Books Picture Book Challenge 2011 Picture Books Reading Themes When Words are Not Enough

A Dinosaur in the Park: Chalk by Bill Thomson – Wordless Picture Book Special

I knew that we were on to something great when the GB team decided to hold this bimonthly theme this March-April on Wordless Picture Books “When Words are not Enough”

Our Wordless Picture Book Special for March and April 2011

I know I have been repeating myself like a broken record, but any book that completely communicates the narrative either through (1) colors (2) collages (3) cinematic-like illustrations (4) triptychs (5) breathtakingly beautiful paintings and lifelike-rendered portraits (6) and totally without words – is simply worth all this trouble. And we echo what Dora the Explorer knows all along: with repetition comes understanding (or so a lot of people/educators believe – this point we can argue about at a later time).

The reason why I had to provide such a big introductory speech is because of this amazing book I found in our community library: Chalk by Bill Thomson. While it does not make use of all the things I enumerated above, it has a different quality to it that renders this book timeless and breathtakingly beautiful.

Lifelike Illustrations. The strength of the book lies in the enormous amount of time devoted by Bill Thomson into meticulously depicting what a usual day in the park is like for three children who are leisurely strolling in the playground one grey, overcast afternoon. The book opens to a full spread of the three children and a glossy almost matte-like finish of a green dinosaur in the park with a paper bag in its mouth (may even be construed as a gift/present, or something that a harried and exhausted mommy might have left behind). You can see a racial representation from these three kids: one is an African American girl, one is an Asian girl, and a Caucasian boy.

Is it just me or does this image communicate some kind of ominous quality... a sense of foreboding, as if something is going to happen - one can say that the air is 'pregnant' with possibilities.


As the wordless narrative slowly unfolds, one becomes even more amazed at how Bill Thomson managed to create such seemingly-alive drawings, they are almost like photographs. In fact, I must admit, that was one of the first thought that entered my mind – given the availability of technology and computer software (Photoshop is love, iPhoto and iMovie are my software concubines), it should not be too difficult to graphically design something as amazing as this. Regardless, Thomson shows his craftsmanship with the fact that he plays with puddles and its reflections, bright sunlight and its reflecting rays, and the glint of sunshine as it touches one’s cheeks and its contours. There is also a warm sensitivity to how children are: their mischief, affinity with the strange, and limitless imagination.

This is one of my favorite images - this little boy getting a crick in his neck as he stares at the skies

Chalkful of Magic. My nine year old daughter simply could not get enough of this book. She is fascinated by the art work, is inspired by it, and continually makes her doodles in her sketchpads hoping that by some quirk of magic, her drawings would eventually come to life. While the premise of the book seems fairly-common (taking something inanimate and making it come alive through a spell, potion or poison – or in the case of our fairytales giving the dying princess a kiss) – what makes Chalk unique is that each child would be able to see himself or herself in the pages of the book. And it takes something mundane (a chalk) to bring out this childlike wonder in even the most ancient of readers going over this book. The idea of using the chalk to do some artwork on the playground and having these childlike chalk-art illustrations come alive has made me go… Whoa.

See the glee in the child's eyes?

There is also something about this book that reminds me of classics like Jumanji (which is based on Allsburg’s award-winning picturebook of the same title)

and Zathura with creatures that magically appear as if triggered by some cracks in the universe (ehem, it’s the Fringe-aficionado in me speaking, my apologies).

Short History of Chalk. With iPad2 recently released and interactive whiteboards being installed in modern-day classrooms as of recent, the presence of powerpoint slides and whiteboard markers – the use of chalk as a part of classroom instruction seems like lightyears away.

A schoolroom back in 1830s. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

In this website, there is an extensive discussion provided as to how the blackboard technology and chalkboard history served to further education as far back as 1801. This same website also went on to credit James Pillans, Headmaster of the Old High School of Edinburgh Scotland to have invented the blackboard and colored chalk which he used to teach geography. Mr. George Baron, on the other hand, is believed to be the first American instructor to make use of a large black chalkboard to introduce his math lessons at West Point Military Academy in 1801.

It was sometime during the 1960s that the blackboard gave way to green colored boards which gained greater popularity since the erased chalk powder appeared less obvious when written on a green board (this greenboard is what I grew up with along with manila paper). This was replaced two decades after (sometime mid-1980s) with whiteboards and the presence of colored markers. Now everything continues to evolve with LCD projectors and interactive white board with internet capability and built-in multi-media resources. Yet despite this, chalk remains to be in favor with some educators who continue to assert that the grit texture of the surface of the chalkboard provide the resistance necessary to assist children to write on boards (source here). This, along with the presence of dustless chalk, help retain chalk’s longevity and lifespan regardless of the advances in technology.

Possibilities for Classroom Discussion. The short digression above may be included as part of a book project that would accompany a reading of this book. The history of chalk and how it has made an impact on the history of education may be discussed. Educators could also include some reference to the more recent 3d chalk art that is recently being portrayed  in the sidewalks of Europe, Canada or the United States.

An example of a sidewalk 3d Chalk Art - click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Students may also be asked to imagine what they would draw on the ground if they know that these images would magically come alive. One of the twists of Thomson’s narrative is when this impish-looking boy decided to draw a green dinosaur on the ground. True enough, the children were chased around the near empty playground by this not-so-friendly dinosaur.

Also one of my favorite drawings from the book - see how "alive" the girl's braid is, and how senseless-scary this huge dinosaur happen to be.

How the story was resolved and the ingenious way in which the kids escaped from this scary-looking dinosaur – you would have to discover for yourself.

An inspiring Web Resource. As I was surfing through possible sources for this blogpost, I chanced upon this bookblogging site KidLit Frenzy which detailed how a school-wide literacy event was conducted revolving around Thomson’s book Chalk. The enthusiasm, the support and energy shared by the students and teachers, and the rallying of the entire community (the law enforcers who helped keep the peace, press release and the media, invited chalk artists, the PTA who donated 1000 pieces of chalk), to transform the idea of Chalk to a community-wide reality is just awe-inspiring.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource. He looks gorgeous, doesn't he?

The real surprise and twist behind Chalk is the fact that illustrator Bill Thomson did not use any of the expected graphic enhancement IT-driven strategies to create his artwork. The Author Note at the back of the book says this:

Bill Thomson embraced traditional painting techniques and meticulously painted each illustration by hand, using acrylic paint and colored pencils. His illustrations are not photographs or computer generated images.

Now how’s that for amazing? That was the clincher for me, really. This video clip also details the creative process behind Bill Thomson’s art work – how much time he devotes to creating each image and the hundreds of photographs he needed to take to provide him with ideas on how he would go about his illustrations.

If you wish to know more about Bill Thomson, the artist, click here to be taken to his official website. You can also visit the Facebook Page of Chalk which Bill himself periodically updates.

How about you, what image would you draw on the ground if a magical chalk falls into your fingertips by chance?

PictureBook Challenge Update:  36 of 72

Chalk by Bill Thomson, Marshall Cavendish Children, Tarrytown New York, 2010. Book borrowed from the Community Library.

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

5 comments on “A Dinosaur in the Park: Chalk by Bill Thomson – Wordless Picture Book Special

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  4. Pingback: Chalk, by Bill Thomson | Josephine's Readers Advisory

  5. Pingback: Magic Pressed in Between Rocks in Bill Thomson’s “Fossil” | Gathering Books

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