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.

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!

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