What’s your family like? And who are they like? My father is smart and capable, and he’s good at building. Maybe he’s like a beaver? Maybe a bird, building his nest? My mother is gentle and devoted to her family. She reminds me of Mrs. Mallard. My sister is elegant and graceful, like a swan.
I am very curious to know more about how Chronicle Books has been getting so many excellent books from France these days– remember Who Done It? That was a great book, too. I want to know which editors are in charge of getting these books and getting them so nicely translated, because I want to a) send them flowers, b) have their job. Do you ever think about how there are all of these great books out there which you never get to see because they’re in another language or another country, and then you get sad? And then you go looking around for them? (Ahem: Bébé Balthazar.) Well, I think I want my job to be “editor in charge of reading amazing French kids’ books and getting them translated for the English-speaking market.” Glorious.
Anyway, moving on: this beautiful book is possibly one of the most versatile in age I can imagine. It’s incredibly simple, yet rich. Let me show you a few pages:
With the Changeling, the game is to look for the one who stands out: that’s very easy with this page. The elephant is front and centre. It’s a little more tricky for her with the little brother (a small bird, so you have to hunt for him), and even with one of my favourite pages…
But what I really, truly love? I really love that this is a conversation which could grow. I volunteer with early readers, in a Grade 1 classroom. Those are slow readers (most of them are clever kids from other countries, so English is their second language), and I can see them being very engaged by a book like this one. The text is so simple, so very simple that some of the more advanced kids in the class could probably handle it fairly well. The ideas, though, are so much more interesting than the ones they have to handle in their abysmally stupid little readers.
Oh, those poor kids. Allow me a tangent. Do you know how I know those kids are bright? It’s because I can see their book-hunger. They flip through the little stacks of books I give them and choose eagerly, based on the topic they think will be in each book from the cover image. They read three or four little booklets with me, then go through the (rather good) vocabulary lists in the back. But the books!!! They’re based on the curriculum, they’re required reading– I don’t blame the lovely teacher at all. But they’re so boring I’m amazed the kids can endure them. They do, although one bright little boy explained to me how the pictures of sandwiches in them made him feel sick (accompanied by a graphic demonstration of how sick he felt). I didn’t blame him– bad food photography of a revolting school sandwich is nauseating, indeed. And I sit there and repress my sigh of longing to bring this one in and see whether my more advanced readers can manage it. They could, I know they could.
What, you wonder, do I think they could get out of it? Well, this is a book where the text is simple but the visual context gives rise to more complex ideas. My kids are students whose language is limited but whose minds are very sharp. I think that would make for a great match. Take that page with the giraffe I showed you above: the mother is tall and beautiful (“Is the giraffe tall and beautiful, honey?” “She’s so tall, tall like this!” says the Changeling) but very shy and doesn’t want to stand out. My Changeling gets that the giraffe is tall, and she knows what it is to be shy, but she’s too little to really get how the clever illustrations blend the giraffe in with the windows in the background. She doesn’t understand the concept of camouflage, really. Her engagement is with finding each animal and admiring them all. It’s thrilling for her, and an absolutely satisfying read.
My students are old enough to do two things the Changeling, clever darling though she is, is too little to do: a) I’m positive that they could pick up on the contextual clues in the illustrations, and I’m confident that with prompting they could talk about them (i.e. understand the concept of camouflage, if not get the word just yet); b) I’m equally confident they could relate the concept to themselves (“What is my father like? Who am I like?”). In other words, I see this– oh, lord, there goes my imagination again. Fine, I’ll let my imagination fly. I see this as a great basis for a unit. You read it with the students, maybe in small groups, so the students can see the pictures and talk about them. Then each student gets the chance to do their own “Wild Family” picture: Here’s my father, the owl. He is very smart. Here’s my aunt, the kangaroo. She loves pockets. Here’s my adorable sleepy baby brother, the sloth. It all requires simple language, and a bit of clever thinking. I bet my kids could do it, and it would be so much more fun than those little pink books of deathly boredom.
This is a clever book, a growing book, and I love it for all that I see that it does with the Changeling, and could do for us in a few more years. But what I really, truly love it for? It’s for that lesson I dream of. I’ll never be able to teach it, but I wish to God I could. I know those students would love it.
And, Chronicle Books? Tell me where to send the flowers, and I’ll do it. Maybe a fruit basket, too. Bringing these books to the USA merits some reward.