The Value of Illustrated Books

Illustration is something that is welcome, even expected, in all books for children. It is not unusual to have children’s books, even ones aimed at a post-infant audience, completely devoid of text; it is understood that children know how to read images. Reading images is undoubtedly a skill, but is it one that is under-valued? The older a child gets, the less reliant on images they are expected to become.

I am increasingly more and more interested in this perceived binary between what is considered for children and what is considered for adults. And it strikes me that, in terms of books and publishing, YA is the battleground between the two. Not only in content, tone and language, but also visual interpretation.

This One Summer: Tamaki, Jillian: Books
This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki. Caldecott Honor Book 2016.

YA books are very seldom illustrated, with the exception of increasingly popular graphic novels (themselves often overlooked for prizes or contested when in receipt of one), and it is rare indeed to find a novel for adults which features more than a stylistic chapter heading. Why is this the case? In my research I examine ways in which museums approach interactive exhibits and learning within their displays. A key theme that seems to cut across both museums and literature is that of this clear divide between what is acceptable, or even encouraged, for children and what an adult should have grown out of enjoying or indeed needing in order to enrich their learning.

New Kid: Craft, Jerry, Craft, Jerry: Books
New Kid by Jerry Craft. Newbery Medal Winner 2020.

Do adults need to be able to ‘read’ an image? Of course. Being able to read an image as an adult is not only a useful skill, but it can also be a joyful one. It can aid in our understanding and world building; it can add nuance that might seem clunky or too obvious in a text. We have all become adept watchers of moving images, we can pick up visual clues that help us to guess plot twists, or at least help them make more sense when they have delightfully blindsided us. Why should we be denied that in literature? Why should a child be forced to lose a whole visual world in the name of “growing up”?

Reading is important, but that reading does not have to be restricted to text to be valid.

About the author: Charlotte Slark is an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) Student at QMUL and the V&A Museum of Childhood. Her research examines the social and cultural history of the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood from 1974-2010. Her research interests are museums, structural inequality, class, and bureaucracy.


The Strange Complexity of Picture Books: A Case of Adult Infiltration

For something which is generally expected to be short, compact and aesthetically appealing, the picture book can embody quite a bit of complexity. My main takeaway from our discussion on picture books and difficult topics was the focus on functionality and how we assess it. What does a picture book do? Do different kinds of picture books do different things? What is a good picture book? What are the standards of judgment? What is it supposed to do? Simultaneously, it is interesting to see how the answers to these various questions might vary depending upon who the reader/viewer/listener is and under what circumstances and conditions, contact/communication with the book happens.

Image result for duck death and the tulip
Duck, Death and the Tulip, written and illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch

Why are picture books often aimed at children? Perhaps “aimed” is not the most appropriate word, let’s say – why are picture books considered suitable for children? Is it the economy of words or the abundance of images? Perhaps it is this combination itself which allows it to become accessible to the child just learning new words and struggling with complex ideas (example: death, trauma, sexuality). However, it might fall in the trap of oversimplification of complex ideas, to the point where death is explained and examined as a ritual, which exempts the emotional aspect of the incident. This happens in The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown (illustrated by Remy Charlip, and later by Christian Robinson). On the contrary, Wolf Erlbruch’s poignantly beautiful Duck, Death and the Tulip takes an entirely different approach. The uncomfortable question however is, why do we as adults have a problem with the matter of fact tone of The Dead Bird? Will a child reading it react similarly? Will a child even read it? Or will it be read to him/her? The problem is, a large part of the material meant for children has to pass through the filter of adult censorship. Perhaps we are not comfortable with children being comfortable with certain things or perhaps we are far too protective, our indulgence of them is careful, measured, limited. The aim is not to find flaws in our approach but humbly accept the reality of it. For similar reasons, Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree can seem far too complex and ambiguous for children. We might think, its dystopian images, complex symbolism and narrative structure will be hard to unpack for the child. After all, it’s hard enough for us! I personally feel, it’s one of those books that work well because of its complexity. It has the potential to be something different for everyone at different points in time.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg

This brings us back to the question of what does a picture book set out to do? My observations tell me this is largely unfixed and changeable. It may not always have a simple linear narrative. Picture books can have clear goals and messages and function as message books of some sort. These books are separate from others which might be quite ambiguous or open ended. The latter can be seen as set of visual, textual resources which can be used to make multiple meanings. I’d call these ‘resource books’ – a visual-textual toolkit of sort, with various uses. Another example of resource books would be Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Here, there are no stories and at the same time many, endless stories. It is a collection of uncanny and unexplainable illustrations with captions which invite us to weave our own.

The functionality of the illustrated book, one may conclude, is driven by the combination of economy of words and abundance of images in actual spatial terms of the print surface. The author and/or illustrator faces the creative challenge of accommodating something intelligent, beautiful and resourceful that often, if not always ends up passing through the parental filter.  And Tango Makes Three, written by Peter Parnell, Justin Richardson and illustrated by Henry Cole seems to “get this right”. The story of a couple of male penguins who form a family and bring up a chick, skips all the pitfalls of over explanation and celebrates gay love in the most beautiful, natural way possible. Despite being based on true facts, even this book reportedly had to face hard censorship. And this, makes me think – will there ever be that perfect picture book? Isn’t it about time we sat down and examined how parental filter works, besides engaging with a book’s aims and functionality? Therein lies the complex mystery of children, autonomy and the world of stories and non-stories.

About the author: Aratrika Choudhury is an illustrator and a second year PhD student at QMUL. Her masters focused on Bengali illustration culture, and her doctoral research focuses on print culture and colonial book history.

The Text of Picture Books: Font and Typesetting

According to scholar Jenny Uglow, illustrations have been part of children’s publications since the early eighteenth-century due to ideas about children’s education – and, in particular, John Locke’s views of children’s education. Locke believed that children needed pictures of things in order to both entertain and educate them – what good is learning the word ‘lion,’ for example, without any idea of how a lion might look?

Locke’s ideas of illustrating children’s books for practical educative purposes has certainly stood the test of time, yet contemporary picture books attempt to do more than simply educate children on how the world looks. Now, picture books can be used as tools to help children process feelings and ideas. In our recent Centre for Childhood Cultures reading group, we read three picture books dealing with large or difficult topics: The Red Tree written and illustrated by Shaun Tan, The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown with illustrations by Christian Robinson, and And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell with illustrations by Henry Cole.

And Tango Makes Three
The cover of And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, with illustrations by Henry Cole

While these three books deal with vastly different topics in vastly different tones, something that struck me while experiencing these three books was the way that the printed text functioned as an extension of the mood or tone of the book. For The Red Tree, a picture book that deals with depression or perhaps grief, the text is slightly off-kilter – certain letters sat a bit higher than others, as if they had been typed by a broken typewriter. The edges of the letters were rugged, rather than crisp. In And Tango Makes Three, a heart-warming book about a non-traditional penguin family, the text is written in a joyful, clear font. It does not come across as sterile, though; rather, the font looks lived in and warm, while at the same time the letters are easy to read for children just learning their alphabet. At times, words in the text might be bigger or in all-capital letters for emphasis, like the ‘CRAAAACK’ of Tango emerging from her shell. The spelling and size of this onomatopoeia make it integral to the illustration it describes. In The Dead Bird, the text is a straight sans serif font – it seems to not want to call attention to itself, almost blending into the illustrations. Like the words of themselves, the physical text of The Dead Bird is unadorned.

The 2016 re-issue of The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Christian Robinson

I began to consider how the written text – by which I mean the font and text placement itself – becomes an extension of the illustrations in children’s books. It seems somehow akin to concrete poems, or, poems in which the arrangement of the words on the page convey meaning more than the words themselves – for example, a poem in which words are arranged as drops of rain, or in which curl words in on themselves in a spiral.

Who chooses how to typeset the text in a children’s picture book? Who decides on and designs the font? If the writer and illustrator are two separate people, how do they collaborate on the design of the font? And who is the font for? If a pre-literate child looks at the page, does the font or the placement of the words register? How does the look of the written text inform an adult’s experience of the book when reading to a child?

The cover of The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

Uglow writes, ‘however closely writer and artist work together, their work can never ‘mean’ the same, because meaning is bound up with the writers’ system of alphabetic symbols and words, and the artists’ lines, shading and colours’ (140). Yet, when text becomes art, can meaning begin to cross the boundaries between the verbal and the illustrative?

About the author: Abigail Fine is a third year PhD student at QMUL. Her research focuses on Cinderella adaptations in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with an emphasis on Young Adult and Middle Grade adaptations.

References and Further Reading

Aube, Christina and Nancy Perloff. ‘What is Concrete Poetry?’ Getty Iris Blog (blog). March 23, 2017.

Uglow, Jenny. Words & Pictures: Writers, Artists and a Peculiarly British Tradition. London: Faber and Faber, 2008

Villarreal, Alicia, Sylvia Minton, and Miriam Martinez. ‘Child Illustrators: Making Meaning Through Visual Art in Picture Books.’ The Reading Teacher. November/December 2015. Vol 69, No. 3., p 265-275.