In our occasional series of Quick Guides, we present some ideas for discussing children’s books that can be read and discussed at home or school. This guide for Aaron Becker’s Journey was originally posted to our old website in November 2014. We’ve made some tweak sto make the notes more friendly to anyone using them at home.
Aaron Becker grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, enthralled by the Apollo missions which had captured the attention of the world. Like many other children of his era, Becker set his sights on becoming an astronaut, spending many nights stargazing in a local observatory with his mother. Before long, however, the reality of rigorous military training dampened his aspiration so Becker – determined to explore outer space in one way or another – turned to drawing, creating before him the great constellations he admired. Graduating from Pomona College in 1996, he went on to illustrate many animated scenes from notable films such as The Polar Express, Cars and A Christmas Carol. It is, however, Becker’s trilogy Journey, Quest and The Return which has earned him widespread critical acclaim in addition to a Caldecott Honour.
A little girl, bored of the monotonous and lonely routine of everyday life, seeks refuge and excitement in a world created entirely by her imagination. By drawing a
magical door from her bedroom wall, she finds herself transported into enthralling new lands – vividly colourful and alive with adventure. Navigating her way through
glistening rivers, dramatic moats and dizzying waterfalls with a few artful strokes of her crayon, she is soon soaring above the clouds in a bright red hot-air balloon,
trying to save a vibrant lilac bird which has been imprisoned. Disaster strikes when, having freed the bird, she is caught by angry guards who throw away her
magical crayon. Hopeless and alone, the girl is left in a dark cage when suddenly through the sky returns the lilac bird, carrying in its beak her magical crayon.
Together the two of them embark on further adventures.
This wordless picture book is a tribute to the power and possibility of imagination. Readers of all ages may find within Becker’s pages an enchanting mixture of personal escapism, adventure and meaning.
Journeys and exploration
Research some famous journeys and explorers in history. Some examples:
- Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing – the first expedition to the top of Mount Everest
- Christopher Columbus – voyage to America
- Nellie Bly – around the world
- Neil Armstrong – the first landing on the moon
- Shackleton – expedition to the South Pole
- Sophie Blanchard – first woman in a hot air balloon
- Valentina Tereshkova – first woman in space
Let’s talk about it
Share experiences of journeys.
- What is the longest journey you’ve ever made?
- What was the most exciting journey you’ve embarked upon?
- If you could go on a journey anywhere, where would it be? Would it be to a real or
- What is your favourite mode of transport for a journey? Train, car, plane, boat, foot, bicycle?
- If you could invent a way of travelling that isn’t already possible what
would it be?
- Have you read any other books involving a journey?
Visual display board
Use Pinterest, display board in your classroom or on the fridge door to create a journeys picture display. Include pictures of places such as deserts, arctic regions, mountains, oceans, underwater, space. Add modes of transport. For example, planes, boats, submarines, hot air balloons, camels, stagecoach. Now add some tools that explorers might use such as telescopes, magnifying glasses, maps, GPS. If you have shelf space add some books such as Jules Verne Around the World in 80 days, Katherine Rundell The Explorer.
Use your display to talk about exploration, create stories and to stimulate artwork.
This activity is best carried out before sharing the entire book. Either open at this sepia-toned double spread (dedication) page or use a visualiser to project it if you are working with a class or large group. This image is mainly monochromatic. There’s an image of a girl looking bored with a red scooter. A boy holds a purple crayon. Traffic lights are set to red but the colour is not as saturated as the bright red of the girl’s scooter.
Ask an open question, ‘what’s happening in this picture?’ After the children have shared their responses, you may want to prompt them to think more deeply about the picture:
- What emotions do you think the girl is feeling? How can we tell? (This gives an opportunity to talk about body language. Younger children might want to show you physically by copying the girl’s body language and showing the expression they imagine on her face)
- What can we tell about the other characters from their body language?
- Why do you think Aaron Becker has chosen to show what is going on inside the house?
- What do you imagine it might be like to live in this city?
- Why do you think somethings have been drawn in colour?
Ask the children to suggest what might happen to these characters in a story?
Now show the front cover, Journey.
Ideally, if children have their own copy of the book, allow them to read the book independently at their own pace.
After reading you might ask them to jot down their initial responses: what did they like or dislike about the book? Did it remind them of any other books that they have read, or perhaps films that they have seen? Was there anything that they found puzzling, strange, confusing? Did they have any questions when they had finished the book? In class, ask the children to use their notes to help them share their ideas in small groups.
Alternatively, if you are reading the book at home, you might want to look at it a second time and invite your child to share with you anything they found interesting or puzzling as you look at the pages together. Allow them to dictate the pace at which they turn the pages.
Avoid asking too many questions. Reserve questioning for things you genuinely find something puzzling and intriguing. Allow the children to explore the book at their pace. Reading a picture book and especially a wordless picture book requires a different kind of reading. Unlike prose fiction which demands linear reading followed by the turn of the page, the picture book invites the reader to move around the page.
Keep initial questions open and allow children to tell you what is happening in the story. Good first questions are as simple as ‘what’s happening here?’ or ‘What do you see on this page?’ Responses will enable you to determine if they have understood what is happening at a literal level and the attention to details. Follow up questions can invite children to extend their thinking and then relate the text to the wider world.
Revisiting the book
Journey is a book that you can read many times and discover something new each time you read it. Take the opportunity to point out or question things that might have been missed on a first reading.
Some things to consider:
- What do we learn about the girl from the things in her bedroom? (world map, balloon, open door, open window, poster with pyramids and camel, star sticker on the chest of drawers)?
- Look closely at the pictures to see if you can spot the clues that show which part of the journey comes next (e.g. when the girl steps into the lantern-lit forest, you can see the jetty in the distance).
Narrating the story
It’s best not to move too quickly to narrating the story. First encounters allow the children to understand what’s happening and to inhabit the pictures. Looking and talking come first. This can emerge organically into narrating the story. One approach is to start narrating the story yourself, inviting the children to step in when they want to. You might want to use a technique explained in IBBY’s Silent Books guide called ‘I was there!’ Invite the children to say or shout ‘I was there’ when they want to take over the narration. You, or other children in the class, can ask prompt questions such as ‘what could you hear?, ‘What was going through your mind when…?’ etc.
Take an opportunity to enjoy using descriptive language and extending word choices through modelling.
What words would you use to describe the bright and colourful world the girl opens her red door into?
Talk about the ways in which the world the girl enters is different from her home.
- What colours does she see?
- Who does she meet?
- Describe the buildings that she sees. Make a collection of words that you can use to describe the buildings e.g. dome, turret, towers, minaret, aqueduct, canal, archway, crenellations, moat, keep, battlements, fortress, fortified etc. Children can draw their versions of these buildings and label them.
The lilac bird
- What could the lilac bird represent? How does the colour lilac make you feel? How would it be different if it was a gold bird or a black bird? Introduce the word ‘symbolic’, if appropriate.
- Why do you think the girl wants to free the bird from its cage?
- Can you think of a reason that the captors wish to lock it up?
- What arguments might each of the characters give for their actions?
- Is it significant that the bird rescues the girl?
Aaron Becker grew up in many different parts of the world including Japan.
- Can you find influences from Japan or other countries in the illustrations?
- Use travel brochures, magazines or the internet to build a collection of photographic images showing some of the cultural references. Copy and laminate them. Talk about the pictures and provides some context using what you know or have read. You could refer to travel guides or books about Japan from the library.
Look for similar images in the book.
Provide some text on laminated cards and ask the children to match the text to the image. This can be done in pairs if working in school. Make explicit the point that artists and writers often make references to other works of art and cultural influences in their work. Here’s a list of some of the things you might find you might discover more:
- samurai armour
- Japanese temple
- Japanese lanterns
- Venetian gondola’s
- Arabian Nights (flying carpet)
- Escher’s mathematically inspired artwork
- Islamic architecture
- medieval castle
- Dutch windmill
- medieval timber-framed building
The children may already be familiar with Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Read the beginning of the story together
After reading, compare the first few pages of each book (up to the point where the characters enter the imaginary world). You could use an interlocking circles diagram to record the similarities and differences. Things that are similar go in the connecting section and the differences go in the orange and blue sections.
Talk about any other stories that you know that start in a similar way. Possibilities include:
- Lewis Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
- David Wiesner Flotsam
- JiHyeon Lee Door
- Charlotte Dematons The Yellow Balloon
Beyond the door
Start this activity with some guided visualisation. Give each child a coloured crayon or pencil. Use a variety of colours – one colour per child. To begin, have them hold the coloured pencil and think about the things that colour reminds them of. Now invite them to imagine in their ‘mind’s-eye’ (like television pictures running in their head) that they are at home in their room. It’s a dull day. Everyone else is busy doing their own thing. Imagine that you look down at your crayon. You have an idea! You go over to the wall and draw a door with your crayon. You open the door and step through into another world.
Ask them to imagine what they can see.
You take a few steps into this new world. what do you notice about the ground that you are walking on? Are there any buildings, or are you in the middle of the country? Is it quiet or busy? Imagine the sounds that you can hear if you stop to listen carefully. Imagine that you can see an object in this new world. In your mind’s eye, pick it up, look at it and put it in your pocket. Now go exploring!
Distribute large sheets of paper and some coloured pencils and ask the children to draw a scene from their world
Let your imagination lead the way and begin your journey. Think of names for the places and things you draw.
- Would there be rules and laws in this world? If so, what might they be? If not, why?
- Would there be someone in charge? If so, who? If not, why?
- Share your picture with a partner, friend of adult
- Tell each other what you can see in each others pictures (rather than describing your own) and discuss what kind of a world you think theirs is.
- Then add any details that your partner has missed or add more information as you tell them what was in your head.
The magnificent men in their flying machines
Look closely at the images of the flying ship. How do you think it is powered?
Have a look at some of the inventions created by Heath Robinson. Choose one of the inventions and write a set of instructions to explain how it works.
Alternatively look at one of the books by Alan Snow: How Dinosaurs Really Work, How Pirates Really work, How Santa Really Works, or David Macauley’s How Things Work Now.
Create your own fantastic flying machine. It can be as crazy as you like. Use drawings, cutaways and captions to show how your machine would work.
Boredom and Imagination
In this book, the girl is freed from the boredom of everyday life when she imagines and invents a whole new world. With her red crayon, she has the power to escape even the iron cage the guards locked her in. Some people think boredom is a good thing because it makes you find creative solutions to stop yourself from feeling bored. Other people think boredom is a very bad thing.
- What do you think?
- Do you ever feel bored?
- What do you do when you feel like that?
Do you think imagination has the power to make us free?
If you were imprisoned would you still be able to exercise your imagination freely?
From page to performance
One of the notable features of Becker’s picturebook is that it is wordless, allowing each reader to make different meanings and ideas from the story. This activity offers the readers a chance to lend a voice to the characters, whilst using their own imaginations to bring the journey to life.
Divide the book into sections and split the readers into as many groups. Example sections might be:
- the girl’s boredom at home
- her creation of the door and discovery of the new world
- her arrival at the castle and encounter with the waterfall
- her creation of the hot-air balloon and discovering the bird in trouble
- her freeing the bird and being captured herself
- the bird rescuing the girl and their adventure on the magic carpet
- the bird’s lilac door leading to the boy who created him.
Ask each group to produce a short improvisation (2-3 minutes) of their section of the story.
- They must not use any props, but instead use only themselves (eg – two people making an arch between them may be the cage which the girl is trapped in).
- They should include dialogue which they will have to create themselves, based on what they feel the characters would say.
- When all groups are prepared, perform the improvisations in order, one after another to create a performance of the entire book
You can find out more about Aaron Becker in this short video produced by his publisher Candlewick Press https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Qdd7XwHz8E
If you liked this book, you might like…
Aaron Becker Quest Part 2 of the Journey trilogy
Aaron Becker Return Part 3 of the Journey trilogy
Allan Ahlberg, Bruce Ingman The Pencil A story in which a pencil comes to life.
Anthony Browne Bear Hunt Another picturebook featuring a magic pencil
Anthony Browne, Willy’s Pictures A picturebook with references to art
Crockett Johnson Harold and the Purple Crayon A US classic about a magic purple crayon
C S Lewis The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe A story about stepping through a portal to another world
Maurice Sendak Where the Wild Things Are A world conjured up through the power of the imagination…perhaps
Bill Thomson Chalk Another wordless picture book