Seems simple enough. For adults cause and effect feels like common sense. But to babies and young children, this is something yet to be learned, and picture books are an excellent place to start.
Understanding a story’s causality is about more than mastering a one-off intellectual problem. More generally it is about learning to anticipate the next narrative step and predict what will happen. This is what reading is all about. Picture books that construct story and plot around cause and effect are introducing your child to one of the building blocks they need to learn to read.
Do you remember the story about the The Great Big Enormous Turnip? No one could pull it out. The old man could not, nor when his wife helped, nor when their granddaughter helped, nor the dog or the cat. Only when the mouse helped did the turnip come up.
Not only will your child anticipate this outcome, they will feel the immense pleasure at the mouse – the littlest of all – being the final and important cause of this effect! It is reassuring and gratifying for young children to know that, even when you are the littlest, sometimes everyone needs you.
Pamela Allen’s Who Sank the Boat? also plays with cause and effect. We begin by looking down upon the setting of this tale, a little bay with a jetty and our eyes are drawn to the boat, the title having told us of the complication about to unfold. Over the page we meet the characters, four rather fat animals – a cow, a donkey, a sheep and pig – and a “tiny little mouse” whose significance is signalled by the double adjective.
The tale turns on the question of responsibility and causality: someone is to blame for sinking the boat! But who? Cause and effect are imposed from the outset as together you and your child consider the facts and weigh up the possibilities.
First the cow gets in, then the donkey, then the pig and sheep. The boat sits very low indeed in the water! Finally, the little mouse gets in and….
You guessed it, the boat sinks! The story ends, without any concluding remarks on whose fault it actually is and a direct address to readers: “You DO know who sank the boat.” Do you?
Logically, of course, it was the mouse. Yet, because the effect is something unhappy – boats are not meant to sink! – rather than something good – an enormous turnip that can feed everyone – Allen is inviting her adult and child readers to “un-construct” cause and effect stories. We begin to think that maybe, rather than an individual being at fault it is the totality of the weight that is the cause.
By asking us to think about causality, Who Sank the Boat? introduces early reading concepts to its child audience. As you read together, encourage your child to think about, and predict what might happen next, and then after the “effect”, pause to reflect and think about all the possible “causes” that came before. Sometimes they are not as straightforward as first thought.
By Jo Purcell, a previous Canberra playgroup mum and Masters candidate in Children’s Literature at Macquarie University, Sydney.