In a cozy nook in the Lower School area of the Annenberg Center for Learning and Research, the Class 1 students could barely contain their excitement. “I love library!” one of them announced as the group settled into spots around a plush green chair where Lower School Librarian Christina Kover waited, a pile of enticing picture books on her lap.
“We’re going to learn a new concept today,” said Ms. Kover. “It’s called ‘breaking the fourth wall.’”
Instead of explaining the idea herself, she let the books do it for her. Picking up the first selection, “Be Quiet!” by Ryan T. Higgins, she began to read the clever text, displaying the pages so the illustrations were visible for all.
“Be Quiet!” tells the story of Rupert the mouse whose singular dream is to play the leading role in a book with no words. However, much to the students’ delight, Rupert’s quest proves more challenging – and comical – than he imagined.
“Finally! I get my very own book to star in,” says Rupert. “I’m going to make it a wordless book. They are very artistic. This book will have NO WORDS at all. Starting…NOW.”
Intrigued, his friend remarks, “Wowee, a wordless book! Can I help?”
Rupert can’t hide his annoyance at this interruption. “Stop! The book already started. You’re messing it up!”
Ms. Kover continued reading the delightful hardcover to the end. As laughter filled the room, she asked her students an important question: “How did this book break the fourth wall?”
“Because the characters are talking about the book in the book!” one student offered. “That was hilarious,” added a classmate, a sentiment many seemed to share.
Ms. Kover emphasized that in order to “break the fourth wall,” a book (or play, film or other performing art form) needs to blur the barrier between the characters’ narrative and the audience.
Following “Be Quiet!,” the students were ready to experience another barrier-breaking story. The next choice, “Something’s Wrong!: A Bear, a Hare and Some Underwear” by Jory John and Erin Kraan, did not disappoint.
In this whimsical adventure, Jeff the bear eats breakfast, combs his hair and waters his plant. As he heads out the door, he can’t shake a nagging feeling that something is not right. Unable to figure it out, Jeff decides to solicit his friends’ advice.
As Jeff ambles through the wilderness, he meets his friend the deer, who looks out of the page with a perplexed expression. “Why is that bear wearing underwear?” the deer wonders.
Ms. Kover paused for a moment. “Can a character in a book ask the audience a question?” she wanted to know.
“No!” the students exclaimed, in between chuckles.
As Ms. Kover kept reading and showing the pictures, the first graders were completely entranced by Jeff the bear. Imploring other forest pals, Jeff doesn’t get a direct response from any of them. Rather, each animal asks the same question: “Why is that bear wearing underwear?”
“Who are they asking?” asked Ms. Kover.
“Us!” several students replied in unison.
When the charming story concluded, Ms. Kover said to the class, “So how did this book break the fourth wall?”
“They were asking us questions and thinking out loud,” said a student, demonstrating a clear understanding of this entertaining concept.
As this thoroughly engaging lesson wrapped up, Ms. Kover left time for a favorite activity. With a gentle reminder to keep their voices low, these Class 1 students quickly fanned out across the Lower School library, eagerly scanning the shelves for their next perfect book.