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Analysing character and relationships in the picture book: A Pocket Full of Kisses

Focus key competencies: Relating to others, using language, symbols, and texts

Learning area context: English


Two teachers of year 4 students at Koromiko School designed learning experiences that could support their students to understand how characters in picture books feel, and why they feel the way they do. The teachers believed that this would provide their students with opportunities to build the competency relating to others, and in particular, empathy. The capacity to interpret character is a key skill in subject English.

Over a series of lessons, both teachers read their students A Pocket Full of Kisses (Penn and Gobson, 2006). In this picture book Chester, a racoon, feels his little brother is taking his place in his mother’s affections. The story tells how Chester’s mother gently reassures him of her love for him. The story was read more than once, over a series of days, and students worked as a collective to analyse the characters and their actions. They did this through group discussion following each reading of the story.

The construction of the Chester character was explored through his actions—represented in the illustrations as his body language and facial expressions. First, the teachers supported the students to identify numerous concrete examples of Chester’s actions in the text, asking “What is Chester doing?” The teachers then supported the students to link an emotion to Chester’s action by asking, “If he’s doing that, how do you think he is feeling?” The students used a limited range of words to describe Chester’s emotions, for example, “sad” and “mad”. As a consequence, the teachers’ third step in the process of supporting the students to understand Chester’s feelings was to feed in the language needed to describe his actions more precisely—words such as “disappointed”, “shocked”, “confused”, “jealous”, and “envious”. The teachers’ fourth step was to ask the students to relate Chester’s predicament to their own lives, asking “Have you ever felt like Chester?”

Giving the students the opportunity to move beyond the action of the text and into their own lives was viewed by the teachers as the point at which empathy may begin to develop. After many opportunities to practise the four steps detailed above, the teachers reduced the level of scaffolding and asked, “How does Chester feel at the end of the story?” Responses included:

  • I think he knows that parents can love you all the time, even when they love someone else.
  • He gets it that his mum knows how to share the love around.
  • He feels calm.

Teachers used observations of students and their work to decide on the next learning steps for their students, both in terms of their capacity to ‘relate to others’ and in terms of their capacity to analyse and interpret literary text. They used knowledge of their students to plan a second series of lessons, based on the picture book Donkeys (Dahimene & Stollinger, 2005). This picture book is a love story about two donkeys, Jenny and Jack, who have lived together for a long time. They have a silly argument over Jack sleeping right through their anniversary, and each one rushes off to find someone better—only they find the other isn’t so easy to replace. When they reunite there is “just a chink of sorrow from their time apart”.

Reciprocal relationships between the subject and the key competencies

Analysing a picture book can provide an important context for building the competency of relating to others. This type of activity provides students with opportunities to imagine themselves into the position of the characters. They have the opportunity to rehearse for later life at a safe distance—the reader experiences the action but, unlike the characters, can walk away from it whenever they choose. Research suggests that for these reasons readers of fiction may be better prepared for life, with particularly strong people skills. See for example: Djikic, Oatley, Zoeterman, & Peterson, 2009; & Oatley, 2008.

Foregrounding relating to others in conjunction with using language, symbols, and texts provided opportunities to focus on the craft of the author and illustrator in constructing character. In the story A Pocket Full of Kisses the combination of the visual and the linguistic components of the text supported students to think critically and in depth about the message of the story. In this way making meaning involved drawing on different sources of meaning and interpreting the relationship between them.

Reflections on effective pedagogy

The unit of work was structured to help students make connections between:

  • their prior knowledge and experiences and their emerging knowledge of a new text to make meaning—both of the text and of their own lives
  • the linguistic and visual information provided in a picture book.

Students were challenged and experienced opportunities to take initiative through the use of:

  • literary texts (which allow readers to pretend and be part of the action and to insert their own experiences and interpretations to account for perceived gaps in the narrative – see Sumara, 2002)
  • an open-ended question about the characters and their relationships
  • space for multiple viable interpretations of text; and an opportunity to practice empathy.

Discussion starters: Thinking and acting

In this story the teacher’s goal of fostering empathy draws attention to important meaning-making dimensions of the overall key competency of relating to others. Students learn to put experiences into words, and to recognise social cues and react appropriately to these. What other sorts of learning experiences (and in which learning areas) provide opportunities to develop this type of knowledge of self and others? Do you see this as an important type of learning outcome to foster? Why or why not?

What other types of texts also provide opportunities to explore the meaning made by the combination of two different modes of communication (in this case visual and linguistic)? How could you adapt the pedagogical strategy in this story to develop this aspect of using language, symbols, and texts in other subject areas (or for older students in English)?

The research on which this story is based noted the importance of teachers’ academic knowledge of form and function in the construction of written English texts. Discuss the theoretical knowledge of different text types, with their forms/functions, that might be important in other learning areas. One story that could start this conversation is Road safety as a context for statistical inquiry. Another is Song writing for the Play it Strange competition.


Dahimene, A. (Writer), & Stollinger, H. (Illustrator). (2005). Donkeys (C. Chidgey, trans). Wellington: Gecko Press. (Original work published 2002)

Djikic, M., Oatley, K., Zoeterman, S., & Peterson, J. B. (2009). On being moved by art: How reading fiction transforms the self. Creativity Research Journal21 (1), 24–29.

Oatley, K. (2008). The science of fiction. New Scientist198,(2662), 42–43.

Penn, A. (Writer), & Gibson, B. L. (Illustrator). (2006). A pocket full of kisses. Terre Haute, IN: Tanglewood Press.

Sumara. D. (2002). Why reading literature in school still matters: Imagination, interpretation, insight. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Twist, J. & McDowall, S. (2010). Lifelong literacy. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Education research.

Published on: 15 Apr 2014