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.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Yellow Bird, Black Spider - a primer in individuality

Yellow Bird, Black Spider is by Dosh & Mike Archer and published by Bloomsbury Children's Books.  I came across it in an airport bookshop while on a long journey to somewhere far.  It made me giggle out loud. The Sunday Times wrote: "Not just a very funny book, but it is actually a primer in individuality."  
It's got that visual rhythm that good picturebooks have, a surprise ending and is provocative enough to get discussion going.  The front and back covers are a whole illustration.  Not exactly like any of the pages inside but almost - they're a taster of what's to come. The illustrations are quirky, a mixture of flat colours, horizontal or angled horizons and carefully placed cut and paste montages.  I like them a lot, clear and easy to see at the back of a room. 
The endpapers, both front and back are the same but for one detail, (I leave the detail for you to discover).  They show us eight of the objects which appear in the story, repeated in no particular order on the left and right sides.  They are lots of fun to return to as they act as a visual support to help children remember and retell  the story.  The leopard skin cushion will have their brains whirring!
The copyright page shows us the stripey socks from later in the story.  So, past an illustration of the two protangonists in a boat and off we go...
"Yellow Bird, blue boat" ... and we know that the bird is going sailing as we've seen her on the previous page.  
And here she is with the spider and they have a short conversation, "'Why don't you fly across the sea?' asked Black Spider. 'I like to sail, actually,' said Yellow Bird."  This is the visual-verbal format that we follow for several pages: the bird + object; page turn; the bird interacting with the object and the spider asking a question; the bird flipantly justifying her individuality. 
We see a close up of the bird and a hotel, the words tell us: "Yellow Bird, white hotel".  Turn the page and we are shown the bird lounging on cushions a very real looking strawberry milkshake being offered by a waiter, and the question is, "'Why don't you make a lovely, cosy nest?' asked Black Spider. 'I like hotels, actually,' said Yellow Bird."
"Yellow Bird, red guitar". And can you guess the spider's question?  Of course you can, for we know that birds fly, build nests and go tweet, tweet!. 
"'Why don't you sing tweet, tweet, tweet, in a beautiful way?' asked Black Spider. 'I like strumming, actually,' said Yellow Bird."  ... and she contunues:  She likes dancing on the beach, having baths, vanilla ice-cream and wearing stripy socks.  We are shown Yellow Bird in an overflowing bath with a  Mr Softy ice-cream and those stripy socks we saw earlier.
Socks hanging up to dry, (after all she got them wet while having a bath) and Spider is perplexed, "'Birds don't usually wear stripy socks,' said Black Spider." It's just too much for the Yellow Bird... and we return to the original visual-verbal rhythm, "Yellow Bird, Black Spider"; The Yellow Bird is looking at the spider and the spider is surprised, nervous even. Page turn; "'Why don't you eat some yummy, squelchy worms?' asked Black Spider.  'Actually', said Yellow Bird,"
"... I like to eat spiders."  We are shown a nonchalant Yellow Bird munching on the Black Spider, his legs are still wiggling for sure.  That did shut him up though, didn't it?  All those silly questions! 
If you go back and look at the spider in each illustration his eyes are terribly expressive, showing surprise, annoyance and fright.    And Yellow Bird looks right annoyed too! 
Those endpapers again... and what's missing?  Can you see?  
Our Yellow Bird wears stripy socks, which is unusual true, but she does all sorts of unbird-like stuff, what an unconventional thing she is! Does it matter?  She's still a Yellow Bird, much like other Yellow Birds, who may fly across oceans, make nests and go tweet, tweet - but they all eat annoying Black Spiders!  

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

My nose, your nose - celebrating individuality

One of the picturebooks I read to all my pre-school groups, no matter what, is My nose, your nose by Melanie Walsh... and in preparing this blog post I discover that it's not that easy to get hold of: only second hand copies available through Amazon.co.uk and hardback editions at The Book Depository.  But I'll post about it all the same. 
In addition to the message this picturebook carries, I think what I like about this particular title is the bright bold colours and the structural rhythm, which is very visual. 
The cover is fabulous, those two faces, simply outlined looking at each other and the title fitting snugly just above their noses.  On the back it says:  "Arthur's nose turns up. Agnes's nose turns down. But they both like the smell of chocolate cake. Spot the differences and similarities between people in this celebration of individuality." 
There's no exciting peritext and we open immediately onto the title page, showing us another of the  characters we are going to meet inside ... We know about Arthur and Agnes, and here's  Kit and later we'll meet Daisy - Negro, Caucasian, boys, girls, tall, short, curly hair, straight hair, blue eyes, green eyes - they are all different but the same too. Let's see how Walsh helps us discover this important lesson in life.
Here's Daisy in all her glory.  "Daisy's skin in brown." Those hot colours and the beach scene are natural associations to the brown skin ... I love her sun glasses!
"Agnes's skin is white."   As white as her porcelain bath, which we can see her peeking out of.  And the pink background is another association to pale skin.   "But ..." 
 "... they both have cheeky pink tongues!"  They certainly do!  
And so our celebration of individuality continues. "Arthur's hair is brown and straight." It's easy to comb, and there's a comb in view.  "Kit's hair is black and curly."  No comb in site, just a bobble hat which keeps him warm.  "But ... they both hate washday!" Poor Kit and Arthur, shampoo on their heads, glumly staring out at the reader.  
"Arthur's nose turns up. Agnes's nose turns down."  You can almost smell the cheese and socks! Yuck!  We aren't told they don't like the smells, just shown this information.  But then we are shown and told what they like smelling, emphasising the similarity. Yummy, delicious chocolate cake!
The above is a great little sequence, "Daisy has short legs.  Kit has long legs." ... and we have to turn the page over so that Kit's legs fit in.  This is a trick we saw in Small Mouse BIG CITY.  The inclusion of the kitten on each page  is a nice comparison too, she's looking up at Kit, he is BIG! 
So we've seen Daisy and Agnes, Kit and Arthur, Arthur and Agnes, Daisy and Kit.  There's a nice rhythm here, the two children shown as different, each on different spreads, then brought together with a similarity onto one spread.   Melanie Walsh uses this rhythmic, visual structure to reinforce her message, which culminates in bringing all four children together. We see a pair of children on the same spread, peeking out at us from under bed sheets.  "Agnes has blue eyes.  Kit's eyes are brown."  "Arthur has grey eyes. Daisy's are green. But ..."
Ahh!  That is so nice, and what a great way to end!  My pre-school kids usually pretend to go to sleep too and then quickly call out, "Again!".   We read this book several times over and then find things we like and dislike and similarities and differences.  

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Small Mouse BIG CITY: an authorstrator at work

Yesterday was International Children's Book Day and I didn't manage to co-ordinate my post, but better late than never.  Here's the IBBY page with the yearly posters and messages from different countries, they make interesting reading, so do follow the links. 
Small Mouse BIG CITY is a picturebook by Simon Prescott, a new illustrator on the block, well not that new, but fairly new!  He's an example of what Martin Salisbury would call an "authorstrator" (2008): he comes from the world of fine art, and creates picturebooks - both the words and the pictures.  He took the MA in Children's Book Illustration at the Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, and he would have been one of Martin Salibury's students.  The course is churning out some really interesting picturebook creators, and Simon Prescott is one of them! He was nominated as one of the best emerging illustrators in 2009 by the Book Trust Early Years Awards, who described the picturebook like this: 
The atmospheric quality of the illustrations – dizzying impressions of light, space, movement and colour – and the inventive page layouts capture Country Mouse's breath-taking first-timer's experience of the city in this visually absorbing re-telling of Aesop's fable.
Small Mouse BIG CITY is a sort-of-version of The town mouse and the country mouse, the well known Aesop fable, but it it only features half the story: the country mouse visiting the city bit of the story.  
The format is interesting, it's a long book and incorporates Prescott's wonderful wide-angle illustrations brilliantly. The front cover shows us a tiny mouse in the city, with huge human legs walking quickly along the pavement, rubbish as big as the mouse at their feet, and a floating bit of litter with Simon Prescott's name on it.  The mouse is asking for help and it's quite a worrying illustration, as no one is taking any notice of him. The title fonts visually support the concept of big and small, using lower and upper case letters, and in different fonts: smaller, more fragile looking lower case and big strong upper case. The back cover gives us a peek of what's inside,  a series of illustrations from the mouse's adventures inside, accompanied by a wordy blurb.  
The endpapers are a dark evening outline of a city.  Nice!  The title page is also deliciously full of all sorts of information important to the narrative sequence. (It reminds me a little of the title page in Wolves by Emily Gravett.)
You can see all sorts related to the story, much of which you only pick up once you've read it through.  Could this be some of the paraphernalia Mouse brings back from his trip?  A city map, bus tickets, a postcard, the invitation letter from his friend, (great address by the way!) a photo of the cheese he saw (maybe even some cheese crumbs as a souvenir?), some photo-booth shots of his friend (you can just see  a tuft of his mousey hair above the postcard) ... lots to wonder about.  And of course the publisher info is there too, on a wafting piece of paper. 
Prescott's illustrations are lovely.  On his website he says he uses all sorts of mediums, but it's the crayon here that I love (I'm a pencil crayon devotee!), coupled with the washes of colour.  Really lovely and they capture both the country and city scenes magnificently. 
Here's Mouse sitting on a tree reading that letter we just saw, the vast green fields below, peaceful and idyllic. We see these fields through the train window as he journey's to the city, the scarf we see on the branch above, tightly wound round his neck.  "His heart raced, as the countryside swept by in a blur of leafy green." All we can see is the mouse peering through the train window, and the red train really does look like it's speeding! 
Then suddenly... WOW! 
There we are, in the city.  Yikes!  We have to turn the book around, as it's portrait format, and it's such a shock.  It's a different world.   "The city took his breath away."  And it took mine away too! Very clever Mr Prescott! Then we return to the landscape format for those wide-angle shots of the vastness of the city...
... where the Country's Mouse's feeling of loneliness and concern builds ...
"The streets all looked the same ... strange ... dark ..."
"...  and dangerous!"
This sequence of illustrations is delicious, with the middle one made of four separate frames, almost rushing us along, making our heart beat quicker, and to stop when we turn the page and see that frightening traffic.   But as in all good page turners, cliff-hangers even ... our Country Mouse is saved, as his friend turns up just in time.   The colours change from dark bluey black to a light yellowy orange and "Suddenly the city didn't feel so strange".  We see the mouse friends walking arm and arm through the more friendly city, jabbering away. "'You'll love it here,' said City Mouse."  (The page in the book shows the mice at a window looking over the city, with a city landscape much like the one we saw in the endpapers.)  And of course Country Mouse did love it! 
"The city was amazing! The city was intoxicating! The city was magnificent!" 
But as he sat with his friend, admiring the expanse of the many rooftops,  he catches a glimpse of the green fields, his green fields, and he suddenly feels sad. He misses his countryside, and so he returns.  "He loved City Mouse and he loved the city.  But it was time to go home."  City Mouse waves good bye at the train station, he's holding his friend's scarf, (a thank you gift maybe?)  ...  and Country Mouse returns to his green, tranquil countryside. 
"There's just no place like home."  
(Absolutely! I get that feeling too when I go on trips.  I see amazing things, but I love getting home.) And look!  Can you see all the stuff he brought back?  Some cheese as a souvenir, postcards, there's a map in the bag, and a cloud-full of wonderful memories.  Nice! The shot from above works really well too, you can almost imagine the camera at the end of a film moving out and showing the field as one of many, then the towns and cities, and more fields and forests and the sea and whole continents and then the world.  Little Country Mouse in his field happy in his place in the world. 

Good little, BIG story huh?  Children will be mesmerised by the illustrations, and will be caught up in the heart-stopping, first impressions of the city.  The different perspectives will also help them feel empathy, though looking at big things from small places is something they are familiar with! And a followup could be talking about the city and the countryside and the different experiences.

I found an interesting CBeebies film on YouTube.  Small Mouse BIG CITY is read by David Tennant.  He does read it well, in his lovely Scottish accent, but the pages they selected from the picturebook, to accompany his storytelling, are disappointing.  But it's another version your children could listen to. 

Here's the reference to "authorstrators": Salisbury, M. (2008) The artist and the postmodern picturebook, in: L. Sipe & S. Pantaleo (Eds) Postmodern Picturebooks: play, parody and self-referentiality (New York, Routledge).