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 01, 2012

The irony of Matilda's cat

Front cover

I waited anxiously for Emily Gravett's most recent picturebook.  She's one of my favourite, favourite picturebook creators and she was creating a book about cats ... I'm a cat lover, so that made her even more wonderful (actually I also love dogs, so she's already satisfied my canine wishes with Dogs)... and here it is, Matilda's Cat ... fresh off the press, it's been out for less than a month.  Delightful, and very preschool, but there's an ironic humour in there which will keep us teachers giggling to ourselves, and possibly also get picked up by the children - so much to look at and discover and make connections with and between. Those of you who are familiar with Sendak's Where the wild things are, are sure to make the visual connection between our girl protagonist in a cat suit and Max in his wolf suit. 
Gravett's front covers are all fairy similar in format, especially those for preschool aged readers: a pale background with the main characters appearing large as life.   Matilda's Cat is no exception - we are shown a girl child in a cat suit holding a cat - a grinning cat at that!  They are both ginger cats, that is the cat suit is ginger and the cat is ginger.  This is  important for we can question right from the start whether Matilda's cat is her cat persona or her ginger tabby. 
Back cover
It is the back cover that answers our question - an arrow points to the real cat, who is doing the best of cat things, sharpening his claws.  Is it a he or a she cat?  I kind of think it's a she cat, her pouchy belly is just like my cat Sooty, who's a well to do four-year-old kitty. I just love Matilda's cat's stripes, and that lovely twirly bit on her haunches. 
In true Gravett style, the picturebook peritext is used to the full.  the endpapers are a pale duck-egg-blue ...
Front endpapers
... cat prints take us from verso to recto and we see the ginger feline leaving the page, her head appears as we turn into the copyright and title page spread. She's looking distinctly worried as she looks across at Matilda who is enthusiastically completing a drawing of her lovely six-legged cat.  
Copyright and title pages
The title font, as on the font cover is in freehand and it continues throughout the picturebook ... if you haven't connected the visual of Matilda in her cat suit with Max in his wolf suit then I'm very disappointed... the pointy ears and the rectangular clawed feet along with a dangerously long tail - there are no whiskers or buttons, but this is Max reincarnated, and not matter how hard I try, I can't rid the visual connection.  
Opening 1
The following spreads show Matilda, in her cat persona, doing what she thinks cats do: her happy declaration, "Matilda's cat likes ..." followed by a fun activity that most cats do like leads us through the visuals.  "... playing with wool", is one of my cat's favourite playtimes, but Matilda's ginger tabby is terrified.  Matilda was enjoying herself greatly!  I like the cats on the wool - you'll notice they are like the orange cat illustration by the dedication and in fact are repeated on some of the following spreads decorating different parts of the illustration. Matilda's attempt at doing cat things come in threes (a structure which is also evident in another of her picturebooks, Wolf won't bite) - playing with wool, boxes (could this be a reference to the well loved My cat likes to hide in boxes) and riding bikes.  Her ginger tabby is either miffed or terrified (actually my cats don't like bikes either)
Opening 2
Opening 3
What's interesting about the verbal text is that as Matilda passes onto another activity, and thus through a page turn,  the previous activity remains on the next spread, but  gets crossed out.  It's peculiar: a silent acceptance by the narrator, confirming what we see in the illustrations. I've not used this picturebook with children yet, but I'm interested to see how they respond to this. 
And so Matilda moves through tea parties, funky hats and fighting foes, not once is the ginger tabby impressed.  Opening 6 is Matilda at her most Max-like marching across the recto with a sword in her hand.  And so the next set of three activities appears ... "Matilda's cat likes drawing."
Opening 7
There's a nice array of sketches showing what Matilda has done so far with her feline friend, her drawings portraying a complying cat knitting a scarf, riding on her bike, sharing a pic-nic tea, playing happily in boxes, dressing up (you see the ginger tabby is a girl cat!) and fighting real foes. 
Upon turning the page, " ...climbing trees,  and bedtime stories." (Max climbs trees in his adventure too!)
Opening 9
Matilda is buried in her book, unaware of poor ginger tabby's reaction to the chosen title (Gravett's own picturebook about dogs!) ... the looming shadow is made by Matilda's cleverly placed hand, and poor tabby is truely terrified, tail bushy and shackles up, her whiskers are frazzled in fright. 
But Matilda has had enough ...
Opening 10
As her ginger tabby sits on the offending book and licks herself back to normal, Matilda crossly lists the things that she knows her cat does not like... revisiting the spreads we have just seen and emphasizing "... OR bedtime stories."  I suspect that children will enjoy remembering the different activities and thus be challenged to remember the sequence they have shared with Matilda through the illustrations.
We turn the page and Matilda has shed her cat suit, and Ginger tabby is looking keen, we see Matilda leave the spread in her PJs, covered in black terriers and wearing dog slippers... so what does Matilda's cat like?  
Opening 12
"... MATILDA", of course! The illustration shows us a happy couple: tabby on her back, and Matilda's dog-clad-arm hugging her.  You can almost hear the purrs coming from the illustration (check out the stylised cats on her duvet).  But that's not the end ... don't ever forget Gravett's endpapers.
Back endpapers
Here they are... those cat prints leading from verso to recto and Matilda's tabby is making the most of her opportunity to get her own back on those dog slippers. 

So much to see and smile over. The verbal text accompanies the little girl, told by an invisible narrator, who describes what Matilda enjoys doing.  We, the reader, are left to claim as loudly, or as quietly, as we like, that Matilda's cat does not like any of those activities, until finally Matilda takes note and agrees with us (or did she know all along?).  It's such fun and I can't wait to share this picturebook with my preschoolers. 

1 comment:

The Book Chook said...

Thank you for introducing me to Emily Gravett. I'm off to find some more of her books!