Tuesday, November 04, 2008

How to know when a book is superb: pictures edition, part 1

This post is the second in a series about identifying and selecting quality children's books for the preschool set. Part 1 is here. Parts 2b, 3, 4, and 5 will follow in the next couple of weeks ... or longer. These posts are likely going to be long-winded so I want to give my readers lots of time off in-between.

Copyright caveat: I use a lot of pictures in this post most of which are copyright protected. I did not scan any images into my computer nor upload them. I am simply drawing in images from elsewhere on the web. My purpose in doing so is solely to promote the books depicted. I have not used images from books I do not recommend. I also do not derive any income (monetary or goods and services from my writing); as such I am in no way profiting from the intellectual property of others. Having said all of that, I will remove all embedded images except for book covers from this post and replace them with external links in 7 days time. In the interim, should I receive any requests from copyright holders to remove images from this post, I will do so immediately.

On with the show...

What is the role of pictures in books for young children? Is it simply to illustrate the text? Having spent so many years as readers, we adults tend to privilege text at the expense of illustration. Library users are always asking me for a good story, a funny story, for a tale about trucks, ballerinas, or animals, for a book that teaches manners or what have you, for a book that will help a child learn to read, or one that fosters a desired "learning outcome" (now there's an expression that makes me want to puke). I only rarely have users come to me looking for a certain style of art or expressing a desire to teach visual literacy.

I remember reading simple vocabulary books to Miss M in that year where language hit her like a tidal wave. Words. Words. Words. Words were what she needed and words were what I gave her. Invariably, I found my word-centred self pointing to the black squiggle of text as I was reading and not to the picture she was looking at. Young children see the world differently, though. They acquire visual literacy long before they can decipher those black marks on the page. Good children's writers and illustrators know this. Good children's writers and illustrators design their books to cater to a child's need for aural, verbal, visual and, eventually, written literacy.

The most common form of book for young children is the picture book: 32 pages that most often contain text and pictures, although the former can be absent. In a good picture book, the text and art complement each other. I use the word "complement" on purpose, as it comes from the root "complete." In a good picture book neither the text nor art is complete without the other. Oftentimes the story can stand alone in a less rich form, but many innovative picture books depend on their illustrations to tell part or all of the story.

Take for example, Pat Hutchin's Rosie's Walk published in 1967. It is usually acknowledged as the first picture book in which the words deliberately leave out part of the story. The words tell in brief, literal detail what happens when Rosie, the hen, goes for a walk around the barnyard. Only the illustrations show what happens to the ill-fated fox who chooses to follow her. Page after page, the fox gets his comeuppance and Rosie? Well, she gets "back in time for dinner". End of story.


This style of integrated storytelling is quite prevalent in contemporary picture books. One of my favourite renderings of it is the Caldecott medal-winning Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann.

I wish I could find pictures online to show you Gloria the police dog's outlandish enactments of Officer Buckle's safety tips. Better yet, I wish I could show you the climax illustration when Officer Buckle realizes he's been had by his best friend. You'll have to go check it out to see for yourself if you haven't read it already.

How does the 10 dollar expression "visual literacy" differ from the 10 cent version "looking at pictures"? A lot can be said for how pictures themselves invite the reader in and promote an interpretive framework. A few basic design principles provide the foundation for all visual communication. How these principles are employed by the artist acting in tandem with the writer determine the degree of engagement a reader can have with a picture book. To explain, I am relying on the The On-line Visual Literacy Project at Ponoma College. The article, which outlines the 11 fundamental components of design, is well-researched and well-cited. I highly recommend it, should you wish to pursue these issues further (and, perhaps, catch all my errors in interpretation). I plan to tackle the basic design components here by dividing them into four groupings and looking at those groupings through the lens of picture book illustration. They are:

The building blocks (dot, line, shape, and texture)
Movement (motion and direction)
Colour (hue, value, and saturation), and
Perspective (scale and dimension)

The rest of today's post will look at the building blocks. My next post will cover movement, colour and perspective.

The Building Blocks
The dot and the line are fundamental to all artistic creation. The dot is a stable, grounding force: a moon in the sky or an object in the distance that your eye is drawn to. Lines create while dots merely are. The exception to this rule is in contemporary visual technology whereby all images are expressed through a series of dots. The genius of Roy Lichtenstein was to turn our way of looking at a screen or a comic book back on us and to make us aware of the visual make-up of new technology as a series of dots.


The line creates all movement, direction, and perspective. The line, when used cleverly, is an object lesson in how art works.



Straight lines, particularly diagonals suggest activity. Curved lines sooth and rock with a gentle motion.

From lines, shape emerges. The comforting, rolling circle is a big ol' dot that depends upon line for its movement.

Richard McGuire's Orange Book, 1993


Kevin Henkes' Caldecott-winning Kitten's First Full Moon, 2004. Notice the grounding circles in the moon, in the fireflies and in the kitten herself. Then notice how the angled line of the tail directs your eye to the moon so that we look at they very thing that has caught the kitten's attention.

The claustrophobic square and rectangle...


...with their promise of escape.


Is it any wonder that Sendak's masterpiece, Where the Wild Things Are, begins in Max's house bounded by a white, square frame on the page. With each page, the frame gets smaller and smaller until Max sails off to the land of the wild things. At this point, the frame disappears altogether and the image becomes a full-page bleed. In fact, the wild things themselves would burst the bounds of the book if they could.


The manic triangle is all lines and angles scarcely bound. It keeps your eyes always moving.



Triangles, because they contain at least two diagonal lines, represent energy and movement, particularly when they are sitting on their angles instead of their base.

An aside:
If your child has moved past the random scribble in fine motor skill development (mine has not), check out the books of Ed Emberly. Alternatively, go to his website where you will find countless drawing exercises that let kids turn the dot, the line, and the fundamental shapes into just about any object under the sun. Voila:

Child readers discover texture early on: pat the bunny, pop-up, and crinkle-paper books abound in our tactile, catered-to-baby culture. An image does not need faux fur or sandpaper to convey texture, though, and different illustration techniques can often make a one-dimensional image seem 3D.


Canadian Barbara Reid models her illustrations out of clay before they are transferred to paper for printing. This illustration is from Effie, 1999. The computer screen does not do justice to the level of detail in her art. Take, for example, this image from her version of Noah's ark entitled Two By Two, 1992.

If you haven't read a book with Barbara Reid illustrations, hurry out and do so immediately. As an aside, there is a wonderful detail in this illustration: Noah's wife (dressed in green on the middle deck) has just realized that she's stepped in dung and is looking at the bottom of her shoe in disgust.

Wallace Edwards supplements detail with competing colours and patterns to create a textured look. from Wallace Edwards' Alphabeasts, 2002.

Eric Carle creates texture by using multi-coloured tissue paper in his art. It's always fun to read a bunch of Carle books and then have your kids create tissue paper art. You can give them colouring page image outlines, if you want, and then let them do the rest.


Barry Moser, Chris VanAllsburg, and Christopher Bing have all used woodcuts or pen-and-ink in the style of woodcuts to create texture.



OK, out of 11 design fundamentals, I have now covered 4 and the post is waaaay long. Stay tuned for part b in a few days. In the meantime, ask yourself as you read stories to your kids, "does this picture add something of value to the book? Does it create mood, set tone, establish character? Is the image energetic or peaceful? Does it extend the mind in interesting ways beyond what is conveyed by the words on the page? How does it accomplish its task?"

Now here's a question for all of you: What picture book or illustrator's style do you like in particular and why? Don't be shy to answer. I love nothing more than learning about what makes children's books work. All other comments or discussion points are welcome as well.


No Mother Earth said...

This is so great! I look forward to the rest.

From an artist's point of view, I really like the Harold books. I think it's a really great way to teach kids the basics of drawing. I am very impressed by the retro style of art in If I Built a Car by Chris van Dusen. I was also similarly let down by When Dinosaurs Came with Everything - I thought the story was great, but the pictures came across as muddy. I much prefer the dinosaurs in the Jane Yolen books.

(Personally, I really like the comedy of the Sandra Boynton pictures, but I notice that both my boys don't respond to them at all. Do you think that the comedy is meant for the adults, and not the kids?)

Gwen said...

ur smart.

i've been hanging with high schoolers all day and right now the part of my brain that houses kids' picture books is e-m-p-t-y.

Beck said...

The Baby's favorite book right now is Harold and The Purple Crayon. Boy, we've read that a lot this past week.

Favorite kids' book artists? Giselle Potter is a HUGE favorite in our house. Oh, A Chair For My Mother is another visual favorite, as are the books of Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Um, Robert McCloskey. My husband likes Calef Brown and Lane Smith, but that is because he is a freaky graphic designer.

Veronica Mitchell said...

I am an absolute fan of Helen Ward's illustrations. Just this minute I finished reading King of the Birds to two of my girls. I am not always a big fan of her prose when she writes her own, but I will buy her books every time anyway for the illustrations.

Veronica Mitchell said...

Oh! Also Peter Sis.

Anonymous said...

Um, I panic when asked a question, so all of our favorites have fled my mind. However, I very much enjoyed learning why I love some of the books I do...I confess to never selecting a book for my children that has artwork which does not appeal to me.

Your mention of "Rosie's Walk" reminded me that it and other books with outstanding illustrations and few words make good first foreign language books.

Bon said...

lol @ sober briquette...i have that same problem. then i wonder if we read bad books with terrible illustrations and so i hesitate to share. sigh. the junior high colonization of the mind never ends.

lately, Oscar's begun wanting to find and name everything on the page, so we're on a big Richard Scarry-a-thon, especially the encyclopaediac ones with little visual hidden surprises. i love them too, especially the smorgasbord of items lucky Kenny Bear has for breakfast.

Andrea said...

Now I'm wishing Greg was here, because I know he uses kids' books as visual reference libraries. All I can say, really, is "I like stuff."

There was a book called Schadenfreude that Marla gave me that has very charming retro illustrations, and I like the Mole Sisters pictures. If I Were a Lion has some nice illustrations in it, and I like Neil Gaiman's Dangerous Alphabet.

Mimi said...

We have a Barbara Reid book translated into French, and there are very few words, but Munchkin loves finding new things in the detail of the illustrations.

I like Ian Falconer's Olivia a lot. Whimsical but spare. Very controlled visual vocabulary. Um ... What do you make of Laurie Keller's 'Arnie the Doughnut'--it's a postmodern collage multimedia riot with extraneous text and illustration all over the place. But the two year old loves it.

You haven't really touch on it, but I like the tone of gentleness and harmony in 'Guess How Much I love You'--it's detailed, but restful all at once.

Mad said...

Mimi: I haven't read Arnie but po-mo picture books are everywhere these days. Sims Tabak, Lane Smith, David Wiesner, Mo Willems... So far, Miss M LOVES all those guys.

Bon, I love Scarry and, more's the point, so does Miss M. If Oscar likes Scarry you might want to find Peggy Rathmann's 10 Minutes 'Til Bedtime. I think it owes a lot to Scarry.

Andrea, I am besotted with Roslyn Scwartz (Mole sisters, etc...) BTW, I think you would really like the environmental picture books of Australian Jeannie Baker.

Beck: Potter and Williams are both hits with me too. Ditto Helen Ward, Veronica.

De: When I do part whatever (4?) of the series, I'll provide a list of a # of wordless and near-wordless picture books. I love em.

Bea said...

I always feel insanely smart when I teach picture books, just because I'm so word-focused that anything I come up with to say about the illustrations seems SO insightful to me. I used When the Wolves Come Out of the Walls for group work day again this year and my students were beside themselves they loved it so much - in stark contrast to last year's students who were deeply, deeply offended by the horror-flick-style illustrations and looked very much askance at me for letting my children anywhere near that book.

I think my kids are pretty text-oriented too (like me) - their enjoyment always seems to me to be related to the words, though as often to their sound as to their sense. The other day I read a book to my friend's two-year-old daughter and I was shocked when she spent the whole time staring at my face. She was riveted by the story, but she only glanced at the pictures, looking raptly up at me instead. It was unnerving.

Mad said...

Bea: in our house, the MadDad (being theatre oriented) is all about the illustrations and observational reading. For him the words and text are objects to be observed in space.

I'm like you: very text oriented. I love reading poetry, nursery rhymes, books with a galloping cadence, anything that lets me revel in the sound of the story. I have to make a conscious effort to relax into illustrations but then when I do I feel so keen about it all.

flutter said...

I have always loved Shel Silverstein. But now I want to grab all of these books. Children lit is so cool

Cold Spaghetti said...

Wow -- this was fantastic! Thank you for the great tutorial!

mek said...

As a child some of my favorite books were the Little Bear books with Maurice Sendak illustrations - the bears in their Victorian clothes - and I'm happy to see my own daughter asking for those often. My other favorite was a book called Donkey Donkey, which has a very different style from the Little Bear books.

I remember in third grade doing a long art project where we found Caldecott medal books in the library, learned about different illustration styles, mimicked them, and then got to choose a couple artists to mimick as well (I chose Matisse and Monet, continuing my wildly divergent allegiances in art appreciation). It was a cool project and I still remember doing it, and still have the book I made!

Reluctant Housewife said...

Wonderful, Mad. You're knowledge is impressive and you share it in such a well thought out, intelligent and interesting way. Thank you.

ewe are here said...

Wow! That's a lot of information... and you've only just begun?!

I'm going to have to find the purple line book... looks quite interesting.

Both my boys were/are drawn to the Maisy books (Lucy Cousins)... big, bright pictures.

Janet said...

We have many of the books you mentioned, and I'll check out the others. We love Jan Brett and Sandra Boynton. (I'm required to act out Barnyard Dance - be careful what you start.) Rosie's Walk and books like it are a bit of a challenge, because Mommy and Daddy don't read it exactly the same way and for my OCD daughter, that doesn't work. oy.
I love this series. You make these topics so interesting and it's helpful to me to learn more about this.

Magpie said...

Mad, this is a totally great post. The way you've pulled this together is terrific. Thanks all around.

(And I love love love Harold and the Purple Crayon.)

Anonymous said...

Love this! We are huge fans of Kevin Henkes and Helen Oxenbury. I have a lovely illustrated copy of Alice in Wonderland by Oxenbury. We've read it several times, I suspect because the girls' love the illustrations so much.

Mary G said...

Marvellous, Mad! Marvellous Mad.

I like watercolour wash, stylized to realistic. I've just purchased Gordon Morrison's 'Oak Tree' for Little Stuff. Having said that, illustrations that I also love include those of 'The Gruffalo', WTWTA, and Phoebe Gillman's 'Jillian Jiggs'. As a child I remember loving the art deco pen and inks in my versions of the Wizard of Oz books, the insert plates in 'The Princess and Curdy'... eclectic, no question. Have you run across Sierra and Brown, 'Wild about Books'.

Disney leaves me cold. Sadly, Little Stuff loves the princesses.

Andrea said...

Awesome, thank you for the recommendation. I'll have to put it on my amazon list before I forget.

I forgot about Mo Willems--I love him too. Edwina the Dinosaur who Didn't Know She was Extinct and teh Piggie and Elephant books are so charming and adorable, and Frances loves them.

mo-wo said...

You are awesome. We love Officer Buckle a lot thanks to you. (we always play 'where's Claire?') Last Christmas our gift to give was the Day the babies crawled away those are quite nice.

I also found we adored the Guido Von Genecten series of large format board books for their early 'readablity' and their WONDERFUL illustrations. I often recommend them to grandparents who rail on about books their grandkids have that are too busy. (mostly the grandfolks are right that very small kids are offered nothing but highly illustrated DK alphabet books or diorama Dora stuff.

But when you ask I want to say The White Cat. A book from my childhood not my parenthood. I remember my school library had an absolutely luscious edition of the White Cat. Errol Le Cain.

I loved it and I think I read it at least once a year all the way to Grade 7. It was many things but I think if pressed I would say I liked it because the illustrations were not just edible but delicious.

Elaine said...

Wow! Impressive review of picture books - I really enjoyed it.

We have 100s of picture books - and even though my babes are now teens, we add a few more every year. Picking a favourite is impossible - but in addition to many already mentioned (Sendak, Crockett Johnson, Kevin Henkes, Barbara Reid, Jan Brett et al...) I admire Alan Say (Grandfather's Journey), Kim Lewis (Just Like Floss), and Janell Cannon (Stellaluna) - their illustrations are beautiful. The Jon Scieszka/Lane Smith duo are much loved here. Oh, and Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Margaret Wise Brown/Clement Hurd, Marie Louise Gay, and the grandaddy of them all, Dr. Suess!

painted maypole said...

i've never read officer buckle and gloria, but MQ came home from school one day talking ALL about it. will have to check it out.

I love Kevin Henkes books like Chrysanthumum, where the pictures are very clever and add fun little things for the parents (like the titles of the books the dad reads), and the illustrations in Graeme Base's Animalia, where you could just get lost in the picures.

there are also the books where the illustrations ARE the story, like Goodnight, Gorilla

this post will definately make me look at pictures a bit more.

Anonymous said...

What about Wiesner? We love him above all others.... Janet Stephenson is another favourite - Cook-a-doodle Doo gets a lot of play around here.

Mad said...

Wiesner will come up. Never fear. He's a favourite of ours. I'm afraid I don't know Janet Stephenson.

kittenpie said...

My favourites are of course too numerous to list, but I was thinking about the book Hey, Al with the frames, and hwo the characters bust out of them at times. I love that. There are so many different illustrators that I love for different reasons that I am totally copping out on listing any becuase I'd just carry on all night like the book geek I am.

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