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.

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).

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