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, May 31, 2011

Recommendation 1: Colin and the wrong shadow

Happy birthday to you! 
Happy birthday to you! 
Happy birthday to you!
Happy birthday, dear blog!
Happy birthday to you!

For the next year I shall be featuring a picturebook recommendation from friends and colleagues once a month. This month's recommendation comes from fellow picturebook lover, Anneta Sadowska-Martyka, who lives and works in Poland.  Not only has she recommended a picturebook, but she's sent me some photos of children's work after sharing the story. 

Colin and the wrong shadow is by picturebook creator Leigh Hodgkinson, a wonderfully creative author illustrator, who is also a film maker.  She worked as the art director on the Charlie and Lola films, originally picturebooks by Lauren Child, before writing and illustrating her own picturebooks.  Colin and the wrong shadow is her second picturebook.  Leigh Hodgkinson is said to have been selected for the Charlie and Lola films, because she already used collage in her work. Working on Charlie and Lola must have had some form of influence, but her work is quite unique.
The pages in this picturebook are busy, packed with things to look at, things to follow and muse about.  The different fonts, some hand written, interact with the richly patterned shapes and images that have been carefully selected and placed on the pages.  It's an exciting book and Colin is a cool hero, a Siamese cat, whose life-like fur is a collage from a photo of a pet cat Hodgkinson had as a teenager. 
Let's start with the peritext, the front cover first.  We are introduced to Colin, who is looking up at the title of the book.  If you look at all the creatures and objects represented there you'll see each has their own shadow, except poor Colin whose shadow is all wrong!  
The back cover has a delicious looking cheese in the centre, with a bite taken out of it. It's a convenient background for the blurb. "Colin wakes up from his catnap to find he has the wrong shadow - someone must have switched - swapped.  He snoops and sniffs about for clues and shows a small friend that you don't have to be big to be brave."  The sign in the cheese says "Very yummy indeed" alongside the ISBN and bar code! His small friend, a lacey pink mouse, is peeking up from behind a cracker.  
I have the paperback edition, and there are no endpapers, instead there's a neat half title page, with a form for the reader to complete according to what kind of shadow they have.   Then the copyright and title pages, each with a mixture of handwritten and typed fonts, mix with crackers and cheese, buttons and sequins, ripped notebooks and naive-like drawings of flowers and mini-beasts.  And of course there are subtle shadows made by a shining yellow sun.  A taste of what's to come. Take a look at that dedication too, it's very special. 
Colin has been dreaming. There are three Cheerios connecting him to his dream, a delicious one where he was "... swimming in a gigantic bowl of creamy milk." But he wakes up feeling funny, "... not funny ha ha but funny peculiar.
"... for some reason he appears to have the wrong shadow!"  But he tries not to let this spoil a pleasant afternoon.  
In this comic book-like spread, we can see he has a tough time.  He is sniggered at, squeaked at and ignored.  Poor Colin. Look at the different textures Hodgkinson has used to create this spread: Flossy Fluffball, in the middle frame, really is fluffy even! It's a busy spread.  
Hodgkinson moves between double spreads, (using both left and right pages to create a whole image),  to separate facing page frames throughout the book. This verso frame is a wonderful sequence of poor Colin thinking he's turning into a mouse.  Pieces of cloth make for the different beackgrounds in this illustration. He's beginning to wonder whether he really is a mouse, especially as "... he does like the odd nibble of cheese ..."  The yellow base is actually a piece of cheese. But "... No, Colin is definitely 100% CAT", and we see him peer at a shiny watering-can to check! Poor Colin is miserable, it might be Ok if he had an elephant's shadow, but he doesn't.  Then he notices his shadow and follows it through more richly decorated pages, with wiggly sewn stitches weaving their way across the page and suddenly Colin realises... 
... the lacy pink mouse! Vernon has his shadow.   Vernon explains how it all happened and how wonderful it was having such an important "Superstar" shadow.  The illustration shows us that Vernon is a winner, now his shadow is big and powerful!
Colin wants his shadow back and Vernon makes a run for it, into his mouse hole, which by the way he had recently decorated.  
But "Uh-oh! Colin's shadow is too BIG to fit through the door."  I like the way Hodgkinson has used the two pages to represent the inside and outside of Vernon's home, which is lusciously warm in those oranges and yellows.  He's pulling with all his might, but that shadow won't fit.  Look at Vernon's furniture:  a cracker chair next to a cheese table. 
Vernon gives up.  He sits in his mouse hole door and laments: "YOU see it's JUST not EASY being a tiny pink mouse all of the time. And having Colin's marvelous shadow meant everybody took Vernon seriously for a change."   Colin knew just what it felt like to be "... sniggered at, squeaked at and ignored ...", so he suggests they forget worrying about their shadows and "... concentrate on more important things -  like having fun together.
And so they sort out the shadows.  
Hodgkinson's illustrations here are fabulous, you can feel the shadow being pulled and stretched and that ping is just perfectly pingy. 
And they have some fun together ... Vernon is happy as he has his light mouse shadow and Colin to play with and he really feels like a superstar now. They play, have a cup of tea in mouse-sized teacups, then it's time for another nap and some cheerio dreams.  Each animal comfy with his own shadow. 
Turn the page to see what the dream is... (notice the Cheerios connecting up the two images!)
We've come full circle, and we're back in that bowl of creamy milk, but this time Colin has his friend with him ... "Slurp" and their two shadows are watching the action from the rim of the bowl.  It's so much better being friends with someone and having fun than worrying about being big and tough, don't you think?  

Anneta began this picturebook by talking about shadows, when shadows appeared, long shadows, short shadows etc. She was delighted that they remembered the The Gruffalo's child during this activity.   To follow up this beautifully illustrated picturebook she asked her students to invent some silly shadows for things, based on the form on the half title page, and they had fun making sentences using their silly ideas.  Then they wrote a short story using a storyboard template and illustrated it.  Here's an quick photo of the story of a fox whose wrong shadow was a carrot!
What's missing is how old Anneta's children are ... she forgot to mention that, but they are no older than ten as this is the limit of the age group she works with.  A BIG thank you to Anneta for introducing me to Leigh Hodgkinson, I'm a fan!  And a BIG thank you for sharing. 

A final comment: if you go to Leigh Hodgkinson's website at Wonky Button  and and click on  Crafty bits, there are some great downloads, which provide excellent follow up activities to her books.  The cut out of Colin and Vernon can be used to make long and short shadows for example. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

War and peace with elephants

Tusk Tusk by David McKee continues this month's posts related to peace.   McKee is probably most known within ELT for his Elmer books.  But he's also the creator of the  Mr Benn books and films, very much part of my childhood memories. Mr Benn is a very ordinary looking banker, who wears a bowler hat,  but he has splendid adventures when he puts on different dressing up clothes, from a very special costume shop. The films were made in the 70's and I have discovered are now available on YouTube.  A truely brilliant discovery, I shall be watching them all over the next couple of weeks.  The music gives me those shivers associated with long ago memories.  Amazing!  Here's the link to Mr Benn, The Red Knight, the very first episode of the series ...  14 minutes of memory lane. 
McKee began writing and illustrating books in the 60's,  when picturebooks really began to take shape and become as we know them today.  His contemporaries are picturebook creators like John BurninghamMaurice SendakEric CarlePat Hutchins and Raymond Briggs.  
Tusk Tusk was written in 1978 and is about black and white elephants who love everything except each other. Look at the cover, those two elephants, ready for a duel, separted by a tree, the home to birds. Keep your eye on these birds as you look at the book, for the way they react to all the elephants do is entertaining!

How about the peritext?  There's a great copyright page, with a cameo illustration of two fighting elephants and the ironic caption "Vive la différence!"  The visual clues tipping us off to the violent content continue with the title page - a fluffy, feathery tree separting two very angry elephants, tusks touching. 
As you look at some of the pictuebook pages, notice McKee's use of symmetry in the illustrations, the elephants are the same in every way, like mirrors of each other, just different colours.  
"Once all the elphants in the world were black or white.  They loved all creatures"
Don't they look happy and relaxed?  At one with nature and those bird friends they each have, and the trees are soft and feather-like, the left one even has green shoots.  Harmony and peace. 
"... but they hated each other."
Yikes, not only are the elephants looking mean, with trunks like fists, but the trees do too.  The leaves are spikey, they look as though they are swaying in the heated atmosphere.  The background wash is a pinky red, the colour of danger.  The next spread,  "... and each kept to his own side of the jungle." is shown by a powerful image of trees looking like walls, the elephants on either side.  They are lined up, like an army preparing for battle.    Can you guess what will happen next? 
... of course!  War is declared and the elephants huddle together, fists raised and glaring, black at white, white at black. The birds in the trees are flying off, beaks downturned, worried.   
Peace loving elephants, (for there were some) ran into the jungle, a deep dark jungle - so deep and dark (a maze of a place in fact) and they were never seen again.  And so the battle began.  It went on ...  and on. 
These missile-like trees are excellent hiding places for the elephants whose fist-like trunks have become powerful firearms.  And, as with many terrible wars, it didn't stop until all the elephants were dead. 
Piles of black and white elephants, brought together in death, lying against feather-like palm trees, trees we associate with peace and tranquility.  And what happened next?
Grandchildren of the peace-loving elephants came out of the jungle, and guess what, they were grey (I always wondered why elephants were grey!).  They are shown leaping, trunks waving, happy and playful.  The birds are back too, they're a little perplexed possibly, but happy to see their friends the elephants again. 
"... and since then elephants have lived in peace."
Cool illustration, a calm blue background,  just the one tree, a peaceful green, with a canopy of foliage that covers all elephants, no matter what.  They are calm and relaxed too, playing with each other and their friends the birds.  Look at their trunk-like trunks, no fists or firearm images.  A happy ending? 
"But recently the little ears and the big ears have been giving each other strange looks." 
And look at those birds, they look very annoyed.  Not good.  If you go back to the cool blue illustration you'll see big ears and small ears are on both sides of the tree together, but here they are separate, their trunks are now like hands, pointing or hiding whispered gossip. The trees are different again, each leaning away from the centrefold. 
Oh dear, not a happy ending, but we are left wondering, as the very last page has a cameo illustration ...

What do you think?  Was there another war?  
It's a deceptively simple picturebook, bringing violence and peace together on a page, an excellent title for children in upper primary and lower secondary providing space for discussion around such themes as racism, prejudice and tolerance.  TeachEnglish has a set of lesson plans for this very purpose, which can be downloaded here.  And a very readable article by Janet Evans can be downlaoded from my website, scroll down and click on "War and conflict: books can help." Finally I discovered a link to a useful set of guidelines for using Tusk Tusk for Philosophical discussion.

To finish, here's a short film of David McKee talking about his childhood and his first pictures.   
Turns out he loves Paul Klee, one of my favourite artists... Castle and sun must have  influenced Elmer

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A simple story of war and peace

The Manneken Pis is a statue in Brussels of a child urinating.  Its history and origins are unclear but one of the tales told to tourists is that the statue represents a small boy who stopped a war by peeing on the enemy.   Vladimir Radunsky liked this particular story so much that he created a picturebook called,  Manneken Pis: a simple story of a boy who peed on a war.  
The front cover shows us Radunski's version of the boy doing his deed, and the back cover is a montage of a photo of the real statue, with the words ... "The people made a bronze statue of him and named it Manneken Pis. This all happened a long time ago."

Radunsky's illustrations are bold and bright, made with quick brushstrokes, done in a child-like fashion, against sparse backgrounds or sharply cut paper montages.  Really nice and eye catching.  The endpapers are striking,  and change colour from front to back.  Here are the front ones: 
Radunsky is introduced to us on the back dust jacket flap ... he's dressed in the costume of the period, a little red hat and ruffles on his jacket. It's a little strange, until you recognise him later within the story and he's also on the copyright page... he's our narrator of course! 
And so we begin, turn the page and we are introduced to the setting, "a small, beautiful town behind a stone wall."  It looks calm and serene, the poplar trees neatly placed around the town walls, houses around a big central plaza. The sun is shining.  
Throughout the picturebook Radunsky uses different sized fonts, as shown here.  They cleverly focus our attention on aspects of the narrative or the illustration. The story continues by introducing the characters, a boy, and his mother and father.  In a large font we read "His parents loved him madly."  They kiss him and play with him, and go to the flower market with him everyday...
"They were so happy."  ... in a huge big font above an exuberant page showing the family swimming in flowers.  But then something happened.  
"The War".  A mustard yellow page, a stark contrast to the light flowery one, previous.  Green faced soldiers, their tongues lolling, with dogs and medieval weapons, are seen marching across the double spread towards the idyllic  town.   They look mean. They ARE mean.  
They fight the town's men, depicted as gentlemen, clad in tights with plumed hats and carrying swords.  They are different to the club holding enemy, who seem uncouth and ignorant.  The background is divided into black and white, and gives the impression of the men being either in the town or outside the walls, at the same time reinforcing the fact that they fought "Day and night,   day and night." 
And then our narrator appears in his red hat and frilly collar, he points to the town, "... a small, sad town." ... now sombre, against a black background, two red crosses apparent on the church-like buildings.  
The little boy has lost his parents.  "Where did they go?"  He called but no one came. He looked and looked, but all he saw was fighting, all he heard was "Bang - Bang, Boom - Boom, Cling - Clang."  Poor chap.  He was scared and he needed his mum and dad ... "but he also needed ... to pee."  So he did! And here we see him urinating over the fighting soldiers.  
"Suddenly everything was still." Surprised faces look up, women and priests, men and soldiers.  Then somebody laughed ... "ha-ha-ha-ha." 
Radunsky has used that same mustard yellow, yet with all those smiling faces this yellow gives us a happy page.  Even the green faced enemies are grinning, everyone is happy! And so ... "On and on it went, until the sun has set and the first star came out, and the people had grown so tired of laughing that they dropped their arms and went to sleep.  When they woke up the next morning there was no more war.  Why? Because of that wonderful, wonderful little boy. Hurr-a-a-ah!!!
We are treated to an "Epilogue".  
We see our little boy reunited with his family; the narrator is answering questions from his audience of child and animal listeners. And of course, now you know the story, the whole story, you "... can tell it to your children, and they will tell it to their children, and their children will tell it to their children, and so on, and so on."  
The back end papers are a jovial, bright, peace-loving green ... 
... and it is here that we are introduced to our narrator, on the inside flap of the dust jacket:

What a quirky little book!  Could you use it in your classrooms?  The message of peace is clear.  Upper primary could possibly do a short project in which the students researched other statues, in their own country or other countries.  Are there any that have stories of peace behind them?  Are there any statues of children? 

It's thanks to my friend, and fellow picturebook lover, Janet Evans, who I was chatting to about 'peace' books, that I discovered this title ... Thanks Janet!

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Inspiring peace

I discovered Todd Parr recently, while preparing for a presentation about emotional development and picturebooks. I think I'm behind the times though, as Todd Parr even has a TV series.  He's a wacky chap, and I do like his child-like scribbles ... and he's a fellow dog lover too.  This is what he writes about himself: 
The Peace book is one of a whole collection of brightly coloured, smile provoking, I'd even say, inspiring picturebooks.  On the back of many of Todd's books you find a statement of intent ...
"This book is designed to:
Engage Early Literacy
Enhance Emotional Development 
Celebrate Multiculturalism
Promote Character Growth"
... Yeah!  I'd go with that!  Look at the cover of The Peace Book, a wonky world made of unidentifiable continents, surrounded by smiling faces.
Most 5 year olds draw like this, but they don't forget the noses! (I love the inclusion of the punk in glasses!)  And despite the naive look to the illustrations, they are entertaining and thought provoking. 
I have bought the paperback edition, so no exciting endpapers, but that's OK. The title page has a heavy looking multicoloured dove, flying against the bright blue, which Todd Parr likes so much, and he's dedicated the  book to the world.  
So what is Peace?  Lots of wonderful things. Parr opens with this single page ... 
But most of his definitions come in twos...
There's no double meaning in his illustrations, but they do show more than the words tell.  What kind of music are we being shown in the illustration above?  And below we are shown examples of the "different books" we can read: books about worms, food, fish, the world...
He occasionally pops in a doublespread, carefully selected to use the visual space... a nice long centipede here, each foot wearing a long awaited shoe. 
The  saturated colours of the backgrounds remind me of Jan Pienkowski's Meg and Mog books, first written in the 70's, and I do like the sparseness of many of the pages. 
And so... Peace...
Peace is thinking about someone you love, saying you are sorry when you hurt someone, helping your neighbour, planting a tree, sharing a meal, wearing different clothes, waiting for it to snow.  Peace is keeping the streets clean, offering a hug to a friend.  Peace is everyone having a home, growing a garden, taking a nap, learning another language and having enough pizza in the world for everyone ...
Peace is keeping someone warm, new babies being born, being free ...
Peace is travelling to different places, wishing on a star.  Peace is being who you are. 
Peace is an amazing thing, and its variety is what I find so useful for our ELT classrooms.  Despite the illustrations being so child-like, I'd like to suggest this can be used with students right through primary: the definitions and their illustrations will make everyone think hard and come up with several other very appropriate ones - a perfect follow up to sharing this picturebook is making a class book about Peace. 
Todd Parr very nicely completes his book with this last page...

If you are interested in some other titles, I'd recommend It's Ok to be different, but do check out his website and look at the selection of his books at The Book Depository