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.

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. 


David Warr said...

Hi Sandie
I hope your PhD is going well! I've just come across your blog now and really like your idea of giving commentaries on differrent picture books to use. I didn't know about this story before, it is funny isn't it! Very nice.

Sandie Mourão said...

Hi David! Thanks for popping by. PhD is plodding along - analysing data, constantly exhausted ... and learning everyday :-)
Glad you like this picturebook.

carolread said...

Hi Sandie

Thanks for a great post and for all these festive titles!

I've also used Little Robin Red Vest - a very touching story as well as full of language practice opportunities and, as I remember, the centre of much discussion on the IATEFL YL Sig list some years ago.

Another of my all-time favourites is Raymond Briggs' Father Christmas. The story starts with Father Christmas being really fed up that it's 'blooming' Christmas again. We follow him as he carries out his longest night's work with many amusing touches e.g. listening grumpily to the weather forecast of fog, ice and snow, getting frozen feet, seeing the flag flying on the palace and realizing they must be in, opening his own Christmas presents including 'horrible socks from Cousin Violet' and finally feeling relieved that 'that's done for another year' and grumpily wishing the readers 'Happy blooming Christmas to you too!' Although the book was written in 1973, it's still a favourite with children old enough to no longer believe in Father Christmas and who derive enormous enjoyment and pleasure in the humour of seeing Christmas from another point of view.

Sandie Mourão said...

Hi Carol!
Great to see your comment, and yes of course, Briggs' Father Christmas is a classic. And as you say perfect for older children. Because of it's comic-like appearance, which is what makes it so likeable to children, teens in particular, its considered a graphic novel. Another Christmas title by Briggs is his wonderful wordless Snowman, again a graphic novel, but beautifully illustrated and a great story.
He's a very special illustrator and has contributed to the world of children's literature BIG time. There are some interesting links in The Guardian, with features on Raymond Briggs including a short film. Well worth visiting:
It's feeling very wintery and snowman-like here with winds, low temperatures and rain. Brrr... Christmas is coming! Hope it's warmer in Madrid!