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, March 30, 2011

Lost and found: a story of friendship

Lost and found is Oliver Jeffers' second book, published in 2005.  It was inspired after a funny event which took place in Belfast, his home town: a group of school children went on a trip to Belfast Zoo, and a child managed to smuggle a baby penguin out of the zoo, into the school bus and all the way home, without anybody noticing.  When it was eventually discovered in the bathroom of his home, the parents kept it overnight in the bath tub, until the zoo came to collect it the next day. It was the talk of the town for days! Lost and Found emerged from this story as an award winning picturebook.  Quite different, but the influence is recognisable.
In 2009, Studio AKA produced a film inspired by Jeffers' picturebook. The film has gone on to win 60 awards, that's right, 60, and its still winning awards, quite amazing - they are listed on the Studio AKA site, if you want to be WOWED! The 2009 BAFTA Award is probably the most prestigious. 
It is a wonderful, really wonderful film, and is very different to the picturebook, yet still contains  the essence of Oliver Jeffers' story and characters. Philip Hunt, who directed the film, admitted to creating a longer story line, as the 32-page picturebook would have given no more than a five-minute film.  What makes it so special is that Oliver Jeffers worked with the studio to create the new storyline and the new look to the story, as well as providing some of the visuals. 
Screen shot from one of the film scenes.
You'll notice the signs are all in his well-known, hand-written, slightly lopsided fonts! If you manage to see the film, the accompanying "How the film was made" is fascinating, as it takes you through the extended storyline and shows how they created the 3D sets and scenery, including the fabulous life-like sea scenes. 
I did have a link to a youtube trailer of the film here - but it's been removed from youtube.  Great pity ... it was a good trailer. 
Jacket flap photo
Oliver Jeffers has been making picturebooks for a decade and his style is recognizable a mile off. Those stubby little figures, with large heads and stick legs belong to no other illustrator.  But, if you visit his website, you'll be surprised when you see his art work, which is very life-like, he is extremely tallented.   I met Oliver in February 2009 at a British Council Seminar, Words and beyond, in Kuala Lumpur.  He talked about  his  work and what impressed me was that his fine art, (paintings and installations / objects), feeds his picturebook artwork and vice-versa - he is a complete artist. Oliver also talked about his interest in how pictures and words work together, the essence of picturebooks. His first picturebook, How to catch a star was created when he was still at art school in Ulster.  He was extremely lucky to get a publishing deal within days of sending off the maquete to Harper Collins USA: every young picturebook illustrator's dream.   As you can see from his photo here, he loves hats, and he wore about six different ones in the four-day seminar we both attended!
I digress!  The picturebook Lost and Found is one of Carol Read's  favourite six picturebooks.  It's a cutie, illustrated in Jeffers' watercolour style,  with pastel tones. Unlike most picturebooks, Jeffers does not use double spreads as whole illustrations, but instead the left and right pages provide the reader with separate sequential steps to the narrative.  Sometimes the ilustrations appear as vignettes, other times as framed illustrations, (sometimes more than one frame per page), and other pages will be covered right to the edges with his watercolour washes: skies and the sea are often portrayed like this. He uses scale very well too, you'll see an example later in this post. 
The front and back covers, when opened out, create a whole scene, the boy and the penguin floating in the cold antartic waters.  This is a culminating image as it is from the end of the story: the friends have been separated and reunited.
The title page is a balmy seaside esplanade, the boy and the penguin walking side by side as though deep in conversation.  The sun setting into a salmon pink sky.  It's a beautiful though odd illustration for a title page, I'd associate it with the ending of the story not the beginning.  
And so we begin our story: "Once there was a boy and one day he found a penguin at his door." It's a sunny illustration, yellow is a positive, happy colour, it's the beginning of a relationship. (My photo doesn't do the colours justice, they are much brighter in the book).
The penguin followed him everywhere, and because the penguin looked sad, the boy presumed it was lost.  So he went to the "Lost and Found Office" and he asked the birds in the park, "But no one was missing a penguin."
Once the boy had discovered that penguins came from the South Pole he decided he had to take the penguin back. So off to the harbour: the right hand page here is fabulous, a huge boat and a tiny boy and penguin. "His voice was too small to be head over the ship's horne." Lovely illustration. 
And so, together with the Penguin, the boy made a boat and they sailed to the South Pole.  Here is where Jeffers' wonderful double spreads come into their own - a great sea scene showing the boy and the penguin in a bad weather "... when the waves were as big as mountains." They remind me of The great wave off Kanagawa, by the Japanese artist Hokusai. 
The boy and the penguin survive the sea adventure and get to the South Pole, where there's a neon sign written in Jeffers' characteristic writing:  "Welcome to the South Pole".  The boy is happy he's arrived, the penguin is sad. There's a great illustration of the boy and the penguin looking at each other, unable to say goodbye, though the words tell us, "The boy said goodbye ... ". The boy leaves the penguin, alone on the edge of an iceberg. "... and floats away.  But as he looks back, the penguin looks sadder than ever."  That's when he began to wonder.  
The illustrations show us the sequence of his thoughts and the sudden realization that, "The penguin wasn't lost. It was just lonely." And so he returns to the iceberg but there's no penguin in sight.  
We know he's not there, because we have been shown the penguin floating back to sea on his umbrella. Can you see him on the other side of the floating berg?  The boy is unaware of this, and so he returns to his boat and rows home. It's a very sad scene,  children audibly take a breath, some adults probably do too.  But as in all good stories, the boy catches up with the penguin  and they hug.  
This is one of the best picturebook hugs ever, just look at how their forms become one, both anchored to the ground together by a single blue shadow.   It's a truly beautiful embrace.  
And so they row back home together, "... talking of wonderful things all the way."
This is my favourite of illustrations.  A warm blue sea, cradling  a single boat with two friends in it.   Jim Broadbent narrates the film, and his final words, said in that Jim Broadbent granddad-like tone he has, are: "This all began with someone lost and someone found, and who's to say which was which?  There was a boy and there was penguin, strangers from the opposite sides of the ocean. And like the beginning of any friendship, theirs is a remarkable story indeed." 
Whenever, I see this last page, and the shot from the film, it I think of the book cover for Life of Pi, and wonder.  (All those intertextual connections we make as individuals.) 

Lost and Found: I like both the book and the film, but they are so very different.  I'd decline from using the film with a group of younger students, just tell the picturebook, it's such an experience - those illustrations accompanied by Jeffer's almost rhythmic prose. It's perfect for just sharing.  The film and the picturebook might get a group of teenagers talking, discussing how the two media can bring such a message across, and how the extras in the film are used to extend the narrative.    
I've just watched the film again, and the theme tune is playing nonchalantly in the background - deep sigh,  it IS such a wonderful film.  Isn't Oliver Jeffers lucky to have been involved in creating two versions of a story that began with a small child and a smuggled baby penguin from Belfast Zoo?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hen + Fox = cartoon-inspired comedy

When I tell you the hen is called Rosie you will all know which story I'm going to discuss in this post: Rosie's Walk, a 1960's classic.  Yep!  It didn't win an Oscar or get nominated for a BAFTA, but it's a picturebook and a short animated film.  I'm going to talk about Rosie's Walk as it represents a number of similar picturebooks which are available in animated format, The very hungry caterpillar, Where the wild things areMeg and Mog.  The Gruffalo was also recently released as an animated film, but with a cast of famous voices it's of a different league and possibly deserves a post of its own ... another day!  
Why have I chosen Rosie's walk?  For those of you who don't know the classic, written and illustrated by Pat Hutchins in the 1960's, it's a concise 32-word text about Rosie the hen strolling through the farmyard, oblivious of a fox following her. As we turn the pages, the fox gets himself into all sorts of fixes from trying to catch her. As reader (or looker) we are never entirely sure if Rosie knows he's there or not, but children recognize the cartoon-inspired comedy ... one of my 6 year-old students compared it to Tom and Jerry.  It's a brilliant example of 1+1=3.  
I bought the film years ago so it's in video format, and it's a while since I saw it, but you can now buy the DVD version, (not sure it's available on Blu-ray).  It's the book in action with a quaint soundtrack, North American country twangs played on a fiddle. Seeing Pat Hutchins' illustrations on a screen is pretty exciting, she has a wonderful style, and the 1960's limited colour palette is a delight ... you'll notice she's used very few colours, which is typical of early picturebooks using the limited printing capabilities of the time.  As with anything that gets animated, show the children both versions, they provide two different experiences.  And to be honest the reason I want to talk about Rosie's Walk is because it's mathematically challenging (When does 1+1=3?). I'm not entirely sure the animated version does it justice.  Let me know what you think.  
So, the picturebook. It's generally touted for its opportunities for developing emergent literacy  and exposure to prepositional phrases. True enough, the verbal text is large and against a white background, clear and easy to see, and yes, the book contains a number of prepositional phrases.  Many descriptions of the book highlight the fact that the pictures match the words as well.  But Rosie's Walk is far more than easy to read words and exposure to prepositions, and the pictures do far more than just match the words.  
Peritextually it's a delight.  The front cover presents setting and characters.  First time readers can't be sure if Rosie is the fox or the hen, we see both: a hen walking determined into the book, a skulking fox behind her house.  There's a windmill there too, to be visited further into the story.  
I've never seen a hardback version, but I have several paperback editions, published by Walker Books (UK) and Scholastic (USA).  The half title page has a neat little interplay between words and pictures: the title is large and central with the fox above the letters, and the hen positioned under, as though they are hidden from each other: the hunt is on.  
The title page is a whole double spread, a busy illustration, depicting the farmyard and surrounding fields and land. Rosie is in her henhouse, on the verso page, looking across at the farm.  There's no sign of the fox, but we see the places she will visit when we begin to turn the pages: the pond, the haystack next to the goat, the windmill, the fence and the cart and the beehives.  The route is there, and upon revisiting this page children will enjoy talking about the different places and remembering the sequence.  I had some children once who stated matter-of-factly that she would have been much quicker if she'd walked across the title to the beehives!   They also noticed the missing fox.
There’s a whole page set aside for the dedication, written in big bold letters accompanied by a symmetrical decoration of country flowers. It begs to be read out loud and wondered at. 
Pat Hutchins’ decorative style is lovely; her plump, round trees, with rows of leaves and fruit or radiating leaf-covered branches are unmistakable.  She draws Rosie’s feathers and speckled body consistently neat and in place;  she represents the fox’s fur with dots and dashes.  Everything has a precision, which is characteristic of her work.   As the story continues to unfold, there’s a pattern to the sequence that follows: first we are shown and told what Rosie is doing, but additionally we are shown the fox, never mentioned in the verbal text. 
Alternating wordless pages show us how the accident-prone fox tries to catch Rosie but never does, instead he lands on a rake, falls in the pond, sploffs in the hay, gets covered in flour and finally falls into an empty cart which takes him careering into the beehives.   Rosie just keeps on walking apparently oblivious to the chaos behind her! 
This predictive pattern is our motivating page-turner: we know what is going to happen but we have to turn the page to see if we predicted correctly.   We are all saying, “Oh no! He’s going to …”.  So visually this is far more than just illustrations supporting the minimal verbal text: there are two stories, a verbal and a visual.  But it is together that they become funny: the visual brings entertainment to the plodding verbal.  Pat Hutchins deliberately called her story Rosie’s Walk focusing on that plodding, ignoring the fox, a well-kept secret between reader and illustrator.
There are a number of references to this picturebook as a tool for alerting students to how pictures and words can work together.  It’s been used successfully with slightly older children or even teacher trainees, by just reading the verbal text and asking listeners to sketch the scenes in the story, share their sketches and talk about them, then to be shown and read the actual picturebook.  The activity highlights how 1+1=3, becoming a dual narrative full of irony.  
So, when deciding to use Rosie's Walk, don't think it's just a story to be selected for its use of prepositions.  It's far more than that - make the most of it.  It's a superb example of how pictures and words work their magic together.  
As for the animated film, and the animated films of other picturebooks like Rosie's Walk, they are available and children will enjoy them, but they are watched in a different way, they could never replace the picturebook. 

UPDATE!  I've just found the film on YouTube, so here it is for you to see.

Monday, March 14, 2011

And the winner is ... The Lost Thing

This month I've decided to write about picturebooks that have been made into films.   It was this year's Oscars which prompted me to write about The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan, one of my favourite picturebooks, and which won the Oscar for best Short Film (animated). Pretty amazing! The film took nearly ten years to make and was released on 10th November 2010, it arrived in my Portuguese post box, fresh out of Australia just in time for my birthday on the 18th!   
I got so excited when I saw it had been nominated for an Oscar,  funnily enough alongside another pictuebook The Gruffalo.
Here's the trailer ...
... and Shaun Tan's webpage about the film, with some fabulous illustrations.  Now it's won an Oscar it's available through itunes, but you can also purchase it online directly from Madman Australia, which I think is so much more exciting!
The film is only 15 minutes long, but comes with some wonderful extras, including a commentary by Shaun Tan and another by the director,  Andrew Ruhemann.  There's also a delightful little, hardback field guide called, What miscellaneous abnormality is that? which features all the wonderful invented creatures in the original picturebook and film.  A truely delightful little package.
Is the film better than the book?  No!  They are both brilliant, but in different ways.  After watching the film I went back to the picturebook and it seemed different.  There was so much more to look at, and all over again.  The film had made certain illustrations clearer, bits I'd overlooked became massively important and steeped in meaning.  It was goosepimply brilliant.  
And so the picturebook?  
The lost thing is subtitled, A tale for those who have more important things to pay attention to. I didn't notice the subtitle for ages, the front cover is busy, but it's there neatly tucked under the large title. There is so much to look at that it's easy to miss. 
Tan always uses the peritext eccentrically, and The Lost Thing is no exception.  The front and back covers are full of clues as to what the book will bring, but many of these clues only become clear once we’ve read through the picturebook more than once.  The front cover shows us the two main characters, the boy and the Lost Thing, standing next to a lamp post with a sign "NO LOITERING" hanging from it.  Small pink, puffy clouds are in the sky, a repeated image through out, and a wiggly arrow is part of the title, another repeated visual image which appears inside.  
The back cover shows us simultaneously both sides of a post card from suburbia,  the setting for the story. It's been written by someone called Shaun to his friend Pete, who appears in the picturebook.  The postcard has a "CLEARED" stamp on it, as well as a load of other smile provoking bits and bobs.  This becomes clearer once we've read the picturebook. There's a tram ticket, from the Melbourne Metropolitan, stuck in the top corner of the cover, and a delightful strip of visual paraphernalia which illustrates the barcode, along the bottom. Much to look at and wonder about.
The endpapers show us rows and rows of decorated bottle tops, for the boy in the story is a bottle top collector!  They are all cream with black squiggles against a background of sketches of the characters in the book in a deep umber.   There's one blue bottletop with a puzzling fluffy cloud painted on it.
The main character, a young boy, narrates a matter of fact summer holiday story about finding a metaphorical Lost thing - a huge, red, teapot-like creature with crab claws that acts like a pet dog.   “It all happened a few summers ago, one rather ordinary day by the beach. Not much was going on. I was, as usual, working tirelessly on my bottle-top collection and stopped to look up for no particular reason. That’s when I first saw the thing.” In the double spread above, you can see the Lost Thing down on the beach, and there are close ups in the four cameos on the right hand side. Can you see the traffic lights with four lights?
The story is of the journey the boy takes to find a home for the creature.  The illustrations are full of detail and thought provoking, in particular when seen alongside the minimal, fairly dry text. Tan used his father’s old physics textbooks to make the backgrounds, and they bring a wonderfully sunburned brown, textured feel to the pages, as well as hundreds of reasons to keep looking and pouring over the illustrations.    In many places there are little expressions which seem perfectly placed ... I'll leave you to find them! 

Most spreads have a comic book-like layout, with several frames on a page illustrating different sequential events.  Tan uses very moody colours, dark browns and reds, with grey and black, against the cream coloured physics notes, but every now and then, even though the colours themselves don’t change something becomes luminous bringing a light heartedness to a page.
The boy takes the creature to his friend's home to discover what it is. They are both stumped and sit on the roof drinking tea and trying to sort things out.  It's a great spread, and you can see Suburbia behind them with all the houses with red roofs, all exactly the same. 
Later, the creature eats Christmas decorations in the boy's back shed, while the boy thinks what to do.  They take a  trip to The Federal Department of Odds and Ends whose moto is "sweepus underum carpetae", and where the boy is required to fill in hundreds of forms.  It is there that  he is given a card with a wiggly arrow on it as a clue to where to take the creature.    They wonder around Suburbia following signs with arrows, (and there are some amazing signs!) and eventually the boy does find a home for the Lost Thing, it  “… seemed to be the right place, in a dark little gap off some anonymous little street.  The sort of place you’d never know existed unless you were actually looking for it.”  
This “right place” is a Dali-like world, with buildings resembling aqueducts, in a warm umber and every space is filled with weird creatures, all different but all happily together.  The boy leaves the creature there and goes “home to classify his bottle top collection”.  On the facing page we read: “Well, that’s it.  That’s the story. Not especially profound, I know, but I never said it was. And don’t ask me what the moral is.”
But the final spread shows us the boy in the tram, much like the other characters in the illustrations, sitting silently staring forward, and through a comic book-like sequence, one tram becomes three, then twenty, then sixty.  Everyone and everything is the same.  These words almost close the story:
 “I see that sort of thing less and less these days though.”
“Maybe there aren’t that many lost things around anymore.”
“Or maybe I’ve just stopped noticing them.”
“Too busy doing other stuff, I suppose.”
But in true picturebook fashion there is one more illustration: a closing page, framed like the others in physics book paper, it's one of the characters from the story, the one who encouraged the boy to look for a proper home for the Lost Thing, who gave him the card with the arrow on it, a sort of janitor-like creature.  He's cleaning the floor, as though tidying up at the end of the book.
If you look closely you'll see that Shaun Tan has stuck some special thanks to friends and colleagues on the last page, as well as reference to three artists':  Edward Hopper, John Brack and Jeffery Smart, all inspirational to his work.
Collin's Street 5pm by John Brack 1955
In particular if you look at Collin's Street 5pm by Brack, you'll notice the similarity to a street scene in Tan's picturebook. 
It's taken me days to write this post as I wanted to describe the picturebook in detail, but it's impossible.  There is so much there to look at and puzzle over that what ever I describe I am doing it an injustice.  It's a picturebook to ponder over, return to and to talk about with friends, colleagues and peers. It's perfect for teenagers, and accompanied by the film will provide excellent opportunities for discussion - but do use both the book and the film, they compliment each other - nothing beats the turning of pages and the going back and forth.  
I'm not a great Oscar fan, but isn't it fabulous that something so humungous can actually bring a delightful thing like The Lost Thing into so many more people's lives.  

There are far more picturebooks-cum-movies produced than I ever imagined.  I'm sure a number come to mind immediately ... Where the wild things are; The Polar Express are two such examples, both made into feature films. 

Here are some links which talk about picturebooks made into films: 
Small children's books have been made into full-length movies
and finally ... Trevor Cairney, whose blog I follow, also got excited about the Oscar award for The Lost Thing, and updated a post he'd already written about Tan.  Here's the link.