Frequently, as readers, we fall into the trap of assuming that picture books are just for younger children. This is not always the case. There are quite a few writers and illustrators, like Shaun Tan, who have built stellar careers upon the idea that picture books can be written for, indeed directed towards an older audience. Of course, then there are these wonderfully creative people who manage to write for children, yet at the same time also address older audiences in ways that are nothing short of profound. As a secondary teacher, when I come across these stories I always find a way to use them; either in my classroom or with staff. Katherine Battersby’s latest picture book, Little Wing is one such book. On the surface it is a charmingly illustrated picture book, aimed at pre-schoolers or junior primary students. Indeed this is probably the way the most people will choose to use it. However, when we delve beneath the surface we discover something with themes so universal that it not only speaks to adults but it serves as a tool that has the potential to transform that audience.
“On the smallest island, in the tallest tree, lived the world’s smartest animal.” So begins Battersby in what is a deceptively simple tale about a bird, Little Wing, who, through his love of books and learning, becomes the smartest animal on the planet. However, despite the great wealth of knowledge accessible at his fingertips, Little Wing fails to understand how he fits into the larger scheme of things. Little Wing launches on a journey of self-discovery that takes him to a place beyond the wisdom stored inside books. It is a place where he must discover on his own, through original and creative thought processes; the answer to who he actually is.
Battersby uses sparse, simple language in her telling of this story, a choice which makes this story accessible to young beginning readers. However, it is the juxtaposition of the text alongside the delightful illustrations that really breathes life into Little Wing’s story. Battersby uses a combination of media that includes watercolour, pencil and textiles along with scanned images to create a digital collage with an airy and whimsical feel. I envisage that teachers will take inspiration from this and embrace the opportunity to explore this method in art lessons.
For teachers, the story of Little Wing reminds us that although the content of what we teach is important, our greatest imperative as educators is how we develop in our students skills that will lead to self-discovery and original thought. Of course, when reading this story with my 4 year old daughter the message we shared was that learning is an exciting adventure, one that is life long and fun. What a wonderful message to share with children at the very beginning of their learning journey!
Tanya Grech Welden