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.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The taming of the wolf

Front cover
Emily Gravett is one of my favourite illustrators. I featured three of her picturebooks in January 2011. She published two titles in 2011, Wolf won't bite and Again. The former is a cracker of a picturebook and I've had lots of fun sharing it with my pre-school groups over the last week.  
"The three little pigs" they all shout as I show the front cover. And what other animal do we associate with the three little pigs?  "A wolf " they faithfully call out ... not reading yet, so they didn't pick up on the title of our story! Open out the book and just as they guessed, we see the wolf on the back cover. 
Back and front covers
The illustration only fits their predictions in the sense that we see the three little pigs and the big bad wolf.  Several children point out that things aren't quite right, as the pigs have the wolf on a chain; he doesn't look very fierce and ... what are the pigs wearing? There's a good deal of giggling as they begin to notice that the pigs are wearing clothes, one's in a tutu.  I wonder what kind of story it will be, maybe the title will help us? They all agreed that the wolf did look rather tame, so maybe he doesn't bite any more. 
With one group I asked if any of them had been to the circus, very few hands went up.  Maybe visiting the circus just isn't part of being a kid anymore?  But several knew what could be seen at the circus, wild animals did tricks, tigers jumped through flaming hoops, dogs stood on their hind legs, danced or stood on stools. Clowns told jokes and did silly things, horses pranced around the ring with ballerinas on their backs and there were acrobats who jumped and did somersaults. 
Let's open the book and see if these pigs take the wolf to the circus.
Front endpapers
Typical of Emily Gravett her endpapers play a part in the narrative, and the front endpapers show the three pigs chasing a wolf and pulling a circus cage on wheels.  
Dedication, copyright and title page
This spread is cleverly uses the idea of circus posters, the title page is a poster advertising the performance we are able to see. The copyright information can be read (with a magnifying glass) on the two rolled up posters!  Once you've read this picturebook to a group of children remember to go back to these pages and talk about them. 
Opening 1
Be ready as you turn the page to call out loudly, "Roll up!"  And there we have it, the wolf, a wild wolf, in a cage.  Note the gold leaf pigs decorating the outside.  And so upon each page turn we are shown what the little pigs are able to do to the wild wolf.  Their feats go in threes, each little pig declares , "I can ..." trying to improve on what the first one was able to do.   This is the first little pig's trick...
Opening 2
Then, the second little pig ...
Opening 3
She's a girl pig, so she does girlie things to the poor wolf!  The third little pig ...
Opening 4
... he can ride him like a horse. The verbal text is salient through out. You will have noticed that the words on each page are large, using different fonts. But here we are also confronted with a chunk of text in capitals "WOLF WON'T BITE!" This repeated pattern occurs three times, the frightened looking wolf is put through his paces, the little pigs proudly showing what they are able to do with him and to him. Their flat snouts turned up in triumph,  the wolf's eyes always open wide in fright.  
The final set of three tricks show the poor wolf having knives thrown at him, being shot from a canon (my favourite spread!)
Opening 9
... and even being cut in half. But then, the three little pigs together get super brave. 
Opening 11
"We can even place our heads between his mighty jaws but wolf won't ..."  now look at our wolf, he's not got that tamed look about him, and those little piggies look so confident.  Can you guess what the next spread shows and tells us?  
Opening 12
Finally the wolf gets his own back.  But that's not the end, we've still got the back endpapers to go!  
Back endpapers
"Ahh ha ha ha ha!"  Those pre-school kids just loved it and we had to read it again.  They had even more fun joining in with the refrain, "Wolf won't bite!" the second time round. A brilliant picturebook, and what fun I had sharing it.  You will too!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Running to freedom

Front cover
Underground by Shane W. Evans recently won The Coretta Scott King Book Award, which is given to African American authors and illustrators for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions. I'm writing about it in my blog for I find it visually fascinating, and it awoke a curiosity I could not shake.  I've already  written about a picturebook which could be read and shared with a view to talking about historical events, The Rabbits, and Underground is another  such title.  Based on the Underground Railroad,  a complex network of people, who helped slaves escape to freedom during the 1800's, it tells the story of how people got to freedom. A minimal verbal texts is accompanied by fabulous  illustrations, achieved with a mixture of collage and paintwork. Evans uses a very blue pallet, a night blue, dusky and dark yet everything is clearly visible in its blueness. This blue is  partnered with subtle uses of white, sharply cut bits of white.  Yellow appears too, moving from representing captors' windows and flaming torches to highlighting and shining upon conductors (those who helped the slaves) and the colour of day and freedom all in one.
Back cover
The picturebook: The front cover portrays fleeing slaves, dark and sinister, the whites of their eyes accentuating their look of fear.  Rays of light emanate from behind them, rays of hope possibly. The back cover is not part of a continuous picture, but instead the ending. The endpapers are plain dark blue, the colour of night and as we turn the pages we pass the title page, different only in that it is painted blue and there are a number of stars scattered across it.
The first opening also contains the copyright information and a dedication, those dark skinned faces from the front cover appear again, only just visible. We might not know what this story is about, but already we are apprehensive. 
Opening 2
Whisper this spread, "The escape.": the leading figure has his finger on his lips as the three creep away.  The whites of their eyes shining out at us, looking left, looking right, looking left.  In the background you can see the light shining from a curtainless window of the owners' house, that together with the light of the thin crescent moon casts a thin shadow across their bodies. 
And so each spread opens onto more dark, dusky blue. Shadowy figures hunched across the pages, "We are quiet."...
Opening 4
The yellow in this spread accentuates "The fear." It touches each runaway face like orange tinged caresses, but they remain hidden. Is the torch bearer friend or foe? The sheriff in the background is sending his men elsewhere.  And so, "We run. We crawl."  ...  
Opening 7
"We rest." All but daddy who keeps his eyes open, watching. 
It seems like an endless night, but it must represent many nights. The next page turn shows us one of the conductors, those in safe houses who helped the fleeing slaves. 
Opening 8
"We make new friends:" The yellow light is welcoming, the runaways are inside safe.  But their journey continues. "Others help." "Some don't make it." "We are tired." and suddenly we turn the page ...
Opening 11
The yellow light shines as the day begins, lighting a huddle of people. It took me several views to realise that it is a woman and a makeshift mid-wife, for the woman is having a baby, her belly bulging, her bent knees highlighted by the sun. Man and children look on as the wife moans. 
Opening 12
"The light." The woman blinks as the light shines upon her face.  Is it the woman or the man who declare what's immanent?  Or is it the event of birth they are referring to? In Portuguese and Spanish when a woman gives birth they refer to the giving of the light (dar a luz). It's the beginning whatever it is, the light over a new horizon. As we turn the page, the triumphant father holds his child high up and the words tell us, "The sun."
The final opening is jubilant :..
Opening 14
"Freedom. I am free. he is free: She is free. We are free."


If we close the book and linger on the back cover, we realise now who the happy family depicted there is.  The newly born baby is the center of attention, a child born in freedom. 


Evans himself admits that for most of us it is difficult to imagine what being a slave was like, being owned by someone else, someone who dictated what you did, how you did it and when you did it.  It is possibly easier to 'relate to opening the door to assist someone.'  Many risked their own lives by aiding and abetting runaway slaves. This picturebook cleverly mixes the flight of the slaves with the assistance they were given.  Its shapes and colours share an emotion that touches all of us.  Could we use this picturebook with students learning history through English?  I'd like to think so.  


On a website about to this picturebook, Shane  W. Evans writes:
In so many ways the simplicity of this book says it all. This experience for me as an author and illustrator was one of the more dynamic experiences in my career. This journey for me was truly one through the lives of a people searching for freedom in their hearts and souls. These journeys lead me "home" in so many ways back to my own community today. If we look around us we can see the spirit of what this movement represented. The idea of freedom is a powerful one that in this world has a duality; this quiet journey of "underground" reflects that in a powerful way. This book not only pays homage to the many that decided to "steal away to freedom" in the 1800's, it pays homage to those that continue the fight for freedom today.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Rain, please rain.

Front cover
I've chosen Rain by Manya Stojic to celebrate recent rainfalls here in Portugal.  We've gone for nearly five months without any rain, and things were looking parched, plants were small and shriveled and the local farmers could be seen in huddles shaking their heads as they looked at the ground under their feet.  Some parts of Portugal had been rained upon, but not my bit, then a couple of days ago a great storm raged through the night and left everything humming and smelling delicious.  We all sighed happily.  I remembered this lovely picturebook, Rain, a gift from Opal Dunn, who has introduced me to so many picturebooks over the years. 
Rain was Manya Stojic's debut picturebook of over a decade ago.  The illustrations are bright, visibly made with large paint strokes that give the whole book a  feeling of immediacy and joyfulness.  The arm waving baboon on the front cover initiates the frivolity, you can almost hear him calling out happily, "Rain! Yeah!"
Each page and spread is painted right to the edges, this draws the reader into the narrative, and with every page turn we are carried out into an African savannah and feel the animals emotions as they sense the coming rain. 
Title page
Not only are the illustrations bold and bright in this picturebook, but it's a print salient picturebook - the verbal text is also big and bold.  Here on the title page we are shown an adult and baby baboon (the dedication above the illustration reads "In memory of my dad Lyuba with whom I enjoyed watching thunderstorms") and the words shout out at us, big and black.  This page we have to read, "Rain, written and illustrated by Manya Stojic"  What a great opportunity to talk about special picturebooks, created by one person. 
Opening 1
Turn the page and we see heat, sizzling heat.  The yellow grass is painted as though flickering flames and the sun in the top verso corner radiates across the pale blue sky.  Big black letters spell out "It was hot." 
Opening 2
On the next spread we are shown and told how the first of the animals sense the rain is coming. Thus begins a cumulative crescendo... "The rain is coming! I can smell it.  I must tell the zebras."  
Opening 3
Warning of rain comes with a flash of lightening, and the repetitive refrain, "The rain is coming!" (...) Porcupine can smell it. We can see it.  We must tell the baboons." 
Opening 4
With the roll of thunder, the baboons hear it and so our crescendo grows.  "Porcupine can smell it. The zebras can see it.  We can hear it. We must tell the rhino."  Notice that the animals in the three illustrations I've featured are shown in part, close up and even upside down. I really like this minimalist way of illustrating, and it doesn't stop children from understanding. 
Next we see a rhino, with large drops of rain - he feels it. "I must tell the lion."
Opening 6
Onto the lion, who lounges across the spread, tongue out. He can taste it.  
Lots of lovely repetition, which we can encourage children to chorus with us as we tell and retell. And then it rained and rained, black font against a painterly blue background. And what does rain bring?  
Opening 8
Lots of green, and even though the rain has stopped everything continues to grow, and so begins a second repetitive refrain beginning with the lion and going back through all the other animals: "I can't taste the rain now" ... "but I can enjoy the shade of these big, green, leaves." 
Opening 10
Lovely "cool, soft, squelchy mud."  Each animal reappears and delights in the results of the rain.  
Opening 11
The baboons eat fresh juicy fruit; the zebras have a refreshing drink, and the porcupine reminds us that even though he can no longer smell the rain, it will come back. 
And our narrative comes full circle, the sun dries everything up and ...
Verso back page
Wonderful in its visual representation of landscapes and animals, this picturebook is also especially good for young children who are beginning to notice print. Truely great for sharing. 

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Copy Cat

Front cover
Copy Cat by Mark Birchall was sent to me by the publishers Child's Play at the end of last year, and I've been meaning to write about it ever since.  A lovely picturebook with a great little message and lots to see in the illustrations. 
"Cat was small and Dog was big, and whatever Dog did, Cat did too..."  Ever been 'copy catted'? This picturebook will go a long way in helping children overcome the frustration of 'putting up' with someone who's always around - it's a story about sharing, playing and being friends.
Back and front covers
Front and back covers make one complete picture, a bright blue sky and just the tips of a hills and mounts with occasional houses and trees on them. The title sits tightly in Cat's parachute, floating in behind Dog, already hinting at who copies who. But as we turn the pages, we'll discover that Cat is actually better than Dog, even if he is copying. Look at his happy face in comparison to Dog's, she looks plain scared!
End papers
The cameos of Cat and Dog on the endpapers continue to show us that Dog isn't as good as Cat at most things.  Cat can skate, Dog can't; Cat's plants grow strong and healthy, Dog's don't ... this message is shown in the illustrations only, throughout the picturebook, and I was left wondering if there is a deviousness to Mark Birchall's story, is he telling us boys are better than girls? That's one to wonder at!
Dedication and copyright page and title page
A fun set of dedications, imitating children's drawings and on the title page, our two characters are busy painting.  Cat copying Dog, but look, even here, Dog paints up side down, left to right, Cat paints upside down and right to left (even more skillful!).  This is a lovely title page, cleverly telling and showing. 
Opening 1
"Cat was small and Dog was big, and whatever Dog did, Cat did too." Dinosaur hunting.  Who saw the dino first?  Balancing on the hire wire, guess who is less wobbly! "'Copycat', said Dog."
Opening 3
They went digging for pirate treasure, and who finds it? Deep sea diving and off to the moon.  
Opening 6
It is here on the moon, that Dog really blew ... "Why must you always follow me?" Dog looks mad, and Cat does too (and in the background we can see that Dog didn't do too well at landing her red rocket).
Next day, Dog went dragon hunting (no Cat), then the day after she went looking for the North Pole (no Cat). She wanted to play soccer, but it's not much fun on your own, so she went to find Cat. 
Opening 9
Poor Cat, he had spots! So Dog looked after him, making him soup, giving him medicine and reading him stories and of course Cat got better.  So much better he went to find Dog, to play with. She wasn't anywhere to be found...
Opening 13
Dog was in bed with spots! Now who's a copycat? And of course Cat has to look after Dog now!   
There's a nice little final verso page, of the two friends, well and happy.  Dog leading with map in hand, but Cat knows the way, he can read the signs!  Off they go to The Great Unknown, together. 


It's a cute little book, nothing complex, just a good story, with a neat little message. The illustrations support the words, but if we look carefully they go beyond them - who really knows what to do and does it better?  But does it matter, as long as we do what we do with friends?