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.
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.
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.