By Vita Forest
Have you read Margaret Wild’s Fox? It is a searing tale of friendship, jealousy, temptation, grief and loss. Did I mention it’s a children’s picture book?
My class has been examining it closely. Noticing the similes, the use of present tense, the metaphors, the personification, the colours used by the illustrator Ron Brooks, the layout of the pages and the unusual scratchy lettering.
This week, after a boring old handwriting lesson (“check your pencil grip, stay on the lines, sit up straight, trace slowly and carefully, form your letters in just the right way”) we changed gear to explore how Ron Brooks’ lettering contributed to the story.
He experimented and took some time to get it just right. Brooks ended up writing the text by hand and using his left hand (he is right handed), hacking out the words, tracing some of the letters over and over, writing them down and then up the sides of pages, on diagonals, in capitals (screaming). In short, breaking all the handwriting rules.
We looked at the book again and focused on the writing, looking not at what it said but how it said it. The kids had a play on little whiteboards, swapping their usual writing hands, using capitals where they should have used lowercase, reversing their letters, looking away when they wrote, turning their boards upside down, writing over and over in the same space. Then they chose a piece of coloured paper, a handful of oil pastels and went away to make their marks as one of the three characters – half-blind, trusting Dog, griefing, wary Magpie or sly, jealous, lonely Fox. The stipulation – they could only write the name of their character, nothing more, nothing less.
Miss Sadie, rather cheeky and daring, stared me in the face and screwed up her paper into a ball. I stared back at her and said, “Yes! If you are Fox, that might be just what you would do.” (They have witnessed one of their classmates do this same action on a rather regular basis when he is distressed and in the midst of a meltdown). Suddenly, there was scrunching, there was ripping, there was smudging, there was scraping. Some of them wrote their character’s name just once, others repeated the lines over and over and over again.
Another happy accident occurred when I handed out some black mounting paper that I had cut in half to what I thought was a good size to frame their work. It turned out it was too small. “Stick it on an angle,” I advised. And the artworks looked better than they would have with a neat black border.
The next day, we sat in a circle and held up the artworks for others to see. The students went around the circle and explained what they did, how they did it and why. Amongst the “I did it coz that’s what I felt like” there were some gems. Kelly left space around Magpie’s name because she was left all alone. Sharni wrote Dog’s name without looking at the paper because Dog was blind and Lana ripped away a piece of Fox’s signature because his heart was broken in two.
Don’t tell me kids can’t understand difficult stories…