|Janet Evans (Ed.)
Challenging and Controversial Picturebooks: Creative and Critical Responses to Visual Texts
Abingdon & New York: Routledge, 2015, 293 pp.
Reviewer: Penni Cotton
Even before I started to read Part I of Challenging and Controversial Picturebooks, I was hooked! Janet Evans has very cleverly not only chosen eminent picturebook theorists from around the world to contribute to this exciting and very readable book, she has also designed it in such a way that one is plunged into the world of children’s acceptance of complex narratives as a precursor to more theoretical input. These young readers’ mature comments are incredibly perceptive and, as one 11-year-old acknowledges, his class can only discuss controversial and challenging picturebooks because they have been working with them for several years. The adults’ observations that follow reinforce the importance of knowing how to ‘read’ these books and suggest that they draw on our knowledge of all that makes us human and invite us to perceive new realities (p. xiv).
It is hard to believe that as recently as 30 years ago, picturebooks weren’t really considered an academically acceptable genre. Since then, we have come a long way; picturebook analysis is now highly respected and seems to be going from strength to strength. Challenging and Controversial Picturebooks is the proof of this, as it examines unconventional, non-conformist picturebooks and considers what they are, their audience and their purpose. It is a publication that rests on and complements much previous research. In bringing together a highly knowledgeable group of international academics, Evans has produced a fascinating, informative and thought-provoking book from which we can all learn. Evelyn Arizpe’s forward suggests this when she emphasises, with reference to ‘I am Charlie’, the important impact of visual texts today. She believes that the meaning of an image will always be contingent on a given context and moment in time and hence has the potential to be regarded as controversial. Her words very aptly introduce the subsequent essays which, she considers, are ‘timely and important’ because they [End of Page 94] ‘exemplify the kind of discussion – informed, revealing and enquiring – that can be held around images and their companion words’ (p. xvii).
In Part I, through reference to the illustrations and content of carefully selected visual texts, Evans questions what is meant by challenging and controversial picturebooks, what they are and for whom they are created. She considers some of the issues surrounding them such as: how we respond to them; does challenging mean the same for all readers; are they equally available in all countries and, perhaps most importantly, whether it is the words or the pictures, or a combination of both, that create such potentially disturbing narratives. As she does this, she introduces many of the book’s contributors to support her argument and focuses on artists who are renowned for their complex, polysemic texts and come from cultures where discussing less cosy aspects of life is more common than others.
Perry Nodelman opens the debate by discussing ‘the scandal of the commonplace’, and puts forward the notion that children’s literature is generally defined by ‘what it leaves out’ and different adults have different ideas about what this should be. As a result, ‘any book is likely to seem challenging or unsettling’ by somebody and what is ‘controversial is in the eye of the beholder’ (p. 33). Sandra Beckett then investigates whether we really do need to be fearful of these so-called controversial visual texts and she focuses on those that are directly inspired by traditional fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Her chapter suggests that these book artists ‘respect children’s ability to deal with controversial subjects that often alarm adult mediators’ (p. 49). Totally in agreement, Åse Marie Ommundsen concludes Part I by asking whether challenging and controversial picturebooks are actually created for children or adults. She believes, as does Beckett, that this can be quite different depending on the cultural audience and points out that even within Scandinavia, acceptance of certain themes varies considerably. Focusing on two books from Denmark and Norway, she expertly explains the reason for this; concluding with her belief that it is not actually ‘the book’s content that decides whether a child reader is addressed or not, but rather the ways of writing’ (p. 91).
Evans, always with the young reader in mind, introduces Part II by looking at what she calls ‘fusion texts’ and includes children’s reactions to them. She compares these texts with comics, graphic novels and picturebooks, exemplifying their qualities by focusing on Dave McKean’s work. His narratives, in which the nature of word-image interaction plus [End of Page 95] switching from one mode of interpretation to another make them a ‘challenging, thoughtful and sometimes controversial’ read, because they use a variety of ‘material in creative, artistic forms’ (p. 107). Marnie Campagnaro continues this theme by examining how visual explorations shape the young readers’ taste. She looks at children’s responses to a selection of picturebooks which use two different types of illustrative styles, and her research investigates how these visual narratives ‘create a shared space which affords the possibility of discussion’ and develops ‘aesthetic literacy’ (p. 122). She concludes that children are certainly able to share a variety of challenging and controversial picturebooks, but it is questionable whether teachers and educators are capable of doing the same! (p. 142).
Changing focus slightly, Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer and Jörg Meibauer then look closely at the challenging content of one specific picturebook, Fox by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks, from the perspective of the adult reader. They show how picturebook theory can benefit from this in-depth analysis (p. 144) of artwork and content that challenge common expectations. Their belief is that the rewards of reading this book, for both children and adults, relate to learning about complex emotions, which don’t necessarily develop at an early age. Elizabeth Marshall also focuses on one picturebook as she concludes this section. Her feminist approach to Roberto Innocenti’s The Girl in Red, however, is much more concerned with gender, sexuality and violence, but her visual analysis is equally rigorous. Her practical approach, supported by academic theory, allows her to share this book with her students, one of whom comments that she ‘saw this book as an incredible counter narrative that allows the reader to critically analyse deeper issues’ (p. 174).
How to discuss challenging and controversial picturebooks is at the heart of Part III. Sandie Mourão, well known for her innovative approach to teaching languages through picturebooks, begins by discussing wordless picturebooks and how they play with the mind. She takes one book, Loup Noir by Antoine Guilloppé, to exemplify how demanding these books can be because they play with the reader’s subconscious and the cultural frames that surround wolves. Following her academic rationale, Mourão presents details of a project she planned in a Portuguese primary school which certainly challenged the reasoning of three small groups of children and produced some thought-provoking [End of Page 96] discussions. Wolves seem prevalent in many of the visual narratives mentioned in this volume, and Kerenza Ghosh asks why they appear so much in children’s stories. As well as presenting a brief history of the wolf in children’s literature and considering how the portrayal of wolves in contemporary picturebooks is often unconventional and thought- provoking (p. 201), she analyses children’s responses to the portrayal of wolves in Emily Gravett’s Wolves and Tincknell and Kelly’s Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner?. Her insightful conclusions suggest that since ‘our relationship with the wolf is steeped in history and culture’, diverse, unexpected and controversial representations will ‘continue to challenge children to read at abstract levels of understanding’ (p. 222).
Sylvia Pantaleo adds another dimension to Ghosh’s thinking when she suggests that in reading Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree, young readers/viewers are positioned as co-authors and need to actively fill in both the verbal and visual gaps. Preceded by theoretical rationale, her Canadian classroom-based research (with children from a variety of ethnic backgrounds) expertly describes her project and, in her opinion, reveals how children’s comprehension, analysis and interpretation of picturebooks can be informed when they develop their ability to ‘see’ (p. 240). Evans draws this child-centred section to a close when she asks ‘Could this happen to us?’ and explores children’s responses to migration when asked to consider what it would be like to be a refugee in a strange land away from those they love. The reader-response results are fascinating and demonstrate the important role that challenging and controversial picturebooks can have in developing empathy and understanding.
What a wonderful idea to conclude with dear Klaus Flugge, Managing Director of Andersen Press, who has helped us all in one way or another over the years. His insights into how picturebooks work, plus his knowledge of the best authors and illustrators to commission, are immeasurable. He has taken chances where others would not and published a large number of challenging and controversial picturebooks, many in translation, for which we thank him wholeheartedly. Evans has captured the essence of his work in her interview with him and it is a very fitting conclusion to a significant book. Although not directly focused on second language learning, it bridges the gap between children’s literature and language education and reinforces the idea that enlightening discussions can develop, in whatever language, if the right questions are asked! [End of Page 98]
Gravett, E. (2005). Wolves. London: Macmillan.
Guilloppé, A. (2004). Loup Noir. Paris: Casterman.
Innocenti, R. (2012). The Girl in Red. Mankato, MN: Creative Editions.
Tincknell, C. & Kelly, J. (2004). Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner? Dorking: Templar Publishing.
Tan, S. (2001). The Red Tree. Melbourne: Lothian.
Wild, M. & Brooks, R. (Illus.) (2000). Fox. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin.
Dr Penni Cotton is Senior Research Fellow at NCRCL, University of Roehampton, UK, where she is responsible for European research projects. She is Director of the European Picture Book Collection and the European School Education Training course, and has worked on numerous other European children’s literature projects. She has published extensively and her first book, Picture Books Sans Frontières (2000), explains the rationale for her work. [End of Page 98]
|Sharon Ahlquist and Réka LugossyStories and StorylineHong Kong: Candlin & Mynard ePublishing, 2015, 160 pp.
Reviewer: Janet Enever
In recent years, the steady increase in the number of publications around the theme of integrating story and children’s literature in the FL classroom has been very encouraging (e.g. Birketveit & Williams, 2013; Bland & Lütge, 2013; Ellis & Brewster, 2014; Ghosn, 2013), yet many teachers continue to be uncertain of how to achieve a balance between the enjoyment of stories and ensuring a satisfactory language focus in lessons. This publication sets out to provide the guidance and reassurance that teachers might need. It includes a rich variety of practical ideas for using stories and children’s literature in the primary and secondary school English-language classroom, supported by a comprehensive theoretical rationale for the value of learning languages through stories. The book is substantially based on the classroom teaching experience of the authors, together with empirical studies conducted both by themselves and by their students. The experienced voice of the practitioner is evident on every page of this must-read.
The book breaks new ground on two counts. Firstly, it is published as an e-book rather than a print version, thus facilitating speedy purchase and immediate access from anywhere in the world – assuming Internet connectivity (no print version is currently available). Secondly, it includes sections on theory, classroom teaching ideas and procedures for classroom research. It aims to provide a comprehensive guide for school-based language specialists – from the student teacher, to the more experienced teacher and with many recommendations for teacher educators also.
With a central thread relating to the significance of narrative running throughout, the book falls neatly into two sections: the first draws mainly on the use of children’s literature in the classroom, with the second section introducing a pedagogical approach for using story known as the Storyline Approach. Additionally, the linked website provides [End of Page 99] supplementary texts and tasks for classroom use, a reference list of well-known picturebooks, relevant websites for resources and guidance for using stories.
The introductory chapter sets the scene with an excellent overview of the characteristics of learners in the three age groups the authors have chosen to focus on: very young learners (5-9 years); young learners (10-13 years); older learners (13-16 years). The authors’ substantial experience of teaching each of these age groups is combined with a solid knowledge of recent research related to individual characteristics, providing well-informed summaries which teachers may rely on. Perhaps the one note of caution that should be mentioned here is the tendency to draw on research from Western contexts. Cultural influences and differing notions of childhood in many Asian regions may offer a slightly different perspective on understandings of individual characteristics for each age range, but many familiar topics are likely to be relevant for all.
From this promising start, Lugossy guides us through a further four chapters, underpinned by a central argument related to the power of story as a narrative form which shapes the minds of children through their cognitive development, expanding their knowledge of the world and their ability to grasp meaning with only limited knowledge of the FL lexis. Her commitment to the potential benefits of using stories is summarised in the conclusion to Chapter 2, proposing that stories:
- organize and transmit human knowledge;
- are crucial in developing personal and social identities and in building communities;
- boost motivation in the classroom;
- provide the basis for social interaction and language learning in the L2 class;
- form the basis for speaking, reading, listening and writing tasks. (p. 26)
Having set the scene for the exciting potential of picturebooks in the EFL classroom, in the following three chapters Lugossy goes on to provide clear guidance on ways of integrating them in various types of curriculum, answering the many concerns that teachers new to this experience may have. She addresses such key questions as: How to [End of Page 100] integrate? Which books to select? How to teach grammar through stories and whether authentic stories (written for first language speakers of English) are preferable to stories specifically designed for teaching languages. Included also are three well-worked examples of using particular picturebooks in the classroom. Her choice of A Dark Dark Tale (Brown, 1992), Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig (Trivizas & Oxenbury, 1995) and The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (Van Allsburg, 1979) provide some very interesting and innovative ideas for how these stories might be used with the three age groups in focus throughout this book. As a final part to this first section of the book, Lugossy introduces teachers to the idea of conducting small-scale classroom research during the process of using stories with children. Her suggestions are both realistic and manageable, demonstrating what valuable information a teacher might gain even from carrying out a simple procedure such as inviting children to reflect on whether they enjoyed a particular story. As a way into classroom research, she wisely recommends an action research framework, a technique for developing and refining practice which many teachers may already be familiar with even though they may not themselves have categorized it as research.
The second section of this book brings a considerable step change – both in the theme of chapters 6-10 and the change of author, with Sharon Ahlquist providing a detailed account of a technique for using story in the classroom called the Storyline Approach. She explains that this pedagogical approach was first developed some 50 years ago in Scotland for use in L1 contexts, where teachers were encouraged to develop an integrated curriculum, combining a number of subject areas within a story framework. From these early beginnings, teachers have adapted this approach for the teaching of English as a second, additional or foreign language in a number of countries. From Ahlquist’s home base in Sweden, she has used the approach extensively herself and now includes it in her University teacher education programme, inspiring many teachers to explore its potential and to carry out small-scale studies of its classroom impact.
In Chapter 6, Ahlquist introduces us to the Storyline Approach, describing it as ‘a kind of task-based approach’ to story telling, where learners are organized in groups, participating in tasks situated within the framework of a story. Essentially, this technique requires the teacher to introduce a narrative framework for a story, which the children then [End of Page 101] develop through a range of drama activities, discussion and written tasks, often performing ‘in role’ as they communicate with each other to complete each of the set tasks. Activities for the development of all four language skills can be woven into the task-based framework, alongside the potential for dramatic expression.
From this beginning Ahlquist goes on to provide a number of detailed work plans for how a teacher might proceed in developing a storyline with the class. She combines these with many interesting examples of how both teacher and learner might conduct some classroom research to explore the effects of the approach on the learners’ developing L2 competence – much as Lugossy has in the first section of the book. This call for more research is significant in connection with using the Storyline Approach since it appears that little has yet been done in relation to its use in FL classrooms. Ahlquist herself conducted a fairly large-scale study in Swedish classrooms (Ahlquist, 2011), but she reports that no other published research findings are yet available. In her own study, she notes particularly the difficulty of conducting a formal assessment of what learning has been achieved, although it was evident that emotional confidence in the use of English had increased substantially for many of the learners.
As a reader, I found the style of this book very accessible and appreciated the authors’ skill in often moving seamlessly between theoretical arguments and their own rich classroom experience to provide an inspiring rationale for embedding story in each and every classroom context. The further inclusion of the supplementary materials, booklists, resource suggestions and weblinks are particularly helpful, though inevitably the listings have gaps (e.g. the new edition of Ellis & Brewster, 2014; Mourão’s ‘Picturebooks in ELT’ blog). For me, Chapter 3 was the key chapter in its successful coverage of all the questions teachers might ask about why, how and when to use picturebooks. This chapter deserves reading and re-reading to fully appreciate the depth and quality of experience offered here for teachers to draw on.
I have just one or two concerns that should be mentioned in relation to the audience for this publication. The focus is quite Eurocentric, with no mention of how to use story in classes with 50+ children, although the excellent links to online picturebooks and shared readings offer much potential here. Lugossy appropriately notes how Internet access to picturebooks can facilitate the display of the book via a large screen for the whole class to [End of Page 102] enjoy both text and illustrations – a feature which might have been expanded upon with regard to the difficulties in sharing picturebooks in large classes. Similarly, I was a little unsure about the possibilities of using the Storyline Approach in contexts where English is a foreign language, with children having little or no exposure to it outside the classroom. Certainly some adjustments to the balance between the use of L1 and the FL in many contexts would be needed if young children are to be able to maintain satisfactory levels of communication while engaging in the story tasks. That said, I would highly recommend this book for its innovative structure and comprehensive coverage of the topic. Throughout, the authors have successfully balanced sound guidelines for how to use stories in the EFL classroom with a thoroughly explored theoretical underpinning for their use. Teachers just starting their careers and the many teachers still feeling a bit uncertain of how best to integrate story in their lessons should gain much inspiration and reassurance from this book – one for all teacher educators to recommend!
Publisher’s website: www.candlinandmynard.com
Brown, R. (1992). A Dark, Dark Tale. London: Random House.
Trivizas, E., & Oxenbury, H. (1995). The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. London: Mammoth.
Van Allsburg, C. (1979). The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Ahlquist, S. (2011). The Impact of the Storyline Approach on the Young Language Learner Classroom: A Case Study in Sweden. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Leicester: Leicester/UK. Available at
Birketveit, A. & Williams, G. (Eds). (2013). Literature for the English Classroom. Bergen: Fagbokforlaget. [End of Page 103]
Bland, J. & Lütge, C. (Eds). (2013). Children’s Literature in Second Language Education. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Ellis, G. & Brewster, J. (2014). Tell It Again! The Storytelling Handbook for Primary English Language Teachers. London: British Council. Available at:
Ghosn, I.-K. (2013). Storybridge to Second Language Literacy. The Theory, Research and Practice of Teaching English with Children’s Literature. Charlotte, NY: Information Age Publishing.
Mourão, S. Picturebooks in ELT blog. Available at http://picturebooksinelt.blogspot.com/
Janet Enever is Professor of Language Teaching and Learning at Umeå University, Sweden, specialising in early foreign language learning, language globalisation and language policy. She coordinates the AILA research network in early language learning and is series editor for the Multilingual Matters new series: Early Language Learning in School Contexts. [End of Page 104]