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, May 23, 2011

War and peace with elephants

Tusk Tusk by David McKee continues this month's posts related to peace.   McKee is probably most known within ELT for his Elmer books.  But he's also the creator of the  Mr Benn books and films, very much part of my childhood memories. Mr Benn is a very ordinary looking banker, who wears a bowler hat,  but he has splendid adventures when he puts on different dressing up clothes, from a very special costume shop. The films were made in the 70's and I have discovered are now available on YouTube.  A truely brilliant discovery, I shall be watching them all over the next couple of weeks.  The music gives me those shivers associated with long ago memories.  Amazing!  Here's the link to Mr Benn, The Red Knight, the very first episode of the series ...  14 minutes of memory lane. 
McKee began writing and illustrating books in the 60's,  when picturebooks really began to take shape and become as we know them today.  His contemporaries are picturebook creators like John BurninghamMaurice SendakEric CarlePat Hutchins and Raymond Briggs.  
Tusk Tusk was written in 1978 and is about black and white elephants who love everything except each other. Look at the cover, those two elephants, ready for a duel, separted by a tree, the home to birds. Keep your eye on these birds as you look at the book, for the way they react to all the elephants do is entertaining!

How about the peritext?  There's a great copyright page, with a cameo illustration of two fighting elephants and the ironic caption "Vive la différence!"  The visual clues tipping us off to the violent content continue with the title page - a fluffy, feathery tree separting two very angry elephants, tusks touching. 
As you look at some of the pictuebook pages, notice McKee's use of symmetry in the illustrations, the elephants are the same in every way, like mirrors of each other, just different colours.  
"Once all the elphants in the world were black or white.  They loved all creatures"
Don't they look happy and relaxed?  At one with nature and those bird friends they each have, and the trees are soft and feather-like, the left one even has green shoots.  Harmony and peace. 
"... but they hated each other."
Yikes, not only are the elephants looking mean, with trunks like fists, but the trees do too.  The leaves are spikey, they look as though they are swaying in the heated atmosphere.  The background wash is a pinky red, the colour of danger.  The next spread,  "... and each kept to his own side of the jungle." is shown by a powerful image of trees looking like walls, the elephants on either side.  They are lined up, like an army preparing for battle.    Can you guess what will happen next? 
... of course!  War is declared and the elephants huddle together, fists raised and glaring, black at white, white at black. The birds in the trees are flying off, beaks downturned, worried.   
Peace loving elephants, (for there were some) ran into the jungle, a deep dark jungle - so deep and dark (a maze of a place in fact) and they were never seen again.  And so the battle began.  It went on ...  and on. 
These missile-like trees are excellent hiding places for the elephants whose fist-like trunks have become powerful firearms.  And, as with many terrible wars, it didn't stop until all the elephants were dead. 
Piles of black and white elephants, brought together in death, lying against feather-like palm trees, trees we associate with peace and tranquility.  And what happened next?
Grandchildren of the peace-loving elephants came out of the jungle, and guess what, they were grey (I always wondered why elephants were grey!).  They are shown leaping, trunks waving, happy and playful.  The birds are back too, they're a little perplexed possibly, but happy to see their friends the elephants again. 
"... and since then elephants have lived in peace."
Cool illustration, a calm blue background,  just the one tree, a peaceful green, with a canopy of foliage that covers all elephants, no matter what.  They are calm and relaxed too, playing with each other and their friends the birds.  Look at their trunk-like trunks, no fists or firearm images.  A happy ending? 
"But recently the little ears and the big ears have been giving each other strange looks." 
And look at those birds, they look very annoyed.  Not good.  If you go back to the cool blue illustration you'll see big ears and small ears are on both sides of the tree together, but here they are separate, their trunks are now like hands, pointing or hiding whispered gossip. The trees are different again, each leaning away from the centrefold. 
Oh dear, not a happy ending, but we are left wondering, as the very last page has a cameo illustration ...

What do you think?  Was there another war?  
It's a deceptively simple picturebook, bringing violence and peace together on a page, an excellent title for children in upper primary and lower secondary providing space for discussion around such themes as racism, prejudice and tolerance.  TeachEnglish has a set of lesson plans for this very purpose, which can be downloaded here.  And a very readable article by Janet Evans can be downlaoded from my website, scroll down and click on "War and conflict: books can help." Finally I discovered a link to a useful set of guidelines for using Tusk Tusk for Philosophical discussion.


To finish, here's a short film of David McKee talking about his childhood and his first pictures.   
Turns out he loves Paul Klee, one of my favourite artists... Castle and sun must have  influenced Elmer

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