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.

Showing posts with label teenagers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label teenagers. Show all posts

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.  

Sunday, May 06, 2012

The book of phobias

Front cover
Little Mouse's Big book of fears is actually by Emily Gravett, even though Little Mouse really has contributed to its brilliance - he's a sort of Emily Gravett avatar!  It's gobsmackingly wonderful and until recently I wasn't quite sure how it could fit into the world of ELT.  How short-sighted of me.  
I remember when I read an interview in the Guardian, cut out and sent to me by my father who knew I'd have missed it otherwise.  There the journalist takes great pleasure in highlighting how Gravett used her daughter's mice to create many of the nibbled and stained pages of this picturebook.  We are looking at real mouse pee, real mouse nibbles as well as a load of very clever collage and skillful sketching in all sorts of mediums, all captured by today's advanced printing technologies!  It's not surprising it won the Nestlé Children's Book Prize when it first came out in 2007. 
The front cover has a whopping great nibbled hole in it, Little Mouse at his best.  Emily Gravett's name has been roughly crossed out and replaced with "Little Mouse's", whose fright-filled face can be seen through the nibbled hole.  The ledger-like note book has a second hand, stained, battered and well used look and feel to it, the inside spreads are that dark yellowy brown that comes to books that have been on shelves for a while.
Front endpapers
The endpapers are covered in hieroglific-like characters, we aren't really sure what they are at this point, but upon returning to them it's clear they are the visual representations of many of the phobias mentioned in the book. But the front endpapers contain other important information too: we are introduced to our front cover graffiti artist, lugging the pencil that did the dead.  He's looking up at a clipped cutting (or nibbling): the challenge that leads this story. In short this is a self-help book, where the reader is asked to fill every "large, blank, space" with a combination of drawing, writing and collage. "Remember a fear faced is a fear defeated."
Close-up of front endpaper
The title page continues with the same graffiti and nibbling stunt and we are into the ledger. From the title page we see Little Mouse's face and he's clutching the pencil, when we turn the page we realise he's been wrapped in a spider's web.  
Opening 1
But as our eyes scan the illustration, we see the die hole nibble in verso opens up onto a spider which was on the copyright page, and the handwritten "I'm scared of creepy crawlies (especially spiders!)". That's when we notice the top of each page of the spread, verso indicates "Arachnophobia (Fear of spiders)" and recto "Entomophobia (Fear of insects)", each with the request to, "Use the space below to record your fears." We take all this in and begin piecing together the information we are shown and told, but we are only beginning, for each spread challenges us in different ways to find the pieces. Nevertheless, it begins the visual verbal structure we encounter throughout the picturebook. 
As we turn the pages, Little Mouse faces each fear, he doesn't look very confident and the pencil he drags along with him gets sharpened one end and nibbled the other, shavings and nibbles are scattered everywhere, as it gets shorter! Little Mouse faces "Teratophia (Fear of monsters)" and "Clinophobia (Fear of going to bed)", connected across the spread by a large bed with many pairs of eyes peering from the under-the-bed- darkness.
Opening 3
On opening 3 Little Mouse faces his fear of knives, "Aichmophobia", holding his tail tightly between his legs he peers up at a sweet get well card (showing a chubby mouse with his tail bandaged up), a poster for The Amazing Flying Mousecrobats, three blind circus mice who use "their tails and sense of smell to guide them", and a photo of three white mice in dark glasses, with their tails cut. This collection of memorabilia is aced by the life-like "The Farmer's Friend" newspaper cutting on the recto ...
Close up of opening 3
Dozens of plays on words: the children's nursery rhyme, Three Blind Mice,  is retold in an article about Mrs Sabatier from Deep Cut Farm, who managed to rid herself of "a trio of cheese-mad rodents". There's a photo of her triumphantly holding the three tails above an advert for The Amazing Flying Mousecrobats Circus cancelled "due to unforeseen circumstances". The fold over flap is an advert for "Three fab knives".  
If left open the flap (an array of adverts about bathrooms and plumbing) contributes to the visual verbal play on the next spread, where Little Mouse faces "Ablutophobia (Fear of bathing)" and "Hydrophobia (Fear of water)". Then onto "Dystychiphobia (Fear of accidents)" and "Rupophobia (Fear of dirt)".  The toilet theme continues though this time in relation to having accidents! Appropriately stuck onto the page with plasters, the toilet advert has tiny sketches of how a tiny mouse can actually reach the loo seat ... too late though, Little Mouse has already had an accident, and embarrassed he is about it too!
Opening 6
There are more intertextual references as poor Little Mouse faces his next fears: Ligyrophobia (Fear of loud noises) and Chronomrntrophobia (Fear of clocks).  Brilliantly shown with a reference to the traditional nursery rhyme Hickory, Dickory, Dock, poor mouse is ricocheted across the shuddering face of a paper clock, with the tall grandfather at 1 o'clock and the sheet music (rewritten by Emily Gravett) nibbled, torn and covered in mouse prints,  in the background.  That pencil is getting a good deal shorter!
"Isolophobia (Fear of solitude)" shows Little Mouse quite alone on the verso looking fearfully at the black recto page.  But, Gravett's tour de force is the following spread, Opening 8:
Opening 8
Here we are presented with "WhereamIophobia (Fear of getting lost)" ... no it's not a real phobia, but made up by Emily Gravett! and "Acrophobia (Fear of heights)".  The spread doesn't look that amazing really, but the map of "Isle of Fright" is an incredible piece of illustration, unfolding to show us the island in detail.  You can what shape the island is  from the cover and some of the places of interest include an owlery, a cat on a fence, Deep Cut Farm, and giant spiders' webs.  These are references to phobias encountered in the picturebook.
Close up of opening 8 with opened map
Once opened up, the map is pure delight and covered in hilarious places and references to Little Mouse's fears.  The village at the south end of the island is called "Loose Bottom", there's a straight of water called "Farmer's Cut" which separates the mainland from "Tail End", at "Sharp Point".  The island to the south is calls "Oops"!  These are just a few of the fun names and descriptions to be found, often referring back to previous spreads and fears. The key, shows us that the colours represent a continuum from green (edgy) to red (petrified!); the scale is shown in "500 mouse bpm to 70 human bpm" - brilliant!  And that's not all, the back of the map, which may go unnoticed,  has little notes and sketches giving us directions to Wide Eye Lake (I think!).  
You'd think that was it, but no!  There are still more fears. "Ornithophobia (Fear of birds)" and "Phagophoboa (Fear of being eaten)", where Little mouse is chased by real feathers (with eyes and teeth) and a very scary looking owl. Then onto "Cynophobia (Fear of dogs)" and "Ailurophobia (Fear of cats)".  Here Little Mouse has sketched and collaged a dog, next to the words "I get nervous near dogs", but if we focus we see that the dog is made up of all sorts of photos and cuttings of cats, and a fold back postcard of a dog tells us that in fact Little Mouse is ... 
Close up of opening 10 with flap
"... PETRIFIED of CATS!" Poor Little Mouse is really in a bad way.  The penultimate spread shows him cowering , afraid of his own shadow, "Panophobia (Fear of everything)" and "Sciaphobia (fear of shadows)" And the words tell us, "I'm afraid of nearly everything I see. But even though I'm very small ..."
Opening 12
Ahhh, after all that facing of fears it is good to know that there are those out there that suffer from "Musophobia (Fear of mice)"! Look at Little Mouse's posture, and smiley face, he's got through the book and is feeling tall.  He hugs his pencil stub, which has faithfully served him as he did just as Emily Gravett suggested on the front endpapers. 
And the back endpapers? True to form, Gravett has used them to give us the ending:
Back endpapers
A contented Little Mouse, hugging his pencil, covered in bits of paper with references to the fears he has overcome, birds' feathers, receipts, bits from the collection of collages he used and drawings of Little Mouse being brave (frightening a spider; pointing a sword at a cat etc). And there's a dedication, two in fact: the picturebook is dedicated to anyone who is has musophobia but that's crossed out and replaced by a dedication to "The fabulous rats Button and Mr Moo who taught me everything I know about nibbling." 
Back cover
The back cover shows Little Mouse, now free of his pencil, grasping at the book shop receipt, which tells us the condition the book is in: Used: "Poor, scribbled in, rodent damage". Look closely and you will see what time the book was bought, "Stroke of one" and it was paid for by "MOUSTRO UK". 

Woah!  What a brilliant picturebook!  

Lots of possibilities for slightly older children who will enjoy the madness of the layout and find the phobias fascinating.  They could make their own collage of something they are afraid of by following the instructions in an activity sheet, or an arachnophobia door hanger.  

Older students might enjoy discussing some of the phobias, making up a phobia like the Whereamiophobia and describing the symptoms. Write a short dialogue between Little Mouse and a journalist about one of the phobias, using the illustrations as a prompt. Enjoy the detailed illustrations, in particular the map of the Isle of Fright.  Could the students create a map of an Island based on the one in the picturebook and have fun giving directions. 

Look at some of the phobias carefully. How much Greek or Latin do we know?
Ablutophobia – Latin ablutere = to wash off
AilurophobiaGreek αἴλουρος (aílouros) = cat
Chronophobia – Greek xρόνος (choronos) = time
Hydrophobia – Greek ὕδωρ (hudōr) = water
Musophobia – Latin mus = mouse

Finally for much older students include this picturebook when discussing phobias and fears and use a series of question prompts from ESL Discussions

How TERRIBLY short-sighted it was of me to not think this picturebook could be used in an ELT classroom. 

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The rabbits came many grandparents ago

Front and back covers
The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan is one of those picturebooks that leaves you gaping from a mixture of shock and admiration. It was the third picturebook illustrated by Shaun Tan to reach my bookshelf and to be featured on this blog.  I've featured The Lost Thing and The red tree
Both Marsden and Tan are Australians and through this picturebook make a very clear statement about cultural awareness, expertly creating an allegorical tale of colonialism. The Rabbits  has been used in secondary schools since it was published in 1998 in areas of the curriculum that include English, Art and Technology, Philosophy, History, Geography and Environmental Studies.  But has it been used in ELT?  Let's see if I can convince the readers of my blog to consider its possibilities.
I've taken a photo of the front and back covers together - the image is so powerful: a huge ship with a pointed, harpoon-like prow. Napoleon-like creatures stalk around on pin legs, we can't quite make out what they are... though from the title they have to be rabbits. That strip of red on the back cover is actually a collage, a piece of red cloth, fraying at the edges.  Could it be from the flags? Or from the invader's coat?  The words on this fraying piece read:
"The rabbits came many grandparents ago.
They built houses, made roads, had children.
They cut down trees.
A whole continent of rabbits ..."
The front endpapers
The endpapers are a calm blue-lilac.  Clean water, the home to graceful, long legged birds.  What a contrast to the front cover.  Is this the land these invaders have arrived at, that they will soon be invading? 
The half title page
The dark brown half title page imitates the format of a well known flag, with pen-inked squiggly writing and some sort of shield in the centre, superimposed over a map.  You can peer and peer, but nothing can be discerned or made out.  
The title page comes next: a ripped sheet of paper, covering that blue-lilac bird-filled lake. We can see that some of the paper has begun to soak up the water, turning the white into a creeping grey, the birds are moving away from us, their backs are turned and they are all looking to the right, they've seen something we can't see yet.   The white paper  is both a cover as well as a vehicle for the pond life, as flowers are growing from its edges and dragon flies hum towards the dedications. The title font, as on the front cover, is not quite normal, the 'e' has a strange wave under it and the 't' is uncharacteristic.  Are these letters from a past, letters that have changed over time to those we know and recognize today?
Opening 1
Opening 1 confirms our haunch, the birds are indeed fleeing, if the book had sound we would hear their calls of alarm, we would hear the snakes hiss in warning.  What is that strange black chimney in the horizon? What are the fossil-like shapes in the dark cave behind the snakes?  Does Tan want us to think of the time these fossils have taken to form? An age-old land.   We read an invisible narrator's words, "The rabbits came many grandparents ago". 
Opening 2
This illustration is of an immense land, home to tiny creatures, birds and insects.  It has been marked by the wheels of a strange machine, which we can just make out on the horizon.  Two worlds meet and wonder at each other: "They looked a bit like us ..."  they were creatures, they had ears and tails, but they wore clothes and had strange machines... "There weren't many of them. Some were friendly."
And soon more came, and the old people warned us all... "they came by water."  And we see the front and back cover as a spread, even more frightening now as we have begun the story, we know the significance of these strange creatures. 
We are told and shown how different they are:
Opening 5
"They didn't live in trees like we did. They made their own houses." This particular spread gives us information in layers. The slightly lighter blue strip at the top is the original layer and belongs to the narrators. They are sitting in their trees, watching their world change. The darker blue is a superimposed layer, the result of the rabbits: we see both the buildings being built and what they will look like. The buildings are like puzzles, already spewing black smoke. Everything is mechanical, even the rabbits seem so, the symmetry emphasizing the mechanical way they changed the world.  
Opening 6
Not only were the rabbits' homes different, but "...they brought new food, and they brought other animals."   The illustrations show us massive grass eating sheep, machines dressed in lambs' wool.  Cows, already marked for the butcher's knife.  The land is covered in these strange creatures, either in the fields or pilled high on spindly locomotives.  More words tell us that "... some of the animals scared us."  But that's not all, "... some of the food made us sick" (the last three words turned upside down, as though rolling over with belly ache).  The illustration shows a rabbit giving a bottle to the aboriginal creature collaged upon another illustration of a dried up water bed, littered with flapping, gasping fish. 
There was no stopping the rabbits, they spread across the country. There was fighting, "but there were too many rabbits"
Opening 8
"We lost the fights." Those fossils we saw at the beginning, denoting an ancient world, dominated above by the rabbits' flags, the aboriginals, prisoners in their age old world, defeated below. 
The atrocities continue: "They ate our grass. They chopped down our trees and scared away our friends... "
Opening 10
I find this spread the most shocking: hundreds of kites, with baby animals inside, being pulled by strange air machines.  Mother creatures, as though dancing, hands raised towards their children, you can almost hear them moaning.  And the rabbits, big and black, their vertical backs turned against the mothers. They have red and yellow eyes and the peacock feather pens mirror these evil eyes, dripping with the blood red ink they have just used to write on the certificates. These contain the verbal text of this page, each word on a separate sheet of paper, as though being spoken in jerks of distress,  "and . stole . our . children."
Opening 11
"... everywhere we look there are rabbits."  The statue in recto, a large rabbit, the motto MIGHT = RIGHT.  A grey automated world, polluted and literally filled with rabbits, right to the very edges of the page.  Can you see the only aboriginal creatures on the steps of the statue?  The fallen kite? The rabbits holding masks? The gigantic curved chimneys, sucking in the blue sky and puffy clouds? A curious image, a frightening image.
"The land is bare and brown and the wind blows empty across the plains. Where is the rich dark earth brown and moist? Where is the smell of rain dripping from the trees? Where are the lakes, alive with long legged birds?"
A final verso page shows a small cameo illustration against a black background.  Two solitary creatures, a rabbit and an aboriginal. 
Back verso
"Who will save us from the rabbits?".  The land is wasted, littered with bones, lost and broken pieces of machinery and empty bottles.  A small water hole reflects the stars in the sky.  Can we read this as an image of hope?  Is there any hope left? If we turn again to the back endpapers, we return to the bird-filled lake of cool lilac-blue water. A distant memory?  A possible future?

When I first saw this picturebook I got goose bumps, and every time I look at it I get that goose bumpy feeling. It's quite something.  A simple verbal text alongside such complex visual images, makes for much interpretation.  There are many issues here and therefore lots of opportunities for talk and discussion.  If you are teaching English through history, could this picturebook be of use? If your programme includes such topics as multiculturalism, could it be of use? Or, if you happen to have a group of interested teenagers, keen to talk and discuss, keen to put the world to rights, could this book be of use?  I'd say 'yes' on all three occasions.   

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The house that crack built

Front cover
Not long ago a friend and colleague asked me if I knew this picturebook, The house that crack built by Clark Taylor and Jan Dicks.    I didn't, was intrigued and ordered it.  
My recent focus on traditional songs and rhymes is an excellent background for this particular title, which takes the familiar children's nursery rhyme, This is the house that Jack built  and turns it into a thought provoking picturebook about the drug trade and cocaine addition. What's so clever about taking such a topic and creating a picturebook is the wider audience it reaches. Children in primary can understand the simple text and look at and question the illustrations.  Older students, teens and young adults, can use both the words and illustrations as a spring board for deeper, more thought provoking discussion.   It's cumulative rhyme has a hip-hop beat to it, which again makes it very suitable for teens. The house that crack built was published nearly twenty years ago with the intention of helping children understand how to make the right choice about drugs. The proceeds of sales go towards drug education, prevention and rehabilitation programs that specifically help children.  
Le Rêve by Pablo Picasso (1932)

Let's take a look at the illustrations.  The front cover depicts the street where it all happens.  The two more realistic figures reappear in the picturebook on the title page and on the afterword page.  They aren't actually characters from the visual narrative, but possibly represent the children this picturebook is written to help.  Children with nothing to do, children whose parents aren't around much, shoeless children in an urban setting.  The pale figures in the wall mural, separated by the symbolic crack, hang as though in mid-air, their skin pale and sickly, their faces stylistically reminiscent of cubism.  There's a well-known portrait by Picasso called Le Rêve (The dream), shown here on the right, where we can see some similarities to the way the faces have been painted by the illustrator. The dislocated head position is seen again in some of the later illustrations, representative of being high. In the foreground, the gutter is full of cigarette ends or stubs from left over joints.
The endpapers are scattered with  coca leaves.

As we begin the rhythmic cumulative verbal text, the story reveals itself line by line on the verso, with the illustrations facing, on the recto: square illustrations with a white boarder, or frame, around them.  
Opening 1: "This is the House that crack built"
A framed illustration is supposed to have a psychological affect on the viewer, we look at it detached and unemotionally.  Do these framed illustrations make us feel detached? This particular illustration could be any beautiful mansion in a hot country, but the words make us rethink and its affluence takes on a different meaning. 
Opening 2: "This is the Man, who lives in the House that crack built"
We are shown the man who lives in the house:  a sleek, clean cut individual, with an original Matisse, La Nu Rose (1935), hanging on his wall.  The causal sequence continues, introducing us to the soldiers who guard the man, dark eyed men with rifles over their shoulders. Then the farmers who collect the coca leaves ...
Opening 4: "These are the Farmers who work in the heat and fear the Soldiers, who guard the Man, who lives in the House that crack built"
Many of the illustrations in this little picturebook contain unusual perspectives: in opening 4 we have  a close-up of the Farmer, but we can't see his eyes.  The poor woman with no shoes is only shown from the legs down: faceless in the sequence of events.  
In the next illustration we are shown the coca plant against a sunny blue sky, a pretty plant ...
Opening 5: "These are the Plants that people can't eat, raised by the Farmers who work in the heat and fear the Soldiers who guard the Man who lives in the House that crack built." 
... but as the verbal text emphasises the people can't eat it, it feeds no-one, instead it's made into cocaine and exchanged for large sums of money in the the streets of the civilised world. 
Opening 7: "This is the Street of a town in pain that cries for the Drug known as cocaine, made from the Plants that people can't eat, raised by the Farmers that work in the heat and fear the Soldiers that guard the Man who lives in the House that crack built." 
This illustration shows us what it's like in the street.  Seen through a window, a faceless woman holding a baby. Outside, an anguished woman is banging her head on the wall, a man with an upside-down head, high - the cigarette or joint ends separating the foreground figure form those in the background.   
We next meet "the Gang, fleet and elite" then the "Cop working his beat".  
Opening 9: "This is the Cop working his beat, who battles the Gang, fleet and elite, that rules the Street of a Town in pain ..."
We encounter a "Boy feeling the heat" who sells the "Crack that numbs the pain" ...
Opening 12: "This is the Girl who's killer brain, smoking the Crack that numbs the pain, bought from the Boy feeling the heat ..."
We are shown woman, smoking. Her head too is upside down, her belly is large - is she pregnant? And then we are shown "the baby with nothing to eat, born of the girl who's killing her brain...".  Finally ...
Opening 14
"And these are the Tears we cry in our sleep
that fall for the Baby with nothing to eat,
born of the Girl who's killing her brain,
smoking the Crack that numbs the pain,
bought from the Boy feeling the heat,
chased by the Cop working his beat,
who battles the Gang, fleet and elite,
that rules the Street of a town in pain
that cries for the Drug known as cocaine,
made from the Plants that people can't eat,
raised by the Farmers who work in the heat
and fear the Soldiers who guard the Man 
who lives in the House that crack built."

"This is a book about choices." writes Michael Pritchard in the afterword, "... the author used his poetic voice to remind us the problem is out there. The illustrator used her artistic vision to bring the tragic nature of the problem powerfully alive. And the publisher chose to blend these visions into a book and use its profits (...) to help fight the problem.  Together they have created a tool that can be used to open discussion and to help children learn to make the right choices. Together they have reminded us that in small and personal ways each of us has the power to change the world."

It is indeed a very powerful, though physically small, book and one I am certain can be used with teenagers and young adults in ELT contexts.  I hope that in sharing this title, I have encouraged some teachers to  take up the challenge. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Recommendation nº 6: The three little wolves and the big bad pig

Front cover

I've decided to feature two recommendations this month, to keep with the theme of traditional stories.   This is a wonderful title, and recommended by Helen Davies, an English teacher in a French state school.  A great suggestion Helen, and I've had loads of fun looking at this picturebook, discovering all sorts.  

Eugene Trivizas is a sociologist, with a PhD in criminology and one of Greece's leading children's authors. He's written over 100 children's books and this title was the first to be written in English.  I've already featured a picturebook illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, and her delightfully detailed watercolour illustrations bring another dimension to Trivizas already very funny words.  
The three little wolves and the big bad pig is of course a retelling of the traditional story, The three little pigs and highly suitable for older students.  Helen has used this picturebook with teens. 
The front cover is an illustration of The Three Little Wolves taking a break from building work, perched on scaffolding.  Each is nibbling something meaty, a chicken drum stick or a hamburger.  They look relaxed and happy, fastidious with checkered napkins on their laps and open lunch boxes at their sides.   It's a great cover image setting the scene for the many building projects which we will be shown as the story progresses.   However,  only the three wolves appear on the front cover and they are without doubt the goodies, but try turning over to the back cover...
Back cover
The back cover continues the illustration with scaffolding stretching across the picture, and here we see the Big Bad Pig, climbing up a ladder and leering in the direction of The Little Wolves.  It's a wonderful combination and well worth opening out the book to show the continuous image. 
The title page shows us one of the creatures we will encounter later, a beaver, well-known in the animal world for his strong dams.  He's shown next to a dirty bucket, but it's not clear till later what is actually in the bucket.
Recto 1
The first page is a single recto. A large amount of text explains which of the wolves is the oldest, "The first was black, the second was grey and the third was white."  Mother wolf tells her cubs they have to go out into the big world.  She warns them to take care of ... can you guess... the big bad pig! But look carefully at the illustrations. What is mother wolf doing? Painting her nails black!  The fur on her head is in curlers and the end of her tail, which is sticking out of the bed covers, is also in curlers.  She has a flippant look to her, tired of her cubs and ready for the good life again, the posh red slippers on the floor by the bed giving us an inkling of the way she likes to dress. 
Off go the wolf cubs and they soon meet a kangaroo carrying red and yellow bricks.  
Opening 2
As with the original story, the wolves are given what they ask for and they work hard to build their strong house of bricks.  Their lawn grows quickly too, and one day while they are playing croquet the "big bad pig came prowling down the road".  We are then treated to the well-known question answer routine, accompanied by Helen Oxenbury's delightful tongue-in-cheek paintings, showing a mean old pig and scared wolf cubs.
"Little wolves, little wolves, let me come in!"
"'No, no, no,' said the three little wolves.  "By the hair on our chinny-chin-chins, we will not let you in, not for all the tea leaves in our china teapot!'"  
Then, the pig "puffed and he puffed and he huffed and he huffed, but the house didn't fall down." 
Opening 5
"But the pig wasn't called big and bad for nothing." What did he do? He got his sledgehammer and knocked the house down!  Look carefully at the illustration, can you see the wolf cubs escaping?  The black wolf is carrying a china teapot!  They are very frightened.
We know how the story goes: the wolves need to build  a stronger house, but what is stronger than bricks?  Concrete!  They meet a beaver who is making concrete in a mixer.  He gives them all they need and they work hard on their new concrete home.
Opening 7
They are playing badminton when the big bad pig arrives. Opening 7 is a great double spread, a small black and white sketch of the pig, looking thoroughly mean and the wolves in grey tone against their grey concrete house.  The pig is a bright pink peering over the wall in the background, can you see him? 
We are told of the question answer routine, "Little, frightened wolves, let me in...."  and then when we turn the page... "But the pig wasn't called big and bad for nothing."
Opening 8
He gets "his pneumatic drill and smashes the house down"!   The close up of the pink pig with the wolves escaping in the background is hilarious.  They have tied their sheets to make a rope and the teapot is there, ready to be grasped as they flee, "but their chinny-chin-chins were trembling and trembling and trembling."
An even stronger house is needed. Luckily for the wolves, they meet a rhino driving a lorry full of "barbed wire, iron bars, armour plates and heavy metal padlocks."  "The three little wolves built  themselves an extremely strong house" and felt "very relaxed and absolutely safe"! 
This time the wolves were playing hopscotch when the pig arrives. 
Opening 11
That pig is diffiuclt to stop.  Alert students will notice the red dynamite sticks on the grass under the pig in verso and, during the usual dialogue and huffing and puffing, they already know how the big bad pig is going to destroy the house.  "Frightened little pigs, with the trembling chins, let me in!"
Opening 12
And the little wolves are running off carrying their teapot, their fluffy tails scorched.
What could they do now?  They were certain there was something wrong with their building materials. Luckily for them along came a flamingo pushing a wheelbarrow full of flowers.  
Opening 13
And they decided to build a house of flowers. It had a wall of marigolds, one of daffoldils, one of pink roses and another of cherry blossom.  The roof was made of sun flowers and they had a carpet of daisies.  It was beautiful, but very fragile. And along came the big bad pig. "Little frightened wolves with the trembling chins and the scorched tails, let me in!"
And as the pig inhaled to blow down their house ...
Opening 15
The scent from the blossoms softened his heart and he realized how terrible he had been ... "he became a big good pig". He sang and he danced and made freinds with the wolves.  They played "pig-pong and piggy-in-the-middle", and they invited him in for tea and they all lived happily ever after!
Back verso
Can you see? They are drinking tea from the teapot they salvaged from each house, as they ran for their lives. 

Hilariously funny, and kids just love the absurdity of the pig's badness and the ever stronger houses culminating in a soft swaying flowery one. Brilliant adaptation, with stunning illustrations.  It begs rereading, enabling students to discover threads of visual and verbal narratives: Visually they will pick up on the different playground games, the animals and their goods, the teapot at each escape.  Verbally they will enjoy the cumulative greeting from the pig, who begins by calling the wolves, "Little wolves, let me in!", and finishes with, "Little, frightened wolves with the trembling chins and the scorched tails, let me in!" They'll join in the memorable dialogues, and will love saying, "But the pig wasn't called big and bad for nothing."

Helen describes using the book as a base for re-telling well-known stories, with students creating their own retold stories.  Other writing activities could include:

  • Taking the view of the pig and describing being bad and then becoming good, and explaining why;  
  • Becoming a reporter and writing up the story for a newspaper. 
  • Writing a post card to mother wolf from the cubs, explaining the events, and the happy eneding. 

These are challenging activities, but possible with older students who have a fair bit of language competece.   This link, to a set of Scholastic activities, meant for mainstream learners but useful for ideas, may be of interest.  Enjoy!