Can we talk about art for a minute?
Let’s talk about art for a minute.
As a child, I remember knowing the authors of my favorite books. I savored the knowledge of knowing their names. I looked at book covers like flash cards, memorizing who wrote them. One of my favorite card games as a child was Authors — it was like Go Fish, except each card featured a different author with four titles. I had three decks: Authors, American Authors, and Children’s Authors. I memorized those cards proudly.
But I never memorized illustrators’ names.
I’m ashamed of this now. Illustrations are equally important to children’s storytelling. And sometimes (dare I say it?) the art is more important.
One of my favorite examples of the power of art in children’s literature comes from the free lectures series Genres in Children’s Literature (available on iTunes). David Beagley, a lecturer in children’s literature and literacy at La Trobe University’s Bendigo campus in Victoria, Australia, discusses the book “Rosie’s Walk” in his introductory lecture.
The text of the book tells a simple story:
Rosie the hen went for a walk across the yard, around the pond, over the haycock, past the mill, through the fence, under the beehives, and got back in time for dinner.
That’s it. One sentence. Hearing the story aloud doesn’t sound like much. In fact, it’s rather drab. There is no conflict and nothing at stake.
In this book, the complex story is told not by the text; it’s told by the art.
In Beagley’s lecture, he discusses the peritext, which is all the images and textual elements that aren’t actually part of the written story. Peritext includes such items as the cover (front and back) and the illustrations. Readers make judgments about a book with every element they encounter. They interpret the story through peritext as much as they do through the written content.
The artwork in Rosie the Hen provides the tension in the story. Throughout the book, the text tells nothing of a threat, but the art shows a fox stalking Rosie on each page. Even though there’s no fox mentioned in the text, the predator becomes an integral part of the story.
“The words are only talking about Rosie. The pictures are doing something else,” Beagley says. “… What is happening in the pictures is not contradicting what’s happening in the words, only certainly is distinct and separate. … This use of largely textless pages by Pat Hutchins enables the reader. It’s as if the reader is being led into a secret. You are being asked to contribute yourself. ‘Oh look, I’ve noticed something the writer didn’t tell me. I’m starting to contribute to this whole experience of the story. I’m building it myself.”
The fox keeps failing in attempts to catch Rosie, which offers simple slapstick comedy.
Beagley says two stories happen simultaneously: the textual narrative and the visual narrative. He adds they don’t operate against each other. They don’t contradict each other. In fact, they require each other. The text characterizes Rosie as oblivious to everything. The art provides the tension.
That’s important to note. Art and text are integrated. They work together to tell stories in children’s literature. In “Rosie’s Walk,” the art tells the stronger story. If I were to listen to the story without seeing the pictures versus look at the pictures without seeing the text, I would get a stronger sense of the story from the art alone.
I feel a bit guilty for not having memorized illustrators as much as I did authors. (Although I also feel better knowing some of my favorite stories, such as Jan Brett’s “The Mitten” or Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” were both written and illustrated by the author.)
Show some love to the artists of the favored children’s book in your household. They deserve the recognition.
- And while you’re at it:
Show some love to Sarah & Katy and the Imagination Blankets artist Hannah Jones! Visit her website at hannah-bird.com and browse her extensive portfolio of original artwork.