Two Children Tell Filling in the Gaps

Virginia Lowe describes how children learn to fill in the gaps writers leave in their stories, based on her experience watching her own children respond to books.

Picture books include pictures and words, and, for the pre-reader, oral performance as well. So there is usually also a double audience: the looking, listening child and the reading mediator. As with any work of fiction, there is also the world of the story and its relationship to the external world. An important part is the filling of what Wolfgang Iser calls ‘telling gaps.’ Adults are often not even aware of these voids or openings, filling them without thinking about them consciously, but the young child often discusses the process, foregrounding it.

One of the first gaps encountered is characters or objects partly hidden in the pictures. Two child-characters in/on bed, demonstrate this clearly.

Listening to Bemelmans’ Madeline, Nick at age three and a half (3y6m) showed his understanding of this concept by playing with it. He was as eager to see Madeline’s appendix scar as her school mates were. Yet they have a privileged view, standing on the far side of her bed, so we can see only Madeline’s back. Nick’s suggestion was, ‘Why weren’t they all around here?’ – indicating the end of the bed. If they had been there, Madeline would be turned so that the book’s audience could see her scar as well as they could.

Peter Rabbit’s head and ears appear above the blankets towards the end of his story (Potter). Both children filled the visual gap: Nick (3y10m): He’s hiding. Virginia: Where is he hiding? Nick: He’s hiding in bed. Why? Rebecca (7y1m): He’s hiding because he doesn’t want to take the medicine.

‘Hiding’ is not mentioned in the text.

A matching example in the same story is Peter hiding in the watering can (except for his ears). Various other children are reported as being puzzled here, asking ‘where is the rest of him?’. At 2y3m Nick volunteered “Dere y’is!” pointing to the ears showing above the can, during the second reading in one day. At the same age, in a similar Potter scene of a character hiding – Tom Kitten in the bed canopy – Rebecca pointed to the red bulge and volunteered ‘That’s the kitten’s bottom’ (Tom Kitten).

Another type of gap is that between the picture and what the words say. Bruna’s basic stories and pictures have frequent indeterminacies to be filled. In The Egg the text asks ‘What do you think was inside it?’ The duckling is not revealed until the page is turned. In this case, the gap is made obvious by the rhetorical question, but it was a difficult cognitive task. The story was completely familiar, but Nick at 2y0m could only answer with what he knew was inside an egg, any egg – his word for ‘water’ – ‘ba.’ However next reading he was able to declare: ‘No ba – duck!’

A more complex example occurred in The Mouse with the Daisy Hat (Hurlimann). In this, although the text states that he ‘never spilled a drop,’ Felix is shown with his glass of red wine clearly spilling. I found this irritating and remarked on it to Rebecca (4y6m) to see what she would say. Typically, she tried to answer it from within the text: ‘Perhaps it [the glass] was coloured red, and that [the splashes] is some colour coming off and that colour is the colour that’s left.’ Nick’s explanation of it was quite different. At 3y11m, he

18 Books for Keeps No.230 May 2018

pointed it out himself, remarking ‘splash.’ Then he thought for a moment: ‘He thinks he isn’t [spilling] but he is.’ Only then did I realise that this was exactly right.


tipsy, Felix is unaware of his spills. Rather than it being a mistake, the gap could be seen as a witty comment on Felix’s personality and state of inebriation.

Another type of gap is that where one has to disbelieve the words to understand the story. The listener has to go against the imperative of the text.

At 2y4m, Nick with Rebecca (5y7m) listened to The

Bears on Hemlock Mountain (Dalgleish and Sewell). At the end we recited together: ‘There are no bears on Hemlock Mountain / No bears at all…’ As we finished, wide-eyed and serious, Nick assured me: ‘Were bears on Hemlock Mountain!’ Despite the compulsion of the chant, he was able to state that the reverse was true.

During the same reading of Peter Rabbit mentioned above, Rebecca demonstrated the filling of another gap: Nick: What’s their father and mother’s names? Virginia: I don’t think they’ve got a daddy. Nick: Why? Virginia: [absent minded] Maybe he died. Rebecca: He was put in a pie. Virginia: Oh yes, by Mr McGregor! Rebecca: Mrs McGregor!

Death is the gap here. Mrs Rabbit’s warning – ‘Your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs McGregor’– sounds almost cheerful unless you really stop and think about it. There is a temptation on the part of the mediator to fill these gaps for the child.

Author Katherine Paterson, instructed writers not to tell children everything, but to ‘ensure them the great open spaces they need to set their own imaginations soaring’.

Madeline Ludwig Bemelmans, Scholastic, 978-1407110530, £6.99 The Egg, Dick Bruna, The Bears on Hemlock Mountain Alice Dalgliesh, illus Helen Sewell Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 978-0689716041

The Mouse with the Daisy Hat Ruth Hurlimann, O/P The Tale of Peter Rabbit Beatrix Potter, Warne, 978-0723247708, £5.99 The Tale of Tom Kitten Beatrix Potter, Warne, 978-0723247777, £5.99

Dr Virginia Lowe lives in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. She is the proprietor of Create a Kids’ Book, a manuscript assessment agency, which also runs regular workshops, interactive writing e-courses, mentorships and produces a regular free e-bulletin on writing for children and children’s literature generally. See au for further details. Her book, Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two Children Tell (2007) is published by Routledge (978-0-4153-9724-7, £29.99 pbk).

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