and alter perception. While the impulse to quiet is prevalent across a range of texts for children, it is especially persistent with the picturebook given its associations with the bedtime story.

Quieting Picturebooks and the Bedtime Story

Despite the picturebook’s expansion out of the bedroom and into school curriculum, I have found that the bedtime story is one dominant and pervasive cultural framework for picturebooks that many students and their teachers carry with them into the classroom. Moreover, given the market-driven nature of the publishing industry in the US, where I work, these assumptions about children and their books get further inscribed and reinforced by the kinds of picturebooks that are most available to parents and teachers. Within these inscriptions, and given that bedtime stories are often picturebooks, the practice (bedtime story) and the format (picturebook) can often get conflated in ways that privilege quieting content and quieting forms of engagement. From the standpoint of classrooms and teaching, picturebook innovations toward more honesty in what’s ordinary for children—itself a form of disquieting—can be at odds with subtle or less subtle expectations for picturebooks to quiet and comfort children. This tension is the central focus of this article.

As an influential cultural practice in the US, Shirley Heath argued in a landmark study published in 1982 that the bedtime story is a literacy event that privileges white middle-class social practices. As such, Heath argued that the bedtime story often serves as a rehearsal for reified school literacy behaviors involving the asking of questions that have answers pre-specified in the mind of the adult or teacher with subsequent evaluation of the child’s responses. Heath’s argument sheds light on how the kinds of codified practices for knowledge generation and language development learned during the bedtime story are patterns of behavior that begin early and are lasting for both children and the adults who later teach them. From the standpoint of her argument, the bedtime story serves as an advantage to literacy practices that have typically been valued in schools. From another angle, we might surmise that there are rather obvious physical kinds of quieting that the bedtime story typically encourages—the quieting of the physical body as a transition to sleep. Furthermore, Heath’s theory might be read to suggest that a more subtle quieting is also at play—an epistemic quieting that limits knowledge generation to codified naming and the answering of questions to which the adult holds a pre-determined answer.

Despite a turn in literacy research and pedagogy toward recognizing children’s literature as a powerful platform for inquiry into social issues and issues of language, power, and identity (see O’Neil; Enriquez; Youngs; Ghiso, Campano and Hall; Ghiso and Campano; Kümmerling-Meibauer; Beauvais), many [End Page 34] children in schools do experience picturebook readalouds within practices that monitor the physicality of attentive readers and writers (Ghiso) and within teacher expectation that students will listen quietly or respond to questions (Sipe, Storytime). In these classrooms, teachers may lean toward settling content, and the picturebook may be shared within larger literacy practices and instruction that privilege transmission and IRE patterns of behavior where the teacher initiates a question, the students respond to the question, and the teacher evaluates the response (Mehan). When geared toward physical or epistemic quieting, either intentionally or unintentionally, the picturebook read aloud is more likely to conform to knowledge production that privileges safety and the status quo, where children’s literature is viewed as “coercively normalizing” and where “complex questions are steadily withheld from children” (Rose qtd. in Reynolds).

Within this backdrop, each year it becomes a collective challenge for my students and for me to seek picturebooks outside of the bedtime story framework and to create spaces for a different sort of engagement, remembering, as Reynolds points out, that “children’s literature, since its inception has been implicated in social, intellectual, and artistic change.” As a university educator and researcher in a country where it is difficult to find picturebooks originally published outside of the US and in languages other than English, this search is often limited by the books most readily available. In response to these limitations, I have found it necessary to actively seek out international picturebooks as one attempt to expand students’ access to a range of both local and global texts in order to consider social, intellectual, and artistic change more broadly.

In seeking innovative alternatives to the bedtime story, I defined innovation as form and content in the picturebook that offers new, marginalized, or less familiar invitations for readers to generate knowledge from words and pictures. Paying particular attention to meaning-making affordances unique to the hybridity of the picturebook format, I sought books where the words and the pictures were equally compelling and synergistic (Nikolajeva). I sought content with an orientation toward change, books that might provoke, unsettle, or invite the kind of “dis-ease” that Maxine Greene argues is a first step in consciousness-raising. And finally, but importantly, through international examples of disquieting picturebooks, I hoped to invite multiple opportunities to experience disquieting in the context of struggle, and to recognize the ways that struggle is always simultaneously humanly shared and yet unique to particular local and global contexts. The selection is, of course, limited by my own discriminations and referent for “disquieting”; and while I sought a range, the range is inherently subjective, limited by what I had access to and by my imagination for potential uses in classrooms.

Disquieting Picturebooks as a Catalyst for Inquiry

Researchers in the field of children’s literature have characterized books that break the mold in different ways, most notably as radical literature (Mickenberg and Nel; Reynolds), postmodern picturebooks (Goldstone; Pantaleo; Sipe and Pantaleo; Dresang), crossover picturebooks (Beckett), and challenging and controversial picturebooks (Evans). The subgenre of postmodern picturebooks in children’s literature can also be seen as a form of disquieting. However, the corpus of literature often characterized as postmodern has most recognizably embodied innovations in the form of parody, play, and self-referentiality—as in, for example, John Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992), Mo Willems’ Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (2003), or David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs (2001). A smaller subset of postmodern picturebooks relies more heavily on ambiguity, such as David Macaulay’s Black and White (2005); intertextuality, such as Allen and Janet Ahlbergh’s The Jolly Postman (1986); or multiple voices, such as Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park (2001).

The picturebook itself has its own distinct affordances for the kinds of disquieting that promote inquiry. The picturebook slows down our awareness, and it holds ideas up to the light in words and pictures in suspended moments made for dwelling and observing. As a distinctive art form that achieves its effect from the synergy between the verbal and the visual (Sipe, “Revisiting Relationships”; Nikolajeva; Nikolajeva and Scott), this synergy has the potential to move us aesthetically as readers, to “urge voyages” (Brooks). The space between the words (what is said) and the pictures (what we see) offers a particular imaginative and multimodal space (Kress) to perceive what we could not perceive in [End Page 35] the same way through either words or images alone. Because of these affordances, the picturebook has a unique potential to leverage the critical and the aesthetic when social issues are represented and explored through visual art and words in a genre widely characterized by a sense of hopefulness. This potential for experiencing the simultaneity of both struggle and hopefulness may be especially promising in the word/image juxtapositions found in the picturebook.

The picturebook is also an especially unique format for social sharing. Few other book forms, if any, have the socially interactive intention of the picturebook. As a medium intended to be shared, the picturebook offers a generative site for meaning-making to be negotiated relationally among children and adults and within a larger community in the context of the classroom. Certainly, the life of any kind of literary fiction is contingent upon an audience and always “co-emerges” (Sumara 113) with readers and contexts with varying degrees of uncertainty. However, it may be that disquieting picturebooks have a particular affordance to punctuate this co-emergence when students individually and collectively are called upon, in classrooms, to navigate the uncertainties that disquieting generates. Although the focus of this article is upon my search for disquieting books and their varying possibilities, Paula Moya’s notion of the social imperative of literature underscores that it matters not only the books we read but how we read them and with whom. As a form of literature meant to be shared, picturebooks, particularly disquieting ones, may be especially well positioned to advance this social imperative.

In the following sections, I explore five books embodying different kinds of disquieting that have generative potential for cultivating critical inquiry. With the term “critical inquiry,” I signal not just the asking of questions but rather a stance, a critical habit of mind, a dynamic and fluid way of knowing and being in the world (Cochran-Smith and Lytle). The five different kinds of disquieting I explore are embracing ambiguity, opening to hurt, pausing for interruption, witnessing resistance, and hearing silences. For each book, I provide an analysis of the visual and verbal narration that presents a particular site of struggle, and I aim to show how each particular kind of disquieting makes an invitation to generate knowledge in different ways. I view these examples not as an exhaustive typology but rather as an invitation to consider a range and variation of forms of disquieting picturebooks, to consider possibilities for what this range could offer classroom teachers and their students, and to consider what might be at stake when we omit or disregard these books in favor of more quieting ones.

Sites of Struggle as Pathways to Different Kinds of Knowing

Embracing Ambiguity: Knowledge as In-the-Making

The picturebook The Big Question (2005) by Wolf Erlbruch, originally published in German as Die Große Frage (2004), invites the reader to think individually and together about the big existential question, why we are here? As one example of a picturebook characterized by gaps and uncertainties, the book violates the expectation that books for children should offer clear teachings and, instead, rests on the assumption that through fiction we might develop a literary imagination whereby we can learn to tolerate ambiguity and even develop a capacity for not knowing. In this spare and poetic book, uncertainty is the fundamental crux of the question. The text of the story is sparse and paired with images rendered in simple crayon and paper cut-outs juxtaposed on a neutral background. The design of the book, in part because it leaves so much visual and verbal space empty, makes space for the reader to co-author the story. The author makes a space at the end of the book for the reader to interact directly with the book and the other perspectives by writing directly their answer to the question on the last page, a meta-fictive device that underscores the idea that readings of literary texts are always a form of structural coupling of ideas. The narrator of the question is met with a vast array of answers, all perspectives on simple, personal truths: “ To sing your song.” “ To kiss the clouds.” “ To love life.” With these simple truths, the story invites not only existential and ontological questions about living and dying but questions about truth—both perspectival truths and the ongoing negotiation of our own sense-making as slippery, unstable and always in-the-making (Ellsworth) through our relationships with others.

Opening to Hurt: Knowledge as Emotion

Bearing witness to the pain of others may cause pain in and of itself or call up painful experiences of [End Page 36] the reader. When readers open to pain and hurt as depicted in picturebooks, they draw upon emotion as an important source of knowledge generation (Dutro; Boler) and potentially compassion as a mode of critical inquiry (O’Reilley). Stein Erik Lunde’s My Father’s Arms are a Boat (2013)—originally published in Norwegian as Eg Kan Ikkje Sove No (2009)—is a tender, moving, and forthright story about the loss and loneliness a child experiences upon the death of his mother and his coming to understand and cope with that loss. In the security of his father’s arms, the child asks questions about living things in the world around him and whether his mother will ever wake up. It is the juxtaposition of comfort and pain that is most remarkable here, the entanglement of these feelings that the book conveys. Importantly, the reader is left with the sense that the comfort the child feels provides the space for these questions to be asked. The characters appear humanly fragile, rendered in two dimensional and delicate cut paper images staged upon a blank background. The cool blues, greys, and whites are punctuated by moments of red embodied in simple, life-affirming icons such as a fox, a swing, a blanket, or a burning fireplace. The effect is a gentle meditation on loss and hope, where the words and pictures are equally and co-generatively evocative and moving. Knowledge in this story is made available through the subtlety of emotion that the words and pictures convey and within a space that is so delicate it encourages opening; we don’t know what it is like for the child, but we are invited to know through feeling rendered in the words and images.

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Pausing for Interruption: Knowledge as Revision

John Dewey argued for experience with art to create moments of “perception arrested.” As an art form that arrests with the images on each page turn and invites close looking, the picturebook has affordances for moments of pause that may be less inscribed in other literary fiction that is propelled by continuous narrative. Cristina Henriqueta’s Three Balls of Wool (2017)—originally published in Portuguese as Com 3 Novelos: O Mundo Dá Muitas Voltas (2015)—is a story of migration, hope, and disappointment based on a true story of a family who fled Portugal’s Estado Novo dictatorship in the 1960s and moved to Communist Czechoslovakia. Rendered in modern graphic design, the book is a layered inquiry into place and agency that makes space to rethink freedom and narratives of migration. Told from the first-person perspective that appears to be a memory from childhood, the narrator conveys how a forced decision to leave the political problems in one country is a tradeoff for problems with language and culture in another. Initially, the disappointment, isolation, and felt sense of monotony in the new country is rendered in endless shades of gray and black and white, set off by the child dressed in orange. Inspired by braiding her daughter’s hair, the mother in the story decides to unravel three of their colored sweaters to create three balls of wool and reconstructs them as a new sweater in tri-color. What is old is made new again and the knitted material is the leitmotif for re-invention, for hope, and for democracy. The convergence of yarns and the knitting together of existing material starts [End Page 37] at home (the knitting becomes a playful verbal game filled with a variety of technical terms and “many turns”), and it grows a knitting revolution in the town as her impulse to create spreads, initiating a wide array of varied intersections and patterns in knit from simple to intricate. The images of people have a quality of a combination of simple shapes in cut paper rendering a playfulness that matches the impulse to move, to make, and to live. Adding to the synergy of the word/pictures, there is a non-uniformity to the narrative where spreads are split into multiple frames conveying different spaces: cities, public spaces, and close-ups. These frames serve as visual interruptions that highlight moments of introspection or reflection, where knowledge is generated in these moments of pause and the reader is invited to rethink the common act of knitting as one family’s pursuit of freedom through making and bringing together the ordinary through “many turns.”

Witnessing Resistance: Knowledge as Bearing Witness

Art is a powerful avenue for bearing witness to that which might otherwise go un-noticed (Hesford). It is a way we can learn about the struggles of the world in order that we might consider how to ease them through solidarity, through resistance, and through action. Revolution (2008)—first published in French as Révolucion (2007) by the children’s book illustrator, film-maker, and French playwright who goes by the name of Sara—is an allegory of oppression and freedom in torn black and red paper cutouts on white paper. In imagery reminiscent of shadow theater, this oversize format book has twenty-nine images in sixty-four pages and only fourteen words. Sara uses these few resources to convey a powerful story of resistance set against a hopeful and unwavering desire for freedom. With this juxtaposition, the book positions story as a site of resistance and activism and literacy practices, and events as sites of change. The invitation for readers is to construct from the silhouette images of flags, rifles, tanks, and human actors their own story of resistance from this sparse yet powerful visual and verbal text. The words throughout the book are all exclamations that punctuate the visual text and convey a sense of urgency and invitation: “Oooh!” and “Prisoner!” and “Farewell little flag!” The dramatic rescue of a revolutionary prisoner from the camp is led by the red lion who, leaping off the flag and into the story, is shown bounding over a barbed wire fence with the prisoner whisked upon his back. A sense of freedom is powerfully evoked in that image, leaving the reader with a felt sense of solidarity in this escape. Here, bearing witness generates knowledge of the struggles of others and invites the reader through art and allegory into imagining freedom.

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Hearing Silences: Knowledge as Listening

Migrant: The Journey of a Mexican Worker (2014)—a collaboration between José Manuel Mateo and Javier Martínez Pedro that was published in Spanish originally as Migrar (2011)—is a story of children’s rights and subjugation. Its form makes a radical departure from the conventional thirty-two-page picturebook format with an accordion-bound design in the form of a traditional codex on amate, a type of paper made in the illustrator’s hometown of Xalitia. Written with traditional form and material, the creators call up a sense of history rooted in place and culture. The book opens vertically to reveal not a series of pictures but one contiguous, vertical illustration accompanied by print to the left of the image on each page. The illustration in pen and ink depicts community life as the backdrop to a story of child migrants. In the story itself, a Central American family embarks on a journey by train to the United States. Beginning in the young narrator’s village, the story is told through the codex images as the [End Page 38] family travels through Mexico and into the city of Los Angeles. Mateo and Martínez Pedro write of the 50,000 children who make the journey alone to the US every year,

We wish to tell and to question this collective story that makes children defenseless and almost nonexistent to their own country and to the new one where they hope to find work…. When they migrate, the children cannot themselves prove their name, nor can they request documents to do so; many times they cannot even manage to find out what their real age is. For this reason, we have created this book: to demand these children’s right to exist.

To demand these children’s right to exist positions the reader to generate knowledge as listening, by bringing a silenced story to the fore in an art form that is an integral part of the story and history to be heard.

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When viewed as lived through and embodied (Sumara), stories make links between the imagination and lived realities by offering a range of inquiries into possible worlds and ways of living, being, and relating in those worlds. As some of the first texts children encounter, picturebooks make significant marks on experience as children learn formative ways of reading the word and the world (Freire). These marks on experience extend into tacit theories that children develop about reading and conceptions about what picturebooks and reading make possible, theories that are either restricted or expanded by the kinds of books children encounter. Taken together, embracing ambiguity, opening to hurt, pausing for interruption, witnessing resistance, and hearing silences are five examples that show a range of kinds of disquieting that are important dimensions of inquiry, each engaging the reader in knowledge generation differently. Whereas quieting texts tend to orient toward knowledge as a thing known, disquieting texts tend to raise questions that reverberate. These texts, in the shape and form of picturebooks, may have a unique affordance for encouraging both hopefulness and struggle, co-generative critical dimensions of being in the world actively and aware.

In the literacy classroom, picturebooks, like any other form of art or literature, can be positioned as sites of struggle where teachers and students—both individually and collectively—can orient to knowledge and one another differently. Embracing (ambiguity), opening (to hurt), pausing (for interruption), witnessing (resistance), and hearing (silences) suggest fundamental ways of knowing—ways of knowing that might be engaged and cultivated through particular kinds of engagement with picturebooks. At best, as sites of struggle are taken up in classrooms and among others, these sites can become places to enter into solidarity with others around those struggles and support efforts to uproot dominant dualistic thinking and beliefs in individual consciousness in favor of new epistemologies, more relational configurations, and diverse ways of knowing (Anzaldúa; Hooks). Book choices, in as much as they are central [End Page 39] to teaching, are one place for teachers to begin to create space for reconstructing new orientations to knowledge (Thompson and Gitlin) through more relational, co-constructed meaning-making and the negotiation of uncertainties inherent in disquieting. Representations of struggle in the picturebook can be seen as generative sites of learning in a critical inquiry classroom with particular affordances for knowledge generation.

Taking into consideration the affordances of disquieting texts would encourage us as teachers, and other adults in positions of power, to consider our criteria for book selection if we wish to actively cultivate a more complex orientation to knowledge as a thing not already made. If teachers are looking for powerful ways to encourage inquiry with their students, they might consider picturebooks as having a unique potential for inquiry into uncomfortable aspects of the way things are in order to encourage desire for imagining how they ought to be. Although we often shy away from disquieting content in picturebooks for fear of conflict, pain, or suffering, disquieting texts may actually expand our range of orientations to knowledge and deepen our relational identities with texts and with and among people in the contexts in which we read. In this way, disquieting books could be viewed as a form of innovation in the picturebook that offers varied and unique epistemic possibilities for the children and communities that read them.

Jessica Whitelaw

inline graphic JESSICA WHITELAW teaches courses in literature and literacies, teacher education and educational leadership in the United States at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Her research focuses on youth and intersections among the arts, literacy, and critical inquiry.

I would like to extend warm thanks to Jochen Weber, Claudia Soeffner, and Sibylle Weingart at the International Youth Library in Munich for their support and conversation that informed this article.



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