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, January 30, 2011

Emily Gravett's wolf

The last of this series of posts on Emily Gravett shares her first book, Wolves, for which she won the Kate Greenaway Medal  in 2005.  Here are a couple of the reviews and if you want to see more here's the link:
"Emily Gravett is all for creating active readers with her debut picturebook Wolves. Light as a whisker, she offers playful lessons in black humour, irony, and in relationships between words and images, reality and fiction." (Jane Doonan, Times Educational Supplement)
"The charm of this book also lies in Emily’s delightful melange of skilful drawing with a big soft pencil, textured gouache, collage and generous use of white space." (Brighton Evening Argus)

Wolves is non-fiction made fiction.  We learn about wolves, in fact this is what we learn:
"GREY WOLVES live in packs of between two and ten animals.  They can survive almost anywhere from the Arctic Circle to the outskirts of towns and villages. They have sharp claws, bushy tails and dense fur, which harbours fleas and ticks. An adult wolf has 42 teeth. Its jaws are twice as powerful as those of a large dog.  Wolves eat mainly meat. They hunt large prey such as deer, bison and moose.  They also enjoy smaller mammals, like beavers, voles and rabbits."

But that's not what the story is about. The visual story uses this simple description very cleverly, focusing on the journey a little rabbit makes to the library, to borrow a book about wolves.  The visual quickly takes over and leaves the fairly banal description of the life of a wolf to one side, for the wolf in the book, becomes a real life wolf and the rabbit becomes his real life dinner! 
Does anyone remember books with fabric covers? The book rabbit takes out of the library is such a book, covered in red cloth with the title stamped boldly in black.  The first page of our picturebook is this cloth covered, front cover; the endpapers, belong to this red book, buff brown with a pattern of angular lines.  After reading the story and returning to these endpapers they no longer represent arbitrary marks, but remind us of claws and scratches... but that's for after. 
So we've opened our book, on the next page, the copyright and title pages, we are shown a front door mat scattered with the early morning post.  The copyright information appears on a postcard. There's a wolf stamp and the post mark is the Macmillan logo.  Delightful!  The title page is a leaflet from the library.  About?  You guessed it, a book called "Wolves" by "Emily Grrrabbit"  "NEW IN AT YOUR LIBRARY!" There are more puns if we look closely: "West Bucks public burrowing library", and, "Burrow WOLVES and other rip-roaring tails at your local library NOW!"  All these are visually presented as though stamps and stickers and are as much part of the illustration as anything else.  
"Rabbit went to the library. He chose a book about ... " and we are shown what he takes out, not told!  The rabbit innocently holding the red, cloth covered book with WOLVES in bold black letters.  If you look at the verso page, there's a discarded book about rabbits on the shelf.  I wonder who was looking at that?
Rabbit takes Wolves home, again we are shown not told.  A double spread with the library sketched in the back ground and the rabbit hugging the book.  Can you see the wolf sculptures on the building? The dimensions are ingenious, for the rabbit is headless, and the book fills the whole of the recto page.  It's like we are beginning all over again: this is the cover.  
And we ARE beginning again, for when we turn over we see the endpapers, those not-so-arbitrary marks on a buff brown background, with a neat little library card, which you can actually remove.  Here's a closeup: the card has a coffee stain on it and rabbit puns on the stamps and codes.  If you turn the card over there's a little sketch of two rabbits in love, their ears entwined in a heart shape. 
Rabbit reads the book as he walks home.  We simultaneously see rabbit looking into the book, and the actual book pages, which are behind him.   We are told that "GREY WOLVES live in packs of between two and ten animals", the illustration shows the wolves angrily emerging from a box, as though they've been left on a supermarket shelf, like a six-pack.  "They can survive almost anywhere from the Arctic Circle ..." and we are shown two growling wolves peering from behind  a snowman!  "... to the outskirts of towns and villages".  
The book pages are now almost as big as the double spread and the wolf is no longer in the book, instead standing behind the book, wearing clothes.  It's a menacing picture.  Rabbit is oblivious to all but the book he holds in his hands.  
Then it begins to get serious.  For we are shown close up shots of bits of wolf, first his feet and the words say, "They have sharp claws... ", rabbit patters on past the long sharp claws; "..bushy tails... " rabbit walks up the tail; "... and dense fur, which harbours fleas and ticks." Rabbit is deep in fur, with fleas jumping around him, but he's still reading his book.  
Now rabbit is on the wolf's nose.  The wolf has his tongue out,  his teeth are visible and he's got a napkin tied around his neck.  We are told "An adult wolf has 42 teeth. Its jaws are twice as powerful as those of a large dog."  
" Wolves eat mainly meat. They hunt large prey such as deer, bison and moose.  They also enjoy smaller mammals, like beavers, voles and ..." Our little rabbit is shown silhouetted between the wolf's eyes. He's panic stricken; the book is falling from his hands.   
Turn the page, quick... GULP, the red cloth cover is all scratched and tattered and a bit of ripped paper tells us " ... rabbits." Arghhh.  That's terrible. Poor rabbit. 
Turn the page and we have an announcement with a cream background calming after the ripped red cloth book cover,  "The author would like to point out that no rabbits were eaten during the making of this book.  It is a work of fiction. And so, for more sensitive readers here is an alternative ending."  That's good to know! And just as we were given two beginnings, we have two endings.  Rabbit and wolf are eating a jam sandwich together, the illustration is made of ripped bits of drawing, as though Gravett has collected the pieces after the terrible rabbit eating event and made it all better.  And of course they live happily ever after!
But don't stop turning the pages; for we are back in rabbit's house, the front door mat is covered in mail.  This page is a treasure trove of rabbit puns.  A Chinese restaurant called "The Burrowed Wok", offering "Free lawn crackers" and "Morning dew"; a letter from "Jack O'Hare", from "Angora Organics" a gardening catalogue.  There's also a letter from the library, which we can actually open and read.  Oh my goodness, the book is overdue.  Does that mean he didn't get home after all?  Oh dear. 

Isn't it amazing that this is Emily Gravett's first book?  She's a genius! To take a simple description of wolves and turn it into something as visually exciting as this. WOW! 
And of course if you really want to you could use the wolf descriptions as a spring board for describing other animals, but don't let that spoil the magic that children find in these pages.  

Emily Gravett has produced two books a year since her debut in 2005, that's not bad going!  They aren't all easily readable in our ELT classes, but most are.  I'll probably come back to some of the titles in later blog posts, so watch out for them. 

Her latest, Wolf won't bite is in the post as I write this,  can't wait to see it. This is the synopsis:

"Take your seat in the front row and watch in wonder as three cheeky little circus pigs make a wild wolf jump through hoops (literally), endure feats of astounding derring-do, and even withstand perilous games of dress-up. Safe in the thought that Wolf Won't Bite! they even put their heads between his jaws ...but can you push a wolf too far? Sure to strike a chord with anyone who has both a pet and a young child, this is a very funny and playful story with a snappy ending!"


    Sandie Mourão said...

    Claire couldn't post her message, so here it is below.
    "... I just wanted to agree with you that Wolves is a delicious read! I thought my son would be too young for it – when I first brought it home he was four. But he watched and listened with eyes like saucers. And he did know what had happened to that poor rabbit! Fortunately he seems at peace with the hunter-prey relationship. He’s particularly fond of eating squid and together we like to indulge in a party trick of eating the eyes of the roasted fish my husband serves – much to my husband’s disgust!

    I love the confidence that allows books like this to be published. It’s actually very subtle with little word-plays you can uncover as you mature. I’m certain this book will remain with him as he grows.

    We’re also big fans of Monkey and Me, especially now that he can read it himself! A fantastic book for pre-reading skills.

    Thanks for sharing.
    Claire Pye"

    Sandie Mourão said...

    Thanks for your message Claire, it's lovely to read about your son's reactions. Most children are Ok with the rabbit being eaten, they are often less squeezy than most of us adults!

    And yes, the subtle word plays give plenty of space for older learners to enjoy this picturebook on other levels. Most small children won't get those puns, but as you say when we return to these books, sometimes years latter, we see things we didn't see before. My daughter, now 18, loves films and watched all the Disney, then Pixar films till she knew them by heart. She returned to Hercules the other day, on a wet Sunday afternoon, and she was amazed at how many of the jokes and word plays she hadn't picked up on as a kid. She'd loved the film before, but loved it all over again for different reasons. Picturebooks are just like that. They have to satisfy readers of all ages, how else can you get parents to read the same book 100 times and not get bored?!

    And yes, Monkey and Me is WONDERFUL! So beautifully illustrated and perfect for pre-school language classes. It's a real HIT! And, as you say excellent for helping emergent readers.

    Aren't we lucky to have all these wonderful books?

    Luciano said...

    I agree with both of you ladies! I believe Emily is one of the most original writers at present. Personally, Little Mouse's Book of Fears, and Meerkat Mail are my favourites. I've used them at school.
    Not only have they brought about interesting language development, but we've been able to discuss "mature" issues such as belonging, peer pressure, fears, isolation, group dynamics...
    I love her work, and she's proved to be very popular among sts at my school.
    Thnx for your post, Sandie!

    Sandie Mourão said...

    Hey Luciano!
    I must get Meerkat Mail, I don't have it. I'll review it in the future and maybe you can share some your students responses? I love Little Mouse's Book of Fears too, brilliant and so much to look at in the illustrations.
    Emily Gravett is a very special author illustrator.