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, November 28, 2011

A cautionary tale ... whatever

Front cover
A colleague told me about Whatever by William Bee, and when it arrived, sometime over the summer holidays, I immediately took to its clever simplicity.  I laughed outloud on the first read, then returned slowly to take in the different parts and look carefully at the illustrations.  
Anyone remember those silly tales about boys who ran away from their nurses, and were eaten by lions or girls who told lies and were burned to death? 19th century children's literature at its best and probably the most well known collection, Cautionary Tales for Children by Hilaire Belloc, is still available in ever more modern editions. Whatever has that cautionary tale feel to it, and a lovely retro look too.  
Our protangonist stands, arms outstretched, on the front cover.  He's dressed like a miniature business man, and you can just imagine the kind of child he is ... prim and proper and ever so annoying. 
Back and front covers
If you open out the book, you'll find the back cover is the mirror image of the front.  Witty!  Endpapers are nice and decorative too.  
Front endpapers
I'm wondering whether Willaim Bee has been influenced by 1950's wall paper designs for this pattern? The title page is plain and simple: contains the title, the author/illustrator's and the publisher's names. But the facing copyright page is neat.
Copyright page
One bare tree - all its leaves are lined up on the endpapers - and can you see the way some letters have been enlarged in bold?  (If you click on the image you can see better) What do they say?  "Whatever", yeah, who gives a damn about the copyright blurb?
This picturebook uses lots of white space.  It contributes to pacing the narrative, makes us pause and look as the information is given to us in bits as we turn the pages. 
Opening 1
First we are shown Billy (diminutive of William, by the way), hands down now, the half smile stuck on his face, looking bored.   Then we meet Billy's Dad.  
Opening 2
He's a bigger version of Billy, the only difference being his hat, his larger feet and his bushier eyebrows ... oh and his exuberance.  It's oozing off this page already.  
And so we begin.  Our problem is that Billy is difficult to please.  Dad is exuberantly waving puppets, while discarded soldiers are left behind and Billy looks away uninterested.  
Opening 3
Show Billy something very tall ... 
Opening 4

"And he'll say 'whatever'".  (Love the way the book has to be turned to portrait for the giraffe). 

Opening 5
Notice as you turn the pages how Billy's face shows all sorts of expressions: surprise, disgust, disinterest, annoyance - all with those simple dots for eyes, angled lines for eyebrows and a little red mouth that moves mostly downwards.  
And so we continue showing Billy "something very small" (pretty butterflies); the world's curliest trumpet (and it really is curly!); the world's bounciest castle, and he always says "Whatever".  
Opening 9
Take him on the world's steamiest train (there's even a fish leaping around!), or "fly him to outer space" ... what does he say? "Whatever". And so what happens when Dad tries to scare him with the world's hungriest tiger?  Why, Billy says "Whatever" of course!
Opening 10
Isn't he a handsome tiger? And a hungry one too ...
Opening 11
Oops!  All but Billy's shoe is swallowed.  Lots of lovely white as the tiger plods off. 
Opening 13
Can you see the tiger's bulging tummy?  And Billy decides it's time to say something ..."Dad! I'm still in here you know".  Guess who's leading the tiger away from the story, and  what do you think he says when he hears Billy?  I'll leave you to guess!

Reviews describe this as being a picturebook for all ages.  Absolutely right.  It could be used in primary, where everyone will quickly call out "Whatever!", or with teens, where they will mutter "Whatever" under their breath!  Get them to say "Whatever" in a dozen different ways, using Billy's facial expressions as clues to his mood.  With these students, you might also want to show them some of the original cautionary tales for fun.  And with adults in a teacher training context use this picturebook for them to see how cleverly words and pictures can be used to create irony and humour suitable for a wide range of ages. 

And if you really want to ensure there's a bit of formal language work, why not have some fun with superlatives, they're even highlighted in the verbal text - what more could we ask?

But most of all, it's a great little picturebook.  Great for just reading and sharing and laughing together over.  

I was prompted to feature it on my blog when I saw it had recently been published in Portuguese by one of my favourite Portuguese publishers, Planeta Tangerina.  Well done them for bringing it into Portugal.  Well done me for featuring it on my blog!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Every one has bad days

Front cover
Bad Day, written by Jeni Couzyn and illustrated by Paul Demeyer,  was a picturebook I read to my son when he was small.  It's a title I've often returned to and enjoyed.  I like Couzyn's rhythmic verbal text and Demeyer's illustrations bring the picturebook together beautifully.   It's now out of print but still available second hand on amazon. 
It follows on nicely from The Cloud, which I featured at the beginning of the month, and also depicts a child who's not happy, cross and angry with his family, and who decides to "Go away".  
The title page has a small picture of a yellow canary, and in many of the following illustrations the canary can be seen fluttery around in the illustrations. 
Opening 1
The picturebook opens on a single recto page, facing the copyright and dedication pages.  Nice little dedication up at the top! 
All the illustrations are shown in a frame, this is supposed to make us feel detached, as though we are watching the events from afar.  Each page, or occasionally a double spread, has a short sentence accompanied by a framed illustration.  The verbal text really is rhythmic and lovely to read and children pick it up very quickly.   The illustrations skillfully expand upon what the words are hinting at.  Here, on opening 1, we see a happy little family, all getting on with life, smiling, except for our protangonist - he's easy to spot with a face like thunder!
Opening 2
And so it continues, the family gets on with life, mum and dad, big brother and little brother, the little yellow bird and their energetic dog, and in each illustration we see the thunder faced child get crosser and crosser with the world.    The words continue quite matter of factly, and we gradually see the family notice that he's not having a good day - big brother does seem oblivious though!   It continues ... "Hate my big brother. Hate my little brother." The angry child covets his older brother's freedom, fiddling with his toy motorbike as the brother zooms off on his real one. Then he gets cross when his little brother takes the toy motorbike.  Then everything comes to a head, as it does on all bad days ...
Opening 4
Baby brother cries and dad gets cross.  If you click on the image above, you'll be bale to see the headlines in dad's newspaper, "Bad news", "Pretty bad news", "Worse news", More bad news"!   Then poor mum has just had enough!  Her two sons are crying, the dog is howling and dad has given up.  "Go away", she cries!  Children and teachers will empathise with this illustration, we've all experienced a day just like this!  
Our cross little boy goes up stairs, packs his favourite toys and runs out, escorted by the family dog and his pet canary. 
Opening 6
Then out in the street, he checks his wings, which we may have noticed sticking out of his case on opening 5, (and most likely children will notice them upon re-readings).  The canary has gone, but the dog is around.  The wings are yellow like the canary and  we wonder if they've been fashioned to imitate the small family pet.  And he's off, up into the sky and over the cars. The family dog has his case, maybe it's a regular thing this flying away business?
Hate is still a BIG feeling though...
Opening 7
"Hate these aeroplanes." Possibly justified - that's a lot of planes!
He flies over the Atlantic and asks, "Is this away?".  He asks a bird, who happens to be on the Statue of Liberty, "Is this away?" and of course the reply is, "No, this is New York."  Finally he pauses on a branch.  And the rhythm slows, the colours are deep bluey greens and we are gradually calming down.  "Is this away?", Owl replies, "No."...
Opening 11
Here we see owl, comforting the little boy, who's not angry any more.   So what is "Away"?
Opening 12
"Away is a feeling."  Suddenly, like one of those Hollywood movies we see a dozen little faces and heads pop up, are they about to break into song?  And Owl asks, "Love anyone?" Oh my goodness, the million dollar question.  
Opening 14
Why, "Yes!", our once-upon-a-time-angry little boy realises and off he flies.  And look at all those animals, suddenly they are in little family groups, and they are waving off our protangonist.  
Opening 15
The focus on hate in the beginning is replaced with love ...

"Love my Mum, love my Dad,
love my monkey, love my dog,
love my bird, love my big brother,
love my little brother,"

And the family is all happy, our little boy is being pampered by mum. Everyone is ready for bed, the boy's case, wings and toys are scattered on the floor.  Everything is normal again. 
Opening 16
And the final illustration shows our little boy, snuggled in bed, asleep, his wings, the dog and canary nearby and we read the words, "Love owl" ... and he's there in a framed picture above the bed.  Wise old owl, he knows. 

As we've shared this picturebook, we've felt the words through the way we say them and the images that have accompanied them.  Once again, it's an excellent support for developing  emotional intelligence.  Children will empathise with the little boy and be carried with him on his emotional roller coaster. Did he really fly away?  Was it all a dream?  How do we deal with our bad days?  Lots of possibilities for discussion, in particular with primary children.

Jeni Couzyn is a poet and the verbal text is a poem. I've copied it below so you can read it in its entirety.  Feel the emotion as it peeks then slowly dissipates, to be replaced with calm and comfort. 

Hate this day. 
Hate these toys. Hate this food.
Hate my big brother. Hate my little brother.
Hate my dad. "Go away."

Going away. Got my suitcase.  
Got my wings. Work OK.
Hate these aeroplanes.

Is this away?
No, this is the Atlantic.
Is this away?
No, this is New York.
Is this away?

Away isn't a place. Away is a feeling.
Love anyone?
Love my Mum, love my Dad,
love my monkey, love my dog,
love my bird, love my big brother,
love my little brother, 
love owl.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The cloud - a book that shows emotions

Front cover
I saw The Cloud by Hanna Cumming in a catalogue by The Story Bag for workshops that brought together art and literature.  I ordered it to satisfy my curiosity, it was the only picturebook on the list which I didn't know. 
Child's Play the publisher's give a short description of The Cloud on their web site "Everyone has bad days, and children are no exception. When a black cloud descends on a little girl at school, support from a classmate with a great deal of imagination helps to brighten up everyone’s lives. The atmospheric illustrations really tell the story in this delightful picture book from a new author/illustrator."
It is the atmospheric illustrations that I am going to focus on in my blog post.  
What mood or emotion do you associate grey with?  Most of us will go for sad, negative, angry, upset.  Grey is a depressing colour and suitably so it is the background of the front and back covers for The Cloud.  The top part of the child's face we just see under the foreboding scribbled cloud, confirms the negative, sad feeling the background grey gives us.   Those touches of colour coming in from the edges look hopeful though, I wonder why they are there?
I find the endpapers quite shocking in their bright red, with the coloured crayons dispersed among the black squiggles. I'm not sure why Cumming chose red, maybe because the main character has a red t-shirt?  Why do you think she chose red?  What do your children think?
Title page
Though this page appears grey in my photo, it isn't!  It's actually white, with just the oval under the title in grey!  All those arty materials look fun.  Upon rereading this picturebook children will identify with these images and understand that it was through drawing, colouring and painting with a friend that our character was helped. 
Opening 1
Opening 1 shows us the art class.  We are told it's fun, and despite the grey looking classroom (it's raining outside as well!)  it does look like everyone is enjoying themselves... "Well, almost everyone." There's our character in her red t-shirt, with scowling eyes, arms crossed and tightly closed mouth.  "There was one girl, who sat by herself and drew nothing."
Opening 3
The illustration on the verso page is the one we saw on the front cover. Look at those kids chatting and having fun in the recto, but no one talks to the girl with the cloud over her head.  I'm not surprised are you?  She looks very grumpy.  But one little girl in the class is keen to make friends, so off she goes ...
Opening 5
There's a lovely sequence in verso, showing the little girl being engulfed in black cloud ... having a chat didn't seem to work. I wonder what the reply was?  It is a particularly useful activity to ask the children in your class what they think - a way for them to have a go at reading feelings and emotions and sharing these personal readings. 
Opening 7
But this little blond-haired girl was not put off, she looked at her crayons and thought maybe there was a way.  It didn't go too well to begin with, but she kept on trying, kept on drawing and finally ...
Opening 8
Our girl with a cloud over her head was smiling, only a tiny smile, but it's a smile.   Cloud is a bit smaller too!  And look out the classroom window ... it's almost stopped raining ... and the classroom wall is not quite so grey either - everything looks brighter. 
But it doesn't stop there, the children in the classroom liked the idea of creating pictures together, so they all had a go ...
Opening 9
And here they are!  Can you see the blond-haired girl who didn't give up?  And how much smaller that black cloud is! What fun they are all having, and how much brighter that classroom is now!  Look back at opening 1, just to remind yourselves.  They end up doing a huge class drawing, which really does look fun, but best of all ...
Opening 11
"... the cloud was gone. Well sort of!"  And our classroom window is there again, and even if we can still see a tiny cloud in the sky the sun is shining, shining so brightly that the classroom is all yellow and warm.  It matches the big smile across the girl's face.  
There's a small circular illustration before the back endpapers, showing a happily integrated child playing hopscotch with kids in her class.
Opening 12
There's a solitary figure by the gate, I wonder if the children will invite her to join their game? 

The Cloud is a very simple, clear  story.  It's about accepting and not giving up on people, and the illustrations help readers see and feel emotion clearly too.  This little book is excellent for actively working with emotional intelligence, but as mediators we need to give our children pointers, ask them to look and think:  what colours are the pages and what do these colours make us feel? What are the characters feeling, how do they know this?  Can we imitate their postures and facial expressions, what do they feel like? Encourage children to empathise with the dark haired girl whose cloud eventually disappears, what could she be so upset about? By identifying emotions in others and seeing how problems can be resolved, young children can learn strategies of their own, both when they have problems, or to help others overcome their own.