Saturday, October 31, 2009

Beyond the Veil

This Sunday at the Fredericton Playhouse, Quebec dance company Bouge de là will be performing a choreographed version of Old Thomas and the Little Fairy, the 2000 picture book by Dominique Jolin, illustrated by Stephane Poulin.

I've got my tickets. Last Saturday, as a tie-in to the upcoming performance, the Fredericton Public Library hosted a reading of the picture book. The audience mainly comprised the 5 and under set while parents and grandparents sat in the seating at the back. Loralie Boyle from the children's department led the children through a series of actions wherein they mimicked the ocean and various creatures within it. She then read the book accompanied by Alex Bailey on guitar. The combination of words and music was mesmerizing. Yet, how could any reading of this book not draw the listener in? The themes of life and death, love and loss, and anger and redemption flicker behind this deceptively simple tale about an old man who nurses a fragile, ailing fairy back to health.

This book got me to thinking about the sub-genre of children's books that carry a strong undertow of maturity and meaning, books that many would argue are not children's books at all--except for the astonishing fact that many children love them deeply and come back to them time and again.

In our house, three such books have become obsessive favourites:

Margaret Wise Brown's The Important Book is nothing more than a series of highly descriptive prose poems. It begins with a simple object:
"The important thing
about a spoon is
that it you eat with it."

Each page then describes a different object or phenomenon--an apple, snow, wind, a shoe--in an effort to crystallize its essence. The illustrations by Leonard Weisgard are simple and suggestive. They politely step back and allow the cadence and visual images provided by the words to explode inside the mind of the young reader.

The last page of the book moves into the metaphysical:
"The important thing about you is
that you are you.
It is true that you were a baby,
and you grew,
and now you are a child,
and will grow,
into a man
or into a woman.
But the important thing about you
is that
you are you."

Rather than a straightforward illustration of a child on the page, the accompanying illustration simply shows the words "you are you" written in script--for part of what makes you you is the ability to frame the abstract world around you, as you grow, through language.

Jan Andrews' Pumpkin Time is an odd book. The illustrations by Kim LaFave create an expectation for light, seasonal whimsy. Instead, this picture book is, I think, an extended metaphor for maternal depression. When three children wake one morning to discover their mother has transformed into a pumpkin, they take the situation in stride. They go about their lives hiding their new reality from the world and making do as best they can. Their strength and independence call forth a sweet music from the pumpkin. But the burden of caring for themselves and the loneliness of being without their mother begins to wear on them. At the point where they become overwhelmed by their new lot, the children wake up to have their mother restored.

The first time I read Pumpkin Time to my daughter, I had no idea what it was going to be about. As I read along, I anticipated anxiety, fear or even boredom on her behalf. Instead, she was completely drawn into the story and has insisted on having it read over and over again for weeks on end. I think it helps her work through her fearful fours and the new awareness of how independence can and is tied up with abandonment issues. (As a companion book to Pumpkin Time, re the theme of maternal depression, check out Liz Rosenberg's Monster Mama. It is less ethereal and is decidedly cheeky.)

The most beloved book in our collection is, without a doubt, Arnold Lobel's Uncle Elephant.

This easy reader by the author of the Frog and Toad books is a masterpiece of literary minimalism. When the young narrator's parents get lost at sea, he is taken in by his aged Uncle. The book playfully explores youth vs age and naivety vs wisdom. It is a testament to grief and a quiet tribute to the love that can grow from mutual loss. The nonesensical elephant song that serves as the emotional climax of the book makes both me and my daughter very happy.

Now, tell me, what are the books in your collection that show a more complex world beyond the veil? Do you enjoy reading them? Alone? With children? What is the response of the children you read them to?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Poetry and Folklore for the Kindergarten Set

I had the pleasure of talking with 50 or so local kindergarten teachers a week and a half ago. The focus of my talk was poetry and folklore. Why single out these genres? Because of the dominance of the story-oriented picture books in kid culture today. Now, you'll find no bigger fan of the picture book than me, but many picture books (and tv shows and movies) tend to privilege certain kinds of storytelling over others. Key among these are tales of adventure or conflict resolution. But if the adventure story, the quest motif, or even the simple age-related problem/resolution story becomes not just the dominant form of narrative that children are exposed to but the only one, then a child's ability to imagine art, the self and the broader world beyond that genre becomes limited.

The Nursery Rhyme tradition, poetry and folklore are three forms of literature for young children that can help break the stranglehold of genre. They are older forms of telling that have evolved from oral traditions. Nursery rhymes and poerty help children peg down the natural cadence and rhythm of a child's mother tongue. Folklore, at its best, offers astute insights into human nature without being trite or didactic. There is also a wealth of international folklore available for young children.

The following is a list of the books I lugged along to the workshop. This isn't a definitive list, just a glimpse at some of the material that may be available at your public library.

Nursery Rhyme Collections
The Little Dog Laughed and Other Nursery Rhymes, illustrated by Lucy Cousins, 1989
Mother Goose Remembers, illustrated by Clare Beaton, 2000
My Very First Mother Goose (1996) and Here Comes Mother Goose (1999), edited by Iona Opie; illustrated by Rosemary Wells
A Day of Rhymes selected and illustrated by Sarah Pooley, 1987
The Glorious Mother Goose, selected by Cooper Edens with illustrations by the best artisits from the past, 1988
Gregory Griggs and Other Nursery Rhyme People, selected and illustrated by Arnold Lobel, 1978.
Lavender's Blue, compiled by Kathleen Lines; illustrated by Harold Jones, 1954 (reissued in facsimile edition, 2004, facsimile paperback, 2007)

Here's a Little Poem, selected by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters; illustrated by Polly Dunbar, 2007
The 20th Century Children's Poetry Treasury, selected by Jack Prelutsky; illustrated by Meilo So, 1999
Poetry by Heart: A Child's Book of Poems to Remember, compiled by Liz Attenborough, 2001
Poems by A. Nonny Mouse, selected by Jack Prelutsky; illustrated by Henrik Drescher, 1989
The Llama Who Had No Pajama: 100 Favorite Poems, by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Betty Fraser, 1998
Alligator Pie (1974), Garbage Delight (1977), Jelly Belly (1983) by Dennis Lee
Sleeping Dragons All Around by Sheree Fitch, 1989/2009 (an example of excellent, stand-alone poetry held together in a quest-centred picture book)
Toes in My Nose (1987) , I am Small (1994) by Sheree Fitch
For Laughing Out Loud: Poems to Tickle Your Funny Bone selected by Jack Prelutsky; illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, 1992
Beast Feast: Poems and Paintings by Douglas Florian, 1994

Sylvia Vardell maintains an excellent children's poetry blog called Poetry for Children. Along with excellent reviews and discussion, she provides numerous author links.

Folklore and Fables
The Helen Oxenbury Nursery Story Book, 1985
Anansi the spider : a tale from the Ashanti adapted and illustrated by Gerald McDermott
Tomie de Paola has numerous folktale adaptations for young children. The two titles I brought to the workshop were Strega Nona, 1975 and Jamie O'Rourke and the Big Potato, 1992.
The Three Little Pigs adapted and illustrated by Marie Louise Gay, 1994
The Travelling Musicians of Bremen retold by P. K. Page, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton, 1991
Cinderella (1989) and Red Riding Hood (1987), retold and illustrated by James Marshall
Belling the Cat and other Aesop's Fables, retold in verse by Tom Paxton; Illustrated by Robert Rayevsky, 1990
Fables, written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel, 1980
How the guinea fowl got her spots : a Swahili tale of friendship, adapted by Barbara Knutson, 1990
Something From Nothing adapted by Phoebe Gilman, 1992
The House that Jack Built, pictures by Jenny Snow, 1992
This is the House that Jack Built, adapted and illustrated by Simms Taback, 2002
The Seven Blind Mice adapted and illustrated by Ed Young, 1991

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Visual Literacy and the Picture Book, pt 3

This three-part series explores the role of picture book art in creating a foundation for visual literacy. In writing these posts, I have relied on The On-line Visual Literacy Project at Ponoma College for my terms of reference in defining the 11 basic design components of all visual communication. I have grouped these components into 4 broad categories:

Part 1. The building blocks (dot, line, shape, and texture)
Part 2. Movement (motion and direction) and Perspective (scale and dimension)
Part 3 (today's post). Colour (hue, value, and saturation)

has become a dominant design principle in illustrated books for children over the last several decades. Classics, such as Johnson's Harold books and McCloskey's Make Way For Ducklings or Blueberries for Sal, however, are evidence that illustration can be divine on a monochromatic scale.

From Blueberries for Sal (1948)

Other books, such as Richard McGuire's Orange Book (1992), which uses only the complementary colours of orange and blue, or Cathy Stinson's Red is Best (1982), which emphasizes the narrator's preferred colour, or the wordless picture book Yellow Umbrella (2001) by Jae Soo Liu deal in the essence of hue.

Hue is plucked straight from the colour wheel and comes in the infinite combinations of those three primary colours: red, blue and yellow.

Bob Staake's The Red Lemon (2006)

from Fish Eyes: A Book You Can Count On by Lois Ehlert (1990)

A picture can comprise mainly warm hues:

a cross-section of the old white cabin in Delicious by Helen Cooper (2007)

Or cool hues:

From Rob Gonsalves' Imagine a Place (2008)

Sometimes the lifeblood of the image is a pocket of warm colour lying in a sea or sky of cool:

Marie-Louise Gay's Stella: Star of the Sea (English language version) (1999)

Christopher Myers' Wings (2000)

Value refers to the amount of light or dark in an image and the interplay between them.

From Peggy Rathmann's The Day the Babies Crawled Away (2003)

From Creation by Gerald McDermott (2003)

Whereas Beatrix Potter uses value to show the warmth of the hearth in winter,

Chris Van Allsburg plays with value to eerie effect in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984), a suggestive, imaginative picture book for elementary aged children.

Ed Young's mice sparkle against their black backdrop in Seven Blind Mice (1992), and

Ted Harrison's depiction of the Aurora Borealis feels like stained glass, so filled with light are his colours. From O Canada (1992).

Saturation deals with the amount of grey that influences a colour.
In Janell Canon's Stellaluna (1993), the contrast of the bats who lack colour saturation with the highly saturated night sky provide maximum visual impact. The resulting ultra-realism emphasizes the vulnerability of the bats, creatures that the reader may not normally sympathize with.

In Knuffle Bunny (2004), Mo Willems splashes highlights of mid-saturated colours over top of black and white photo stills of a Brooklyn neighborhood to add a family atmosphere to the city backdrop. His illustrations often look like animation stills.

The use of water colours produces a canvas of lightly saturated colours.

In many books, and Barbara McClintock's Dahlia (2002) is a fine example here, such illustrations have a rural or old-fashioned feel to them, no doubt because they hearken back to the 19th and early 20th styles of early masters in the genre:

Randolph Caldecott

Kate Greenaway

Leslie Brooke

and Beatrix Potter

And then there is Norton Juster's Hello, Goodbye Window, illustrated by Chris Raschka, that conjures up a rustic nostalgia by using mid-saturated, high value colours.

If you want to see what Rashka has to say about his approach to illustrating this book, read the engaging caption he put on one of his pictures that was reproduced for the New York Times.

Raschka uses a similar style for a cover of the Horn Book Magazine.

Highly saturated colours often, but not always, suggest an urban or contemporary setting, partly because contemporary printing technology allows for the mass reproduction of rich colours.

Here is Raschka again with Yo! Yes? (1993)

Vera B. Williams' A Chair for My Mother (1982).

Then there's the tropical feel of Dayal Kaur Khalsa' My Family Vacation (1988):

Highly saturated colours also feature prominently in many folk tales. Different colour combinations can be suggestive of different cultures or ethnicities:

Leo and Diane Dillon's Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears: A West African Tale (1975)

Ricardo Keens-Douglas' The Nutmeg Princess; illustrated by Annouchka Galouchko (1992) (a folk tale from Grenada)

Gerald McDermott's Raven: A Trickster Tale From the Pacific Northwest (1993).


In regaling you with examples of how the 11 design principles work in picture books, it was my hope that you would see how smart illustrations, when combined with visual literacy skills on the part of the reader, can contribute to the overall experience of reading a book. Do I kid myself that my daughter sees all this when she is looking at books?

No. Not for a second. But she does see a lot of things in illustrations that I don't catch right off. We also spend a lot of time talking about the pictures in her books in an effort to tease out both our ways of seeing. Books that are flatly illustrated don't allow us to open up the conversation. They don't influence our mood or emotions as we are reading. The really good books do, though, and each time I come back to those books to figure out why, the answer is usually right there in front of me in their finely crafted illustrations.

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.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Visual Literacy and the Picture Book, pt 2

This three-part series explores the role of picture book art in creating a foundation for visual literacy. In writing these posts, I have relied on The On-line Visual Literacy Project at Ponoma College for my terms of reference in defining the 11 basic design components of all visual communication. I have grouped these components into 4 broad categories:

The building blocks (dot, line, shape, and texture) (the subject of my last post in this series)
Movement (motion and direction)
Perspective (scale and dimension) and
Colour (hue, value, and saturation)

The rest of today's post will look at movement and perspective. The final post in the series will focus on colour.

From utter stillness, motion emerges:

Rob Gonsalves holds stillness and motion in tandem in this surreal illustration featured in Imagine a Night (2003). His paintings have been pulled together in three separate picture books, Imagine a Night, Imagine a Day, and Imagine a Place, all with text provided by Sarah L. Thomson. The text doesn't shine so well as the illustrations but the books are stunning eye candy for all ages.

Picture book artists create motion on a fixed, 2-dimensional plane by using using multiple techniques, and, unlike the Gonsalves illustration would you have you believe, the motion created is most often pure silly fun.
David Shannon's title character from No David! (1998) makes a mad dash from his bath. The oversized sidewalk seems to spit him out, limbs extended and body soaring skyward.

Barry Moser's rabbit leaps above the title of this book: Jump!: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit by Joel Chandler Harris, Van Dyke Parks, Malcolm Jones (1986). The torn blue backdrop that is slightly akimbo reinforces the motion suggested by the image.

Moser again on the cover of Margie Palanti's Earthquack! (2002). Even the letters in the title are subject to seismic upheaval.

Lane Smith's retro, space-age tumble into the abyss on the cover of Scieszka's Math Curse (1995).

And now, a few motion-centric illustrations that bring me joy:

Candace Fleming's Smile Lily, 2004

Helen Cooper's continuation of the Pumpkin Soup story, Delicious, 2007.

Me and My Sister, Ruth Ohi, 2005.

Linda Bailey's Stanley's Party illustrated by Bill Slavin, 2003.

While motion suggests movement on the page, direction prompts the movement of your eye over the page.

In this illustration from Barbara Reid's Sing a Song of Mother Goose (1987), Jack and Jill are pure motion; their tumble down the hill, though, directs the reader's eye straight to the page turn, for one does not linger in the verbally tripping land of the nursery rhyme.

Harold's policeman also points to the page turn with his arm and his eyes. (Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson, 1955) In the illustration from No David! above, the sidewalk forces our eyes to follow David's streak to freedom.

Peggy Rathmann's heroic quest, The Day the Babies Crawled Away (2003), features a driving, rhyming cadence that is accompanied by illustrations that move the reader's eye from top corner left to bottom corner right. As such, the story tumbles along until the pattern stops abruptly when our hero and his infant charges get trapped at the bottom of a cliff. At this point in the story, the black frame of the page surrounds them on three sides, effectively holding them captive.

Anthony Browne's Willy is a nose-in-the book sort of fellow. No so, his friend Hugh, who attracts the annoyed stares of the other library patrons. The entire meaning of this illustration from Willy and Hugh (1991) is told by following the direction of the eyes.

And finally, here's one more marriage of motion (the font, the girl with arms uplifted) and direction (the buildings) acting in harmony. Robert Neubecker's Wow! City! (2004)

Next, we come to perspective and the two visual techniques that help to determine it: dimension and scale.

Dimension refers to the level at which a reader's eye encounters an image. Are we viewing the scene from on high? Are we looking up from the ground? Or are we meeting the image at eye level?
Molly Bang's When Sophie Gets Angry--Really, Really Angry (1999), shows the child reader what a temper tantrum looks like from a child's eye view.

When Sophie explodes, the dimension is eye level. When Sophie runs away and feels very small, the reader sees her as a speck on the landscape. By carefully manipulating dimension, the artist aligns the reader's sympathies with her character. Throughout the book we identify with Sophie and can therefore better empathize with her situation.

Now you tell me, in this illustration from David Wiesner's Tuesday (1991) are we meant to identify with the people who inhabit the town or the town's mysterious night time visitors?

Scale is similar to dimension but it is intrinsic to the picture itself rather than relying on the reader as viewer. Scale can simply let us know the size of one object relative to another as is the case in this picture from Wiesner's June 29, 1999:
And scale can sometimes make you smile:

From David Shannon's Duck on a Bike (2002)

Alternatively, scale can convey the emotional crux of a situation. Take for example the day Willy the Wimp accidentally bumps into Hugh:

From Anthony Browne's Willy and Hugh (1991)

The remainder of this series can be found here:
Part 1. The building blocks (dot, line, shape, and texture)
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.