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, October 09, 2011

Snow White in New York

Front cover
Snow White is a European fairy tale. The version we are all familiar with is probably that of the Grimm Brothers and or the Disney one of 1937.  Whichever, Snow White is well-known to most children.  The story of a motherless child, whose father remarries. The step-mother is jealous of Snow White's beauty and tries to do away with her. She is abandoned somewhere far away, where she happens upon seven kind men, who look after her, until eventually she is poisoned by the step mother and dies.  But all ends well when a handsome prince discovers her coffin, and the bit of poisoned apple stuck in her throat is dislodged and she awakes.  In the Disney version, they fall in love and live happily ever after!  But the Brothers Grimm have the step mother go to the wedding and be forced to dance herself to death in a pair of iron shoes!  
Snow White in New York is vibrantly illustrated version of the Snow White story, set in New York in the Jazzy, Art Deco of the 1920's. It was first published in 1986 and won The Kate Greenaway Medal. The illustrations are spectacular and evoke the era brilliantly.  
Back and front covers
The front and back covers are one continuous illustration.  Those parallel streets we associate with New York, are at the centre of each cover, with huge buildings looming on either side. The abstract colourful shapes represent all the different signs and lights and they blink at us as we study the illustration.  That has to be Snow White walking towards us, the sun rising behind her.   
Title page
The title page comes next in my paperback edition.  The sun is still rising, it's radiating rays in pink and yellow stretch out behind the New York buildings. 
Copyright page
Upon turning the  page we arrive at a wordless spread - well not quite, the verso contains the copyright information, but the recto shows us a large building, quite definitely a rich person's home, with a chauffeur waiting outside in a very smart car.  I wonder who lives there?  
Opening 1
"Once upon a time there was a poor little rich girl called Snow White ... "  so that's who lives there, Snow White.  But poor thing, this is her step-mother, wicked right from the first opening, her pointy red nails and her slit, green eyes looking out at the reader.  The father has no idea of her wickedness, and is shown looking straight ahead.  Snow White is standing in the street, tiny and pink in the back ground. The signs stand boldly behind her pointing towards the happy married couple.   
Snow White's step mother was the "classiest dame in town", but unknown to everyone she was also the "Queen of the Underworld", and she just loved to see herself in the "New York Mirror", the best tabloid in town!   It was in the paper that she read about her step-daughter. 
Opening 3
"Snow White the belle of New York City" ... The two women appear as equals in the illustration and again Fiona French has used symmetrical motifs, showing each woman flanked by men in hats and suits.  Snow White is curvy and pink, yellow arches cris-cross behind her.  She is smiling, her golden curls are soft and luminous. She is the archetypical of goodness.  The men around her are young and handsome too.  The step-mother is in red and black, she is scowling, her eyes are looking straight out at the reader, challenging us to stop her wickedness!  The men around her are old, their noses hooked, their mouths down-turned. We see the good and the bad.   
And we all know what happens don't we?  In this version, Snow White is taken "down town". 
Opening 4
Can you see her?  Down town is dark, in contrast to the rest of the city, filled with sparkling lights.  I really like this illustration.  The contrasting architecture, the reflections in the water, and Snow White being left by the step-mother's body guard.  
Snow White is lost and alone, and she wonders the streets of down town New York, until she hears some music coming from an open door. 
Opening 5
Will our students recognise the kind of music she hears? I suppose it depends, but it's a great double spread, with Snow White peeking in at the doorway, and the red sun rising again in the early morning.  Seven jazz players, and of course they let her stay, as long as she works. 
Opening 6
"'What can I do?' she asked.  'Can you sing?' said one of them."  And the illustration answers the question.  Can she sing!  WOW! The change from black silhouettes to reddy-yellow ones is superb.  Snow White is in the limelight, her white skin, and solid red dress, with just one or two red tassels, surrounded by the seven jazz players, cris-crossed in yellow and orange, you can almost hear the music as Snow White sings for them.   And just as luck would have it a handsome newspaper reporter was in the audience and he writes about this brand new star.  The step-mother reads about Snow White's debut and is "mad with rage".  And so she decides to do the wicked deed herself, and plans a party in honour of Snow White's success. 
Opening 9
"Secretly she dropped a poisoned cherry in a cocktail and handed it to Snow White with a smile." Snow White is surrounded by people who think she is wonderful, but the words direct us to the step-mother mixing a cocktail, the bottle of poison on the plant stand nearby. 
Opening 10
A wordless spread, the happy party represented in the background, the cocktail about to change hands.  
We don't get shown the dying scene, instead we are taken to the New York streets in the rain. Newspapers tell us what happened, as they have done through out this story.  They are full of the news of her death and crowds of people stand in the non-stop rain as her coffin is driven through the streets.
Opening 12
But of course we know what happens, as the seven jazz players carry her coffin up the church steps, one of them stumbles and ... "Snow White opened her eyes." The poisoned cherry, stuck in her throat was dislodged and she looked into the eyes of the handsome reporter. They fell in love, had a big wedding and lived happily ever after!
Opening 14
The illustrations also show us what happened to the step-mother!  

Similar to the picturebook, The three little wolves and the big bad pig, this kind of adaptation can be used with older students as the first step towards making their own versions of well-known and traditional stories.  But, what I like about this particular title are the visual representations of good and bad, happy and sad, safe and dangerous, Fiona French uses colour and shape brilliantly.  In addition, the technique of filling spaces with lines of colour reminds me of the impressionist paintings of Seurat , who used dots instead of lines, but the idea is the same. Finally using a picturebook like this when students are learning about the period of  Art Deco in history can help them make connections and possibly follow up with some research into architecture, art, clothes, music, cars etc of the time.  


#4 said...

Sandie adoro o teu blog... vou voltar mais vezes, Parabéns! Miguel Xavier

Sandie Mourão said...

Thanks Miguel!
Share it with the English teacher in your school :-)