Book Reviews


Evelyn Arizpe, Teresa Colomer and Carmen Martinez-Roldán

Visual Journeys through Wordless Narratives: An International Enquiry with Immigrant Children and  ‘The Arrival’

London: Bloomsbury, 2014, 274 pp. ISBN 9781780937588

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Reviewer: Alan Pulverness


The Arrival (2006) by Shaun Tan is a story of immigration, initial estrangement and eventual accommodation, set in a world populated by familiar people and imaginary creatures, a world at once recognisable and bizarre. The Arrival belongs to the growing sub-genre of purely pictorial narratives, or graphic novels without words and is about a man who leaves his family looking for better prospects in an unknown country. According to Tan it collects ‘stories of struggle and survival in a world of incomprehensible violence, upheaval and hope’ (Tan, Picturebooks, The Arrival, n.d.).

Visual Journeys through Wordless Narratives: An International Enquiry with Immigrant Children and ‘The Arrival’ (hereafter Visual Journeys), for which Shaun Tan has provided a foreword, is a fascinating account of an international research project, conducted by teams from the University of Glasgow, the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and Arizona State University, with additional data contributed by two researchers from the University of Bologna after the completion of the main research. The project was designed to investigate the use of wordless visual narratives with children from different ethnic minority and immigrant backgrounds and to explore the learning affordances of such material through different forms of reader response, prompted by a range of approaches to teacher mediation.

The authors of Visual Journeys have consciously adopted the journey metaphor, particularly appropriate in the discussion of a project concerned with the perception and telling of migrant experience, entitling the first two parts of their story ‘Embarking on the Journey’ and ‘Navigating the Interpretive Process’. Moreover, Part 1 includes chapters [End of Page 76] called ‘The Vessel’ (outlines of theoretical frameworks), ‘The Passengers’ (information about contexts and participants) and ‘The Voyage’ (description of the research process).

The succinct theoretical discussion in ‘The Vessel’ reminds us of the extent to which globalisation has produced an acceleration of trans-national migration, but also of the fact that migration has been a universal experience throughout history. As the focus of Visual Journeys is on the child’s experience of immigration, Arizpe, Colomer and Martinez-Roldán are particularly concerned with the position of the child in relation to the often-contested notion of multiculturalism. As an alternative to both the cultural mosaic model, referring to different cultures maintaining discrete cultural identities side by side within the larger community, and the assimilation model that aims at total identification with and absorption into the host culture, the research teams propose a model of transculturation, whereby ‘individuals learn various cultural codes allowing them to build bridges between the many spaces in which they move’ (Bueno, 1996: 26). This captures precisely the mediating role so often played out by the children of immigrant families who are educated and socialised with a foot in both cultures and as such provides a relevant theoretical perspective from which the entire study proceeds.

Arizpe, Colomer and Martinez-Roldán go on to examine the specific impact of emigration and immigration on children, and the challenges implied for educators. In the field of education, it is above all through language and literacies that the children of immigrants, who may or may not themselves be immigrants, can be enabled to explore Bueno’s ‘many spaces in which they move’. And, they suggest, it is through developing visual literacy in particular that they can enjoy the opportunity to make sense of their own experience by making their own meanings.

The next chapter, ‘The Passengers’, provides important background information about the three research contexts as well some of the back stories of the participant children, while Chapter 3, ‘The Voyage’, describes the research process and the pedagogic/ research methodologies employed. Teacher-readers may be tempted to skip the first part of Visual Journeys and move straight on to the data analysis in Part 2 and the discussion of implications for teaching in Part 3. This would, however, be a mistake, as to fully appreciate the significance of the research, it is important to understand the principled [End of Page 77] frameworks of enquiry that informed the project and the contexts in which it was undertaken.

Teachers working with young learners and language teachers working with learners of any age will be well aware of the potential of picture stories as a basis for speculation, interpretation and narrative building. The Arrival, in common with many postmodern visual narratives, is an open text, full of ambiguity and indeterminacy, which invites its readers to co-construct the story, bringing to it their own experiences of reading and their own life experiences. With its story of arrival in a strange, new country, and its dreamlike visual language, populating its world with almost photo-realist depictions of human beings and creatures of the imagination, it ‘defamiliarises’ (see Shklovsky, 1990 [1925]) the reader in much the same way as the immigrant-protagonist is himself defamiliarised. The book thus provides a space in which readers can recognise themselves, speculate not only on what they can see, but also on the experience behind the images, and in quite a literal sense become co-authors of the book.

The teacher-researchers, whose work is reported in the second part of Visual Journeys, employed a range of data collection techniques, all of which were designed to open up spaces within which they could prompt children’s memories, observations and interpretations. For example, this involved the children in various forms of ‘textual intervention’ (see Pope, 1995), such as producing their own drawings, taking their own photographs, creating their own picture strips and most fruitfully, annotating pages of The Arrival. For this, double-page spreads from the book were stuck onto A3 sheets of paper, providing a white frame around the copied pages, where children could add their annotations (for an example, see Visual Journeys, p 112).

Once the initial data had been collected, the three teams, working on their common enquiry in their very different contexts, referred to different analytical frameworks as a basis for their content analysis. Thus, the diversity of contexts was reflected in the application of distinctive approaches to content analysis, which nevertheless shared quite a high degree of mutuality. A common analytical approach was then devised with four intersecting processes which successfully provides a set of perspectives that account for the often complex range of those responses. [End of Page 78]

Part 2 of Visual Journeys consists largely of discussion of representative examples of children’s responses. Chapter 4, Reclaiming the Migrant Experience’, provides us with insights into the children’s understanding of such profound issues as the factors influencing migration, the stressful nature of the immigrant experience and the immigrant’s negotiation of identity. What the data demonstrates, again and again, is the way in which the textual indeterminacy of a wordless narrative offers children a peculiarly rich and suggestive ground, both for articulating their own experience and for empathetic understanding of the experience of others.

Chapter 5 focuses on ‘Making Meaning through Retellings and Inferences’. There is a wealth of examples here of how children instinctively, or with minimal prompting, ‘write’ their own experience, real or imagined, into a text that admits such personal reading. Unbidden, they dramatize texts, inventing dialogue and filling the gaps of indeterminacy. And unselfconsciously, they form a writing partnership with an author who has created a narrative space that allows for, indeed invites, such collaboration.

In Chapter 6, ‘Intertextual Journeys into Intercultural Spaces’, we are reminded how much of children’s response to what they read is conditioned by previous reading (or viewing). Intertextuality here is not an abstruse literary theory, but a real experience that for these children embraced sources as diverse as James Cameron’s Titanic, the video game Mafia Wars, Poseidon, The Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo, the Mexican statue ‘The Angel of Liberty’, the Cyrillic alphabet and the Great Wall of China.

The fourth and final chapter in Part 2, ‘Engaging with the Visual Affordances of The Arrival’, examines the ways in which the book acted as an instrument for developing visual literacy, as the children were asked not just to describe what they could see, but to speculate on why the author had presented the images in particular ways; they were prompted to unpack the images, to talk not only about what they showed, but also what they represented.

Part 3 of the book, Mediation and Pedagogy: Transforming Literacy Learning and Teaching, draws together the implications of the research for teachers using visual narratives with young learners. Despite the specificity of this enquiry into the potential of a particular wordless narrative to empower young immigrant and ethnic minority children through processes of sensitive scaffolding, the book’s conclusions should have a high level [End of Page 79] of transferability to a range of different contexts – not just the teaching of children from similar backgrounds.

The Arrival provided an ideal vehicle for the children involved in the four locations around the world to relate to the immigrant experience represented in the book. But the considerable achievement of Visual Journeys is that through what the authors admit (p. 245) was a ‘messy’ research process, it has provided ‘thick’ data that should inspire teachers to adopt similar approaches to working on wordless narratives with young learners. The Arrival is a unique work – a wordless narrative that speaks volumes; Visual Journeys does full justice to its subject and its subjects – The Arrival and its young readers.



Bueno, R. 1996. Sobre la heterogeneidad literaria y cultural de América Latina. In J.A. Mazzoti & U.J. Zeballos-Aguilar (Eds.), Asedios a la heterogeneidad cultural Libro de homenaje a Antonio Cornejo Polar. Philadelphia, PA: Associación Internacional de Peruanistas, pp. 21-36.

Pope, R. 1995. Textual Intervention: Creative and Critical Strategies for Literary Studies. London: Routledge.

Shklovsky, V. 1990 [1925]. Art as Device. In V.Shklovsky, Theory of Prose , Trans. Benjamin Sher. Champaign/IL & London: Dalkey Archive Press, pp. 1-14. Retrieved from

Tan, S. 2007. The Arrival. London: Hodder Children’s Books.

Tan, S. n.d. Picturebooks. The Arrival. Retrieved from


Alan Pulverness is Academic Director at NILE (Norwich Institute for Language Education) and co-author of a number of ELT textbooks, including the award-winning Macmillan Short Course Programme (1993; 1995) and The TKT Course (with Mary Spratt & Melanie Williams 2005; 2011). [End of Page 80]



Janice Bland
Children’s Literature and Learner Empowerment
London, Bloomsbury, 2013, 331 pp. ISBN 9781441144416
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Reviewer: Geoff Hall

This is an important publication for all working in English language education, not only for those working and researching young learner and teenage learning, but for those involved in reading and in the reading of literature. As I read and reread this book, I became increasingly impressed with the range of reference, knowledge and understanding of the author, as well as the ability to both engage with more academic and theoretical issues, but also to show readers with varying levels of experience and knowledge how these ideas and principles can be implemented in classrooms and curricula. Bland writes clearly and intelligently and has productively absorbed and applied a wealth of relevant and recent research. It partly militates against the book that it appears with a respectable though less known international publisher, and is based on a doctoral dissertation. Nevertheless, I believe that readers in these fields will come to realise that the importance of this book far exceeds its apparent humble entry into the world. I am convinced it will become widely cited and known as more relevant readers find it, read it and see the need to recommend the author and the title to ever-wider circles of teachers and researchers, and I would be pleased if this review can contribute to a speedier uptake of the ideas found therein.

Let me justify my high opinion by giving a brief introduction to the content and concerns of the book, with the intention of prompting readers to read it for themselves. First, the title: this is not a book about (say) Children’s Literature and ‘Second Language Learning’, though it includes well-informed references to Nick Ellis and others in the field; nor is it only about Children’s Literature and ‘Education’, a wider interest in the place of such a concern in a larger curriculum. Bland goes beyond this and wishes to address a critical interest in learner education and the place of Children’s Literature in a second language within that perspective, with reading as learner ‘empowerment’ conceived of as ‘a reader-centred and sociocultural process’ (p. 6). Following a useful background [End of Page 81] ‘Introduction’, Bland then pursues her theme through a clearly structured three-part approach: Part 1 ‘Visual Literacy in the EFL-Literature Classroom’; Part 2 ‘Literary Literacy in the EFL-Literature Classroom’; and Part 3 ‘Critical Cultural Literacy in the EFL-Literature Classroom’.

The ‘Introduction’ contains a useful schematic contrast of ‘poorly crafted’ and ‘well-crafted’ texts for children (p. 8) including the important idea of not patronising or short-changing younger learners (or any learners for that matter) as education too often does. In a similar spirit, Bland emphasises that learners learn much more than ‘language’ in a language lesson and that this readiness for learning should be encouraged and supported by stretching learners generally, but also through contextualised teaching of (for example) environmental issues. Children from a young age, in this view, should be learning autonomy and confidence in their reading practices, as well as any specific linguistic items or structures. They should be prepared for later learning, as in ‘literary literacy’ (how to read and benefit from reading demanding literary texts at a later stage of education), with their own perspectives respected, but also, with an eye to ongoing and future developments in reading technologies, learning should be encompassing direct attention to issues of multimodality in communication and digital literacies, as well as the importance of broader creativity and critical thinking for oneself: we are back to ‘empowerment’. Language is not to be neglected in the approach explored by this book, but neither are literacy and literary reading, up to even the broadest and most imperative of educational aims.

Bland’s book clearly comes out of much valuable experience in teacher training and education in German university contexts, but can be profitably read by constituencies well beyond those circles. The approach to language and wider issues is well exemplified in the way she points out (after Guy Cook, for example) that good literary texts are, strictly speaking, likely to be ‘beyond’ any simplistic metric of language learner competence but that, far from a difficulty, this is the promise and opportunity they offer. Learners don’t learn what teachers teach, in the old adage, and arguably, also, learners learn best when teachers don’t ‘teach’! What teachers must do is offer stimulating environments for learning, including stimulating texts. In terms of SLA, Bland rightly draws here on research into chunking and re-structuring, and affordances of ludic or transgressive texts in [End of Page 82] terms of repetition, foregrounding and memorability, as well as pleasure. Good education works with the imagination and creativity of the child and draws connections between text and life, word and worlds. The importance of ‘booktalk’ is a constant refrain throughout this book, thinking, engagement, argument and discussion against the idea of pre-set purely linguistic curricula which will limit the efforts of both teacher and students.

In Chapter 3, under the rubric of ‘Visual Literacy’, it is noted how boys generally seem to prefer graphic novels and comics, and how easily the expertise they bring to the classroom is incorporated into the use of good quality materials, rather than disparaged or patronised.  Readers differ, but in the practical examples in this section, as throughout, Bland shows the valuable affordances for booktalk offered by illustrated and graphic narratives, not only in terms of more linguistic translations and representations, but also through conversational language (for example, through speech bubbles), filling the gaps (between ‘frames’ of a story or gaps between illustration and linguistic text) or in exploring with readers irony and related devices on to larger issues of perspective and narrative point of view, and not least the reader’s own valued contribution to meaning and evaluation (which is the effort of literary criticism at more advanced levels of education). Bland shows very convincingly in pages like these how both teachers in preparation, as well as their students, can benefit from thoughtful uses of well-crafted literary text, in this case high quality children’s literary text (or ‘cross over’ in many instances) of which there seem to be ever more high quality instances in recent times.

Moving on to Part 2, ‘Literary Literacy’, Bland shows how modern (or rather, postmodern) children’s narratives and literature both demonstrate and contribute to the development of the knowingness of the contemporary child which can then be reflected on and developed further in classrooms. Indeterminacies, parodies, open endings, versioning and self-conscious metafiction are all effortlessly, unselfconsciously and certainly unpretentiously exploited in much of the best writing, as Bland shows repeatedly with a good range of examples in Chapter 4. Chapter 5 looks at patterning in children’s poetry as well as its often surreal content and the opportunities offered there (‘As I was going up the stair/ I met a man who wasn’t there…’).  Bland writes well and convincingly with particular references to children’s poetry about features known more generally within pedagogical stylistics. Part 2 closes with Chapter 6 on uses of drama as embodied learning [End of Page 83] within the general argument for empowerment being advanced. Here, as throughout, the modern phenomenon of adaptation and appropriation, indeed extended circulation and ongoing modification of texts, including uses of the internet, is shown to be of value for educators rather than a problem.

In part 3, Chapter 7, the relevance, indeed the importance of human rights to the children’s curriculum is shown as part of the wider educational effort at empowerment via Amnesty International materials, and Oxfam’s Education  for Global Citizenship: A Guide for Schools.  Less positively, through a reading of the Harry Potter saga, Bland investigates issues of gender and power, class, race and other identity issues whose importance to children in increasingly globalised classrooms in an increasingly globalised world, is sometimes overlooked. I liked the idea, here, as elsewhere, (for example, in considering simplified texts for learners) of ‘texts worth bothering with’. Those of us who use literature in language classrooms and in education more broadly know from experience these are ‘texts worth bothering with’; the challenge is to use them most effectively to engage the groups we work with.

What Bland shows overall, in her own closing words, is that: ‘There is a treasure chest of supremely valuable worldwide children’s literature in English that, for the sake of crucial educational goals, should be made widely available to the EFL-literature classroom with young learners and adolescents’ (p. 298). If it is felt that the examples and ideas or the texts themselves, or that sometimes the assertions made, require more empirical investigation, the gauntlet is certainly thrown down here to teachers and researchers beyond Europe, beyond universities and highly trained developed countries, to do more of this work for themselves in their own contexts. It is clearly worthwhile work.


Geoff Hall is Professor of Sociolinguistics and Head of the School of English at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC). Previous to this he was at Swansea University, where he led the MA in TEFL and was Head of Applied Linguistics. He is Editor of the journal Language and Literature (Sage) and author of Literature in Language Education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2nd ed., 2015). [End of Page 84]