CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 39. . . .June 6, 2014
Children near and far emerge in rich visual contexts and engage in reading the world visually—reading images—long before they experience social practices associated with making sense of the world through print. The genre of wordless or “pure” picture books (Hillman, 1995) entices children and their reading partners to build on, broaden and deepen their affinity for, and skills in reading the world visually—graphically, through art. Letter Lunch offers such affordances and more. Powerful and provocative, Letter Lunch is a clever, visually striking, allegorical quest narrative that is primarily conveyed without words (and definitely no sentences).
The book’s charm, style and sophistication (Williams, 1994) will keep many youngsters, middle schoolers, and adults on library, living room, and school carpets and/or at tables as they pore over the white line drawings, along with the clear, crisp, and strategically colourful cut paper images in this engrossing work about letters, words and, in a word—language.
Letter Lunch appropriately constructs child readers/viewers as active explorers who are curious about language and about the visual symbols (letters) used to signify the signs we use to create and describe the foods we eat—for lunch, for instance, and the world around us. Eschewing a total reliance on naturalism, the book summons readers/viewers to engage with the fantastic and to make use of their socio-cultural resources as they journey along with two children (that readers/viewers will have the thrill and privilege of naming) who are simultaneously bored and hungry. The carefully sequenced visual narration makes use of a variety of panels to tell the story of an alphabetic quest initiated by a need to satisfy hunger.
To satisfy their intellectual hunger, the girl invites the boy to paint. Their desire to paint is soon interrupted by hunger in another area of the children’s bodies--their stomachs, and thus begins the quest for lunch. The search for food begins in bare cupboards that only nets the youth a lone “C” from the cookie jar. With such a minimal find, the children decide to create a long list that is comprised solely of consonants. With shoes and jackets on, and list as well as basket in hand, the children move out of a grey-hued interior into a verdant garden of trees bearing brightly coloured upper and lower-cased “Ts”, vines, laden with “Ns” and shrubs with “Rs” of similar characteristics and where only the choice letters are gathered for their basket. After picking the most desirable Ns, Rs and Ts, the children check them off on their list.
From their lush Vancouver garden, the letter gatherers make their way to the market where they find storefront bins filled with Ds, Fs and Ss. Proceeding inside the market, they see and purchase a wide variety of consonants including Bs, Hs, Ks, Ls, Gs, Ys, Ms, Ps and Ws. These are checked off, and in this manner the quest continues until the youngsters hit a tough spot: locating rarer consonants that are not so plentiful—Xs, Qs, Js, and Zs for instance, and this takes the children away from town into a more rural and green landscape, one populated with huge trees loaded with the hard-to-locate letters such as Xs, Qs, and Js. In this fertile rural landscape, there are big trees teeming with uncommon consonants, and the children find all but one of the letters they had recorded on their list of consonants: a Zed.
Once again, the adventurous children read their world utilizing prior knowledge, and deciphering that the sighting of an intelligent bird such as a raven might be a helpful sign, they take note of its flight path. The children are faced with a decision: should they follow the bird or not? The boy is tired; he thinks of home and does not want to carry on locating the only letter that they have not yet netted for their letter lunch. Although this tests their relationship, the girl succeeds in convincing the boy to forge ahead. The conflict resolved, the sometimes reluctant boy, now guided by the tenacious girl, makes his way to the peak of the mountain, and there they find their sought after Holy Grail, a tree with precious zeds—one of the least used letters of the English alphabet. After admiring their find, the boy is granted the privilege of plucking a ruby-coloured zed. The children gaze at it in wonder; they fawn over it, hold it up triumphantly and dance for joy at securing the precious letter.
Having found all the letters on their list, the children descend the mountain, head for home and, as they make their way there, their curious neighbourhood playmates are invited to behold the visual treasures they found. Once at home, the happy children empty their alphabet harvest in a giant salad bowl and begin to make their letter lunch. They attempt to make the word delicious but could only write DLCS. The friends immediately realize that something important is missing—the taste is not appealing—other ingredients are needed. It is at this point that the girl has a brilliant idea. Pointing to spice jars, labelled /a/e/i/o/u, she suggests that these key ingredients be added to the letters and readers/viewers see the vowels as they float from the spice jars to the awaiting bowl. With the addition of vowels, the word delicious can now be formed. Its meaning is confirmed when we witness the happy-faced children licking the spoons, smacking their lips and eventually scooping up spoonfuls of their letter lunch.
The hunger in their stomachs now satiated from letter lunching, the book ends with the girl pointing to the painting table—where the story began. Returning to the table equipped with paint brushes and a complete alphabet, the children can at last satisfy their intellectual hunger. And they do. They write the complete alphabet on the table and use it to create colourful words that are descriptive and evocative of their fabulous quest. With arms open, the children invite readers/viewers to use words to write the story of Letter Lunch—a story that uses every letter of the alphabet—a story that heretofore relied only on beautiful, intricate visual images to independently convey meaning about plot, characters, and ideology. But what about the setting?
Letter Lunch is set in an idealized, imagined Vancouver and is an enchanting world of letter-bearing vines, plants and trees, richly hued storefronts, and a cloud covered mountain that is home to the last, and among the rarest letters of the alphabet—the zed. In Letter Lunch, Gutiérrez makes good use of analogous colours to evoke the lush Vancouver setting. From the cool, avocado green colours of the garden and the orchards that are home to uncommon letters, such Xs, Qs and Js, to the vibrant, warm, brown, cinnamon, orange, red and yellow colours of consonants at the market on Granville Island’s Public Market, the book is a feast for the eyes. Gutiérrez paints images of palpable beauty that are technically, narratively, and artistically superb.
Gutiérrez enriches her work with elements from other graphic forms such as the comic book. Comic book writing works well in this picture book without words. For instance, from the beginning of the book, Gutiérrez employs image elements such as panels as a way of structuring, detailing, sequencing, and pacing the wordless narrative and does so to good effect. Consider for example, the first pages that show the children, outside the house, with basket in hand ready to pluck letters from the trees and plants in their own backyard. On the left page, we get an overview of the scene while, on the right, the illustrator employs three panels of varying sizes to show the boy standing on a ladder reaching for plentiful “Ts” while, further to the right, the panel is split horizontally and shows in detail, a close up of his sister or friend as she gathers an upper case “R” from those available.
Gutiérrez’s talents as a first rate artist is illustrated on the page that depicts the children challenging Cypress mountain. She employs five horizontal panels to do so. The first panel is split. In the smallest (top) portion readers/viewers see the boy and girl as they stand at the foot of the azure and turquoise-coloured mountain. The lower, longer portion of the panel shows the children ascending mountain.
The remaining three panels are of equal length and width. They slice the mountain: one slice illustrates the fatigue and exasperation of the boy as he emerges from a layer of cloud and mist. The other reveals the sympathetic and encouraging girl further up the mountain, indicating that victory is in sight. The third slice/panel shows layers of land, shifting clouds, mist, and an azure mountain peak with a lone tree sitting on it. Readers/viewers are likely to relish the powerful images and their ability to convey the movement involved in the children’s ascent of the mountain and that of the clouds and mist.
In addition to panels, Gutiérrez makes use of double-page spreads. A satisfying example is the spread that shows the two focalizers seated in peaceful repose atop the azure and turquoise-coloured mountain they ascended to locate the uncommon letter: zed.
Having found success, the children gaze out on a splendorous skyscape, a mountain peakscape of layered, slate-muted blues and greens sitting on top of full-bodied, rounded white clouds through which dance a layer of yellow-tinged rolling mist. From a magical Cypress Mountain, the beautiful, brown-faced children stare at the cityscape of a light-blue and light green coloured Vancouver in the distance. This stunning illustration of analogous colours: blue and turquoise-brushed canvas, and alabaster clouds, features a flock of elegant ravens, making their way across the skyscape. Readers/viewers will lovingly linger over this peaceful, yet dramatic, and mesmerizing image that speaks convincingly of Gutierrez’s expertise as an illustrator and colorist. Children will want to climb in and take a seat alongside the smiling, nameless children who wisely take time to rest and enjoy the glorious beauty of the mountain top view having accomplished the quest of obtaining a complete alphabet. Such, is the beauty and energy of the images found in Letter Lunch.
As far wordless books go, Letter Lunch is as sophisticated as it is enjoyable, engaging and definitely designed to have an impact on readers as well as budding and mature artists. Ideal for children age four to nine, this intricate book shows two adventurous children, often full of zest, in a relentless quest for letters—the ingredients of print literacy. Viewers/readers will come away from the text with useful knowledge about the letters of the alphabet: some consonants (e.g., Ts, Rs) are plentiful; others, such as Xs, Qs, and Js, are less so, and every consonant is important, even if one has to travel far to get it, like the zed. From Letter Lunch, children will learn that the letter zed /z/ is uncommon, and that the letters of the alphabet are not serviceable for making meaningful words without the inclusion of five essential letters—/a/e/i/o/u—the vowels. Gutiérrez correctly and delightfully represents vowels as essential special spices that are needed to turn letters into words.
Since the concept of serviceability has been evoked, a well-rounded review of Letter Lunch commands a brief discussion of the instrumentality and functionality of wordless books for language learners as suggested by researchers (Cassady, 1998; Hu & Commeyras, 2008; Jalongo et al., 2002; Williams, 1994). The penultimate illustration reveals that Gutiérrez is well aware of the utility of wordless books because it is here that the two child focalizers draw readers’ attention to the complete English alphabet surrounded by a rich canvas of words—exciting vocabulary that can be used to retell the story of the book. Available to readers on the second to last page are words such as: friends, hungry, cook, journey, quest, uncommon, determined, persevere, gather, ingredients, vibrant, spices, zeal and zest. They are words that readers may have used to make their own meaning solely from the images up to this point and that are now presented in colourful print for use in oral (re)telling and/or through writing. Also, fully visible on the page is the symbol for infinity—also the symbol of the Métis, placed on an appealing blue background—signalling the infinite nature and creativity of the alphabet, letters, and language, itself. How fitting! And, kudos to Gutiérrez for placing brown children on Cypress Mountain and all over Vancouver (perhaps symbolizing indigeneity, difference, diversity, and belonging)! The children of the story are embedded in spaces and places where they have been, and will be for thousands of years.
Rich in detail, creative as well as imaginative, Letter Lunch validates in multiple ways the very noble and empowering quest in which pre-schoolers and those in the primary grades are engaged—the quest for visual as well as print literacy. Using glorious visual images, Letter Lunch tells children that the quest is worth it (forming words to name and describe the world). This message is conveyed at the end of the book through a vibrant, visual illustration showing the individual letters of the alphabet and how they can be combined to make words that name and describe—symbols that can be used, just like visual images to communicate. For all those involved in endearing children to the alphabet and the fabulous possibilities of word formation, Letter Lunch lends itself to enthusiastic, interpretive use, before, during, and after the alphabetic principles have been mastered. The book is a luscious and delicious fiesta that is open to multiple interpretations. And, for those who need to be reminded of the magic and power of letters (consonants and vowels), Letter Lunch is an excellent choice.
Dr. Barbara McNeil teaches in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina in Regina, SK.
Cassady, J. K. (1998). Wordless books: No-risk tools for inclusive middle-grade classrooms.
Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 41(6), 428-434.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal
use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any
other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.