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.

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.


Lucia said...

Hi, Sandie
Thank you again for your amazing good post! I agree with you about the book (and Shaun Tan - he's another of my favourite authors- I have some of his books) and I have the Lost Thing book but didn't know about the film (I'm not a fan of the Oscar's but it's good when there are such good news!) So, I was trying to go to the link and it didn't work for me: How can i get it (I mean, a copy of the DVD)..
about Shaun Tan's books - I've suggested the Arrival, The Lost Thing and the Red Tree to teachers doing a master in Visual Arts but focusing on sociological approaches and some of them said they were depressing issues!! But real as in Red Tree the loliness of the girl or the complex situations pictured on the Arrival! Do you know about research (I'm sure you do) that was done with children - 10-12 years old with this one- the Arrival, for example Arizpe (see http://www.ibbycompostela2010.org/descarregas/11/11_IBBY2010_19.pdf) and how they find associations with their lives!!Just to say the amazing potential of picture books (and how DVDs can make it extra chalanging and maybe easier -as it's known that moving images "catch" eyes and minds - and it can be complemented with the book! So, thank you Sandie your post gave me more ideas!

Sandie Mourão said...

Hi Lucia!
Thanks for your comments, it's good to get your enthusiasm.
I've checked the link in Tan's website to purchase the film and you are right, a dead end. So this is how I got to their catalogue: http://www.madman.com.au/catalogue/view/13969/the-lost-thing
Yes, Tan's books touch on themes which really are quite difficult but you are right, they are real issues, which we need to talk about.
I am familiar with the work of Arizpe, similar research has taken place in the US, in Spain and in Australia. It will be published in a collection of articles from a picturebook conference in Glasgow last September 2009 http://www.gla.ac.uk/picturebooks/
You, and others who enjoy Tan's work, might be interested in an article which I read recently in a Telling Children's Stories edited by Michael Cadden
http://www.combinedacademic.co.uk/catalogue.asp?ex=fitem&target=9780803215689&fmt=f called, Perceiving The Red Tree. An excellent discussion around how Tan has succeeded in producing a picturebook which requires active reading by making sense of unconventional formats and sequences.
Shaun Tan is a master :-)

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Sandie,

This is an excellent post. It has been wonderful to see Shaun's work recognised internationally. Thanks also for the link to my blog.

Best wishes,


Sandie Mourão said...

Thank you for popping by Trevor, and for commenting.
Yes, Shaun Tan's work really is special and it has inspired a number of articles and research projects. I also hope that teachers are discovering the possibilities his work gives students for thinking and speaking, especially in the world of ELT.