July 6, 2017
by Nora Nagy

Quick Guide to Children’s Books 3: Illustrated fiction

The world of children’s literature is an enchanting place which often looks like a colourful maze with imaginary creatures in fantastic worlds. These creatures and worlds are mostly versions of our own realities, and through them we can learn more about our own worlds, and through the words and the images in the stories we can explore our own lives, reflecting on its beauties and dealing with its difficulties.

When you enter a book shop, these miniworlds which we call picture books are well-organized on shelves, usually labelled and categorized in a systematic way. There are picture books, silent books, illustrated books, comics, graphic novels, poetry books and many more formats. What is the difference between these books? What are their main characteristics?

In this new series we will explore the world of children’s books together, providing definitions and examples for each main type of books. In this third part we enter the magical world of illustrated fiction.

What are illustrated books?

It would be hard to imagine Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland without John Tenniel’s drawings, Peter Rabbit without Beatix Potter’s watercolour illustrations, or Roald Dahl’s fantastic world without Quantin Blake’s quirky drawings. The symbiosis of text and image in such works has created such a verbal-visual imprint in our memories that when we see an illustration, we immediately think of the scene, style and probably the whole story.

Illustrated ficiton is mostly associated with children’s books, but in the 18th and 19th centuries they were popular in serialized fiction. Although in the early 20th century, with the rise of other forms of media (photography, cinema and television) the popularity of having illustrations in novels declined, other graphic design features of these books (for example the cover design and the font) remained important.

One author who really supported the use of illustrations was Charles Dickens, and with his 1836 serialized edition of The Pickwick Papers, he created a new trend for Victorian fiction writers. We can easily compare these serialized publications to the popular television series of today.

Illustrations have the power to change our understanding of stories and our perception of the characters. This is why many authors might be concerned about including them in their books. However, if the illustrator is well-chosen and works closely with the author, the collaboration can have exciting results, just like in the case of Dickens. An interesting example of the power of illustrations can be found in the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon. Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories were published in the Strand Magazine, and the most well-known attributes of Sherlock, the deerstalker hat and the cape were additions by Sidney Paget.

  • You can read more about these in this article from the Smithsonian Magazine.

Recently illustrations are back in demand in both adult and young adult ficiton. In young adult fiction illustrations often gain special meaning-making significance, transforming the pages into stylish, fun and adventurous territories waiting to be explored.

Illustration from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll © Helbling

Skills development

The features of truly memorable illustrated books not only make them aesthetically pleasing and entertaining, but also create excellent educational affordances both for first and second-language learners. They can help the reader with visualization (an important reading strategy of successful language learners), learning new vocabulary, creating an atmosphere, learning about the historical era and the setting, and then recalling the events in a story.

Here at Helbling Readers we dedicate a lot of effort and time to selecting the right illustrator for each graded reader, and we design visual elements so that they improve the reading experience, and support the readers with learning vocabulary and remembering the plot.

Illustration from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. ©Helbling

Recommended books

Here are our favourite selection of illustrated books.

  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland written by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by John Tenniel
  • The Pippi Longstocking books, written by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Ingrid Vang Nyman
  • The Wind in the Willows, written by Kenneth Grahame. illustrated by Michael Foreman
  • The Clarice Bean stories, written and illustrated by Lauren Child
  • A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Siobhan Dowd
  • The Little Prince, written and illustrated by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  • Mach a Šebestová, written by Miloš Macourek, illustrated by Adolf Born
  • The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, written and illustrated by Dino Buzzati

Remember to check out the Helbling Readers series.

You can also read interviews with some of the illustrators of our readers.

Next time we will talk about comic books and graphic novels.

July 4, 2017
by Nora Nagy

Painting the fence with Tom Sawyer

We probably all agree that one of the most iconic scenes from Mark Twain’s novels is when Tom Sawyer has to whitewash the fence. As we know, Tom manages to come up with a clever solution by luring his friends into doing the job for him. This scene has become such a popular one that in Hannibal, Missouri you can tale part in the National Fence Painting Competition on 5th July, as part of the Independence Day (4th July) celebrations.

Why is it organised in Hannibal, Missouri, and what does whitewashing the fence symbolise?

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, or as we know him, Mark Twain was born in Hannibal, Missouri, and he drew inspiration from the town and the surrounding countryside for his two most famous novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Hannibal is built on  the Mississippi River, and when reading the novels, we can perfectly visualize the setting. Twain brings us right into the atmosphere of the town amd the river and we can can easily imagine the typical whitewashed fences in front of the houses.

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The fence-painting scene in the Helbling Reader adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. © Helbling

The philosophy and psychology of the scene

In the novel we get a thorough explanation of the psychological aspect of the scene. As we know, Tom Sawyer feels no inclination to ruin his sunny Saturday with working and painting the fences. He has a great idea, and starts to paint the fences calmly, so as he can make the job desirable for his friends, who then feel eager to do the job for him.

The psychology of the trick is explained by the narrator himself in the novel.

“Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.” (Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)

CLIL projects to expand the scene


What is whitewash? Find out about the ingredients you need to make whitewash, and then explain why it is a practical type of paint. Is it used in your country? In what countries is it popular?


Where exactly is Missouri? What is the area around the Mississippi River famous for? Find the town on the map and explore the countryside around it.

History 1

Hannibal is named after the ancient military commander. Who was Hannibal? When did he live? Why did they name an American town after an ancient leader?

History 2

Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens. His father, John M. Clemens was an important figure in the town. What did he do? Search the Internet for information about Mark Twain’s father.


Do you agree with Tom Sawyer’s approach to work? Is it enough to make something unattainable, look good and hard to get? Will people like certain things more this way? Can you see examples of this in the media or advertisements?


The city benefits a lot from tourism. Check the website Visit Hannibal and choose the attractions you would visit. You can also check out the website of the Mark Twain Boyhood Town & Museum.

June 29, 2017
by Nora Nagy

Quick Guide to Children’s Books 2: Silent books

The world of children’s literature is an enchanting place which often looks like a colourful maze with imaginary creatures in fantastic worlds. These creatures and worlds are mostly versions of our own realities, and through them we can learn more about our own worlds, and through the words and the images in the stories we can explore our own lives, reflecting on its beauties and dealing with its difficulties.

When you enter a book shop, these miniworlds which we call picture books are well-organized on shelves, usually labelled and categorized in a systematic way. There are picture books, silent books, illustrated books, comics, graphic novels, poetry books and a many more formats. What is the difference between these books? What are their main characteristics?

In this new series we will explore the world of children’s books together, providing definitions and examples for each main type of books. In this second part we enter the magical world of silent books.

What are silent books?

Silent books, or wordless picture books, are just what they say: picture books without any words. The story is told through the pictures, and they often come in beautiful and creative editions. Silent books have their origins in frescoes and cave paintings, and  call on our ability to make meaning through the images that surround us. An important aspect of pictures and visual narratives is that they are culturally formed and not everyone will make the same meaning from the same pictures.

The power and wonder of wordless picture books lie in their silence. Since they communicate through the pictures, we can write as many stories as we can think of when we look at them. Every reading and every reader brings out a new story. When reading a wordless picture book, we practise thinking and emotional skills just as well as important literacy skills. At the same time we also have an aesthetically pleasing, entertaining and sometimes challenging experience.

Skills development

Both in first and second language teaching these books are excellent resources, priceless investments. Silent books are often artistic products which can appeal to both young and adult readers. They tap many skills which are essential to langauge development.

First of all, silent books are ideal for shared reading, and through shared reading, you can practise observation and joint storytelling as well as offering support for weaker readers.

Since they do not prescribe any story, these books have great conversational potential. The visually rich pages can inspire adult learners to respond to the pictures and create stories they would not normally think of. They are also not constrained by language and can be used with beginners (to teach new words and practise present tenses) to advanced-level students (making hypotheses and using complex structures to describe and retell the narrative).

When you are making stories based on the pictures, you are practising listening and comprehension skills. By asking many open-ended questions, you can initiate longer conversations and ask readers to reflect more on what they are saying.

In the classroom

After you have carefully selected the books (check the theme and the complexity of the story), start by previewing, observing and browsing these books. Then you can elicit and write down some words and expressions that you and your students think of when looking at the pictures.

Then let your students create their own narratives, either in speaking or in writing. When they are writing, they will need more scaffolding and structure, and you will also have to provide more language support (linking words, time phrases, narrative structures). When they are speaking, they can rely more on their own style. There is not one single right way of telling a story based on a silent book.

Silent books for refugees

In response to the number of refugees and asylum seekers arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa, IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) launched its Silent Books project in 2012 to provide a library of wordless picture books that can be enjoyed by both refugee and local children in a special library which was opened to host the collection. IBBY Sweden has produced a downloadable booklet with ideas on using silent books with children.

Where can you learn more about silent books?

We recommend these books if you would like to know more about wordless picture books. This list is far from being complete, but it is a good starting point for you resesrch.

  • Arizpe, E., Colomer, T. & Martínez-Roldán, C. (2015). Visual Journeys through Wordless Narratives. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Arizpe, E. & Styles, M. (2003). Children Reading Pictures. Interpreting Visual Texts. Abingdon: Routledge Falmer.
  • Evans, J. (2015). Challenging and controversial picturebooks: Creative and critical responses to visual texts. London: Routledge.
  • Evans, J. (2009). Talking beyond the page: Reading and responding to picture books. London: Routledge.
  • Evans, J. (1998). What’s in the picture?: Responding to illustrations in picture books. London: P. Chapman Pub. Ltd.
  • Nikolajeva, M. & Scott, C. (2006). How Picturebooks Work. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Nodelmann, P. (1988). Words About Pictures. The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.
  • Serafini, F. (2013). Reading the Visual: An Introduction to Teaching Multimodal Literacies. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Terrusi, M. (2017). Meraviglie mute. Rome: Carocci. (In Italian)

Our favourite silent books

Here are some of our favourite silent books. Share yours with us!

  • Wave by Suzy Lee
  • Flotsam by David Wiesner
  • The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Check out our post about picture books here:

Next time we will talk about illustrated fiction!

June 22, 2017
by Nora Nagy

Slow the Summer Slide

What happens to your students’ development when the school closes for the holidays? Do they keep on practising all four skills as well as thinking in English? The long weeks of the holidays are full of fun, but the time spent away from learning takes its toll on your students’ language development. Although most of us give homework for the holidays, which might range from writing a diary through reading books to grammar activities, there is a lot more that can be done also within the family.

We encourage parents, family members, sisters and brothers, friends as well as teachers in summer camps and holiday courses to motivate their students to learn outside the classroom. The summer slide or summer literacy slide is a phenomenon which is experienced not only by language teachers but all across the curriuclum in different disciplinary fields. What can we do to help children and teens put the brakes on the rate of attrition in an engaging and meaningful way?

 1 Read something every day

Encourge the children in your family or in your group to read something every day. At different times of the day they can read different things. They can read the news in the morning, and the news can be about their favourite bands, sports people, actors. Then during the day they can read novels, short stories, comics, anything that they feel like reading, even a cereal box will do. It often happens that students forget that reading a magazine (even if it is an online edition) also counts as reading.

2 Binge watch TV series

TV series have become as popular and well-made as films today. Watching a good series is a bit like reading a good novel. It is even more fortunate if the series is the adaptation of a novel, and then the students can also read the original text.

Explain the following strategy to make the students more aware of the language learning potential in TV series.

  • Watch an episode in English with subtitles.
  • Then choose your favourite scene and watch it again with subtitles. Stop and repeat sentences which sound interesting.
  • You can then watch it again without subtitles.
  • If necessary, first you can watch the episode or the scene in your native language with English subtitles, or in English with subtitles in your own language.

3 Play computer games 

Recommend adventure and strategy games, or games which encourage students to solve puzzles. If they do it in English, not only will they have fun, but they will also learn new phrases in English as well as engaging in communicative tasks.

4 Play board games

Several board games are available in English, and especially the co-operative ones encourage communication and problem solvoing.

5 Turn your students into teachers

Finally, we recommend that you ask children and teens in your family to teach someonesomething in English every day. It can be a phrase, it can be a song or a story, but they will feel that other people can benefit from their knowledge.

An extra idea. 

Set your social media channels to English. Use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat in English, and try chatting in English. Just by learning to use the interface in English, you can practise navigating in a different language.

What tasks do you usually give to your students over the holidays? Share your ideas with us!

June 20, 2017
by Nora Nagy

A story and a song for World Refugee Day

June 20th is United Nation’s World Refugee Day, and it makes us think about the importance of addressing this topic with our students. Is there a way to talk about refugees, to bring this topic into classroom conversations? The refugee crisis is one of the most obvious global topics we see on every news channel and newspaper on a daily basis. We believe that it is important to give time and space to this topic in our classrooms. Some of our students may be refugees and others may have questions and opinions. By giving them the chance to reflect they can come to a better understanding of what is happening around them and how the world perceives refugees in general.

Talking about the facts is one way of addressing the topic of refugees, but it is certainly not enough to only give our students historical events and statistical figures. It is also important to approach the affective aspects of the refugee crisis, and by creating a context we can also paint a more detailed picture. We can turn to the power of narratives and music to help our students and ourselves get a deeper understanding of the chaos around us.

We have collected some resources which you can use with your students.

Picture book story for young and older learners

The Beach (written by Rick Sampedro and illustrated by Agilulfo Russo) is a picture book for young learners. It tells the story of two little girls who come from very different backgrounds and meet on a beach. Nina arrives at the beach on a boat, and Anna is there on holiday. When the two girls meet, they decide to be friends and start playing with their dolls. In this short, heartwarming and eye-opening story we see the sadness and danger in the reality of refugees through Nina and her parents’ story, and there is a sharp contrast between their life and Anna and her family’s life as it is represented through their beach holiday. All through the story we can see a doll in both little girls’ hands, accompanying them in their happy and sad moments. When the two girls meet, we see that their dolls look the same, as if these dolls represented something about their innocence and youth.

In Roger Waters’ video for the song ‘The Last Refugee’, we can see the same symbolic function of the doll in the story of a dancer who remembers her previous life in flashback memories, living through all the pain and suffering she experienced as she left her homeland. We would like to thank Rick Sampedro for drawing our attention to this, and for his constant work towards a more equal world for all.

The story and the song in the classroom

We recommend reading the young reader with young learners and working through before and after reading activities in the classroom. You can also do the project at the end of the book and make a sand bottle.

With older students – and by older we mean teens as well as adults – you can also read the story and ask more complex questions. Although young learners will be sensitve to the differences in the visual reseprentation of the lives of Nina and Anna, they will not have the language and the knowledge to reflect on it. Teens and adults will be able to compare and contrast the events of the little girls’ lives as it is told through the words as well as the images. There are differences in the setting of the two parallel stories, and it is visually represented through the colours of the pages. Ask your students to respond to the images and describe what is going on in the pictures as well as how these pictures make them feel.

Then, you can watch the video and find similarities between the affective aspects of the reader and the video. After watching the video, they can reconstruct the woman’s story through her childhood memories and make inferences about her life based on what they see as she is dancing. Apart from classroom discussions, you can also ask your students to write a reflective essay on the stories in the reader and the video and to draw parallels between their lives and those of the families in the book and the woman in the video.