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, October 01, 2011

The house that crack built

Front cover
Not long ago a friend and colleague asked me if I knew this picturebook, The house that crack built by Clark Taylor and Jan Dicks.    I didn't, was intrigued and ordered it. 
My recent focus on traditional songs and rhymes is an excellent background for this particular title, which takes the familiar children's nursery rhyme, This is the house that Jack built  and turns it into a thought provoking picturebook about the drug trade and cocaine addition. What's so clever about taking such a topic and creating a picturebook is the wider audience it reaches. Children in primary can understand the simple text and look at and question the illustrations. Older students, teens and young adults, can use both the words and illustrations as a spring board for deeper, more thought provoking discussion. Its cumulative rhyme has a hip-hop beat to it, which again makes it very suitable for teens. The house that crack built was published nearly twenty years ago with the intention of helping children understand how to make the right choice about drugs. The proceeds of sales go towards drug education, prevention and rehabilitation programs that specifically help children.  
Le Rêve by Pablo Picasso (1932)

Let's take a look at the illustrations. The front cover depicts the street where it all happens. The two more realistic figures reappear in the picturebook on the title page and on the afterword page.  They aren't actually characters from the visual narrative, but possibly represent the children this picturebook is written to help. Children with nothing to do, children whose parents aren't around much, shoeless children in an urban setting. The pale figures in the wall mural, separated by the symbolic crack, hang as though in mid-air, their skin pale and sickly, their faces stylistically reminiscent of cubism.  There's a well-known portrait by Picasso called Le Rêve (The dream), shown here on the right, where we can see some similarities to the way the faces have been painted by the illustrator. The dislocated head position is seen again in some of the later illustrations, representative of being high. In the foreground, the gutter is full of cigarette ends or stubs from left over joints.
The endpapers are scattered with  coca leaves.

As we begin the rhythmic cumulative verbal text, the story reveals itself line by line on the verso, with the illustrations facing, on the recto: square illustrations with a white boarder, or frame, around them.  
Opening 1: "This is the House that crack built"
A framed illustration is supposed to have a psychological affect on the viewer, we look at it detached and unemotionally.  Do these framed illustrations make us feel detached? This particular illustration could be any beautiful mansion in a hot country, but the words make us rethink and its affluence takes on a different meaning. 
Opening 2: "This is the Man, who lives in the House that crack built"
We are shown the man who lives in the house:  a sleek, clean cut individual, with an original Matisse, La Nu Rose (1935), hanging on his wall.  The causal sequence continues, introducing us to the soldiers who guard the man, dark eyed men with rifles over their shoulders. Then the farmers who collect the coca leaves ...
Opening 4: "These are the Farmers who work in the heat and fear the Soldiers, who guard the Man, who lives in the House that crack built"
Many of the illustrations in this little picturebook contain unusual perspectives: in opening 4 we have  a close-up of the Farmer, but we can't see his eyes.  The poor woman with no shoes is only shown from the legs down: faceless in the sequence of events.  
In the next illustration we are shown the coca plant against a sunny blue sky, a pretty plant ...
Opening 5: "These are the Plants that people can't eat, raised by the Farmers who work in the heat and fear the Soldiers who guard the Man who lives in the House that crack built." 
... but as the verbal text emphasises the people can't eat it, it feeds no-one, instead it's made into cocaine and exchanged for large sums of money in the the streets of the civilized world. 
Opening 7: "This is the Street of a town in pain that cries for the Drug known as cocaine, made from the Plants that people can't eat, raised by the Farmers that work in the heat and fear the Soldiers that guard the Man who lives in the House that crack built." 
This illustration shows us what it's like in the street.  Seen through a window, a faceless woman holding a baby. Outside, an anguished woman is banging her head on the wall, a man with an upside-down head, high - the cigarette or joint ends separating the foreground figure form those in the background.   
We next meet "the Gang, fleet and elite" then the "Cop working his beat".  
Opening 9: "This is the Cop working his beat, who battles the Gang, fleet and elite, that rules the Street of a Town in pain ..."
We encounter a "Boy feeling the heat" who sells the "Crack that numbs the pain" ...
Opening 12: "This is the Girl who's killing her brain, smoking the Crack that numbs the pain, bought from the Boy feeling the heat ..."
We are shown woman, smoking. Her head too is upside down, her belly is large - is she pregnant? And then we are shown "the baby with nothing to eat, born of the girl who's killing her brain...".  Finally ...
Opening 14
"And these are the Tears we cry in our sleep
that fall for the Baby with nothing to eat,
born of the Girl who's killing her brain,
smoking the Crack that numbs the pain,
bought from the Boy feeling the heat,
chased by the Cop working his beat,
who battles the Gang, fleet and elite,
that rules the Street of a town in pain
that cries for the Drug known as cocaine,
made from the Plants that people can't eat,
raised by the Farmers who work in the heat
and fear the Soldiers who guard the Man 
who lives in the House that crack built."

"This is a book about choices." writes Michael Pritchard in the afterword, "... the author used his poetic voice to remind us the problem is out there. The illustrator used her artistic vision to bring the tragic nature of the problem powerfully alive. And the publisher chose to blend these visions into a book and use its profits (...) to help fight the problem.  Together they have created a tool that can be used to open discussion and to help children learn to make the right choices. Together they have reminded us that in small and personal ways each of us has the power to change the world."

It is indeed a very powerful, though physically small, book and one I am certain can be used with teenagers and young adults in ELT contexts.  I hope that in sharing this title, I have encouraged some teachers to  take up the challenge. 


Simon Smith said...

Sandie: I'm a big fan of your blog, and think this is a fantastic posting.

It's really got me thinking...

Sandie Mourão said...

Hi Simon!
Thanks for sending in a message and for the compliment. Much appreciated. Also really pleased this particular picturebook has got you thinking. Picturebooks are truely amazing things and take language learning into a whole new dimension in particular for older learners. I shall be using this picturebook in workshops for teachers of teenagers, (I have two coming up soon). I'll let you know what happens, and if you decide to use it in your teacher training context, do let me know the outcome.
May you not be the only one who is thinking!

Graham Stanley said...

This looks like a very interesting book, Sandie - thanks for making us aware of it.

I hope you don't mind me asking, but, as an aside, I wondered while reading the post, about your use of images from books on your blog.

Do you ask publishers for permission to reproduce the pages/illustrations? Or are you assuming that because your blog is good publicity for the books, then this is 'fair use'?

If so, have you ever been contacted by publishers who don't like you using the images from their books?

Thanks again,


Sandie Mourão said...

Hi Graham,
Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you like this picturebook.
In answer to your question re the images. I've not asked permission, and I've not been contacted by a publisher yet. I do take the stand that I am promoting the books that I feature and hope they see it that way too. I know my blog would not have the same impact if the images weren't there, but I do wait with bated breath after each post :-)


Thanks so much for posting about this book. I must get a copy for myself as I think it will generate deep discussion among students. A good companion book would be Zetta Elliott's Bird which I blogged here: http://boyzread.blogspot.com/2011/07/bird.html.

Love your blog! Your entries are always so thoughtful!

Sandie Mourão said...

Hi Gregory,

Thanks for your comments and the reference to 'Bird', I shall follow it up.

Chano said...

What a fantastic entry, Sandie!

It's high time we started addressing these issues. Are your acquainted with the acronym PARSNIP? It stands for no Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -isms or Pork in language teaching. Fortunately we have material like this picturebook.

Have ordered the book already and will use it for some workshops next year.

Talk to you soon! Have a great weekend.


Sandie Mourão said...

Hi Luciano!
Good to have you drop by. Yes, I know PARSNIP :-)
I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago, where one of the speakers lamented at the blandness of published ELT materials for older learners. Using picturebooks like this can bring real reasons to use English and chunks of real life into our classrooms. We need reality and I think slowly this is being recognised.
Let us know how it goes when you use this picturebook with learners. I shall be sharing it in a workshop next week in Galicia.

CIGANA said...

Hi Sandie.

Great posting and a fantastic picturebook.

I teach oral English to college students in China and I think that "the house that crack built" rhyme has a wonderful beat. I can help my Chinese students with their pronunciation difficulties. Besides, the topic itself can be open to very interesting and provocative debates and discussion. I would like to try it with my students.

Do you mind if I use it?

Thanks :)
Esmeralda Catalim

Sandie Mourão said...

Hi Esmerlda,
Thanks for writing in, and YES of course you can use the picturebook! I hope it goes well and look forward to hearing how your students responded.