Reviews 2014

Visual Journeys Through Wordless Narratives: An International Inquiry with Immigrant Children and The Arrival

Visual Journeys Through Wordless Narratives: An International Inquiry with Immigrant Children and The Arrival. Evelyn Arizpe, Teresa Colomer and Carmen Martinez-Roldán. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. 272 pages. £75.00 (hardback).

The plight of migrant children is becoming a major point of concern across many countries and continents. Schools are especially affected by this: in many instances classroom teachers are asked to cope with students from a wide variety of nationalities and backgrounds, who speak a multiplicity of languages. Since this phenomenon is unlikely to diminish, given the political and economic instability in many parts of the world, Visual Journeys Through Wordless Narratives is a particularly timely and important publication. It is an account of "Visual Journeys," a trans-continental research project led by Dr Evelyn Arizpe (Glasgow). This looks at how wordless picturebooks might be a means of addressing the difficulties involved in working with children who have been displaced from their homelands; it is predicated on the research question: "In what ways does participation in visual response strategies and discussions of wordless postmodern texts support recent immigrant children as readers?" (5). The text chosen for examination was Shaun Tan’s The endeavour on the Arrival; Tan has written a Foreword for the book, and quotations by him, which underline the value of visual literacy, occur throughout the text, giving a good sense of the project as a participatory part of illustrator/author, researchers and teachers, and the children themselves. Initially, David Wiesner’s Flotsam was to be part of the study, but because the researchers felt that in using both texts it was impossible to do justice to the work, it was decided to focus solely on The Arrival. Flotsam was, however, utilized as an introduction to wordless picturebooks, and was also the basis for a project introducing photography as a learning strategy in Glasgow, which was part of the overall Visual Journeys research.

The research was initially designed to be executed on a partnership basis between researchers in universities in Glasgow, Barcelona, Arizona, Bologna and Sydney. The Sydney material is not included in Visual Journeys, as the main focus there was on Flotsam, and the Bologna material is added as a Coda. Therefore, the main discussions and findings presented in the three sections which form the main body of the publication—"Embarking on the Journey," "Navigating the Interpretive Process," and "Mediation and Pedagogy: Transforming Literacy Learning and Teaching"—incorporate material from Glasgow, Barcelona and Arizona. The structure of the research methodology is situated within theoretical and contextual frameworks in the first section. That encouraging bilingualism on the part of immigrant children should be the norm, rather than striving for absorption into the language of the host country, is stressed throughout, as is the importance of moving from an approach where cultural identity becomes stereotyped through overemphasis on marking differences, by, for example, highlighting food, customs, and clothing. The children from each participating school were carefully selected, and the criteria employed to do this are listed. The students originated from at least 20 different countries and spoke in the region of 40 different languages between them. Lists of their countries of origin are included. The researchers, teachers and mediators were also from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicity, and the main languages of the inquiry were Spanish and English.

Section 2, "Navigating the Interpretive Process," deals mainly with the young readers’ responses to The Arrival. Some of the students blurred the boundaries between what is happening in the text and their personal experiences and perception of migration. To some extent, the responses varied between the three groups involved in the research, and there is an interesting variety of interpretations of Tan’s images in this context. Further on, in Section 3, differences in approaches to working with the children between mediators in the three cities involved are outlined, giving options to those who may consider emulating the work of Visual Journeys in their own schools. That The Arrival is a sophisticated wordless picturebook was, of course, a very considerable asset as it enabled participating children in all of the cities to fell an affinity with events which was not distorted by language. There were other advantages too, not least the freedom it gave the participants to make predictions and inferences, and in these and other ways, developing higher order visual reading and interpretive skills (138, 139) in addition to intercultural competences (151, 152,).

The concluding section, "Mediation and Pedagogy," lays further stress on the importance of providing immigrant children with scaffolds that build on their knowledge and experience. The authors argue that the potential of images in this respect has traditionally been overlooked in school curricula. While this is changing somewhat, the reported outcomes of the research undertaken in Visual Journeys should surely do more to hasten this. The section concludes with a resumé of the further developments arising from the project in Arizona, Glasgow and Barcelona, and the Coda on the work in Bologna adds to this.

Visual Journeys Through Wordless Narratives is a thoughtful reflection on the way immigrant children are often treated in busy classrooms and schools. Teachers may not have adequate skills, resources or time to facilitate a desirable approach to their pupils (42). The final section outlines the importance of sensitivity and experience of the facilitator in mediating discussions and developing children’s ability to respond to wordless texts (185). Adults are often inhibited in discussions of visual texts, and both the brief paragraphs explaining "Basic visual elements" and the extensive bibliography encourage the development of confidence in this area. Strategies which may be used in developing language and guiding questioning in the classroom are outlined, and teachers should find the suggestions for creating discussion and inquiry opportunities for students very useful (203, 204). While The Arrival, an outstanding piece of literature on many levels, was a natural selection for the Visual Journeys research, the authors point out in their conclusion that there are other visual texts that could also provide opportunities for similar work. Undoubtedly there is work to be done with the ever-increasing flow of children who are displaced from their home places for one reason or another. That recognition of the part wordless picturebooks—or silent books, to use the term preferred in Italy—of high artistic merit can play in work with these children is a cause for considerable satisfaction. Visual Journeys shows how skilled mediators working with such texts can achieve outstanding results, and it will be exciting to see how the work of the research teams in each city is further developed.

Valerie Coghlan
Independent Researcher, Dublin, Ireland