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Deborah’s dreams: how stories can make a difference

December 02, 2020 by v.dax

The graphic novel Jane, the Fox & Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault shows us that books and reading can work as protective shields, safe zones and islands of self-discovery. Of course, reading has more dimensions than those. Books can make you dream, help you travel in time and take you to imaginary places with fantastic creatures. This is what happens in Deborah's Dreams, our new picture book in The Thinking Train series for young learners, written by Herbert Puchta and Gavin Briggs and illustrated by Viola Niccolai. Moreover, Deborah's dreams also shows us what Neil Gaiman talks about in his lecture How Stories Last: 'But stories aren’t books — books are just one of the many storage mechanisms in which stories can be kept. And, obviously, people are one of the other storage mechanisms'.

Deborah's Dreams

Deborah's dreams

Deborah's imagination is like magic, and it is powered by all the stories she reads. Although her parents tell her to STOP daydreaming, she can't. One moment she's in her castle, and then you find her in a hot-air balloon, a pirate ship or in a faraway galaxy. She meets aliens, witches, dinosaurs and dragons, as she transforms the somewhat disappointing world around her into her one wonderland where her clothes dance, her bedroom turns into a seascape and her scary headteacher into a vulture. When a new boy arrives in her class and all the other children start bullying him because he is short with very curly hair, Deborah wants to help. And she know how: with her stories. She sits next to the new boy and starts telling him a story. A connection is made, and the little boy's world opens to Deborah. He starts talking, and we even the headteacher smiles for the first time. Novelist E. M. Forster's famous line can be seen to come true here: 'Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height'.

Deborah’s dreams: how stories can make a difference - page
Double page from Deborah's Dreams. Illustration by Viola Niccolai. © Helbling Languages

Engaging through many senses

This short summary of Deborah's story shows us only a fraction of the experience the picture book will give both you and your students. The book comes in a square format, and is typeset in a font which makes it easy for young learners and children with reading difficulties to read it. Viola Niccolai's thoughtful yet playful illustrations reflect a range of emotions the texts might only imply for some readers. You see a variety of imaginary places, vehicles and creatures within a single page, but without any crowded confusion, reflecting the harmony and serenity that these worlds give Deborah. We see Deborah in our galaxy, and we see her grow into a happy girl when she's immersed in a book. Viola's use of lines and colours expresses feelings of loneliness and isolation in the school yard, danger and fear, closeness and love, and finally a sense of order. The symbolism of the hummingbird (which travels through the story), the vulture and the flying dinosaur shows us different aspects of a vivid imagination and different aspects of power. There is hope at the end: the hummingbird, travelling at the speed of light, finds its way to the schoolroom.

Reading the story in class

Before you start reading, spend some time with the book cover, and ask your students what Deborah is doing. Then ask if they can find a small bird, and teach the word 'hummingbird'. The first two pages in the Before Reading section are a fun introduction to the story: they present the setting of a fantasy world with some new vocabulary to learn. After going through this, you can choose to let your students browse the book and spend time viewing the pages. Alternatively, you can let them explore the double pages and read them the story.

  • We recommend a slow approach for reading picture books because the story needs to unfold on multiple levels, both verbally and visually.
  • Let the students make connections between the words and sentences they read or hear and the compelling visual world of the pages.
  • Ask the students to find links between the pages. Ask them 'What has changed?', 'Can you find the hummingbird?', 'Is there another bird?' 'What is Deborah feeling?'
  • Ask the students to tell you how they feel: 'How does this scene make you feel?', 'Why?'
  • Invite the students to find evidence and back up their comments with verbal or visual observations (through pointing). When they find it hard to express a concept or feeling, help them with simple words.
  • Practise labelling, predicting, summarising, comparing and contrasting. For a full list of thinking skills for young learners, you can consult the The Thinking Train series Teacher's Guide, which is available as a free pdf download here.

After the first lesson of reading the story, you can do the After Reading activities to practise vocabulary and language structures. The Make and Do section is a creative way to close the reading project. You can make an origami monster bookmark to make the story even more memorable. You can also find online classroom games for all the books in The Thinking Train series on Helbling e-zone as well as downloadable worksheets, The access code is in the inside back cover of the book.

Read about storytelling on our blog:

Learn more about the series and young learner materials here:

Here you can see more works by Viola Niccolai:

Viola has illustrated two other Helbling Readers: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit.