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.

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.


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