by Prisca Martens, Towson University
This month we’ve been looking closely at how the art and written text in picturebooks work together to convey meaning and exploring how to help children experience the full richness in picturebooks by reading both. This week we’ll examine how Jenna Loomis read My Name Is Sangoel, written by Karen Lynn Williams (2009) and Khandra Mohammed and illustrated by Catherine Stock, with her first graders.
In the story, Sangoel, his mother, and sister move from their home in Sudan to the United States after the war leaves them as refugees and their father/husband dies fighting. Sangoel treasures his Dinka name, which his father and grandfather held before him, and is bothered when no one in his new community can pronounce it. Sangoel thinks of a clever solution which helps others know his name and makes him begin to feel at home in the United States. Catherine Stock’s mixed-media illustrations bring watercolor, photographs, and collage into a meaningful whole just as Sangoel’s life of mixed cultural experiences becomes a meaningful whole and he comes to know and appreciate who he is.
Jenna knew her first graders had little background on Sudan and refugees so before reading the book, she searched the Baltimore County Schools database and found a digital book to examine with them. As Jenna read and they looked at the photographs together, the children talked about what they noticed about the people, where they lived, etc. Jenna also explained that not everyone in Sudan is a refugee. When Jenna started to read the book the children noticed the sand/desert and clothing, similar to what they saw in the digital book, and that the houses in the book were different than the houses they live in. Jenna asked them to “read like an illustrator” as she continued the book to see what Stock did in her art to help them understand the story.
After reading the story, the children sat in circle to have a “genuine conversation”. In response to the story, Jessica thought “you have to be brave to move to another country”, Mark said it’s important that you “don’t forget who you are”, and Cory commented about listening carefully to how someone’s name sounds and not to make fun of them. When Jenna asked what they noticed as they read like illustrators, the children’s comments included, “She worked with newspapers,” “She made a collage,” “She filled the whole page with color,” “She used dark outlines,” and “She used dark colors in Africa and lighter colors in the American illustrations.” They thought Stock did those things because it was more creative to use newspaper and because she liked the designs on the papers she cut for clothing. Jenna made a “How Catherine Stock Worked to Illustrate” anchor chart that included the children’s comments.
To help the children explore who they are using art similar to Stock’s art, Jenna incorporated several aspects of the children’s identity into a mixed media project. Earlier in the year she had photographed each child and collected background on the children’s names from the parents. These were part of the children’s art. In addition, as part of their homework, the children cut pictures of things they liked or are important to them from magazines. Using the pictures, crayons/colored pencils, and information on their names, the children created art that showed something important and special about them.
In her art, Anika included her favorite foods, an American Girl doll and ballet doll because those are special to her, and a Christmas tree because “I wanted it to be Christmas Eve”. Anika showed her excitement by raising her arm and placing triangles over her head, similar to how Mo Willems shows excitement in his art. Her name information states, “My name is Anika. My name is special because it is easy to pronounce in both Spanish and English. My mother had two friends growing up whose names were Anika.”
Shai likes the jungle and drew himself there surrounded by animals. Only part of a branch shows on the left “because the rest is off the page.” For his name, the information reads, “My name is Shai. Shai means gift. My name is special because I am named after my great-grandfather, Samuel. My name is a special Hebrew name.”
Experiences like Jenna provided her students in reading and responding to My Name is Sangoel immerse children in the richness of picturebooks. I hope that sharing Jenna’s, Laura’s, and Michelle’s experiences has provided ideas for supporting children in reading the art and written texts in picturebooks.
Williams, K.L., & Mohammed, K. (2009). My Name Is Sangoel. Illus. C. Stock. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
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