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 23, 2011

The true story by A. Wolf

Front cover
"You may think you know the story of The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf - but only one person knows the real story. And that person is A. Wolf. His tale starts with a birthday cake for his dear old granny, a bad head cold and a bad reputation. The rest (as they say) is history."
This is the blurb on the inside of the front cover of The true story of the 3 little pigs! It's all about perspective really.  This picturebook shows us the story we know and love from Wolf's perspective, and he's certain he was framed! 
I've already featured a picturebook that takes this traditional story and gives it a twist, The three little wolves and the big bad pig, making it very appropriate for older learners.  This too is a great title for the teenage ELT classroom.
The true story of the 3 little pigs was written by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith, who together, with Molly Leach as designer, create incredible picturebooks. 
As with all these adaptations of traditional stories, the humour comes from the reader's previous knowledge and understanding of the original story.  This picturebook is particularly special and has been written about quite extensively by academics.  It's considered an example of a postmodern picturebook due to the way the illustrations subvert the words.  Probably one of the reasons it's not used much in ELT.  I hope that by talking about it here, someone will have a go and do great things!
So let's take a look at this example of a postmodern picturebook!
The font cover is the front page of the Daily Wolf - naturally the perfect tabloid to  cover this kind of story: headline is the title of our story and the journalist is A. Wolf (though we are also told that there is a real author "As told by Jon Scieszka") The wolf in the photo is depicted as a well dressed gentleman with a polka dot bow tie and wearing studious glasses. The pigs he is supposedly blowing (huffing?) are pink and shiny.  Our reader is also pig, can you see his trotter holding the bottom right corner of the newspaper?
Back cover
The back cover is a collage illustration of a page of a newspaper - strips of columns of text, interrupted by a miniature illustration in the centre, showing the scenes of the crimes.   So not only does the newspaper represent sensationalism, but there's a hint of the courtroom here, of judgement day. 
Title page
As usual I have the paperback edition of this picturebook.  So it opens immediately onto the title page.   A sepia tone to the title page illustration gives an air of time past.  There are four objects placed together in the centre of the aged background, some tufts of straw and a twig set in a measuring jug, all placed on a brick.  Could these be pieces of evidence?   
And so the Wolf's side of the story begins ... He introduces himself.  
Opening 2
The words are matter of fact, in the  first person (for it is the Wolf who is telling the story).  He asks us to call him Al, "I don't know how this whole Big Bad Wold thing got started ...".  The illustration is dark, but you can just make out the prison stripes in the Wolf's sleeves.  He's looking out at the reader quite innocently, and adjusting  his glasses. "Maybe it's because of our diet.", he says. The Wolf is peering up from behind the table top, "Hey, it's not my fault wolves eat cute little animals like bunnies and sheep and pigs.  That's just the way we are. If cheeseburgers were cute, folks would probably think you were Big and Bad, too."  An enormous hamburger shines out at us from the illustration, Lane Smith has used a photo of a real bun, and filled it with all sorts of delicacies.  Can you see the different animals sticking out of the filling? 
Before I go on, just a note about the illustrations: on most openings they are shown in frames.  There's a photograph like feel to them, as though they have been kept in an album, those wiggly edges remind me of the photos my Mum has of her family in the 50's.  Frames around illustrations are supposed to make us feel detached - we look at these illustrations with very little sympathy. 
Opening 3
Even the illustration of long-ago-school-day slate, here in opening 3, is a framed image.  "The real story is about a sneeze and a cup of sugar."   But the introduction has been made, and we are now ready to hear the real story, Wolf's story.  The verso in this opening is a wonderful collection of letters, representing elements from within the story we know so well.  There are references to the three houses made of brick, sticks and straw.  We can see a piggy tail and a snout. A big mouth with a sticky out tongue (E) and the wolf's bushy tail. And the pair of ears at the bottom of the page, encourage the story along ... go on then, I'm all ears! 
Opening 4
"Way back in Once upon a time ..."  A mixture of real and fantasy in one breath!  Here is Wolf making a cake for his "dear old granny" - her picture is on the wall, and if you look closely you will see two rabbit ears sticking out of the mixture.  What a mixture it is too!  Whole eggs, shells and all.  Lane Smith has used collage quite minimally here, the eggs, the butter in the bottom right corner and the picture frame.   Wolf tells us he ran out of sugar for the cake, so he went next door to borrow some. 
Opening 5
The next door we are shown is miles away! And as we all suspect it's  a house of straw, which the Wolf is most derogatory about, "... who in his right mind would build a house of straw?"  Upon knocking on the door, it fell in and that's when his nose started itching!  He huffed and he snuffed... 
Opening 7
And we all know what happened next! 
Opening 8
The words continue to describe the incident in a dead pan sort of tone... "And you know what? The whole darn straw house fell down. ..."  The illustrations in verso look like the aftermath of a huge explosion, and the dead little piggy's bottom is visible in the middle of the straw strewn ground.    Wolf looks visibly perplexed in the verso "... such a shame to leave a perfectly good ham dinner lying there in the straw. So I ate it up." 
This happens once again with the pig who lived in the stick house, the Wolf's nose tickles, he huffed and he snuffed, and the little pig ended up dead and ... "Think of it as a second helping", said Wolf! There's a small vignette, showing us a fat Wolf, holding his stomach! 
At the brick house the Wolf is very upset: not only did the pig tell him to go away,  a pig who looks big and mean through the small window in the illustration, but he also yelled, "And your old granny can sit on a pin!" The straw that broke the camel's back ... the Wolf admitted to going nuts. 
That's when the cops arrived, to find Wolf "huffing and puffing and making a real scene." Funnily enough they were all pink pigs!
And "The rest they say is history."  
Opening 14
The newspaper in this illustration harks back to the front cover, only this time, it's The Daily Pig, and the headlines read "BIG BAD WOLF!", "Wolf: I'll huff and I'll puff ..., "A.T. Wolf big and bad", Red Riding Hood settles dispute out of court", "Canis Lupus - seen as menace".  The hand holding the paper looks like it could belong to Wolf this time. 
The final page shows us Wolf as he is today, the after-the-story-Wolf, the one who's been framed!  He looks feeble alongside the mean looking pig in prison uniform!
Opening 15

It's a brilliant picturebook,  using words and pictures to create an entertaining, clever version of the well-known story.  And of course it makes you wonder about all the other underdogs in traditional stories. What about the wicked step-mother?  The two ugly sisters?  The giant at the top of the bean stalk? Maybe they were all framed?  Great extension activities for students to write alternative narratives based on the underdog. 

As usual there are a number of Youtube films but I like this one in particular, the narrator's voice is so matter of fact and jolly, it's great!  

And there are some interesting resource pages on the net if that's what you like: Scholastic resources; LitGuides and other stuff.

More and more I just love the sharing of a good picturebook, and this one is sooo good.  Giggling and laughing together in class, sharing the visual verbal jokes - there's nothing more motivating for a language learner. 

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