Reading guide for Alors?

by Kitty Crowther

Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Laureate 2010

Written by Agneta Edwards

About the author and illustrator

Is the Belgian picture book author Kitty Crowther (born in 1970) primarily an illustrator or an author? She herself prefers to call herself a storyteller and says that even if her only materials were sticks and stones, she would still have created stories. As a child, drawing provided Kitty Crowther with an important outlet and an opportunity to express herself, particularly as she was born with a hearing impairment. And she has taken the tools of the child, coloured pencils, with her into her work as an artist. Using this simple medium, Kitty Crowther creates light and shade, surface structures and light effects – with small changes in shading and extending the shadows, see how subtly she depicts the gradual passing of time through the day in Alors? (2006).

Kitty Crowther also produces books for slightly older readers, e.g. Le grand désordre (2005), Annie du lac (2009), her latest book L’homme et Dieu (2010) and L’enfant racine (2003), and for younger children. Jack and Jim (French original title: Mon ami Jim, 1998), the first of Kitty Crowther’s books to be translated into Swedish and one of the few to have been translated into English, is about friendship and fear of strangers, depicted through the encounter between a blackbird and a seagull.

Alors?, Scritch scratch dip clapote (2002) and the series about the flies Poka and Mine are about the day-to-day lives of very small children and the things that are important to them. There is a strong presence and tenderness in Kitty Crowther’s tales. Whether the issue at stake is a frog’s fear of the dark or how Mine persuades Poka to take all the cuddly toys to the cinema, she starts out entirely from the child’s perspective.

For those who, like Kitty Crowther, have poor hearing, it is important to experience and interpret other people’s signals through body language, mimicry and gestures. Being an aware, sensitive observer has created the empathy that is part of what makes Kitty Crowther a great artist. The apparently simple drawings use small touches and details, like the angles of the thin arms of the flies Poka and Mine, or the way their eyes have to express all their emotions because Kitty Crowther did not give them any mouths. There are also telling glances between father and son in Scritch scratch dip clapote and among the suspicious seagulls in Jack and Jim. The eyes tell how the characters feel and convey things going on beyond the surface of the text. This makes the books full of content, possible to interpret and to be read “all-by-myself” even by very young children who are almost entirely dependent on the pictures to convey the story.

About the book

When Kitty Crowther was asked to write a play for children, she created Alors?. It is easy to see how what appears, in terms of the action, to be so simple a story plays out on the stage. Everything takes place in the same room where some cuddly toys or imaginary characters with human-like characteristics are waiting, for something or someone. The room almost looks like an opened out cardboard box or just a simple stage set. It is furnished with typical children’s furniture and toys – a table, chairs, a tea set, building blocks, cars, a ball and a book.

On the first spread we see a figure who looks like a girl cat cheerfully scamper in and on the next she is sitting on a chair and reading a book. Then the teddy bear enters and wonders “A-ha? Is it time yet?” “No”, answers the girl cat.

On every spread a new character comes into the room – onto the stage – and asks whether it is time yet, whether “he” has come yet. The answer is always negative. As they arrive, the characters each occupy themselves with something in the room: some build with the blocks, others have a tea party or play with the ball. Small changes take place between each spread/scene, physical positions change, for example, but things are also going on outside the pictures, which we can see if we notice how the bear and the rabbit are trying to place the blocks in numerical order.

Alors? is based on a simple storytelling structure that uses the power of repetition and the principle of recognition – the child quickly understands how the book works and that is what makes it so delightful. Just as the characters are waiting, the reader too is waiting to see what is hiding on the next page, who is going to turn up next – Kitty Crowther skilfully uses the built-in drama of turning the page.

There is a window in the room through which the light comes. As the day passes, the shades of daylight change, shadows become longer and the room gets darker. How long will they have to wait? Finally a sound is heard… The lights are lit outside and in the room. At last the person they have been waiting for is coming! It is a little boy, perhaps home from a day at preschool – it is easy for the child reader to identify with him. The moon shines outside the window, signalling that it is night time. Bedtime. The child and the animals snuggle up in bed. The last spread shows the playroom in morning light – a new day awaits.

Working with Alors?

Because there is no text other than the few speeches between the characters, Alors? might have been made for interactive reading. It is not a story to be read aloud to children listening with bated breath but a story that invites them to join in.

Books are an excellent tool for sparking conversation, stimulating language and getting children thinking. Alors? can be used to practise vocabulary for everyday items and initiate a conversation about the children’s own world, practising storytelling and teaching the child to draw parallels between the action of the book and his or her own life. It is also easy to use Alors? as a springboard for the imagination. Attention can also be drawn to the thread running through the whole story, and to reading between the lines – what is happening under the surface of the text and the story? – and to concepts such as time, and to counting.

Some suggested starting points/questions:

Name the objects and the animals, as with a board book.

Talk about what sort of toys and soft toys the child or children you are reading the book with has or have, and which ones they enjoy playing with most. Which things in the room in the book would they like to play with and why? Is there anything missing that they think should be there?

Count the animals. How many in each picture?

Practise numbers and counting using the blocks in the picture.

What are the animals wearing? Name the clothes, colours, patterns (stripes, flowers... ) etc. Are they boys or girls? How can we tell? – bringing in some thoughts about gender.

Thinking backwards and forwards through the story – stop at each spread and talk about who or what you think will come in on the next page. And who is going to play with who, or what? When you have read the book a few times, turn it round – can you remember who came in first? What did they do then? Who did they play with?

Where do the animals come from? What do they do the rest of the time? Where do they live? Use your imagination!

And so the big mystery – who are they waiting for? And where is he? Use your imagination!

Discussion: When do the children themselves have to wait and what or who are they waiting for? Maybe when they are collected from preschool? How does it feel?

Imagine what their own cuddly toys do when they aren’t at home, maybe they are also sitting and waiting and missing them?

Think about how much time passes in the book. Look at the first pictures and talk about what time the children think it is. Think about why we (perhaps) think it is morning. Flick ahead and see what it looks like there. Look at the last picture – is it earlier or later in the day than the first one? How does Kitty Crowther depict the passing of time? Here children also learn how they themselves can paint day and night.

When do you see the moon? Talk together about the sun and the moon rising and setting in the summer and in the winter, in simple and concrete terms at the child’s level, e.g. is it always daylight when the child goes to preschool in the morning?

You can also work with the animals, e.g. why is it the owl who always wants to go to sleep? Are there other animals who are up at night?

Language/story box: create the room in Alors? out of a cardboard box (which can also be used to store the props). Put the box on its side with the opening facing the intended audience/group of children. Cut out a hole for the door in the rear “wall” and the window in the short side. Obtain or create – preferably with the children – the furniture (doll’s house furniture), the toys and the characters. Act the book out!

Put on a play! Why not perform Alors? yourself as a play? Everything required in terms of props can be found at home or at preschool, there are enough roles for a group of children and the speeches are easy.

Further reading about Kitty Crowther

Belgiska ritar historier, Gunilla Wedding, Skånska Dagbladet, 23 October 2008 (in Swedish)

Hon vänder svaghet till styrka, Agneta Edwards, Opsis Kalopsis, issue 2 2010 (in Swedish)

Kitty Crowther – en känslig berättare, Lennart Eng, IBBY-bladet, issue 2 2010 (in Swedish)

This Reading Guide was written by Agneta Edwards, former member of the jury for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. It was first published in Swedish in August 2011.

More about Kitty Crowther