National Writing Project

Spotlight on Think It Ink It: They Supply the Pictures, Kids Supply the Story

By: Art Peterson
Date: January 5, 2010

Summary: Think It Ink It creates illustrated books that children themselves write—beginning with wordless picture books that encourage both reading and writing.


A child picking up one of the four books from the Think It Ink It website expecting to encounter a world of words might find herself a little disoriented. That's because there aren't any words. But there are lots of pictures.

Of course, that's intentional, says Alice Wilder, one of the founders of Think It Ink It, whose credentials as an educator include work as creator, writer, and head of research on the innovative children's television programs Blue's Clues and Super Why!

"Our intent," says Wilder, "is to provide kids with a richly detailed set of pictures that suggest a story (or lots of different stories). We provide the pictures. The children provide the stories."

The Birth of Think It Ink It

The idea for Think It Ink It emerged a few years ago when a publisher approached Wilder to write text for a set of beautiful illustrations for the story "Sleeping Beauty." She decided to take the book to a second grade classroom and let the kids write the story. She also took along a couple of books of original illustrations unrelated to any story the children knew. It turned out that "Sleeping Beauty" took a back seat.

"Most of the children wanted to work with the original material," Wilder says.

Recognizing the power of the wordless book format to inspire creativity, self-expression, and just plain fun, Wilder went to work with her collaborators. Think It Ink It now has four wordless books, with more planned.

Here's how it works. A child and his family order one of the wordless books, each of which differs significantly from the others in the collection. One, for instance, illustrates the experiences of an alien in New York city, another the adventures of a dog and a cat.

The book arrives with some writing tips ("There are no right or wrong answers") and a list of suggested vocabulary words (the list is packed with sensory words, says Wilder).

The product also includes a sticky-note pad appropriate for executing a draft of the story. The story is then transferred to the book or typed onto the computer and sent off to Think It Ink It, where it will be published in a hardcover format (in any language!).

Wilder has found that children who have added their original work to their own library often seek it out when the time comes to read a book.

From Theory to Practice

Wilder understands Think It Ink It as embodying some of the same principles she worked with on Blue's Clues. Blue's Clues was interactive: the young viewers were presented with a set of clues to help the dog, Blue, solve a problem. (Problem: What time is it? As the story moves along, the viewer receives the clues: a blanket, then a book, then a pillow. Solution: Of course, it's nap time.)

In the same way the Think It, Ink It writer is called on to interact with the material. What is this picture saying to me? How can I link these pictures in a story? As with Blue's Clues, Wilder is committed to the understanding that narrative is a key factor in generating children's interest and holding their attention.

Wilder has also brought the concept of "scaffolding" to both her television work and Think It Ink It. On Blue's Clues the clues build one on the other. The scaffoldings in Think It Ink It are the illustrations.

"Many children find a blank piece of paper intimidating," says Wilder. "The pictures nudge them to tell their stories."

Choice the Key to Creativity

In part at least, it's the rich detail of the illustrations that jolts children's creativity. In one illustration, for instance, the protagonist is a girl explorer setting off on an adventure. But in the corner are a group of bees talking among themselves and laughing. Will the writer focus on the girl and ignore the bees or give primary attention to the bees?

Wilder is delighted and even a bit surprised at the varied ways young writers bring their own life experience and voice to these stories.

In writing the text to explain some red food that an alien creature is bringing into a school, 5-year-old Phillipe is nothing if not matter of fact:

All the kids started to ask him: "Who are you?" I said: I'm a marcian. I came from Mars." He don't eat lunch like others do. He eats red food. All asked: Why do you have red food?" Because I'm from Mars and Mars is red and we eat red food."

By contrast, 6-year-old J.J. Pleton employs both the familiar and the magical as he encounters the illustration of the red food:

It was almost time for lunch when everyone saw Alien Boy eating something they had never eaten before. It was Red Goo Gel. It was just like jello only you could shape it into anything you wanted. All you had to do was say what you wanted it to be shaped into and it did it for you.

It's the open-endedness illustrated by these two responses that helps make the Think It Ink It books special.

Linda Calucci, a special needs teacher from Montclair, New Jersey, became aware of this quality when she tried out all four books in her class of kindergarten through second grade. "The kids were working with the book of their choice grouped at tables. Some of them were writing only a word, others were writing paragraphs, but all of them were intensely involved."

Wilder is not surprised that even the youngest of these students is motivated by the Think It Ink It illustrations. "Whatever our age, we all have different ways of telling a story, different lenses through which we see the world, and different experiences and characters in our lives. The pictures can act as the spur that opens the door to our creativity."

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