Skip to main content


Hooked on Books: Michele Rocchetti on bringing illustration and literature into the language class

March 08, 2016 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

In this series of interviews we talk to teachers, ELT writers, visual artists and researchers about the importance of using literature in the language classroom. Together they have over a hundred years of experience in teaching and writing so they can definitely give us plenty of advice and insight into the best practices. We talk about the importance and transformation of literary texts in education, we ask for genre and title recommendations as well as personal stories.

Michele Rocchetti

This month we talk to Michele Rocchetti, an Italian graphic designer and illustrator, who also teaches illustration at both the Ars in Fabula School of Illustration and the Academy of Fine Arts in Macerata. He graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts, department of Multimedia Graphics, and went on to get a Masters in Illustration at  Ars in Fabula.

Visit Michele's webpage:

Michele has illustrated three Helbling Readers. His illustration for the Helbling Reader adaptation of Heart of Darkness was selected for the Bologna Children's Book Fair Illustrators Exhibition in 2014.

HRB: How long have you been working as an illustrator? And as a teacher?

I’d say I’ve worked as an illustrator since 2013 when my first book was published. That was the turning point between the first phase of discovery and experimentation and the moment when fun turned into work. My first teaching experience was in 2014 at the Ars in Fabula school of illustration. I taught a week-long course which focused on character development and digital technology. And I'm about to start  teaching (March 2016) a course in scientific illustration at the Academy of Fine Arts in Macerata and that will be a real new challenge.

HRB: What sparked your passion for art?

The pleasure of observing things around me and also from observing those who can represent what they see through the filter of their own personalities. The  very first things that fascinated me were scientific illustrations of animals and reproductions of medieval miniatures. Then as time passed, I became interested in the avantgarde and then cinema, photography and design.

HRB: You have illustrated a number of classic novels. How do you approach a text you illustrate?

When I approach a classic novel, I am aware that the text has its own " history " of illustrators or artists who have already worked on it with astonishing results. From an artistic point of view, I always tend to look at what was done before me, and then focus on my own personal vision. I think that while it is always interesting to revisit the text in an original way, this can also become dangerous, precisely because you are working with a classic. There is no hard and fast rule, but you must always keep editorial guidelines in mind and think about what the text really evokes.

HRB: What do you think of the role of illustration in multimodal narratives?

Illustration represents one of the various languages that can be used in a multimodal narrative.  As such, it brings a wealth of insights and unique perspectives. I think illustration can add a parallel storyline to the text and it can also be perfectly integrated with other modes, such as musical storytelling, mime, etc... . Just think of the theatre and how the narration is dependent on a number of other modes too.

HRB: You have also written and illustrated a story if I’m right. What changes in your approach to the images when you’re writing?

Yes, I have written a story which, however, has been edited and revisited by a writer, who is also a good friend. I must say that I prefer working with a writer because sharing roles, even in such a collaborative way, really gets my imagination flowing.  I find a more linear approach, of writing then illustrating, much more difficult, especially as far as enthusiasm is concerned, perhaps because you miss out on all the surprises that lie in the unpredictability of working with someone else. This sense of unpredictability brings out the best in me. Ideas for stories are different. I often just get an idea and start playing with it, but there is a huge leap between having an idea and developing it into a story that works. I prefer to leave this part to someone who is more competent than me.

HRB: We often have a practical approach towards illustrations in class. Can you recommend any activities to help young learners and teenagers in developing their visual thinking?

That’s a very difficult question, and I can only talk about my experience as a reader and illustrator. I think that the first step has to be thinking. You need to start thinking to be able to imagine things. For example, we can open an old encyclopaedia and imagine an absurd explanation of a human anatomy drawing or see a sequence of frescoes in a medieval church and imagine the story it tells. I think that above all, it is essential to be playful when we approach images because imagination is playful and runs on playfulness.  We can make up several stories based on the same images and at the same time we can imagine several images of the same story. It is a skill we are born with and we slowly lose because of an evaluation-based education system that  is too focused on getting ‘the right answers’. Another important phase is observation because that’s when we learn about the basics of visual language..

HRB: Could you recommend any picture books or graphic novels?

I love many authors and many books, but I’d really like  to recommend anything by Atak (website in German here) , a German artist I admire and who, in my opinion, embodies a magnificent mix of madness and rationality, the real and surreal, the old and the new and all that is child-like and adult.

HRB: Thank you for the interview!

Learn more about the Helbling Readers illustrated by Michele here:

And get lesson ideas to use with these stories: