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, February 03, 2011

A book about old age

February is the month of relationships, Valentines Day and all that, so I thought I'd look at a picturebook I received just before Christmas. It's about an old lady who becomes a widow after 56 years of marriage. I read about it in an issue of Carousel.  The description intrigued me, and so I ordered it from the Book Depository.  The paperback isn't out yet, so it cost nearly €11,00, but it was well worth it!
The author/illustrator, Cesili Josephus Jitta, is Dutch, and Lola and the rent-a-cat was first published by a Belgian publisher in 2007, it came out in the UK in August 2010.  It's good to know that the publisher, Francis Lincoln, is bringing translated books onto the English market.  
Here's how they describe the book: "After the death of her husband John, Lola finds the days long and empty. One day she goes online and discovers www.rentacat.com. How will she choose which cat to rent, and could this be the start of a beautiful new friendship? Ceseli Josephus Jitta's delightful illustrations will amuse young and old alike, while the ultimately uplifting story of how a very old lady finds life is worth living after bereavement can be used to gently introduce very young children to the subject of old age and death. Translated from the Dutch, Lola and the Rent-a-Cat has been nominated for several prizes and translated into four languages."
As with all hardback books, it's solid, weighty and large.  Jitta's style is clean and simple.  I can't find any information about her technique, but it looks like she creates collages from her prints and other things like newspapers and ledger paper. She uses an interesting colour palette, bright colours: greens, yellows and oranges with purples and blues and reds.  Lovely.  
The cover introduces us to the two protagonists, Lola and the rent-a-cat.  They are supporting each other, the cat leaning in from the left, Lola from the right.  For cat lovers this is a very cat-like pose, leaning in for affection.  Puuurfect!  Lola is a grey haired, wrinkly lady with her cleavage showing.  In the background there's a foliage pattern and if we look closely we can see that the whole image is printed on ledger paper.   I didn't notice when I first received the book, and since noticing it's intrigued me, why ledger paper? It appears through out the book. 

The endpapers are the rich maroony pattern of foliage we saw on the cover.  You can recognize poppy heads and fern leaves amongst the weeds. 
The title page is simple, a cream page of ledger paper, with a cat, who we later discover is the rent-a-cat. Jitta has skillfully drawn the outline and added quick bobs of paint to create a muzzle, paws and ears.  Nice.
The first and last pages of the book are different.  The ledger paper is absent and Jitta has created washes of colour for the sky.  
The first page shows us a red evening sky, and Jitta and her husband, John, are sitting on their blue bench, together. Jitta wears the same clothes throughout, a red dress, low cleavage, and white trainers.  She's a cool old lady!   "Lola and John have been married since they were young. Together they can reach anywhere and together they stay balanced.  Together they look after each other and together they remember the shopping list."  As you can see from the illustrations, they show us exactly how this happens, scrubbing each other's back, filling each other's glass etc. 
We are shown how they get older, needing glasses and a Zimmer frame; the text hints at what might be wrong with John, "Sometimes John is sad for no reason and loses his way around the house.
Then on a deep, dark red background the words say, "One day John falls over. His heart stops beating." And the opposite page is a deep brown, John is still on his chair, his hat on his head, but he's fallen over, and Lola is standing over him.  The following pages are grey. And so "After fifty-six years she is alone again."   She's propping herself up with her walking stick, John is no longer there to balance her.  "Her days are long.  There is no one to look after any more. She reads, she watches TV and she surfs the net."
Now that is one cool old lady! And we are back to a bright green background.  "One night she visits www.rentacat.com" In Lucinda Handwriting font we read: "Experienced cats offer you company and affection in return for board and lodging for any length of time."
Against a bright yellow background we are shown all these cats. They come in numbers "26 Gus"; "97 Fred"; "108 Pete" "But number 313 is her favourite."
"313 TIM
Homely, slightly older cat
Loves attention and care
Fond of diet food
Click here to order."
Lola is excited, her heart beats faster and she completes the form. "Lola.fink@hotmail.com wants to order Tim, number 313."  Tim is with her the very next day. And what fun they have. "They are together …" shopping and eating; she even watches Tim poo, poop scoop at hand.
"… all of the time." Tim cleans himself on a stool as Lola has a bath and they sleep together, Lola on the right and Tim on the left. Together they sit on the same blue bench that Lola and John sat on, Lola drinks tea and Tim purrs. And as she sits she thinks of the past, of a cat she got as a small girl, (not unlike Tim); of going to see romantic movies with her friend; of meeting and falling in love with John.
... shown on a lovely double spread with a blue green water background, and no ledger paper, with ripped vegetable paper circles representing the ripples of water. And finally of sitting on the blue bench with John, drinking tea and loving each other. 
And the last page shows us a smiling Lola, rubbing her aged back; a keen, inquisitive Tim looking lovingly up at her, both surrounded by vegetation, a blue sky with a sleepy sun behind them.  "Off to bed, Tim.  Tomorrow is another day."

In the Carousel review, Chris Stephenson describes the story finishing "in the ascendent, with the promise of what tomorrow may bring."   It is indeed a positive ending and a thought provoking book, bringing a message we rarely think about, especially with our language students. It deals with decrepit old age, death, becoming a widow and loneliness.  Difficult topics but brilliantly brought together here by Jitta.  Isn't this a book  we could use with slightly older students?  It would provoke discussion for sure.  What do you think?


a.©.s said...

Im in love with her collage and marking technique. what a lovely way of portraying water.
Also, I am really fond about how death isn't something horrid and scary.
I like your observations on the ledger book. Graph paper is popular and I think using it on more than one page makes it bring the book together.

Sandie Mourão said...

Hi! Thanks for writing.
(I've been away, so I apologise for not moderating your message sooner.)
The water page is my favourite too, so simple, but so effective.
I didn't realise that graph paper was used so much in backgrounds. I'll look out for more examples. And yes by using it throughout, the book is brought together.
I suppose we could compare the coloured backgrounds (though legerbook-less) to Jan Pienkowski's work, in the Meg & Mog books of the 1970's. Though his style is very different, the solid colours make a coherent whole.