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, January 26, 2013

Who conquered who?

Front cover
The conquerors by David McKee has been on my 'to blog about' list for a while.  It's one of his later books, first published in 2004 - I think he's only published one more since (Denver, 2010).  It's typical of McKee's work, a modern day parable created with crayon filled ink-line drawings, and spreads covered with figures all looking the same until you peer closely and see that each is uniquely different. It's brilliant and fits alongside his other picturebooks about war and conflict: Three Monsters, Tusk Tusk, and Six men
My copy is paperback and a 2011 edition... as with all good picturebooks the front and back covers are one continuous illustration, the conquerors marching into the book. 
Front and back covers
The black background of the back cover gives the smiling soldiers an almost menacing look as they follow in lines behind a smiling general. All stocky, with pin legs, yet faces as individual as any, with hooked, bulbous or ski sloping noses!
The front end papers ...
Front endpapers
...show the conquering taking place, at least this what we can presume. A red cannon ball zooms across the spread, and smoke and fire covers any view of anything in particular. 
The title page and dedication are strikingly peaceful after all the bombing ...
Copyright and title pages
The large title hangs over an illustration of the General and his family, guarded by two soldiers, smiling out at the reader. They look too kind and nice to be conquerors! 
But our story begins by telling us that indeed they are...
Opening 1
The General ruled over a large country which had a strong army and a cannon. Every now and then he'd attack another country nearby, "'It's for their own good,' he said. 'So they can be like us.'"  Like us?  What are these people like? The women are blond and the men (and boys) wear scull caps.   
Opening 2

In the next opening we see the General ordering his troops to attack, the canon is shooting and the soldiers are marching towards a town, a middle Eastern town, blocks of white buildings with the occasional dome. The town's men are baldheaded, and its no coincidence that they are all wearing similar clothes, quite different from those we have seen worn by the people ruled by the General. The smoke and fire evokes the scene we saw on the front endpapers. 
And so the General has conquered all the countries except for one very small one, and he decides he might as well conquer that one too. The people wave their troops off with white hankies, smiling from the windows in their tall white apartment blocks.  But upon arrival the General is surprised. There was no resistance, they were greeted as if guests. The following pages show the General and his soldiers gradually being won over by this small country and its friendly people. 
Opening 4
In opening 4 we see that their homes, bungalow-like houses with tiles on the roofs, are different to any we've seen so far. They wear different clothes too, the men wear hats, but not scull caps, and the women wear Muslim headscarves and long robes.  You can see the soldiers feeling unsure as the people give them lodging. In the following spreads, we are shown the soldiers eat and drink with the people, share jokes, stories and songs. They play their games and listen to their stories. They watch the people preparing their food and enjoy eating it.  Then, because there was no resistance or trouble, the soldiers have nothing to do but help the people with their chores.   At this the General gets angry and sends the soldiers home replacing them with new ones...
Opening 7
In opening 7 we see the new soldiers arriving, pristine and serious, marching together in unison towards the small country.  The other soldiers are a muddle, they are talking to each other, laughing and jolly - one looks like he is in love, his eyes are closed and he is smiling to himself. Another is arriving late, his hand on his hat as though straightening it after being off duty.  Soon the General realises he doesn't need many soldiers in this small country, so he goes back home, leaving a few soldiers to keep an eye on things. The people watch smiling as the soldiers and their General march away. 
Opening 9
... and what do the soldiers do?  Take off their uniforms and happily join the people in their daily tasks.  We can see everyone greeting them and indeed the soldiers seem very happy about the whole business!
Back at home the General gets on with being a General.  But things were different. 
Opening 11
The little country is present in the food he smelt, the games he sees his people playing and the clothes they are beginning to wear.  And if we look at the illustration we can see images that resemble those we saw in earlier spreads: games, muslim headscarves and long dresses, hats with brims and different tunics and the General is smiling as he smells the delicious food they are cooking in the kitchen. "Ah! The spoils of war." he thinks... 
Opening 12
The final spread shows the General sitting on his son's bed, in mid song.  They both look happy and content and as we read the words we smile to ourselves, for the General can only remember the songs from the little country he conquered, and so these are the songs he sings. 
Not quite finished... 
Back endpapers
Those end papers bring our narrative to a peaceful end.  The sun is shining over a land no longer at war ... a conquered land.

Can the violent ways of conquerors be countered by unorthodox means?  Is it possible to win with non-violence and kindness?  What is the nature of colonisation?  How do we see the customs of others around us? There's so much to talk about after sharing this picturebook, that its simplicity is misleading.  

Another book about being conquered and colonised is Rabbits (Marsden & Tan), which I have blogged on here. Its visual narrative is aggressive in comparison to McKee's The Conquerors, yet we are left with similar questions. 

A picturebook to make our students think, and hopefully talk about their thinking. 

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