The Viewer: Illustrations for the Imagination

Right, time to set the 28 minute timer again. And we’re off…

This term, my school has invested in the Power of Reading with a view to increasing the range and quality of texts studied by classes across the school. It was felt that with a change in curriculum, staff would benefit from examples of planning to support the structuring of learning in English for the year.

The scheme comes with sequences of ‘preloaded’ lessons built around a text with ideas for how to develop and ignite learning opportunities and build on the reading and writing skills pupils have already developed. In our school, teachers then adapt the plans as necessary (or completely restructure if needed!) in order to suit the needs of their individual classes. It is this flexibility that is crucial to effectively implementing the scheme as, in my opinion, some of the preplanned lessons are unnecessary. Additionally, I have recently encouraged staff to consider adapting learning objectives for lessons as often, the objectives provided are in fact more focused on the activity than the learning the pupils will be involved in.

Initially, I was sceptical about some aspects of the scheme (as detailed above) and some of my scepticisms still remain. However, the scheme does open up a whole range of texts that I had never previously considered (or even heard of). One of which is The Viewer written by Gary Crew and illustrated by Shaun Tan.


Written by acclaimed horror writer Gary Crew, The Viewer tells the peculiar story of a boy whose obsession with curious artefacts leads him to discover an strange box at a dump site. It proves to be an ancient chest full of optical devices, one of which captures his interest; an intricately mechanical object which carries disks of images; scenes of destruction, violence and the collapse of civilisations throughout time. The boy is afraid, but also cannot help but look into the machine time and time again as the images shift and change…


This morning, this book sparked one of the most incredible discussions I have had with any class I have taught. [Disclaimer: do not read the next few sentences if you don’t want to know what happens!] My class and I reached the moment where Tristan first picks up the ‘viewer’ and inserts the disc. The images that follow tell a story of the past with key moments in history being illuminated in Tristan’s vision. As a picture book, this story is immense in terms of the opportunities the rich illustrations provide for analysis and comment.

And my class were certainly ‘on fire’ in terms of their deep and thoughtful responses to the images that faced. Themes of disaster and human suffering were picked up on with links made to other situations the children have experienced in their own lifetimes. Conversations surrounded making connections between images on different pages, between images and the text that accompanied them, between images and the characters we have met in this story and in others. The analytic approach taken by pupils of all abilities was outstanding and genuinely left myself and my TA breathless.

My group of 19 Year 6’s (I know, I’m lucky!) were so engaged in the discussion surrounding the book and the themes it was presenting that a knock at the door sparked a scream from children who had almost become part of the story themselves (which it just so happens was a ‘theme’ identified by one pupil who noticed that in every illustration there was a human holding an object that represented curiosity – also a trait of the key character, Tristan – and they believed that the humans in the images had once held the viewer themselves).

Our learning map (see previous post…I think…if not, see tomorrow’s post) is full of the children’s responses as well as the work we have created as part of our study of the book. From autobiographies to narratives set in ‘the space between’ the real world and the viewer, this project is really capturing the imagination of my class and is inspiring some thought provoking and effective written responses.


The Viewer has reminded me of the benefits that come with reading picture books with older pupils. At the same time, it has raised the important point that children’s imaginations need to be engaged with and freed.

Imagination, broadly conceived as the capacity to entertain ideas that are different from current reality, is fundamental to many aspects of the child’s unfolding thought processes.


While the above quote is from a study into the early development of children’s imagination, this morning forced me to remember that as children move through their primary schooling and get older, they must be provided with opportunities to engage their minds and imagine. This is something that The Viewer definitely enables.

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