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, April 21, 2012

Running to freedom

Front cover
Underground by Shane W. Evans recently won The Coretta Scott King Book Award, which is given to African American authors and illustrators for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions. I'm writing about it in my blog for I find it visually fascinating, and it awoke a curiosity I could not shake.  I've already  written about a picturebook which could be read and shared with a view to talking about historical events, The Rabbits, and Underground is another  such title.  Based on the Underground Railroad,  a complex network of people, who helped slaves escape to freedom during the 1800's, it tells the story of how people got to freedom. A minimal verbal texts is accompanied by fabulous  illustrations, achieved with a mixture of collage and paintwork. Evans uses a very blue pallet, a night blue, dusky and dark yet everything is clearly visible in its blueness. This blue is  partnered with subtle uses of white, sharply cut bits of white.  Yellow appears too, moving from representing captors' windows and flaming torches to highlighting and shining upon conductors (those who helped the slaves) and the colour of day and freedom all in one.
Back cover
The picturebook: The front cover portrays fleeing slaves, dark and sinister, the whites of their eyes accentuating their look of fear.  Rays of light emanate from behind them, rays of hope possibly. The back cover is not part of a continuous picture, but instead the ending. The endpapers are plain dark blue, the colour of night and as we turn the pages we pass the title page, different only in that it is painted blue and there are a number of stars scattered across it.
The first opening also contains the copyright information and a dedication, those dark skinned faces from the front cover appear again, only just visible. We might not know what this story is about, but already we are apprehensive. 
Opening 2
Whisper this spread, "The escape.": the leading figure has his finger on his lips as the three creep away.  The whites of their eyes shining out at us, looking left, looking right, looking left.  In the background you can see the light shining from a curtainless window of the owners' house, that together with the light of the thin crescent moon casts a thin shadow across their bodies. 
And so each spread opens onto more dark, dusky blue. Shadowy figures hunched across the pages, "We are quiet."...
Opening 4
The yellow in this spread accentuates "The fear." It touches each runaway face like orange tinged caresses, but they remain hidden. Is the torch bearer friend or foe? The sheriff in the background is sending his men elsewhere.  And so, "We run. We crawl."  ...  
Opening 7
"We rest." All but daddy who keeps his eyes open, watching. 
It seems like an endless night, but it must represent many nights. The next page turn shows us one of the conductors, those in safe houses who helped the fleeing slaves. 
Opening 8
"We make new friends:" The yellow light is welcoming, the runaways are inside safe.  But their journey continues. "Others help." "Some don't make it." "We are tired." and suddenly we turn the page ...
Opening 11
The yellow light shines as the day begins, lighting a huddle of people. It took me several views to realise that it is a woman and a makeshift mid-wife, for the woman is having a baby, her belly bulging, her bent knees highlighted by the sun. Man and children look on as the wife moans. 
Opening 12
"The light." The woman blinks as the light shines upon her face.  Is it the woman or the man who declare what's immanent?  Or is it the event of birth they are referring to? In Portuguese and Spanish when a woman gives birth they refer to the giving of the light (dar a luz). It's the beginning whatever it is, the light over a new horizon. As we turn the page, the triumphant father holds his child high up and the words tell us, "The sun."
The final opening is jubilant :..
Opening 14
"Freedom. I am free. he is free: She is free. We are free."

If we close the book and linger on the back cover, we realise now who the happy family depicted there is.  The newly born baby is the center of attention, a child born in freedom. 

Evans himself admits that for most of us it is difficult to imagine what being a slave was like, being owned by someone else, someone who dictated what you did, how you did it and when you did it.  It is possibly easier to 'relate to opening the door to assist someone.'  Many risked their own lives by aiding and abetting runaway slaves. This picturebook cleverly mixes the flight of the slaves with the assistance they were given.  Its shapes and colours share an emotion that touches all of us.  Could we use this picturebook with students learning history through English?  I'd like to think so.  

On a website about to this picturebook, Shane  W. Evans writes:
In so many ways the simplicity of this book says it all. This experience for me as an author and illustrator was one of the more dynamic experiences in my career. This journey for me was truly one through the lives of a people searching for freedom in their hearts and souls. These journeys lead me "home" in so many ways back to my own community today. If we look around us we can see the spirit of what this movement represented. The idea of freedom is a powerful one that in this world has a duality; this quiet journey of "underground" reflects that in a powerful way. This book not only pays homage to the many that decided to "steal away to freedom" in the 1800's, it pays homage to those that continue the fight for freedom today.

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