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 04, 2013

A feisty princess

Back in May I spent a wonderful week at Malmo University, Sweden. The weather was amazing and as the university is right alongside the river the students enjoyed basking in the early summer sun! 

I gave a talk about picturebooks and critical literacy. One of the picturebooks I shared was The paper bag princess written by Robert Munsch and Illustrated by Michael Martchenko.  It's a classic, published in 1980 and still a best seller. Because it plays around with the helpless princess and dragon thing and challenges stereotypes, it's particularly useful for getting children to think about what we take for granted as the norm. 

If you go to Robert Munsch's website, here, there's a lovely description of how he created the story. There's also a great reading of the story, which is so dramatic, it's well worth sharing with your group of children, just for the fun of it!
Front cover
I have a paperback, Scholastic, Little Hippo version, published in 1990. There are no endpapers or exciting peritextual bits.  I have no idea what the original version of this picturebook was like. The front cover is a repeat of an illustration on opening 4. It shows us two of the main characters, Princess Elizabeth and the dragon.  
Title page
The title page shows us, again, what Elizabeth looks like as a paper bag princess. Notice that she's smiling and doesn't seem at all worried at the idea of wearing a paper bag instead of a posh frock!

This picturebook has been designed so that each opening shows an illustration on recto and the text on verso.  I've only photographed the verso illustrations. 

Opening 1
The first opening is typical of all princess stories. A beautiful princess doting on a prince. The words tell us that she lives in a castle and has expensive princess clothes. They also tell us she is going to marry a prince called Ronald. The illustration shows a bored prince who doesn't look at all excited about the prospect of marrying a princess. 

Nothing is as it seems. "Unfortunately a dragon smashed her castle, burned all her clothes and carried off Prince Ronald."  There's a great illustration of Ronald being taken away, the dragons claws clutching at his breeches. 

Opening 3
What does Elizabeth do? She decides to get her Ronald back. This illustration on opening 3 shows her determination. "She looked everywhere for something to wear but the only thing that she could find that wasn't burnt was a paper bag."  No matter what, she would save her prince. Off she goes following the dragon's trail of "burnt forests and horses' bones."

Elizabeth found her dragon, in a cave with a large door. She knocked on the door and the dragon answered, "Well, a princess! I love to eat princesses, but I have already eaten a whole castle today. I am a very busy dragon. Come back tomorrow."

Opening 5
But Elizabeth didn't give up... She used her brains... "Is it true you are the smartest and fiercest dragon in the whole world?"  Just look at that cocksure dragon. "Is it true that you can burn up ten forests with your fiery breath?" asks Elizabeth. Of course the dragon replied "Yes" and "breathed out so much fire that he burnt up fifty forests." That was pretty amazing, then he burnt up one hundred forests and even though Elizabeth encouraged him to do it again, he "didn't even have enough fire left to cook a meatball."

Opening 8
Elizabeth just kept on asking ... "Dragon is it true that you can fly around the world in just ten seconds?" Of course the dragon replies "Yes!" and off he went. That's quick! Elizabeth was excited when he got back, "Fantastic, do it again." And so he did and was so tired when he got back that he just lay down on the ground and slept. Well who wouldn't be tired after going round the world twice in twenty seconds!

Opening 10

Elizabeth checked the dragon really was asleep, which included shouting in his ear, but he was so tired he didn't even move. But someone else did... can you see Prince Ronald at the window?  Waving wildly.

And what do you think Ronald did when she freed him from the dragon's cave?

Opening 11
He was the rudest prince ever. He said, "Elizabeth, you are a mess! You smell like ashes, your hair is all tangled and you are wearing a dirty old paperbag. Come back when you are dressed like a real princess."

Now what do you think about that?  What would you do if you were Elizabeth?  Most girls are absolutely certain they'd punch him in the nose!

Opening 12
Can you read what she said?  But you can certainly see what she did!  She said very firmly, "Ronald your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince, but you are a toad." And of course they didn't get married!

In fact, in Robert Munsch's first draft he had Elizabeth punching Ronald's nose, but it looked too violent in the illustrations, so he changed it!  And in Canada Elizabeth calls Ronald a "Bum". That's an interesting cultural difference, we'd never say that in a picturebook in the UK!

So, a great little story to get upper primary kids thinking about stereotypes.  By way of getting them to ponder over princesses before you tell the story, how about asking them to think or write three words or expressions which they associate with “princess”. Can they think of any stories with princesses in?  I'll bet they name some of these disney ones...
Once you've told the story talk about feelings and get them to consider the following: 
How do you think Ronald feels …
…when he is carried off by the dragon?
…when Elizabeth opens the door to rescue him?
How do you think Elisabeth feels …
…when Ronald is carried off by the dragon?
…when she knocks on the dragon’s door?
…when Ronald tells her to come back when she looks like a real princess? 
…at the end of the story?

Just how many stories do they know about princesses like this story? By sharing and talking about picturebooks like this we are helping our students to disrupt the commonplace, interrogate multiple view-points and even touch on sociopolitical issues ... these are three of the four dimensions of  Critical Literacy according to Lewison, Flint & van Sluys.  The fourth is to take action and promote social justice.  That's not so easy in our classes, but less far away when we share these kinds of picturebooks.

LEWISON, M. FLINT, A.S. & VAN SLUYS, K. (2002) Taking on critical literacy: the journey of newcomers and novices. Language Arts Vol. 79, 5, pp. 382-392


Unknown said...


Glad to see you have read The paper bag princess written by Robert Munsch . It's one of my favourites. This was the author I was always talking about. "Love you forever" is the most beautiful story that he has and I my kids love the one about the fire station. Have you read them too.


Don Goodman said...

Hi, there! I haven't read Paper Bag and reading your post makes me want to buy a copy. The questions are very interesting to discuss with students. Thanks for this post.