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, January 07, 2012

One smart fish

Front cover
One smart fish, by Chris Wormell, won the Book Trust 2010 award for Best Picture Book for children up to 5 years old. I first heard about it through these awards, and since then it's been sitting on my shelf waiting to appear on my blog! Wormell is probably best known for his picturebook, George and the dragon, which has also been illustrated using watercolour and with the same exquisite detail.  If you go to Chris Wormell's website, you will see he also uses wood block and lino printing techniques in his illustrations - a very tallented chap.
One smart fish is a book about how life evolved on earth, but shown in a fun and entertaining way.  There may be readers of this blog who shake their head and say, "No way!".  That's OK,    selecting picturebooks is a personal thing, something we do based on our own personal beliefs, and the context in which we work.  This may not be the picturebook for every ELT class, but it's certainly very suitable for many. 
I'll start with the front and back covers, which satisfyingly make one whole image, that of a group of diverse, brightly coloured fish watching in amazement as a very boring medium-sized fish plays chess. 
Back and front covers
You'll notice there's a sub-title, "One world changing idea!", already giving us a clue about what is to come.  More clues come on the title page.
Copyright page and title page
Can you see the foot prints in the sand?  Once you've shared this book with a group of children you can ask them why they think the illustrator created this image for the title page.  Then, there's a lovely connection between the dedication, on a sign, which appears on the title page illustration as well, but seen from behind. 
Opening 1
The opening spread is beautiful, a wavy, watery under the sea scene, full of brightly coloured fish, accompanied by an undulating font, which tells us that long ago, really, really long ago, "the ocean was filled with amazing fish". We are then told a little about these fish, with fabulous illustrations supporting the descriptions. Colourful fish, "amazingly weird" fish, fat, thin, short and long. But my favourite are the next two spreads, showing big and small:
Opening 3
Notice how the sentence is left incomplete, a page turning incentive, "Some were cute, and some were ..."  What do you think will come next?
Opening 4
Yikes!  The different perspectives in these illustrations work brilliantly, and they are a nice contrast to the pages before and after which are crowded with fish. We have another unfinished sentence willing us to turn the page.  "But the most amazing fish of all..."
Opening 5
Our hero and protagonist, a boring grey fish is the centre of attention. Look at all those brightly coloured fish, they are amazed. 
Now this boring grey fish "was wonderfully smart".  He could play chess, we've already seen him do this on the front cover, he could sing and dance, he drew and performed (a great illustration of this grey fish holding a fish skull in his hand in a Shakespearean pose!).  But he wasn't satisfied, there was one thing he couldn't do, "he wanted to walk upon the land". 

Opening 8
Opening 8 is a great spread which shows our genius with  his head above the water, as his fishy companions are at the "landside for their holidays", an entertining inversion of our terrestrial reality.  I love the sign warning the fish of shallow water!
Our genius fish thought and thought and finally came up with an idea. "Feet!" So obvious now, but no one had heard of such things back then.  WOW!  Clever fish, he put on his feet and walked out of the sea onto a vaste expanse of sand. 
Opening 11
He was the first creature ever to walk on the land, and so it was boring and he was lonely.  This great expanse of orange sand gives us just that impression, doesn't it?    So he dived back into the water, to his waiting fishy friends.   
Then true to Darwin, Chris Wormell tells us, in quite a matter of fact sort of way, that a few million years later, some other fish tried walking, but they didn't have any feet, so they slithered and crawled up the beach, and he shows us just how they do that from fish to lizard in six moves. 
Opening 13
And when we turn the page, WOW ... "all this started happening", and we are shown creatures of all shapes and sizes emergeing from the fish-like animals coming out of the sea. And of course us humans are there too, near the monkeys and apes. A great spread. And all because one smart fish had an idea! 

Even though this picturebook is for under 5's, in an ELT context, with lower exposure to English, it's very suitable for primary children.  Some of the text is quite dense, but accessible in a sort of chatty style.  Older primary children will appreciate the visual humour, they will also enjoy looking closely at the illustrations if you leave the book in the classroom library.  

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