Picturebooks in ELT

Passionate about picturebooks

Welcome to my blog about picturebooks in ELT.

“A picturebook is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historic document; and foremost, an experience for a child. As an art form it hinges on the interdependence of pictures and words, on the simultaneous display of two facing pages, and on the drama of the turning page.” (Barbara Bader 1976:1)

My intention is to discuss picturebooks, in particular the pictures in them! Why? Because, in ELT we tend to select picturebooks because they contain words our students might know. I plan to write something a couple of times a month, sharing what I discover in my readings; describe new titles I come across; discuss particular illustrators and their styles and generally promote the picture in picturebooks.

From January 2008 to December 2011 I benefitted from a PhD research grant from FCT, in Portugal.

Friday, June 18, 2010

What is a picturebook?

Opal Dunn , whose work in promoting the use of authentic children's literature in ELT is second to none, refers to picture books as 'realbooks' or 'real picturebooks'.  Opal uses this term to differentiate between reading scheme books and picture books.  Liz Waterland, who coined the term 'real books' became increasingly frustrated with the philosophical arguments she encountered about what being 'real' actually meant (similar arguments were had in discussions around using 'real books' in ELT) and I recently came across a chapter she wrote where she uses the terms 'free range' and 'battery' books!  I like the idea of picture books being 'free range'!
Gail Ellis and Jean Brewster of the 'Tell it again!' Longman resource book call picturebooks 'storybooks'.   And indeed all the picture book titles in their publication are picture storybooks.  But picturebooks are not just stories.  Picturebooks are very diverse in form – they include big books and little books, books in prose and books in verse, fiction and non-fiction, ABC books and counting books, board books and cloth books, pop up books, and books with moving parts … and there are picturebooks with no words!  They are so diverse that they have baffled academics in their search for a single definition.
So how does a picturebook differ from other illustrated literature? The American Caldecott Awards describe a picturebook as having a 'collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.' Pictures and words are partners in picture books - codes that can both be read. What is so exciting about these two codes, the pictures and the words, is that they don't always tell the same story. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.  
Metaphors for how pictures and words inter-animate abound in the literature about picturebooks:
  • A theatrical metaphor: they have been called a double-act;
  • A musical metaphor: they are like a duet;
  • They have been compared to textiles: interweaving to create the perfect cloth;
  • To dancing a tango …  for you need two to Tango!
  • By both influencing / being influenced by one another they have been referred to as an ecosystem;
  • And finally the visual and the verbal texts in picture books are thought to work together in synergy - text and picture together produce a whole that is greater together than the sum of the individual parts.
But picturebooks are not just the inter-animation of pictures and words, there's a third element, design. Children’s publishing cleverly uses illustrators, authors, editors and book designers to ensure all the different parts of a book - front and back covers, dust jackets, endpapers, half-title and title pages, copyright and dedication pages - are brought together with the pictures and the words to produce a unified end product, the picture book as object.
So, what is a picture book? Barbara Bader's definition is the one I like the best, and that's why I've chosen it for this blog.  It's there at the top, permanently, to remind us!
“A picturebook is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historic document; and foremost, an experience for a child.  As an art form it hinges on the interdependence of pictures and words, on the simultaneous display of two facing pages, and on the drama of the turning page.”  (Barbara Bader 1976:1)
A note on the spelling!  In the world of children's literature the spelling of 'picturebook' has come under great discussion.  Is it two words, 'picture book'? Is it hyphened,  'picture-book'? Or is it a compound noun, 'picturebook'? The spell check on my computer accepts only the first option, but you'll find 'picturebook' as a compound noun being used more and more, which according to David Lewis 'reflects the compound nature of the artefact'.  
  • Barbara Bader 1976 American Picturebooks from Noah's Ark to The Beast Within. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 
  • Gail Ellis & Jean Brewster (2002) Tell it again! The new storytelling handbook for primary teachers. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited 
  • Liz Waterland 1992 'Ranging Freely.  The why and the what of Real Books' in Styles, M, Bearne, E. & Watson, V. After Alice. London: Cassell
  • David Lewis 2001 Reading Contemporary Picturebooks: Picturing text.  London: Routledge


Ana d'Almeida said...

Dear Sandie,


I still remember your interesting and lovely sessions in Brazil last year. I'm sure this blog will be a wonderful resource to anyone into teaching young learners, language, words, illustration, book design, storytelling, ELT, and all the rich world within picture books.

Here's to Picture Books in ELT!!

in Recife, Brazil

Sandie Mourão said...


Thank you for your encouraging message. It is exciting and time consuming, but I hope it does all those things you've described!



analiafite said...

Dear Sandie : I'm a esl teacher in Argentina I love picture books as much as you do and they are an important part of my classes .Tell me if you ever come to Argentina ! I'll be reading your blog ! Hug Ana Lía

Caroline said...

Great to see a blog devoted entirely to the wonderful world of children's picture books. Please add me as a follower. Look forward to reading more.
Caz (in Italy)

Sandie Mourão said...

Ana Lia and Caroline!

Thank you for your enthusiastic posts. It's great to know that there are fellow picture book lovers out there, and that we can meet through this blog. Don't forget to add comments and suggestions for books you'd like everyone to know about.


Sofia Silva said...

Dear Sandie

It was lovely to meet you yesterday and, believe me, your opinion helped quite a lot.
As to your blog, it gave me that goose pimples feeling we talked about...and I loved it!

All the best

Anonymous said...

Hi Sandie

I recently did some research (very low level, but fascinating) on postmodern picturebooks. I agree the visuals are greatly underexploited in many classrooms and I found some of these links and texts on 'new literacies' really mind-expanding...




Sandie Mourão said...

Dear Sofia and Sally,

Thank you both for posting a message.

Goose bumps is good Sofia!

The articles you've attached are great Sally, thank you! I hadn't read either of them, and will do so today, but you are right, literature of this type is mind blowing! And something like Black and White is unlikely to be used in a conventional ELT classroom, although I think it could be if the children had a good level of English. I hope to do a blog post on books like this, but it won't be for a while, (there is so much to write about!)

BookFairy said...

Hi there Sandie,

I found this post particularly interesting and useful...

I just wonder if you know the portuguese translation for picture books...it's "Álbuns"- I heard it might come from French...

Just wondering...tell me something if you know a proper translation...

All the best

Sandie Mourão said...

Hi and thanks for posting!
In Portuguese a picture book can be called um livro ilustrado, or um álbum / álbum ilusrado. However the academics like to differentiate between fiction / non-fiction, so they sometimes use álbum narativo.
Álbum has other connotations, and the Portuguese definition includes that it is hardback.
Livro ilustrado is too like illustrated book, which is not a picture book!
Bit tricky really, but I hope that helps.