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.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Six Men: a story about war

Front cover
David McKee created the picturebook Six Men very early in his career. First published in the UK in 1972, it's now only available new in the US edition I think.  I blogged about another of his picturebooks, Tusk Tusk a while back, also about conflict and war, but published a little later (1978).  These two picturebooks are similar in theme, but quite different visually.  Unlike Tusk, tusk, which is brightly coloured, Six men is black and white, the only colour appearing on the covers, the deep brown, which, as in all good picturebooks, unites both back and front covers, creating the heavy ground and a heavier sun.
Back and front covers
On the publisher's website it has been described by Ken and Sylvia Marantz, who write:  "Once upon a time six men search for and finally find a land where they can settle down and grow rich. But they fear thieves, so they hire six strong guards. When no robbers arrive, the men worry that paying the guards is a waste of money. So they put them to work capturing a neighboring farm. Enjoying the power, they add soldiers and capture more land. Some, who escape their expansion, work and live happily together across the river, but still worry about the six belligerent men. So in case of attack, they take turns being both farmers and soldiers. Unfortunately one day the bored soldiers on both sides of the river shoot at a passing duck. The anxious armies, fearing they are attacked, gather and a mighty battle begins. In the end, only six men on either side are left. And so they set off in opposite directions, beginning again the search for a place to live and work in peace. ..."
The story is one we all know, the causes of war.  The picturebook is a modern-day parable and very suitable for older students, I'd say teens in particular, but if the topic is suitable and the children's level of English is good it could be shared with children down to about 9 or 10 years old. 
Peritextually, other than the covers, it's not very exciting.  Lots of white pages and space, with the two word title sitting alone in the middle of the page.  
Opening 1
On the spreads, the white space is used cleverly balancing McKee's illustrations, which are made up entirely of fine line drawings in black ink.  If you look at opening 1 the recto page is full of neat lines juxtaposing each other, creating a sort of mountain of jagged rock for the six men to climb over. The verso contains those oft heard words "Once upon a time ..." and and single circle, representing the sun, hanging empty, yet together with the white space, balanced against the rocky crags of the facing page. 
I don't now if McKee was influenced by Paul Klee, but as I look more closely at his lines they remind me of some of Klee's work, though lack the colour which would have been present in the Swiss painter's masterpieces. 
The balance that McKee manages to obtain on each spread is visually very satisfying. McKee also uses pattern and symmetry very successfully.  
Opening 4
Look here at opening 4, where he has illustrated six soldiers.  They all look alike at a glance, their helmets resembling bullet heads, yet as we peer closely we can see they each have a different expression. Opening 5 is similar in its patterning ...
Opening 5
The soldiers are shown with their helmets placed neatly together, creating a whole symmetrical helmet Edam cheese shape. The change in perspective, from eye level to birds eye view is odd. The six men are laid along the verso edge, eyeballs upwards - it makes you want to turn the book round and follow their gaze upwards towards the lazy soldiers, thus returning to the more comforting eye level.  Pattern appears in a number of spreads:
Opening 8
Here in opening 8, the soldiers helmets fit neatly into the body of each soldier next to them, the drawing is almost geometrical, it's a delight. 
Opening 9
The six men's greed culminates in opening 9, where we are told that they "ruled over the land from high watch tower down to the great river." A long shot view of the land shows us the soldiers at work. You can just make out the platoon chasing two figures towards the river, which is only visible as water because boats sit upon it.  From here onwards the drawings begin to take on a symmetry that reflects two sets of men at war with each other, for those chased men cross the river and begin living with farmers, who as yet have not been conquered. Together they create an army to fight that of the six men across the river.
They took turns in working as farmers and training as soldiers and "in this way they became prepared to face an enemy:" And so it began. A soldier on each side of the river bank ... symmetry representing the two sides of the story, the conquering and those not wanting to be conquered. 
Opening 11
All  because of a duck ... the alarm was called and each soldier rushed back to his army. 
Opening 13
Each army separated from the other by a carefully drawn, thin black line. Fear spread and the war began...They fight ... 
Opening 14
... and they die. 
Opening 15
These soldiers are pilled upon each other, bullet shaped helmets nose to nose with the squared ones... it's a muddle but a neat one, with soldiers fitting into each other as they die in unison. Once the battle was over everyone was dead, every one, but for six men on either side...
Opening 17
And so the story begins again, as the six men search "for a place where they might live in peace."  If used as a prompt, the simple black lines in this picturebook, stark, sharp and pointy and very clear in their message, open doors to discussion and interpretation.  

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