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, June 03, 2012

Billy's worry dolls

Front cover
I've just returned from a one-day event organised by the very dynamic primary and pre-school nucleus, APPInep, of the Portuguese English Teachers' Association, APPI.  The event was attended by about 80 teachers and I picked up some great ideas and one in particular I want to share with you from Stephanie Pereira, an English teacher in a Bilingual French-Portuguese school in Porto.  She shared how she used the picturebook Silly Billy by Anthony Browne with a group of 9-year olds.  I'll tell you about the picturebook, then share some of her ideas.

Worry dolls
But before describing the picturebook, I'd just briefly like to tell you about Worry dolls from Guatamala.  Tiny colourful dolls, which according to the legend... "If you have a problem, then share it with a worry doll. Before going to bed, tell one worry to each doll, then place them beneath your pillow. Whilst you sleep, the dolls will take your worries away!"  The dolls are made of wood, bits of cloth and thread, as you can see from the image here on the right. 
Silly Billy is a picturebook that acknowledges childhood anxiety and suggests a simple, practical way of alleviating it. It has a visual theme running through it which reflects the colourful worry dolls, and in Browne's usual way he plays with colour and monochrome to bring emotion and to make visual connections - he is masterful. 
The front cover in the version I have is very colourful, (I've seen versions with the word 'Billy' in white).  The letters spelling out the title are bright and coloured, and are placed against a black background which accentuates them further.  If we look closely we see that the 'I' is a doll-like shape and an unhappy doll at that, and a boy figure, we must assume it's Billy, is marching, hands in pockets into the book. He's smiling and his posture shows he is feeling positive.  It's important to return to this cover once we've read the book as these visual touches will have much more significance - Browne is already showing us what happens in the story, but of course we don't know that yet. 
Upon opening the picturebook, passing two brightly coloured pages, one yellow, one pink, we  come to the title page.  
Title page
The title is monochrome and contrasts the small painted wooden box alongside Anthony Browne's name.  We can just see something in the box: do the children know what this box is and what might be inside? Do you?
Opening 1
Turn the page and we are into the body of the book. (Opening 1 is actually a double spread, but I've only photographed half of it.) Here's Billy, but quite different from the boy we saw on the front cover, there's no bounce in his step and his socks are pulled right up to his knees - his mouth is forlornly drooping.  "Billy used to be a bit of a worrier."  "... used to be", prepares us for a happy ending, for we can deduce that he is no longer a worrier. We are told and shown about all the things he worried about. 
Opening 2
The following spreads show framed illustrations against brightly coloured backgrounds, and as we can see from opening 2, above, when we are told about Billy's dreams, Browne uses monochrome, sepia tones.  Billy's worries were surreal and dream-like... he worried about hats (notice even the flower pattern on the wall takes on the hat shape), shoes mark across his room and out of the window (the wall paper pattern is of footprints); a cloud hangs threateningly over his bed (guess what the wall paper pattern shows) ...
Opening 4
He worried about the rain, and we are shown his bedroom flooding, the sepia replaced by a turquoise blue.  His bed is covered in water (look at the wall paper).  The final worry is frightening: he worried about giant birds and we are shown a stiff doll-like Billy being carried off by an ugly bird twice his size (wall paper?). 
These are BIG worries, unfounded worries, but worries children might also have themselves. Billy's mum and dad comfort him. Bright illustrations of big, happy, rosy-cheeked parents, hugging Billy - making him feel safe and loved.  "... it's just your imagination", said his dad; "We won't let anything hurt you", says his mum. 
But Billy still worried ...
Opening 6
One day he was staying at his granny's house.  Look at the bedroom, so different from his own - busy wall paper with a complicated pattern, a big bed and no light switch close at hand to grab for comfort.  The picture above the bed represents a well known painting, Wonderer above the sea of fog by Casper David Friedrich.  Why Browne decided to place this particular painting in the bedroom leaves loads of space for speculation.  It is said to be a painting of a German officer standing "in contemplation and self reflection, mesmerized by the haze of the sea fog as if it were a religious and spiritual experience. He wonders in that moment about the unforeseen future" (see web link above). Is this Billy's worry, the unforeseen future?  He decides he is being silly and goes to see granny. 
Opening 7
Granny is a large-headed, dark-skinned lady. The frame in the verso of opening 7 is decorated and colourful and matches the decorations in the six little dolls that are shown in close-up on the recto page.   "... When I was your age I used to worry like that.  I've got just the thing for you."  Could granny be from Guatamala?  She looks South American.  I love the illustration of her hand, it is so life like, you can even see the veins in her wrist.  Six little dolls lie on the palm, smiling at the reader.  The doll on the far left is the one on the front cover.   Granny tells Billy what to do with the dolls and his life takes a turn for the better.  Sunny illustrations show us Billy sleeping peacefully, "like a log" and "like a stone" for several nights. 
Opening 9
Until ... oh no!  Look at that dark looking verso on opening 9.  Billy started worrying again.  He was worried about his worry dolls.  All depicted like mini humans, mouths turned down and looking very worried and upset.  Luckily Billy was becoming quite resourceful and he spent the next day busy at the kitchen table.  He worked hard, "... at first ne made lots of mistakes and had to start again many times", but he didn't give up and managed to make something "very special ..."
Opening 11
... lots of worry dolls, for his worry dolls.  Clever Billy.  They are all smiling and our smiling content Billy, in stripy pajamas, is shown against a pastel, yellow background.  Peace incarnated, angelically sleeping!
But Anthony Browne doesn't stop there, one more opening ...
Opening 12
Here we have Billy again, almost exactly like the figure in Opening 1, but he's smiling, his step is light, his socks are at his ankles.  He's a cured Silly Billy, and he's kind enough to share his cure with his friends for he makes them all worry dolls.  How generous of Billy. 
... and the last page of the picturebook has a nice bit of information about worry dolls for children to read about. 

Unlike many of Browne's picturebooks, which feature chimpanzees or gorillas (eg Willy the wimp), Billy is a little boy, but he has chimp-like features (big ears and a parting down the middle of his hair) he's also wears a stripy jumper, rather like the one Willy the chimp wears, so if you are familiar with Browne's picturebooks you will recognize visual connections between some of his characters. In fact in opening 1 the illustration of Billy is almost exactly like the one of Willy on the cover of an early edition of Willy the wimpBilly's Mum and Dad are also very similar to the characters illustrated in Browne's books, My Mum and My Dad.

I have posted about two of Anthony Browne's picturebooks, The Piggy Book and Me and You, but I am so glad that Stephanie has reminded me of the suitability of his work, in particular this title.  She described sharing it and using the illustrations to talk about worry dolls and their credibility. The children discovered a little about Guatemala, where it is in the world, what its people are like and what language they speak. She made the link between Brazilian Portuguese and South American Spanish and together with the children discussed the historical reasons for these two language existing in South America, a perfect link to the topic of the Portuguese discoveries which the children had studied that year at school in history. The final product was the making of a worry doll, out of wool, with children taking it home and using it to dispel their own worries. Did it work, it seems so, for children came back to school saying "I slept like a log"!!
What I especially liked about the work she shared was the way she used the children's linguistic repertoires - the languages they had at their disposal: these children were learning English as their 3rd language and spoke Portuguese and French already.  They compared the titles in the different languages, for the different versions existed in the school library.  They looked at some of the idiomatic expressions like, 'sleep like a log', 'sleep like a stone', 'sleep like an angel' in the different languages and enjoyed seeing how different or similar they were in meaning.  They also openly agreed in places, that certain translations just weren't right and they made suggestions for how they would translate them.  Empowering stuff!
Stephanie also encouraged the children to make the visual connections between the other Anthony Browne picturebooks they knew, and sure enough they were able to, creating affective links with the picturebook through these connections. 

Rich experiences and such a pleasure to see them taking place through picturebooks in English. Many thanks to Stephanie for sharing and prompting me to reconsider this lovely picturebook for the ELT classroom. 

1 comment:

Kerry Aradhya said...

This book looks perfect for my two girls. A friend of mine gave me some worry dolls as a gift once, and my girls have actually been enjoying them more than I have. I had never heard of this book, but I hope I run across it one day. I just checked and our local library doesn't have it. Darn! Thanks for sharing!