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 Shaun Tan’s Mr Wuffles was originally posted to our old website in December 2013. We’ve made some tweaks to make the notes more friendly to anyone using them at home.
About the Author
David Wiesner is an American illustrator and writer of children’s books, known best for picture books including some that tell stories without words. His books often feature worlds-within-worlds, and themes about looking beyond the obvious to consider alternative possibilities. Children and animals are usually more perceptive than the adults, who are caught up in the practical day to day living and have forgotten how to use the imagination and to ponder the question, ‘what if…?’
About the Book
Another comic tour de force from three-time Caldecott medalist David Wiesner. Mr Wuffles ignores all his cat toys but one, which turns out to be a spaceship piloted by small green aliens. When Mr Wuffles plays rough with the little ship, the aliens must venture into the cat’s territory to make emergency repairs.
David Wiesner’s books challenge the reader to look beneath the surface. Things are often not what they seem. Whether it’s a dissonance between the name and character, the depiction of worlds-within-worlds, or the different viewpoints of pet and owner, there is always more to the story than meets the eye.
If you have enough copies of the book, allow the children time to read and explore independently. You might want to use a ‘Tell Me’ framework to help children jot down their initial responses:
- what did you like/dislike?
- choose a favourite picture
- did the book remind you of anything?
- did you find anything strange or puzzling?
- what questions did you have when you finished the book?
Use their initial ideas to generate discussion.
The following prompts offer some different ways of looking at the text, but they are not intended to be a script. Ask open-ended questions to elicit responses, and use these supplementary prompts to encourage deeper thinking, where appropriate.
What’s in a name?
Before sharing the book or looking at the cover, introduce the title Mr Wuffles. What do you think this book will be about? What images do you get in your head when you hear the name? Pupils could draw their versions of Mr Wuffles.
Take a look at the front cover. Read the title and consider who Mr Wuffles is? Is it an unusual name for a cat? Briefly discuss the names children have given to their pets. Do the names suit the pets? Revisit after reading the book and invite the pupils to suggest alternative names to reflect the cat’s personality. If appropriate at this point you might introduce the term ‘irony’ (the human owners have given the cat a name which suggests he is cute and cuddly, but they are unaware of his secret life, or true personality).
- From the front cover, can you tell what Mr Wuffles is thinking? You might prompt the children to look at body language, eyes, the objects that surround Mr Wuffles.
- Use Thought Clouds to record what you think Mr Wuffles is thinking.
- Who or what is Mr Wuffles looking at? What effect does this create?
Depending on what has arisen from the initial discussions, you may want to look more closely at some of the following:
When did you first realise that the spaceship was not one of Mr Wuffle’s toys? (There is a shadow of a flying spaceship on the back cover. All the other toys still have their price tags, so the spaceship is marked out as being different).
- In what ways are the aliens similar to, or different from, what you imagine aliens would be like? In what ways are the aliens different from, or similar to, humans?
- Why do you think the aliens have come? Are there any clues to their purpose? (The flag and camera suggest an expedition. You could look at images of human exploration such as Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay). Why do explorers like to plant a flag? ( e.g. represents achievement, states ownership, claims new territory).
- When we first see the aliens, what do their expressions tell us about how they are feeling?
- The aliens have different coloured uniforms. What do you think the different colours mean? Does this tell us anything about their society? Are there similarities with our own society?
- What technologies do the aliens possess?
- What does the word ‘alien’ mean?
- Root word Alius – Latin (other) Linked with inter alia (between others) alias (another name).
- Alien to describe a visitor from another planet was first used in 1953.
- Find out about the UK Aliens Act 1905 What are the aliens referred to in the act?
Language and communication
David Wiesner uses geometric symbols to represent the aliens’ speech. Can you work out or guess what they are saying? What clues do you use to help with your interpretation? Have you ever been on holiday to a country where you didn’t speak the language? How did you try and communicate with local people?
Are there any symbols that are easy to translate? (e.g. look at the picture showing the aliens having their photograph taken with the ants. Also, the photo where the aliens and ants make a dash for it. What do you think the triangles mean?)
Are any of the symbols also used in our language? (e.g. exclamation marks and there’s a mark that looks similar to the question mark). Make the point that we can often use analogy to work out some word meaning in unfamiliar languages.
How do the aliens communicate with the ants? How do you think we would try and communicate with aliens? (You might want to make connections with other examples in literature, or show the Pioneer Plaque as a real example from the Pioneer space explorer).
Art as communication
The ants use pictures to tell their history. Do these pictures remind you of anything you have seen before? (You may want to share pictures of the cave painting at Lascaux).
Point of View
Wiesner uses a device that is familiar from children’s cartoons such as Tom and Jerry: you only see the legs and feet of Mr Wuffles’ owner. What effect does this create? Tell the story from different points of view: the human, Mr Wuffles, an alien, an ant. What are the differences in their points of view? Which characters seem able to understand the point of view of others, and which seem impervious to what is going on?
Small things can be easy to dismiss, but David Wiesner seems to suggest that just because things are small in comparison to a human being, it doesn’t mean they are insignificant or unsophisticated. Explore this theme in relation to Mr Wuffles and Flotsam.
Looking and seeing
Can you find any evidence to suggest that looking and seeing are themes in Mr Wuffles? Consider this theme in relation to David Wiesner’s other books, if you have them available in school. Is there a difference between looking and seeing? What do different characters see that the other characters fail to see?
Here are some quotations about looking and seeing. What do you think they mean? Do you think any of them make sense in relation to Mr Wuffles and David Wiesner’s other books?
|Eyes that look are common; eyes that see are rare|
|Seeing is believing|
|Look at everything as though you were seeing it for the first or last time.|
|Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better|
|Focus on your goal don’t look in any direction, just straight ahead.|
If you like this book, you might enjoy…
Ellis Carson Du Iz Tak? Another virtually wordless book in which insects communicate using their own language.
David Wiesner Flotsam and Tuesday Two books by the same author. There are interesting comparisons to be made with Mr Wuffles.
Istvan Banyai Zoom An innovative wordless book about worlds within worlds.