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.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

'It's a book' ... full of laffs!

I got an email from a friend yesterday with silly jokes about computers and what they've done to us since they took over our lives BIG TIME just over a decade ago.  It reminded me of the article I read after comments from a fellow blogger concerning the diminishing number of picturebooks in book shops, and the discussions I've lurked on about the death of the book and 'long live digital'. So I decided to dedicate this post to "It's a Book".  
Lane Smith, the creator of this picturebook wrote: "The reason I made the book? Certainly not to 'throw down the gauntlet', as one critic has stated.  Naw, I just thought digital vs traditional made for a funny premise.  No heavy message, I'm only in it for the laffs.
Laffs?  Lots of them!  It's a brilliant collection of facing pages with much of the information coming from the illustrations, though of course it's the interaction between word and picture that create the humour.
The front cover, as you can see above, stars a book loving monkey; the back cover shows us a jackass, confidently sitting in a chair holding a book and confiring "No... it's a book." The inside pages show us how he discovered the book. 
The endpapers are a warm orange, reflecting the colour tones throughout the book.  (Interestingly the book featured in the story is also an orangly colour.)  We move from warm orange to a dusty blue past a simple dedication and no copyright page. The title page covers a double spread, introducing the characters: 'It's a mouse'; 'It's a jackass' and 'It's a monkey'.  The choice 'jackass', instead of 'donkey' is obvious, but it only hits you when you get to the final page.  
Lane Smith has described the monkey as traditional and the jackass as modern, and visually they are the opposites of each other too.  The pointedness of the jackass radiates speed, modern day efficiency, and relentlessness (using Smith's own word for his character), he's tiny too! The monkey's roundness oozes a slower life, a calmer, ponderous one.  He's enormous next to the jackass!  
Jackass asks lots of questions, 'How do you scroll down?; Do you blog with it?' 
This is one of my favourite facing sets, when we are introduced to the mouse. 'Where's your mouse?'  
Questions continue, 'Can you make characters fight?'  'Can it text?' 'Tweet?' 'Wi-Fi?' 'Can it TOOT?'  Calm traditional monkey keeps replying, 'No, it's a book.' Another fun page is the jackass' reaction to seeing a page of the book, (which is actually 'Treasure Island'). '
'Too many letters.  I'll fix it.' says the jackass! But jackass is eventually tempted to take a good look at the book and time flies, depicted not in the words, as there are none, but in a series of clocks which move from 12.05 to 16.35, but on a good old-fashioned clock with hands! 
The frustrated monkey ends up going to the library, and our mod-con jackass still seems to think the book needs charging.  Back comes our friend the mouse, from under the monkey's hat. 'YOU DON'T HAVE TO...' 

And we all know the answer to that ... 'IT'S A BOOK, JACKASS.'
Following my usual obsession with peritext, I particularly like the way the copyright page is at the back of the book, and includes a bit of bumff about Lane Smith.  Very cleverly done! 
The short, simple sentences in this picturebook are deceptive  - this is a book which works on many levels, playing on our commonly shared understanding of what computers and books do, as well as knowing a little about what certain books contain.  
Lane Smith contributes to a blog called Curious Pages, where he's written about 'It's a book', describing some of the options he made as an illustrator, with the help of his wife, who designs books.  It's well worth visiting.  And there's a book trailer on Youtube, which is fun too. But the book is better!

How could we use 'It's a book' in the classroom?  Well, it's an excellent picturebook for boys! Why not use it to begin discussions about before and after.  Many of our younger students don't know a life without technology, but they could ask parents and grandparents and think about the world before computers became part of everyday life.  Look at some of the verbs like blog, text, tweet, wi-fi ... and scroll ... what is a scroll, and how different is it from the verb to scroll.  I wonder what happened when books began replacing scrolls?  But most importantly, look at the book, read it together with your students and have a good old laff. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Christmas giggle!

I was in the city on Saturday and I noticed that the old part of town was getting ready for Christmas, with lights being set up in the trees.  "Oh no!", I thought ... "I blogged on a book for Halloween in August, I need to blog on a book for Christmas NOW!"  And so top of my 'To do' list is a blog post with a Christmas picturebook.  
I'm not religious, and I tend to look at Christmas in my English classes through the eyes of the consumer, we'll have fun with toys and talk about presents.  But here's a suggestion for something a little different, something that brings a bit of a giggle to the nativity scene.  Jesus' Christmas Party was called "The funniest, most endearing version of the nativity story for many years" by the Sunday Times when it came out in 1991.  Nicholas Allan 's website opens with frilly knickers hanging on a line, an illustration from his picturebook The Queen's Knickers.  There are no knickers in Jesus' party but Allan's brilliant slap dash water colour illustrations bring life, emotion and joy to the reader, alongside the chuckling you can't keep within when you turn some of the pages.  
No endpapers in my version, but there is a "Free nativity press out playset!" It interferes with the opening of the book, bringing the title page before the copyright page, which feels kind of odd.  
The illustration on the title page is of the three kings, sparingly illustrated, all in blue, smiling with their eyes closed, podgy hands gripping their gifts.  Blue is a recurring colour, with all the figures dressed in blue, shadows in blue and background washes in blue and bluey greens.  This blueness brings a wholeness to the artwork, but at the same time conveys a cool distance. 
There aren't many double spreads, but the narrative flows well through the facing pages.  The opening page faces the copyright page, there's nothing our innkeeper 'hero' doesn't like more than a 'good night's sleep', and we see him in his bed, fast asleep.    The narrative continues with a knock on the door, and we see the innkeeper looking cross, his candle lit and sitting up in bed - the facing page uses short, sharp dialogues, depicting a cross innkeeper.  "... 'There's only a stable round the back. Here's two blankets. Sign the register. So they signed it:'Mary and Joseph'".  The words play on our prior knowledge of the Christmas story and the illustrations  show us a surprised couple, seen looking into the inn from outside, (we are in, they are out).  The woman is holding her front carefully.  
And so it continues.  
The innkeeper  "... shut the door, climbed the stairs, got into bed, and went to sleep." only  to be awoken again by Joseph asking for a blanket, a smaller blanket. Each time the innkeeper opens the door, deals rudely with the situation and then "... shut the door, climbed the stairs, got into bed, and went to sleep." He's woken by a star (so he also closed his curtains), then three shepherds, who he rudely tells to go "ROUND THE BACK".  At each awakening the illustrations show him getting more and more frustrated, until  the kings arrive. 
The two facing pages I've photographed here are hilarious! The way both words and illustrations work together to make the meaning  is brilliant. Finally it is the chorus of singing that wakes him.  "RIGHT - THAT DOES IT!"   
The simple, minimal, cartoon-like illustrations show us the very cross innkeeper taking the situation into his own hands.  "... he got out of bed, stomped down the stairs, threw open the door, went round the back, stormed into the stable, and was just about to speak when - "

We turn the page and the blue has been replaced with warm browns and yellows. Look at the first of the double spreads, everyone has their finger to their mouth, and a light is emanating from within, casting shadows on the walls behind the figures.  "'Ssshh! whispered everybody, 'You'll wake the baby'"
And of course our cross innkeeper takes a peek at the baby in the manger, and his anger disappears.  The illustrations show his frown turning into a smile.  "...'Oh', said the innkeeper, 'isn't he lovely!'"  and so off he goes and wakes up the other guests in the inn.  
The illustrations show us their grumpy faces in contrast to the innkeepers wide open smile and sprightly step. The final spread depicts a joyous scene of smiling faces, the warm orangey, brown prevalent and all is jubilant, and "So no one got much sleep that night!"  
The final page, a verso page is illustrated with baby Jesus in a wooden crib, a round cartoon face with closed eyes and a smiling mouth and the light glowing from his halo.  "THE END

It's a very funny depiction of the well known story and the shared knowledge of the story, together with the cartoon illustrations make it appropriate for primary classes in countries where this is part of their culture.  

There is also a musical version, which would make an excellent play with a difference for a Christmas party. 

Whether you just read and look, or encourage the children to act out the story it's a wonderfully different way to celebrate Christmas in our English classes. 

I've worked with one other Christmas story, Little Robin Red Vest, which is about friendship and giving, and gives an explain as to how little Robins got their red chest.  It'snow out of print, but you can get second hand copies through the Amazon market place links. 
If you've used a picturebook at Christmas do let me know and I can include it in my festive list.