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, September 15, 2012

Remembering Grandpa

Front cover
One of the 2012 Caldecott Honour winners, this is a beautiful picturebook.  I've pulled it from my shelf and turned the pages many a time,, finally I'm writing about it!  I featured Lane Smith's It's a book in October 2012: he's a magical picturebook creator for this, his latest picturebook, is something quite different. It's a book about the past, about memories and a world that no longer exists and it's so different visually.  We could possibly question its suitability in an ELT classroom. I hope that my post will convince you it is worthy a place on the ELT book shelf. 
The front cover illustration shows us a child and an old man separated by an elephant cut from a bush, a feat of topiary skill. These are the elements of the story, a child, his grandfather and his grandfather's life story.  
Back cover
The back cover is a continuous hedge, Granpa can just be seen keeping it trim and his grandson boldly tugging a cart with gardening stuff ... later in the picturebook we will see this hedge from a slightly different view. 

The endpapers are a deep green, plain and solid. The title page is a closeup of the elephant bush, highlighting the name of the man this story is about "Grandpa Green".

Title page
We begin with a hedge in the shape of a baby, a twig juts out from behind, just as a baby's curl would.  This is Grandpa Green for "He was born a really long time ago, ..."
Opening 1
"... before computers or cell phones or television." So that must have been a long time ago! A green rabbit peers at us in recto, guarding the tunnel of trees, which beckons us into the rest of the book. The following spreads show and tell us about Grandpa's life:  each episode is depicted by a neatly trimmed bush.  As well as the cleverly created bushes, the young boy, who could be the grandson, collects forgotten and dropped gardening tools as he tells grandpa's story. 
There's a lovely connection between what the words are telling us and the pictures show us, with beautifully cut bushes highlighting bits of his grandpa's story. 
We are told grandpa "... grew upon a farm with pigs and corn and carrots ..." and the garden scene shows a carrot-shaped bush, being nibbled by rabbits. 
Opening 3
But there were also eggs, as we can see in opening 3, and "... he got chicken pox." Can you see the red berries on the bush? The grandson has collected a trowel, a garden glove and he has just noticed the pan and brush.   Just as all children who get sick, grandpa had to stay at home and he read stories, the illustrations show us characters from The Wizard of Oz and The little engine that could
As grandpa gets older, he discovered girls ... and grandson, just like grandpa, steals a kiss from the girl-like bush. 
Opening 5
As the boy blissfully blows on a dandelion clock, we are told grandpa wanted to study horticulture, but upon the page turn we see he went to war instead: there's a cannon-shaped bush with a fire-like branch protruding from it and a delicate cannonball hanging dead center of the recto page.  A plane and a parachutist sit beautifully clipped on the gnarled tree, and red-leaved plants re-create the splashes of bombs going off.  The grandson picks up grandpa's fallen glasses.  
Opening 6
Blissfully looking at the bush snipped into a voluptuous woman, the boy tells us that grandpa "... met his future wife in a little café."   It is the illustrations that tell us where this café was, and we can see grandpa's unfinished tea on the tree trunk table. 
Opening 7
This is one of my favourite spreads, where we are told that, "They had many happy years together and never, ever fought." The boy walks past an immaculately cut maze, with a flowering heart-shaped bush in its centre.  As adults who have lived, or not, through long partnerships, we can nod at the visual representation of the difficulties encountered in finding and keeping love.  I wonder if they travelled to the pyramids, shown there in the verso?  
They did have plenty of children, and of course "way more grandkids, and a great-grandkid, me."  This spread is a mass of boy shaped bushes all waving out at the reader. Thus we come to realize that Grandpa is in fact a great-grandpa - to have fought in the war, he must have been I suppose. 
Opening 9
"Grandpa used to remember everything." But,  "Now he's pretty old..." The delicate yet sturdy tree depicts all the seasons, or maybe the stages of man, from green buds through shoots to open leaves which slowly turn from green to brown and gradually drop from the spindly branches leaving those in recto almost leafless - the very last stage of life.  The boy watches a leaf fall as he swings on one of those branches, strong enough to hold him, just as grandpa seems, even in old age. In the background we can make out the shadow of an elephant.  Could it be the elephant we saw on the front cover? 
Indeed it is, for on the front cover, grandpa was snipping away at the bush, wearing his hat...
Opening 10
That hat, grandpa's "favourite floppy straw hat" is sitting on the elephant's head, the last of the gardening tools and objects the boy must collect and return to his grandpa. Triumphantly pulling the garden cart, full of gardening tools, the young boy finds grandpa, hatless and still trimming his garden bushes.  Grandpa may be forgetful, "but the important stuff ..." We turn the page to a double spread of deep green bush, and we can just make out "... the garden remembers for him." The green bush opens out to a quadruple spread ...
Opening 12
... and we see grandpa's life in front of us, cut into the garden, there for all the world to see and for grandpa and his family to remember. It's an absorbing collection for, even though we have skimmed through grandpa's life, we can revisit what he has done and where he has been, and smile in recollection.  Grandpa is there too, triumphant in his depiction of an active great grandson.
The last page is a quiet page, the grandson is carefully making his own way in the technique of topiary, clipping a likeness of his grandpa.  Could he be finishing the garden for a man, greatly loved, who is no longer able to, or no longer there?

Deep sigh ...  such a visually stimulating picturebook - it's been hailed as "lush and masterful" with "whimsical" illustrations.  It is all of this and more.  The words are minimal, saying just enough and the illustrations take us on our own personal journeys; our adult interpretations become parallel creations alongside those of grandpa's.  

I began my post questioning the suitability of such a picturebook in ELT: I am convinced of its appropriateness in any classroom of primary or young teenage learners. Understanding old age and recognizing the achievements of our older family members is such an important part of growing up.  Learning about other times and places, and piecing together the puzzles of our own individual heritage is as important as knowing, and being in, the here and now.  This picturebook can be used to motivate children to talk, and listen, to their own grandparents and great grandparents, to write and possibly draw their histories and share them proudly in class for all the world to see.  




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