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.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Pigs might fly: thinking about roles

Continuing with picturebook titles that promote discussion and thought, this post is about Piggybook by Anthony Browne, the present  children's laureate. Anthony Browne is probably most famous for his picturebooks with gorilla characters, and when he was nominated children's laureate in 2009 the title of the Guardian article was: 'Gorilla artist Anthony Browne becomes children's laureate'.  His surrealist life-like illustrations, full of references to other texts, draw you into the pages, and on each re-read there's something new and different to be found.  His picturebooks work on so many levels that they provide pleasure and delight to children and adults alike.  Piggybook is no exception and despite being written in 1986, its message still holds true.  It's an excellent picturebook for all ages to pour over and discuss, including teens and adults.  
The front cover provides an excellent opportunity for predicting the story.  There's an illustration of a sad looking wowan, carrying a man and two boys on her back, who look happy, their cheeks pink and rosey. The woman is  standing against a wall with patterned wallpaper which first appear to be pink tulips, but on closer inspection reveal themsleves to be transforming, Escher-like, into pigs' heads.   There's a lightswitch on the wall, which also has a pig-like look to it.  The dusty blue title, 'Piggybook' is a good contrast to the pinky coloured background.  The visual play with piggyback and piggybook may not be picked up by our students, but we can tell them that the woman is giving the man and boys a piggyback and they are likely to make the connection.  The back cover gives some very precise information about who the people are on the front cover.  "Mr Piggott and his two sons behave like pigs to poor Mrs Piggott - until, finally, she walks out. Left to fend for themselves, the male Piggotts undergo some curious changes."   There are three illustrated cameos from the inside of the book showing a sink full of dirty washing up, an uncleared table and a pig's trooter holding a piece of paper which reads, 'You are pigs'. We can make a pretty good guess as to what we will find inside now... even the family name is pig-like.
There are no endpapers in my paperback version, but the title page is delicious.  It shows two flying pink pigs, flitting across the page.  They remind me first of those ceramic flying mallards of the 1930s, which grannies used to have on the wall above the mantlepiece.  There were always three and though we can only see two pigs there's definitely a resemblence.  And then I'm reminded of the idiom, "Pigs might fly", something we say when we think there is no chance at all of something happening, another example of Browne's visual humour.  Our students may or may not know this expression, but older students in particular would enjoying learning it.  Even if the reader never makes this connection, which is most likely to be the case, it doesn't lose its charm. 
The opening page is typical of Browne's deadpan narration alongside a very suggestive illustration, which we look at before we read the words.  
We see Mr Piggot, looking his best, larger than large, with his two sons, imitating his pose.  They are in front of their house.  It is only upon reading the words that our attention is drawn to what's missing from the illustration:. "Mr Piggott lived with his two sons, Simon and Patrick, in a nice house with a nice garden, and a nice car in a nice garage.  Inside the house was his wife."  The careful positioning of the unnamed wife, at the end of the decsription after the mention of the car, says it all. 
Browne illustrates Mr Piggott and his boys looking out at the reader and in full colour, they appear initially very confident, in charge and in control.  Mrs Piggott  however is depicted in sepia, we can't see her facial features and she looks small, haunched and timid.  
The early pages of this picturebook set the scene,  Mr Piggott and the boys larger than life, demanding food and attention, their mouths are always open, as though calling for something and Mrs Piggott is always in another picture, cooking, cleaning and looking after her family, never physically with them in an illustration. Gradually, as we turn the pages, we begin to notice references to pigs emerging from the illustrations, Mr Piggott's shadow is pig-like; he's eating fat pork sausages, a close up of his mouth and chest as he takes the sausage to his mouth.  This illustration has no words, it doesn't need any. The climax comes the next day, when they get home to an empty house, "... there was no-one to greet them."   The boys are shown walking into the living room, and if you look carefully they have pig emblems on their school blazers and Mr Piggott has a pig like rose in his lapel - there are other pig references too.   

We turn to an illustration of the living room fireplace.  The wall paper is now definitely pigs not tulips, the tiles have blue pigs on them, the grating has pig-like decorations, the poker has a pig handle, there's a pig vase, a pig card, a pig pencil top and the imitation of Gainsborough's 'Mr & Mrs Andrews' shows a man with a pig's head standing next to what was his wife, but it has been cut out and removed.    
The facing page has the following text: "She was nowhere to be found. On the mantlepiece was an envelope.  Mr Piggott opened it. Inside was a piece of paper."  Under is the illustration of a pigs' trotter holding a letter, with the words "You are pigs."
And of course they are, Mr Piggott and his sons are now pigs in clothes and they try to look after themsleves by cooking  their own meals, which always tasted horrible. Everything's a mess, dirty dishes in piles, clothes stained and in need of a wash.  And there are constant references to the pigs in all these illustrations.
Even the dog has pig-like features, as does the telephone and the lampshade, and can you see the shadow in the window?  That's all we need in a story about pigs!  A wonderful intertextual reference to a wolf, which we automatically associate with three pigs from our exposure to the traditional story.   Many of the students in our classes will be familiar with this story and will make the connection as well.  
Finally we are told, "One night there was nothing in the house for them to cook. 'We'll just have to root around and find some scraps,' snorted Mr Piggott."  Notice the wonderful use of piggy-like words in these sentences.  And Mrs Piggott returns, Browne gives us a fabulous illustration, showing us the perfect ending, the pigs at Mrs Piggott's feet.  And the words on the facing page say, "'P-L-E-A-S-E come back,' they snuffled."  They could do nothing but snuffle, for they were pigs! 
But this isn't the end.  The following pages show the male Piggotts washing up, making beds and ironing, they even help with the cooking and finally we are shown Mrs Piggott, full frontal, she's smiling, a long fringe almost hiding her eyes, there's a smudge on her cheek ... and when we turn the page, we see her mending the nice family car, (look at the number plate!). 

Visually Browne really gives us lots to look for and at.  We don't see all of the visual clues the first, even the second time round.  It's a book which demands that we return to and browse through, taking our time with the illustrations and discovering the hidden messages Browne leaves us.  But the main message isn't hidden at all.  It's very clearly given and discussion around the male / female roles in the home can be both frightening and enriching.  These are important discussions and execellent opportunities for teens and young adults as well as older primary children to use English and think critically about what they see in the picturebook and in their own lives. 
Recently two English teachers working in the third cycle of Portuguese education attended a workshop I was running and they decided to design a whole sequence of activities around the book.  These activities involved not only English but other subjects too.  The students were encouarged to discuss male / female roles in Portuguese society today and in the past (history), look at women in other cultures (geography / social studies) and design a questionnaire in Portuguese to use at home and then analyze the results (maths).  It became a term long project and they were very excited about it. 
In Anthony Browne's speech accepting the children's laureate award he said: "Picture books are for everybody at any age, not books to be left behind as we grow older. The best ones leave a tantalising gap between the pictures and the words, a gap that is filled by the reader's imagination, adding so much to the excitement of reading a book". Piggybook is an excellent example of one of 'the best' ones. 


Lucia said...

Hi, Sandie
As you know, I'm working in nursery and primary schools, in Porugal and I'm actually working with this picture book -with 4 to 6 years cold children (even today) and you know, very young girls and boys can "pic" he message that Anthony Browne is suggesting here...for example, one girl, last year - 5 years old, was interpreting the pictures (as she was in nursery school, didn't read words, but very visually competent) and she noticed the missing lady on the mantlepiece, the wallpaper changes, etc...and when she came to the page withe the noe left by Mrs Porcino, she said: "I think that the mother wrote here (underlining the text on the note) from now on your life is going to change!" ... so, you can be surprised by children's accuracy and deep thinking about real life pictured in picturebooks (for example)! You know, Anthony Browne is one of my favourite children's books english authors...there's another good example of his books (as many others, because A.B. gives us many good "tools" for debates about our social world...)that could be read in class..."Voices in the Park" ...how society is portrayed there and children's voices? another one, "Shape Game" ...good example to explore no only a visit to the museum but also to invite pupils, teens, adults o play he shape game...like we did here in Oliveira de Azemeis with nursery school and primary school children! We had an exibition and you know, in September I found the 45 celebriies book that played the shape game suggested by Anthony Browne...it was an amazing coincidence! (We would like to send those drawings to Anthony...)...Well, what I wan to stress here is that picturebooks are gooooood to enjoy, have fun, play and learn a loooot! Thank you for your good review and great blog!!! hugs

Lucia said...

P.S. Sorry about some mistakes on my english...and another thing we also have some good authors here in Portugal...as you know, I also like Manuela Bacelar (among others) and her's "Livro do Pedro" (no translated, I think?!) is a good example to "provoke" discussion about changes in families configuration and, mainly what is important, as Manuela Bacelar stress is have a loving caring family...

Sandie Mourão said...

Hi Lucia,
Great to see you post, thanks for writing!
Thank you so much for sharing what your 4 - 6 year old children are able to do. Even very young children are excellent picture readers as you point out. You told the story in Portuguese, (as it's translated), am I right? For such small children using this book in English would be quite challenging, but it's very appropriate for older kids, as the content is at their level, and of course discussion is possible in English with older students who have a couple more years of English baggage.
Thank you also for mentioning Voices in the park and the Shape game.
Voices is one of my favourites too, and I was thinking of posting about it in the near future. Anthony Browne is a very special author / illustrator, as his work goes so deep. His recent picturebook based on Goldilocks and the three bears shows two stories running parallel. It's called Me and You
The bear's story on one page and Goldilock's story on the other, where she is depicted as a modern day lost child. Using two very different styles, one typically storybook the other almost graphic novel it's visually very exciting. Another book to feature in the future :-)
No problem about your English Lucia, it's great that you posted! I have 'O livro do Pedro', which is beautiful book and such a pity it's not in English. But aren't the Portuguese lucky to have such a wonderful author / illustrator as Manuela Bacelar? For those of you who aren't in Portugal is about a little girl who is adopted and brought up by a two men. If you read Portuguese and are interested, here's the link to purchase this title:
A similar topic in English is And Tango makes three. About two male penguins who raise a chick called Tango. Based on a true story from Central Park Zoo in New York.
Thanks Lucia :-)

Lucia said...

Yes, Sandie..we have the book in Portuguese, but I hadn't read it...I asked the children to "read the story to me through pictures! That's why I think their comments are so deep and Anthony Browne is so good!..I also have "Me and You" (it is translated in Portuguese...and other Anthony Browne (and many other authors)...but, as you said, it's good to have such a good portuguese authors too (and many ilustrators...but not so many translated into other languages -Manuela Bacelar has at least one "grandparents" that is translated in french not sure about other languages...
thank you for you good suggestions!
keep in touch!

Sandie Mourão said...

Hi Lucia!
That's really interesting Lucia, not reading just showing. It's amazing what children take from illustrations :-)
There's an activity called 'picture walk' which I've read about, though never used. It's a pre-reading strategy: an examination of the text looking at pictures to gain an understanding of the story and to illicit story related language in advance. (from: http://www.bnkst.edu/literacyguide/terms.html)
I've always wanted a picturebook to surprise children, so I don't like showing them the pictures before telling the story - but maybe I'm just a fuddy duddy. It might be different in mother tongue classes though.
Has any one else who's reading tried picture walks?