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.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A certain kind of rabbityness

Front cover
With a cover like this, a picturebook can't fail ...  it's Jo Empson's debut. She's fresh out of the Cambridge University MA for children's literature, and one of a number of exciting new talents. A great friend and storyteller,  Alec Williams, brought the book to my attention.  Not quite sure what adjective to use to describe it as it moves from life to death and back to life again.  
The front cover shows Rabbit, our character, very happy and surrounded by paint splodges giving the reader a clue to the special talents our rabbit hero brings to the rabbit community.  
The endpapers are delightful, Rabbit in various positions, black shadows against an olive green, showing us all the different activities rabbit enjoys doing... 
Front endpapers
The title page opposite the copyright page with a dedication to "... my big brother who liked doing unrabbity things too",  shows three rabbits ...
Close up of title page
They are looking in wonder at the title, if we return to this page after we might understand a little better why they are wondering at the word "Rabbityness". 
The picturebook continues with openings showing Rabbit doing rabbity things, all shown in Empson's singular watercolour of black and green. The illustrations are placed against a white background, using the grass to anchor the black rabbit figures to a non-existent ground. This reduced, minimal setting, helps us focus upon the character showing us Rabbit's rabbityness. Here he is hopping and jumping ...
Opening 1
On subsequent spreads he is twirling his whiskers, washing his ears, burrowing and sleeping.   The verbal text follows rabbit, undulating behind him, over him, through him and under him: it's quite lovely. 
Opening 3
Notice here on spread 3 how the font actually slopes downwards in the verso, as "Rabbit likes burrowing".  As Rabbit slows down and we are shown him sleeping the verbal text tells us, "Rabbit also liked doing unrabbity things."  Upon the page turn we are shown what he likes doing...
Opening 4
Wow!  We are shown a page covered in splashes of colour and almost miss the verbal text, which could be redundant anyway, "He liked painting..."  Rabbit is holding a paint brush skillfully between his ears and front paws, leaving splodges and splashes in his wake ... lovely!  But this colourful life Rabbit leads doesn't stop here...
Opening 5
Musical notes hang in the air like bunting as Rabbit blows skillfully into a didgeridoo. All this makes Rabbit very happy, and we are shown a closeup of his smiling face, just like the one on the front cover. His happiness was catchy and he made all the other rabbits happy too as he "filled the woods with colour and music".  We are seeing spreads full of colour, delicate, but happy colour, then we turn the page and ...
Opening 7
We are told Rabbit disappeared and shown a bare spread, with grey leaves falling, a stark contrast to the earlier colourful spreads. 
Opening 8
The woods are grey and the other rabbits are sad - the spread oozes sadness. But then the rabbits discover "a DEEP dark hole", left by Rabbit. 
Opening 10
Down in the hole, (the words follow the hole downwards) the other rabbits discover that "Rabbit had left them some gifts" ... "things to make colours and music". We can see drums, didgeridoos, paint brushes, and bright bunting, and though it took time these "rabbits discovered they enjoyed doing unrabbity things too". This reminded them of Rabbit and made them happy ... 
Opening 13
... and they filled the woods with colour and music again. Rabbit has left these rabbits with a gift to discover their own creativeness. Just look at them all enjoying themselves. 
The final spread shows us Rabbit ... his back turned as though he's hopping away.  He can leave now he knows his friends have successfully discovered their different talents. 
Opening 14
Rabbityness looks at individuality and creativity and, as it does so, the reader is shown how they can deal with the loss of something precious.  It's a special picturebook, simple and beautiful and very suitable for younger learners. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The fish who could wish

Front cover
I thought I'd stick with illustrator Korky Paul for this next post and share a picturebook I have had on my shelf for ages.  It's always nice to go back to books and rediscover them, and this is what I did with The fish who could wish. Written by John Bush.  Written in rhyme...
"In the deep blue sea,
In the deep of the blue,
Swam a fish who could wish,
And each wish would come true.
He wishes for a castle.
He wished for a car.
But one day he wished
Just  a little too far... "
It is a silly story, but one with a message. 
The front cover shows us the special fish, bright orange in contrast to the slightly opaque fish in the background. He's looking quite a ease... a line of bubbles leading us to his thought, the title of this book - when we return to the cover after reading the story we will smile at the reference to the past, The fish who could wish!  
The bubbles appear through out the visual narrative, linking the fish and his wishes...
The endpapers also show the fish, his bubbles floating up and off the spread ...
Front end papers
The title page shows our fish as though he is telling his story, his fin held high. 
Title page
There was once ...
Opening 1
Always orange and brighter than anything else on the page we see the fish about to wish.  The underworld is luscious with shipwrecks and lots of envious fish. Opening 1 is interesting as the illustration has three white borders, but goes right to the top edge.  
Opening 2
The following spreads contain the fish's wish within a framed illustration, broken only by his bubble. I interpret this as a description of his wish ... the fish is remembering all the fun he had! He wished for a castle, a car, for a horse and a Spanish guitar ... in each illustration the fish is seen in his splendour, the other fish looking more than miffed! 
Opening 4
Our fish wished he could ski and that he could fly.  The illustrations show a proud fish doing just that, lovely undersea blue-green colours in contrast to our bright orange fish. 
Opening 6
Opening 6 is fun, with the fish literally flying around the world, space ships for company.  The calm underwater scene at the bottom of the recto page shows him remembering what he had been able to do. 
Opening 9
Opening 9 is one of my favourite spreads, the fish confidently turning into all sorts of shapes, and below he looks flippantly up at the illustration... it was so easy!
Opening 10
Opening 10 shows the culmination of our fish's silliness,  wearing smart clothes and silk ties ... and he is portrayed on the verso page rather bashfully, as though he admits he really was a bit extravagant.  
Opening 11
Korky Paul prepares us visually for the terrible ending, we read in the verbal text ... "he wished the silliest wish" - we see him swimming away from the wonderful things he had wished for in his life and you will notice that he is in the illustration, no longer looking back at his experience. His wish bubbles are floating upwards and out of the page, going nowhere ...
Opening 12
"That silly fish wishes he could be like all the other fish ..." and sure enough no more bubbles, no more wishes and the shoal of fish around him realise immediately ... and so does our bright orange fish, ooops!  
And we turn the page again to see the same endpapers we saw at the beginning, the fish who could wish!


Scholastic have a short series of activities which focus on the skill of developing self-awareness through the act of wishing.  It's devised for smaller children, but the process of reflecting on what the fish did and talking about it is suitable for older children.  
The theme of wishing is an exciting one, especially when the children realise that wishes are limitless and they can have some fun describing and writing about them.  Even better when wishes become directed to resolving problems in the world.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Winnie the witch at 25...

Original front cover 1987
New front cover 2006
Did you know that Winnie will be 25 on the 13th July?  Doesn't she look great?!  Illustrated by Korky Paul and written by Valerie Thomas, Winnie the Witch was first published in 1987,  she has featured in more than a dozen picturebooks and is also in a series of young fiction titles written by Laura Owen. The cover seen on the left is the original one from 1987, the one on the left is from 2006. 
Korky Paul creates his characters and settings by taking "the obvious and imbuing it with that exaggerated and distorted Korky Paul look." He describes how he came upon Winnie's lovely black house, "In 'Winnie the Witch', Valerie Thomas used only one adjective to describe our heroine's home - 'black'. My initial sketches showed a picturesque cottage complete with thatched roof and exposed timber beams. The results were dull boring and obvious. 'What's the opposite of a cottage?' I asked myself Answer: 'Stately Home'. Once I had hit upon this idea the book opened up for me. All the rooms and paraphernalia of a stately home would serve as a wonderful and dramatic back drop for Winnie's antics with her cat, Wilbur. The real challenge lay in illustrating it all in black! " 
Let's have a look at the black that links this witchy narrative... Both covers show Winnie falling over her black cat.  Korky Paul says he designs his front covers last, and that it is based on "one, or a combination of illustrations from the book." He looks for "a scene that is a synopsis, a visual shorthand of the story without revealing any twists or surprise endings. It must also clearly show the main protaganist." Indeed this front cover does just that, for those of you who know the story, you can nod knowing - this is the problem which sets our story
The end papers ... 
Front endpapers
Korky Paul writes: "The endpapers I use as an opportunity to design a bold graphic statement to express the essence of the book. It's an enjoyable exercise and can prove quite difficult to find a neat, simple solution. The splashes of colour I used in 'Winnie' is a good example of a bold graphic design giving a flavour of the story." Upon returning to these endpapers we recognize them as the slashes of colour which emanate from Winnie's wand. 
Title page
The title page (it's also the image on the back cover) shows Winnie about to step on her cat, again a clue about the problem she has to overcome in the following pages.
The first opening shows us that wonderfully elaborate black house and the matter of fact description which begins,"... The house was black on the outside and black on the inside ..."
Opening 1
We don't actually get introduced to Wilbur, the black cat, till opening 2.  A cosy scene shows Winnie and Wilbur together in apparent domestic bliss...
Opening 2
Everything is black, well shades of black, except Winnie and some dubious green stuff near Winnie's chair.  And because Wilbur was black too "... that was how the trouble started."
Winnie could see Wilbur if he had his eyes open, for they were green, but as soon as he fell asleep, something cats do lots of, she couldn't see him, so... she sat on him, tripped over him on the carpet or on the stairs. The verbal text is wonderfully repetitive and a joy to read.  The illustrations are comic-book-like, appearing in multiple frames, often showing the before and after ... 
Opening 5
Opening 5 is one of a series of examples.  We see the fall, described as "nasty" by the words and shown as verrrry nasty in the illustrations. So, Winnie does her magic, "ABRACADABRA"  and Wilbur is bright green! 
Opening 6
Clever Winnie!  She can see Wilbur when he "... slept on the chair (...)  slept on the floor [and] ... when he slept on the bed." And of course he's not allowed to sleep on the bed! So she sends him outside, onto the lawn ... you can guess what happens of course..."Winnie came hurrying outside, tripped over Wilbur, turned three somersaults, and fell into a rose bush." And Winnie got mad!
Opening 8
Worse than mad... furious! This spread is a great example of the perfect page-turner... we see a furious Winnie, wand splurging colour and the words tell us... "She picked up her magic wand, waved it five times and ..." We know what's going to happen, but we have to turn the page to see. 
Opening 9
Wilbur is described in the words, but we are shown how he feels - he is a sad looking cat; we are told that Winnie is happy as she can see him wherever he goes, "... even when he climbed to the top of the tallest tree." And though Wilbur's bright colours focus our gaze upon the top of the tree, if we look down we can see Winnie is looking up at him... Is she worried? 
Korky Paul uses his cartoon frames on the next spread ... 
Opening 10
A desperate Wilbur and over time, a desperate Winnie.  So Winnie sensibly change Wilbur back to his lovely black and together, they face the problematic black house and Winnie does her magic...
Opening 12
And that black house we know so well is a lovely yellow one, with a red roof and red doors... and if you compare the black house with the yellow one you will see the bedroom and the bathroom have swapped places! But the important thing is that Winnie can see Wilbur everywhere now.

Korky Paul writes: "In a picture book it is essential these two elements [picture and word] are tightly integrated to tell the story successfully. I frequently use a comic-book layout, which in turn is rooted in cinema. Close-up shots, long-shots, events happening off camera are all cinematic devices used to tell a story effectively and dramatically." Upon returning to this picturebook, one I've taken for granted for so long, I've rediscovered its magic and the reason why Winnie has remained such a successful character, a 25-year old star skillfully created by Korky Paul.  

If you don't know the ELT teachers' notes for Winnie written by Jane Cadwallader, do look out for them: lots of fun activities focussing almost entirely on the concepts to be found in this picturebook: colours, bodyparts and furniture. But you don't need these activities, you can just share the picturebook with your students and enjoy the way the pictures and words come together so brilliantly to make a truely funny picturebook.  Magical in fact!

If you want to celebrate Winnie's birthday - 25 years is a biggie ... check out her website, and download some fun birthday activities.There's loads to do!

The srticle by Korky Paul I  have quoted from can be found here.