Sunday, October 4, 2009

Visual Literacy and the Picture Book, pt 1

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". 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 my daughter 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. 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 and perspective. A final post will look at the use of colour in picture books.

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.

from Roy Lichtenstein's ABC by Bob Adelman, 1999, a book for adults as much as it is for kids.

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

from Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson, 1955.

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...

from Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson, 1955.

...with their promise of escape.

from Jeannie Baker's Window, 1991.

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.

from Stephen T. Johnson's Alphabet City, 1995

from Gerald McDermott's Arrow to the Sun, 1974.

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 a child has moved past the random scribble in fine motor skill development, 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.

from The Very Quiet Cricket, 1990.

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


Out of 11 design fundamentals, I have now covered 4. The remaining 7 will follow over the next two posts. In the meantime, ask yourself as you read stories to children, "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?"

The continuation of this series can be found here:
Part 2. Movement (motion and direction) and Perspective (scale and dimension)
Part 3 Colour (hue, value, and saturation)

The images in this post have been used as part of a work of criticism and under the clause of "fair dealing" in the Canadian Canadian Copyright Act. I have not used more than 10% of any given work.


  1. Thank you for your post. I am a graduate student working towards my MEd. Along with this label I am also a reader, a designer and an illustrator. All of those roles I take on with a truckload of passion. It is hard to separate them; matter of fact, it is impossible. And so, when I hold a picture book I see more than the story. I see the shape, the size, the weight, the texture, the fonts, the whiteness of the page, the words, the meaning behind the words, the sentences, the adjectives, the tone, the pictures, the colours, the medium, the technique, the placement of the picture on the page, the writer, the illustrator, the publisher and the reader and so on.

    One night, after a class on children’s literature, I was driving home. It was dark and so was my mood. I had just spent the last two hours discussing children’s picture books, my most favourite topic. So why was I so darn glum?

    My classmates are all teachers and their response to these books astounded me. How can a teacher pick up a picture book and say, “...from here I can take my students....”? It brought tears to my eyes. I wanted to scream STOP, please stop! Even just for a second. There are many stories here, not just the one that so eloquently tells itself in the words that are printed on the page. Please stay and look around. Don’t rush to the destination and miss the voyage. Never once did they talk of the pictures, never once did they consider the design, never once did they move from the story told in the words.

    The more I spend time and take classes next to teachers I realize that they are avoiding the visual. This is not because they don’t see it (in some instances this may be so) but it is more that they don’t know how to talk about it. They are lost when approaching the images and even more lost when asked to consider the design. What I take as natural, they don’t see. It is nice to see you posting information on the visual aspects of picture books I thank you for that.

    I am considering working on a project for teachers to help in this area. It is in the concept stages only, percolating as I like to say. I have your blog on my morning list to visit so will be checking it out regularly. Looking forward to your next post.

  2. Hi Kathy,
    Welcome and great to see you here! Thanks for bringing your insights to the post.

    For other readers of this post, make sure to check out Kathy's site by clicking on her name and following the link. She is a key artist/illustrator of children's books in our region.

  3. Thanks Sue for the response. Just working on a presentation for CANSCAIP's PYI and this visual perspective was helpful. If ever I can be of help just ask.

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