Picture books that push the boundaries

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What defines a picture book? This is an issue that had been a source of angst for many years. Does a picture book have to be for emergent readers? Clearly not, as a browse of the Curriculum shelves will indicate. Margaret Wild’s Woolvs in the Sitee, and Let the Celebrations Begin, along with Roberto Innocenti and Ian McEwan’s Rose Blanche challenge the definition of a picture book. They look at complex stories, and open a world which is not purely aimed at the early learner. Likewise, Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park introduces the reader to an entirely different way of reading.

These pictures are often a challenge to those who have not encountered the range and diversity of textual meaning which can be retrieved through a picture book. Increasingly, students in senior English classes are being asked to become involved in the analysis of a picture book, and are often surprised at the depth of meaning to be found through reading the visual.

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8 responses »

  1. Here is another text which offers the opportunity to explore the manner in which layers of meaning can be created through visuals and text: Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin, Click Clack Moo, London: Simon and Schuster, 2002

    Cronin and Lewin could be construed as having written a treatise on collective bargaining. That it is based on a mob of recalcitrant barn dwelling cows and a potentially machiavellian duck just makes the reading more enticing. The simple text of Click Clack Moo is a social comment on negotiation. Betsy Lewin’s illustrations are quirky and caricatured with goggle-eyed cows, ever-watching hens and a deceptively unassuming duck full of life and deviousness.

    The increasingly confused gaze of the farmer and the way he dominates the first double page spread sets the scene for his come-uppance. The deceptively gentle animal characters are created with brush and wash techniques which complement the semi-rhythmic text in the way they dance across the page.

  2. A simple walk becomes, in Voices in the Park, an exploration of world views. Browne’s use of body language and movement, his construction of the characteristics of the four protagonists through the way in which the illustrations reflect their mood, and his development of the text to reflect their approach to life, works to present powerful readings. The mother is repressed, aloof, restrained and judgemental. Charles is expected to sit, equally static, but is already indicating his restlessness and his willingness to participate. Smudge, full of life and enthusiasm, is a direct contrast to her father, defeated under the burden of unemployment. Browne plays with the text, visuals, and even the type face to create his contrastive verbal and visual imagery.

    Anthony Brown, Voices in the Park, London: Picture Corgi Books, 1999

  3. ‘The Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone’, for all its rollicking movement and scare-crow motif, rich colouring and games with the lettering, is a simple, didactic, moral tale. Along the way, it has a dig at the sterility and decay of our modern constructions of cities, teaches robbers not to steal and hands out a lesson about patience and nature’s bounty. Its theme works from the cover onwards, textured, rough, and created to look like it too has been made from scavengings from the dump, building through the visual binaries of the bleak grey “Cementland” and the riotous colour of the revealed treasure. The text reinforces the dank decay of the dump and the endless bounty of the treasure, with characters known for their scavenging habits to reinforce the message.

  4. Wild and Vivas tackle a subject of great sensitivity in ‘Let the Celebrations Begin’, exloring the fate of children in the concentration camps and their need for toys. They have been criticised for too lightly rendering a tragic topic. Vivas’ usually luscious people have become gaunt and eye-filled, and the simple rendering of the scene setting comment, “My name is Miriam, and this is where I live. Hut 18, bed 22”, brings the reader into the environment of horror. Author and illustrator clearly see it as a message of hope, a testament to the human spirit, and acknowledgment of the need to survive, to think outside the daily horror of the German Concentration camps.

    Margaret Wild and Julie Vivas, Let the Celebrations begin, Norwood: Omnibus Books, 1991

  5. Another one which touches on war and understanding, but carries other messages, of valueing memories and community, is Gary Crew’s and Shaun Tan’s ‘Memorial’.

    ‘Memorial’ endeavours to fulfil a number of roles. It is a didactic text, teaching about memory, the honouring of those who went to war, and the need to fight even when the odds are not in your favour. The recount is seen through the eyes of the young boy. The illustrations match the mood of remembrance, sepia, soft and nostalgic. They also reflect the pain which the boy’s father carries with him in the deep gaping hole of a wound when he observes that there are “some things you don’t want to remember”. This is in stark contrast to the warm hazy dappled light of his pleasant reminisces. In the conclusion, Old Pa observes that you are remembered for the fight in you, not whether you succeeded, as the visual language shows the sad, many ringed stump of the now fallen tree.

  6. The war theme continues with a poignant picture book about Yunko Morimoto’s personal experiences as a survivor of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In ‘My Hiroshima’, Yunko Morimoto has penned a persuasive argument against nuclear war. Her gentle, clear-sighted illustrations complement the simple and unemotional recall of her own experiences as one of the survivors of the murderous pay-load of Enola Gay.

    The stark image of the jetstream far up in the sky is a powerful yet minimal symbol of the price her city paid for the decisions of others. The graphic vision of the child weeping for her dead mother, the images of death and the thought of a child scratching through the dirt of the school playground and finding the bones of her dead school mates, bring home the reality of what was experienced by the people of Hiroshima. Morimoto blends her own imagery with photographic image and finally her summation of her own recollections.

  7. In Encounter, Jane Yolen and David Shannon take on the mythology of Columbus and the discovery of America. As she does so often, Jane Yolen forces the viewer to see a different story to the one with which they are familiar.

    Jane Yolen adopts an alternative perspective to the story of Columbus, forcing the reader to see his arrival through the eyes of a Taino boy. The avaricious eyes of the greedy Spanish Conquistadors repay their hosts’ hospitality with “the serpent’s smile – no lips and all teeth”. The illustrations compliment a text written from the point of the view of the Other, the de-privileged. The dark, sombre palette in which the Taino gleam like their gold reflects the hidden mysteries of the exotic to western eyes, with images stylised to reference the poses of the “indian” artefacts that are all that are left of their culture. Shannon’s illustrations create a sense that the reader is in the boy’s dream as people of his world appear as ghosts of their lost culture.

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