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.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Recommendation 3: On the road with Mavis and Marge

Front cover 
Niamh Sharkey  is an Irish author illustrator, and her award winning picturebook, On the road with Mavis and Marge,  has been recommended by Ana Rasteiro, a primary English teacher who works with me here in Portugal. 
I am familiar with one or two of Niamh Sharkey's picturebooks - I've got  I'm a happy Hugglewug, and The Gigantic Turnip.  The latter has been recommended by another colleague in Spain, so I'll write about it another day!  Her illustrations are fun and colourful, but change quite a bit between picturebooks, the three titles I've mentioned here are all different.   On the road ... mixes occasional collage with an illustrative style you might associate with cool sets of coffee mugs - I think the illustrations were originally painted with oil, at least in an interview Sharkey says that's her favourite medium. She's also an admirer of Tove Jansson's The Moomins 
Thelma & Louise 1991
But let's get back to On the road ... Mavis is a cow and Marge is a chicken, and together they go where no animal has gone before!  They have great adventures, but eventually decide that home is the place to be.  On the front cover Marge the chicken reminds me of Louise, in the film Thelma and Louise  with Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis - those sun glasses and her polka dot head scarf are almost the same! 
As usual I've got the paperback edition, and there are no endpapers as such, though the inside of the front and back cover is red with little white dots, just like Marge's headscarf on the front cover.  
Copyright and title page
On the copyright and title pages the mass of writing drew my attention to the font, called Kingthings Trypwriter. As we go through the picturebook its quirky hand typed letters mix nicely with some hand-written font.  You'll notice that the lower case f, i, and n have little shadows. Fun illustrations on the copyright page too... And once again we see Mavis and Marge, no ordinary cow and chicken for they have handbags and books under their arms. 
Opening 1
The first opening introduces our characters:  Mavis is shown in the verso illustration, looking eagerly out at the world, Marge is busy reading a book.  The words on the recto tell us that Mavis is "different to other cows" and that Marge is "smarter than your average chicken", if you go back to the verso illustration, you'll see the other cows and the average chicken in the back ground!  Great image of Mavis and Marge on the collage mountain top. 
Opening 2

The second spread uses multiple cartoon-like frames, giving us a sequence of events to see and read about.  "They knew there was a world out there waiting to be explored" say the words, and the picture shows us that Marge has discovered this in her book.  So they take the bike from the barn and off they go! The next spread is a wonderful double page illustration, of the two friends on their adventure.  Marge is giving directions!
Opening 3
Can you guess what happens? In comic strip fashion we are taken through the sequence of events that leads them to their encounter with Clarence, a friendly rabbit, "out for a spin in his car."
Opening 4
Off they go with Clarence, and we see another double spread of the three of them tootling along happily. Then another spread with separate shots of the different places they visit, going "uphill ... downhill... through puddles ... over bridges ... through the forest ... all the way to the ocean."  My favourite is this little cameo, using a map of somewhere in Ireland (yep, I checked the name, it's from County Antrim, N. Ireland) 
Close up from opening 6
And so they arrive at the ocean and crash, they hit a bollard, but "What luck!  They landed in Benny's boat!"   "Welcome aboard!" say's Benny!  And off they go … in a tiny yellow boat.  Mavis is green, but Marge has great sea legs! Where are they going can you see? 
Opening 8
The South Pole of course! Home of penguins and in particular Albert, who's an adventurous penguin about to fly to the moon!  "Ready? Stead?  Blast off!" Mavis and Marge, Clarence, Benny and Albert arrive on the moon, where they bounce around with green faced aliens, and all's well, until ... 
Opening 12
They look to into space and see planet Earth, blue and green in all its glory.  "I want to go …" "HOME!" say Mavis and Marge. "Hmmmm?" says the alien, what is this thing called home? And so they all went home, from the moon  back to earth and Mavis and Marge say "Goodbye" to their new friends and cycle back to the farm. 
Opening 14
And what a welcome they get!  Mavis and Marge both agree that "Home!" "It is the best place to be!"  If you look at Opening 1 again you'll see that the farm is called "Home Farm"! But that's not the end, turn the page and you'll see they have a visitor!  He's come to find out what "Home" is!
Back verso
Ana discovered this picturebook at a book fair in Lisbon.  She was playing with transport words with a group of pre-school children and it was the theme that caught her attention, as well as the fun illustrations and the fantasy storyline.  She didn't do anything special with the picturebook, she just read it to the children several times.  But that is special, and very often overlooked!  Children need to be read to for the sake of being read to, forget the linguistic focus or pre- during- and after- storytelling activities! Just enjoy the sharing of a picturebook together. She described the children's responses as they saw the different types of transport and they were able to call out the names in English.  They loved the bizarre occurrences and the trip to the moon, and of course they all empathized with Mavis and Marge when they realised that home was the best place to be. And as I've mentioned in previous posts, the children recognized the speech bubbles as visual representations of the spoken word and wanted them to be read.  And they all enjoyed saying "Hello" with the alien at the end!  

Thanks to Ana for recommending such a fun book, loved it! And don't think it's just for pre-school, primary aged children learning English as a foreign language, up till about 8 years old, would enjoy this picturebook I think, and if you go to this link, you can download some fun activities: cut out and colour Mavis and Marge, write a postcard, complete an alien, colour a space rocket. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Blending in

Halibut Jackson is a book I came across by chance and I’m much taken by the illustrations, done by David Lucas, who is both author and illustrator of this lovely book.  It was his first picturebook and won instant acclaim. 

Close up of illustration
There’s something unfinished about the illustrations, though to be honest I can’t work out why, as each page is packed full of pattern and design - it’s like walking into an Aladin’s cave, all bright and sparkly with loads to look at.  It also reminds me of a page of tattoos, again not sure why, maybe it’s the inky outlines? Look at this close up of one of David Lucas’ sketches, found on the back verso page of my paperback edition.  It’s got a lovely scratchy feeling to it, I suppose from the quality of paper he uses.  It absorbs the ink - I love it. 
The front cover presents our protagonist, though we’d not see him if it wasn’t for those scratchy lines, his yellow suit blends in with that jewel-like sun.  A nice contrast to the patterned foreground, covered in wild flowers.  Goodness, even the birds wear decorated hats! 
Open the book and you are greeted by a flowery set of endpapers ...
Front endpapers
... flowers from another world, leading our eyes towards a yellow archway, and there’s Halibut Jackson again, can you see him?  He’s the colour of the sky.
Copyright, dedication and title pages
On the title page, he's blending in with the bricks in the wall.  I love the decorated frame, like cut gold.  We already know quite a bit about Mr Jackson don't we?  He likes blending in and seems to have a lot of different suits.  I wonder if he makes them himself? Let’s see shall we?
Opening 1
Can you see Halibut Jackson?  He’s leaning against the wall in his red brick suit, and what a lot of movement all around. It’s such a dramatic illustration, all that red, and Mr Jackson is in the middle of it all.  Great composition. And from the words we learn that …

“Halibut Jackson was shy.
Halibut Jackson didn’t like to be noticed.
Halibut Jackson liked to blend into the background.”
We'd picked up on that hadn't we?  Poor chap, can't be easy.  He has a suit for all the different places he visits. Before we turn the page I'd like to talk about the way many of the double spreads in this picturebook work visually.  In almost all the illustrations there is a frame, which contains some of the objects, but not all.  From the left verso objects either rush out of or rush into the frame.  In Opening 1 there are objects rushing out. It’s an interesting technique and gives the illustrations a surreal feel to them - there’s an impossibility to Halibut’s world, we are neither in it nor out of it. 
Back to the story, but look out for those frames! Turn the page and we can see some of his different suits.  He has  a suit for the park, a flowery suit. Can you see him?  
Opening 2
Keep turning.  He has a suit for the supermarket which blends with the red apples; a suit for the library, that blends with the books.  Each spread is full of things to look at and each spread contains that in and out framed composition.
“But mostly Hallibut Jackson stayed indoors.”
Opening 5
This is a wonderfully decorated spread, the perspective is all out and the yellow carpet acts as the frame, outlining the room, keeping Halibut safe, and the highly decorated furniture on the verso page is tumbling over the line.   Can you see his photo on the table?  He really is shy!
Then one day Halibut Jackson received an invitation to a "Grand Birthday Party" at the Palace.  How wonderful. But Halibut Jackson is shy and he “Certainly didn’t go to parties.  What a shame.”
As in all good stories it came to him in a dream - He’d make a suit, not just any suit, "a suit of silver and gold, covered in jewels."  People won't notice him for sure, for palaces have lots of gold and silver and jewels! 
Opening 9
But how wrong he was, it was a Palace Garden Party.  Yikes!  Poor Halibut. And of course everyone noticed him.  
Opening 10
He looked so very fine. So fine that they all wanted suits of their own!
And so Halibut made a suit for the Queen and the King, for everyone in fact. He opened a shop, a clothes shop of course, and filled it with suits of all kinds.  Can you see some of them?  And even though he was still very shy, it didn’t matter. He had lots of friends and was always very busy.
Opening 12
And when we turn to the endpapers, we see those extravagant flowers again, and the same yellow arch, but Halibut Jackson isn’t blending in, he looks quite different to his surroundings in a smart blue and white striped suit.  It’s Ok to be noticed after all.
Back endpapers
What a wonderful picturebook.  The illustrations are terribly detailed, so it wouldn't work too well in a large class, but if you leave the book in the class library children will be able to browse and scrutinize, and come to all sorts of understandings about what they see. 

Halibut Jackson's suit is always the same shape, so a nice activity would be to create an outline for the suit and have children draw Halibut blending in pictures, with Halibut in different scenes wearing his special suit.   What would he wear at school? At a football match? To the beach? To a wedding? At the school canteen? 

A Halibut Jackson hat competition would be fun too.  He's got some pretty amazing ones in his shop.  

And of course there's the message about being shy. It's OK to be shy and Halibut shows us how we can overcome our shyness. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

A feisty princess!

Front cover

If you are looking for a pink princess story, the kind where prince meets princess and they live happily ever after, then look elsewhere!  Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole is quite different, she's a feisty little miss, who wants to do stuff her way and really couldn't be bothered with princes!
It's a great little picturebook, and thoroughly funny, even if you're a boy!  But what makes this particular picturebook so special is the way the pictures and words together create the humour and irony, which the words alone just can't reach.  You really do have to take in the words and the pictures, rather like Rosie's Walk, it's a 1+1=3 picturebook!
The peritextual features do well at preparing us for our spirited princess.  On the front cover she is shown riding a motorbike, in her leather bike gear, a dino on her back seat. Can you see the number plate?  HRHSP - Her royal Highness Smarty Pants - do help your students with this joke!  
Page 1
Upon opening the book, there's a great family crest on page 1, with more of those dinos and a big fat frog.  "Smartypantus rulus O.K.us" is the family moto!   
Title page and copyright
The title page shows our princess marching steadfastly into the book, leading a mummy dino and four babies, pets maybe?
Princess Smartypants is a typical 32 page picturebook, made up of the occasional double spread but mostly verso and recto illustrations.  There's no rhythm or pattern to how they appear, but there is a definite pattern to how the words tell us one thing and the pictures show us something quite different, at times expanding on the words, other times actually giving different bits of information.
Opening 1
The verso here tells us that "Princess Smartypants did not want to get married. She enjoyed being a Ms. " the pictures show us what fun she has being a Ms!  Lying on the floor, watching horse-riding programmes, surrounded by her pets and recently discarded litter.  And in recto just look at those boggled eyes princes, all captivated by her golden locks and painted nails!  
Opening 2
But all Princess Smartypants wants to do is "live in her castle and do exactly as she pleases."  And of course the pictures so us what this entails!
The problem starts when the Queen says she has to sort herself out and get a husband.  Poor King looks quite battered at the Queen's side - I'd guess he probably wishes his daughter would stay as she was! However this doesn't stop the constant stream of princes, which continue the story.
From here on princess Smartypants gives each prince a task, which often relates to his name - weird and wonderful names, which will mostly likely be lost on your students, so do explain them! On each page or spread the words tell us what the task is and the pictures show us how each prince failed. This is how the ironic humour works at its best.
Opening 4
"She asked Prince Compost to stop the slugs eating her garden."  And poor Prince Compost is shown being frightened by the giant slugs! And so it continues with Prince Rushforth and Prince Pelvis; Prince Boneshaker and Prince Vertigo - poor chap is asked to climb a tower! Prince Bashthumb doesn’t manage to collect firewood, and Prince fetlock is kicked out of the picture, literally! Great use of frame breaking in the verso illustration below. 
Opening 8
And Prince Grovel is just hilarious going shopping with a very large Queen! Last comes Prince Swimbladder and he too fails his task.
But wait! What about Prince Swashbuckle?  A dashing young prince, who manages to successfully complete each of the tasks.  
Opening 11
Once again the words remind us of the what  had to be done and the pictures show us how Prince Swashbuckle creatively managed to do it. And here he is: a very clever prince, waiting smugly for Princess Smartypants to kiss him on the cheek.  
Opening 13
But look at those ellipses: 
Opening 14
Ha, ha, ha! Princess Smartypants turns him into a frog, and she lives happily ever after, no longer bothered by princes, who are frightened of her now!

Gail Ellis and Jean Brewster included this picturebook in their well-known resource book, Tell it again! The new storytelling handbook for primary teachers.  But sadly they make no mention in the introduction of the clever use of illustrations to create the humour that makes this book so special.  Instead there is a focus on the words, with lots of activities to expand on what a typical prince and princess are like or to match what the different princes are asked to do. There is an activity, which uses a substitution table to help children describe why the princes couldn't complete their tasks, and another which helps students describe how creative Prince Swashbuckle was, all information they can only get from looking at the illustrations, so that's good!

I'd also suggest that children be told that the words and pictures give different bits of information, and that when they are seen together they are much funnier.    I'd help the children look for how the pictures contradict the words. Upon re-reading children don't need to be told again, they will have understood, and will talk and comment about the humour they can create by making 1+1=3!

Another focus Ellis and Brewster give to their activity set is related to gender stereotypes, and this is an important aspect of books like Princess Smartypants, but isn't she being a little mean and hard hearted?  Poor Prince Swashbuckle, he did so well to complete all the tasks, wasn't she rather rude to turn him into a frog?  This could be quite a good discussion, and boys in particular may feel rather trodden on after seeing what happens to all the princes, so give them a chance to voice their concerns! 

Finally there's a great film on YouTube of Babette Cole reading Princess Smartypants.  A lovely way to engage the children if you have a class set of books, so they can look at the picturebook and listen to Ms Cole as she happily reads the story!

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

A fishy exuberance

Front cover
Hooray for Fish!  is nothing  but exuberant!   Written and illustrated by Lucy Cousins, the creator of Maisy Mouse, it is such a fun picturebook, with wonderfully bright illustrations and in her well known gouache style, of large blocks of colour outlined in black.  Cousins also does all the characteristic lettering by hand.  
The edition I have comes with a DVD read by Emilia Fox.  It's a nice addition to the picturebook, but certainly couldn't replace it. I love anything with fish in it, so I'm biased, but this is one of my favourites. 
Blue is predominant - it's an underwater setting after all!  But the blues are different in hue, some are baby blue others are more turquoise, and some pages are almost green.  It's nice to just flick through and see all the different shades. 
It's a concept book in rhyme, using colours and adjectives and some opposites, so for ELT that's a good reason to use it!  But to be honest share this one for the visually exciting experience it gives your young students, together with the lovely rhythmic text.  It's truely brilliant. 
Let's take a look at all the different bits.  Front and back cover are one big illustration, showing us a big spotty fish, in orange and yellow with stripy fins and tail.  Big fish is smiling at a little fish, who's just the same.  The blurb on the back reads: "Splosh, splash, splish! Hooray for fish! Swim with Little Fish and all his fishy friends in this splishy-spalshy riot of colour and rhyme under the sea." Let's go swimming then ...
Front endpapers
Splash... into the underworld.  The front endpapers show us the world Little Fish lives in, there's that baby blue and some very interesting sea plants and corals. Lovely.  No fish though. 
Title page and copyright
And here's Little Fish looking very tiny alongside the wavey plant.  He's turned to the right, the direction in which we have to turn the page to meet all his fishy friends. 
Opening 1
I love those sea plants, wavy and stripy and so colourful.  What a wonderful world Little Fish lives in. Let's meet some of his friends. 
Opening 2
Here are some of his colourful, funny friends.  Little Fish's world is full of diversity.  There are spotty fish and stripy fish, happy fish and grumpy fish, all clearly exactly that - the grumpy fish not only has a turned down mouth but he's brown and black, weighted down with a heavy head and small fins, nothing jovial about him at all.  Grumpy has become gripy in the US edition. 
Opening 5
Here's a nice page with the numbers decorating each fish, as though they have different scales.  Upon turning the page, the simplicity of three white fish is contrasted with a page full of multicoloured ones and enables small children to have fun with their counting, as well as discover some funny fish. Can you see two fruity fish?  
Opening 6
From here on Little Fish's world is ever more creative.  An ele-fish, a big grey fish with a trunk, a shelly fish, a sort of squid in a shell, Hairy fish and scary fish, and then ...
Opening 9
... these lovely rhyming fish!  No mistaking what these fish are!  On we swim, past fat fish and thin fish, twin fin-fin fish, two wonderfully colourful fish with large peacock-like fins and tails. "Curly whirly, twisty twirly ... "
Opening 13
"So many friends, so many fish, splosh, splash, splish!"  Leaf fish, horse fish, fishes with hearts and stars and peacock tails.  Long thin ones, spiky ones, flat ray like ones and sea plants with red heart shaped leaves... 
And then, little fish is suddenly all alone.  "Where's the one I love the best, even more than all the rest?" 
Opening 16
Here she is!  It's Mummy Fish! "Kiss, kiss, kiss, hooray for fish!"  And if we turn the page one more time, the back endpapers remind us just how exuberant this lovely book is!
Back endpapers
All the fish that Little Fish encountered are here on the back endpapers.  There's the ele-fish, and the twin fin-fin fish, the grumpy fish and the hairy fish.  All together with Little Fish and Mummy Fish.  It's really is a Hooray for Fish book!

Now how cool was that?  Children love it, and want it again and again.  They pick up the rhyming words really easily and  chant along with you as you share it with them.  And if you want you can do all sorts of fun arty activities related to fish.  Fishy underworld scenes, inventing wild and wonderful fish, making a daddy fish for Little Fish, and maybe even some brothers and sisters!  
There's a very complete set of activities on the Walker Books page which can be downloaded here and adapted for varied ELT contexts. 

If you haven't got the the DVD you can use the YouTube version of the film, and you and your children can tell the story when the music stops! The music is fun and calypso-like and accompanies Little Fish on his encounters with his fishy friends - trumpets sound when he meets the ele-fish and the music becomes slow and sad when he meets the grumpy fish.  

If you like Lucy Cousins you may also like an earlier post about the picturebook I'm the best.