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, May 06, 2012

The book of phobias

Front cover
Little Mouse's Big book of fears is actually by Emily Gravett, even though Little Mouse really has contributed to its brilliance - he's a sort of Emily Gravett avatar!  It's gobsmackingly wonderful and until recently I wasn't quite sure how it could fit into the world of ELT.  How short-sighted of me.  
I remember when I read an interview in the Guardian, cut out and sent to me by my father who knew I'd have missed it otherwise.  There the journalist takes great pleasure in highlighting how Gravett used her daughter's mice to create many of the nibbled and stained pages of this picturebook.  We are looking at real mouse pee, real mouse nibbles as well as a load of very clever collage and skillful sketching in all sorts of mediums, all captured by today's advanced printing technologies!  It's not surprising it won the Nestlé Children's Book Prize when it first came out in 2007. 
The front cover has a whopping great nibbled hole in it, Little Mouse at his best.  Emily Gravett's name has been roughly crossed out and replaced with "Little Mouse's", whose fright-filled face can be seen through the nibbled hole.  The ledger-like note book has a second hand, stained, battered and well used look and feel to it, the inside spreads are that dark yellowy brown that comes to books that have been on shelves for a while.
Front endpapers
The endpapers are covered in hieroglific-like characters, we aren't really sure what they are at this point, but upon returning to them it's clear they are the visual representations of many of the phobias mentioned in the book. But the front endpapers contain other important information too: we are introduced to our front cover graffiti artist, lugging the pencil that did the dead.  He's looking up at a clipped cutting (or nibbling): the challenge that leads this story. In short this is a self-help book, where the reader is asked to fill every "large, blank, space" with a combination of drawing, writing and collage. "Remember a fear faced is a fear defeated."
Close-up of front endpaper
The title page continues with the same graffiti and nibbling stunt and we are into the ledger. From the title page we see Little Mouse's face and he's clutching the pencil, when we turn the page we realise he's been wrapped in a spider's web.  
Opening 1
But as our eyes scan the illustration, we see the die hole nibble in verso opens up onto a spider which was on the copyright page, and the handwritten "I'm scared of creepy crawlies (especially spiders!)". That's when we notice the top of each page of the spread, verso indicates "Arachnophobia (Fear of spiders)" and recto "Entomophobia (Fear of insects)", each with the request to, "Use the space below to record your fears." We take all this in and begin piecing together the information we are shown and told, but we are only beginning, for each spread challenges us in different ways to find the pieces. Nevertheless, it begins the visual verbal structure we encounter throughout the picturebook. 
As we turn the pages, Little Mouse faces each fear, he doesn't look very confident and the pencil he drags along with him gets sharpened one end and nibbled the other, shavings and nibbles are scattered everywhere, as it gets shorter! Little Mouse faces "Teratophia (Fear of monsters)" and "Clinophobia (Fear of going to bed)", connected across the spread by a large bed with many pairs of eyes peering from the under-the-bed- darkness.
Opening 3
On opening 3 Little Mouse faces his fear of knives, "Aichmophobia", holding his tail tightly between his legs he peers up at a sweet get well card (showing a chubby mouse with his tail bandaged up), a poster for The Amazing Flying Mousecrobats, three blind circus mice who use "their tails and sense of smell to guide them", and a photo of three white mice in dark glasses, with their tails cut. This collection of memorabilia is aced by the life-like "The Farmer's Friend" newspaper cutting on the recto ...
Close up of opening 3
Dozens of plays on words: the children's nursery rhyme, Three Blind Mice,  is retold in an article about Mrs Sabatier from Deep Cut Farm, who managed to rid herself of "a trio of cheese-mad rodents". There's a photo of her triumphantly holding the three tails above an advert for The Amazing Flying Mousecrobats Circus cancelled "due to unforeseen circumstances". The fold over flap is an advert for "Three fab knives".  
If left open the flap (an array of adverts about bathrooms and plumbing) contributes to the visual verbal play on the next spread, where Little Mouse faces "Ablutophobia (Fear of bathing)" and "Hydrophobia (Fear of water)". Then onto "Dystychiphobia (Fear of accidents)" and "Rupophobia (Fear of dirt)".  The toilet theme continues though this time in relation to having accidents! Appropriately stuck onto the page with plasters, the toilet advert has tiny sketches of how a tiny mouse can actually reach the loo seat ... too late though, Little Mouse has already had an accident, and embarrassed he is about it too!
Opening 6
There are more intertextual references as poor Little Mouse faces his next fears: Ligyrophobia (Fear of loud noises) and Chronomrntrophobia (Fear of clocks).  Brilliantly shown with a reference to the traditional nursery rhyme Hickory, Dickory, Dock, poor mouse is ricocheted across the shuddering face of a paper clock, with the tall grandfather at 1 o'clock and the sheet music (rewritten by Emily Gravett) nibbled, torn and covered in mouse prints,  in the background.  That pencil is getting a good deal shorter!
"Isolophobia (Fear of solitude)" shows Little Mouse quite alone on the verso looking fearfully at the black recto page.  But, Gravett's tour de force is the following spread, Opening 8:
Opening 8
Here we are presented with "WhereamIophobia (Fear of getting lost)" ... no it's not a real phobia, but made up by Emily Gravett! and "Acrophobia (Fear of heights)".  The spread doesn't look that amazing really, but the map of "Isle of Fright" is an incredible piece of illustration, unfolding to show us the island in detail.  You can what shape the island is  from the cover and some of the places of interest include an owlery, a cat on a fence, Deep Cut Farm, and giant spiders' webs.  These are references to phobias encountered in the picturebook.
Close up of opening 8 with opened map
Once opened up, the map is pure delight and covered in hilarious places and references to Little Mouse's fears.  The village at the south end of the island is called "Loose Bottom", there's a straight of water called "Farmer's Cut" which separates the mainland from "Tail End", at "Sharp Point".  The island to the south is calls "Oops"!  These are just a few of the fun names and descriptions to be found, often referring back to previous spreads and fears. The key, shows us that the colours represent a continuum from green (edgy) to red (petrified!); the scale is shown in "500 mouse bpm to 70 human bpm" - brilliant!  And that's not all, the back of the map, which may go unnoticed,  has little notes and sketches giving us directions to Wide Eye Lake (I think!).  
You'd think that was it, but no!  There are still more fears. "Ornithophobia (Fear of birds)" and "Phagophoboa (Fear of being eaten)", where Little mouse is chased by real feathers (with eyes and teeth) and a very scary looking owl. Then onto "Cynophobia (Fear of dogs)" and "Ailurophobia (Fear of cats)".  Here Little Mouse has sketched and collaged a dog, next to the words "I get nervous near dogs", but if we focus we see that the dog is made up of all sorts of photos and cuttings of cats, and a fold back postcard of a dog tells us that in fact Little Mouse is ... 
Close up of opening 10 with flap
"... PETRIFIED of CATS!" Poor Little Mouse is really in a bad way.  The penultimate spread shows him cowering , afraid of his own shadow, "Panophobia (Fear of everything)" and "Sciaphobia (fear of shadows)" And the words tell us, "I'm afraid of nearly everything I see. But even though I'm very small ..."
Opening 12
Ahhh, after all that facing of fears it is good to know that there are those out there that suffer from "Musophobia (Fear of mice)"! Look at Little Mouse's posture, and smiley face, he's got through the book and is feeling tall.  He hugs his pencil stub, which has faithfully served him as he did just as Emily Gravett suggested on the front endpapers. 
And the back endpapers? True to form, Gravett has used them to give us the ending:
Back endpapers
A contented Little Mouse, hugging his pencil, covered in bits of paper with references to the fears he has overcome, birds' feathers, receipts, bits from the collection of collages he used and drawings of Little Mouse being brave (frightening a spider; pointing a sword at a cat etc). And there's a dedication, two in fact: the picturebook is dedicated to anyone who is has musophobia but that's crossed out and replaced by a dedication to "The fabulous rats Button and Mr Moo who taught me everything I know about nibbling." 
Back cover
The back cover shows Little Mouse, now free of his pencil, grasping at the book shop receipt, which tells us the condition the book is in: Used: "Poor, scribbled in, rodent damage". Look closely and you will see what time the book was bought, "Stroke of one" and it was paid for by "MOUSTRO UK". 

Woah!  What a brilliant picturebook!  

Lots of possibilities for slightly older children who will enjoy the madness of the layout and find the phobias fascinating.  They could make their own collage of something they are afraid of by following the instructions in an activity sheet, or an arachnophobia door hanger.  

Older students might enjoy discussing some of the phobias, making up a phobia like the Whereamiophobia and describing the symptoms. Write a short dialogue between Little Mouse and a journalist about one of the phobias, using the illustrations as a prompt. Enjoy the detailed illustrations, in particular the map of the Isle of Fright.  Could the students create a map of an Island based on the one in the picturebook and have fun giving directions. 

Look at some of the phobias carefully. How much Greek or Latin do we know?
Ablutophobia – Latin ablutere = to wash off
AilurophobiaGreek αἴλουρος (aílouros) = cat
Chronophobia – Greek xρόνος (choronos) = time
Hydrophobia – Greek ὕδωρ (hudōr) = water
Musophobia – Latin mus = mouse

Finally for much older students include this picturebook when discussing phobias and fears and use a series of question prompts from ESL Discussions

How TERRIBLY short-sighted it was of me to not think this picturebook could be used in an ELT classroom. 


Luciano said...

I've always found this book simply fascinating -probably the best Emily G. has ever written and illustrated.

Another fantastic use for this book in the ELT / ESL classroom is the profusion of text types. I think on the third or fourth spread, you have classified ads, newspaper articles, get-well cards, advertisements. Then there are maps, receipts, nursey rhymes... It's a great tool to work on text type content, organization, relevance, target reader, and on the specificities of different text types.

For older students, this is a fantastic example of textual intervention (how Little Mouse intervenes Emily's book) and a fantastic diving board for their own textual interventions (fan fiction, empathic tasks, intervened poetry, etc).

I simply love this book (and so do students!), and all books by Gravett. Thanks for reviewing it!

Sandie Mourão said...

Great to read yr comment and all those pointers thanks Luciano!
I also like your emphasis on intervention, it's something I hadn't considered. There are so many reasons for sharing this book with our students!