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Graphic Stories Special: Meet the Westbourne Kids

December 03, 2019 by s.nagele

In this special we would like you and your students to meet the Westbourne kids, the main characters in a series of twelve graphic stories at A1-A2 level. I think we all face a challenge to engage all of our students, especially the ones who say that they are not interested in reading. Graphic stories are often the best solution to this situation.

westbourne kids
The Wesbourne Kids. Illustration by Lorenzo Sabbatini. © Helbling Languages

You can read an interview with Martyn Hobbs, the author of the Westbourne series, and download two worksheets, complete with teaching notes, as well as a fun character quiz.

For more ideas on using graphic stories, read our post:

Would you like more interactive activities? Check out E-ZONE, the Helbling educational platform:

Meet the author: an interview with Martyn Hobbs

Read our interview to learn more about the idea behind the series and to find out more about their creator, Martyn Hobbs.

Martyn Hobbs
Martyn Hobbs

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): Hi Martyn, could you tell me about your teaching and writing experiences?

Hi there. I taught English for over ten years. It was mainly in Florence, Italy, in schools and at the university, but also during the summer in the UK to students from all over the world. As for writing, it seems that I’ve written stories and poems all my life! I wrote my first ‘novel’ with a schoolmate when I was eleven – it was a science fiction horror tale. Since then I’ve written plays (including for the Edinburgh Festival) and screenplays. In fact, I’m finishing a film script about Lord Byron right now! Apart from Readers, I write courses for teaching English – and I always include stories in them. I think stories can be imaginative and exciting whatever the language level.

HRB: Where did the idea of a series of graphic stories come from?

Well, first of all, I had an invitation from Maria (Maria Cleary, series editor of Helbling Readers) at Helbling to write a series about a group of friends. At the same time, I was introduced to the wonderful Lorenzo Sabbatini, who is a fabulous artist and interpreter of words. I loved the idea of writing interlinked stories about a group of friends (and, in the case of Jack, occasionally enemies!). Each character has his or her own stories where they are the ‘star’. The other friends might take a big part in that story, or they might stand on the edge.

One of the reasons I enjoy writing for the theatre and film is that they are very visual. While you are writing a screenplay, you are creating pictures. And graphic novels are like films. The pictures carry the story (and the words) forward, creating atmosphere and mood. For me, they are the perfect medium!

HRB: How were the Westbourne Kids born? Will new friends join them?

After our first meeting, I wrote character portraits and physical descriptions of the six friends. Then Lorenzo developed them, making them visual. I went back and modified my ideas, Lorenzo changed his artwork. When I began to write the stories themselves, it was great having ‘real’ characters in front of me.

It’s interesting that you ask how the Kids were ‘born’ because the characters grew, changed and developed during the course of the stories. As for the future, the Kids are going to take a holiday ... from me! And I’m already thinking about an exciting new series of stories.

HRB: Do you use graphic novels and cartoons in your own classroom? What are the benefits of using them?

I always used drawings and pictures in my teaching. I like drawing anyway, so I found it fun to use in the classroom. I’ve always used stories, too. In stories, language is working at full power. In stories, language is most alive.

Graphic novels combine the strengths of words and pictures – and they are incredibly helpful for language learners. The pictures do a lot of the work so they take the pressure off the reader. They can help explain some difficult words – they can interpret the story – and they are attractive! And that makes reading so much more motivating.

HRB: What is the biggest challenge when you are writing your stories?

Martyn: There are lots of challenges. But all of them are stimulating. Some of things I think about while I’m writing are:

  • how to keep the story visual and involving;
  • how to pace the story so at times it is more relaxed, at times it becomes dramatic and intense;
  • how to create emotion, ideas – and humour;
  • how to keep the story to the right length – because some stories want to keep on growing, especially when there is a story within a story (as in David and the Black Corsair and Grace, Romeo, Juliet and Fred);
  • how to keep the language at the right level and natural at the same time. Obviously, there are language restrictions when you write Readers– but that’s a part of the fun! Writing within limits is stimulating. If you write a sonnet, for example, there are rules and regulations: the challenge is to use those restrictions to your advantage.

HRB: What inspires you?

Films, books, places, paintings, people, things. The words from a song. Stories people tell me. This is a short list but it means... anything and everything!

HRB: Do you have a favourite graphic novel you can recommend to teachers?

I find that impossible to say. When I was a kid, I loved Tintin. I also used to borrow my cousins’ copies of superhero comics like The X-Men and The Fantastic Four. Another inspiration were illustrated books such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

Neil Gaiman is an inspiring writer who has created some wonderfully illustrated graphic novels. But here’s a a definite recommendation – The Arrival by Shaun Tan. It’s a beautifully drawn, gently surreal story about the experience of arriving in a new country with it’s own customs and practices. And an interesting thing is – it’s told entirely without words!

HRB: Thank you for the interview, Martyn!

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