Picturebook Analysis Essay

Picturebooks are often labelled as ‘easy’ books with simple illustrations, large fonts, few words, and produced exclusively for children. Indeed, the Randolph Caldecott Medal committee definition states: ‘A “picture book for children” is one for which children are an intended potential audience’ (ALA). Picturebooks may masquerade as ‘easy’ texts, but their child friendly appearance masks the intricacies that they often contain. Contemporary picture books have become more sophisticated, encourage multiple readings, and may deal with complex issues. Today they are often written for two sets of readers with two levels of meaning: one for younger readers and one for older readers.

The question of audience is one this essay will address, considering ways in which children’s picturebooks may appeal to adults, with the primary focus on contemporary texts. In the framework of this essay, the word ‘picturebook’ is defined as a book that uses both text and illustration to create meaning as opposed to an illustrated book where the pictures may enhance the book but add nothing to the story.

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In the picturebook neither the illustrations nor the text can stand alone, requiring ‘an integral relationship between picture and word’, the interplay between the two being essential to the whole (Moebius, p. 312).

The modern picturebook is a vibrant and sophisticated art form, which invites engagement and examination. One striking example of an outstanding visual text is writer-illustrator Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing (2000). The design of the book cleverly and successfully integrates the text into the illustrations so that the two work as one. Each full page (no white space), has a collaged background of technical specifications, scientific diagrams and formulae. Layered on top of these are the pictures and words that tell the story of the ‘lost thing’, a red bio-mechanical creature found on the beach by a boy, who then takes on the responsibility of finding it a home. The narrative, reminiscent of a ‘lost dog’ story, is likely to appeal to the young child, although there is no happy ending as such. Equally, the sarcastic and humorous expressions may strike a chord with the older reader, and is just one way in which the book is able to crossover between the child and the adult audience. Another way is through Tan’s detailed illustrations; his industrial and urban landscapes, suggestive of a retro-futuristic metropolis, are open to multiple readings and interpretations. For the older reader, the value and appeal is the opportunity to deconstruct the imagery, analyse the visual and symbolic codes, and appreciate the intertextuality. Tan mentions how readers of The Lost Thing often ‘notice [his] parodies of famous paintings by artists like Edward Hopper and Jeffrey Smart, or slight references to the medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch and Spanish Surrealists’. Visual intertextuality is a common device in children’s picturebooks and one way in which it reaches out to an adult audience. Jonathan Jones, writing in the Guardian newspaper in 2008, for example suggests that ‘Sendak’s monsters in Where the Wild Things Are resemble the minotaur in Pablo Picasso’s 1937 print Minotauromachy’ and Beatrix Potter’s art has been linked to that of the artist John Everett Millais. Intertextuality is also an underlying premise of Anthony Browne’s work whose illustrations reference the paintings of the surrealist artist Rene Magritte. Browne is open about how his work includes pictorial references saying: ‘I do use, in the backgrounds, famous works of art which, in some way, comment on the story – in some way tell us something about somebody’s state of mind or what’s happening beneath the story, beneath the words’. Browne is noted for creating visual metaphors and layered meanings in unusual and ironic ways, incorporating hidden jokes and objects within the images. Critic Sandra Beckett suggests that the parodying of artworks by illustrators is one of the reasons that picturebooks appeal to adult readers, stating: ‘Browne certainly seems to poke fun at high art in Voices in the Park, where the two paintings displayed for sale in a garbage-littered street beside a panhandling Santa with the sign “Wife and millions of kids to support” are the Mona Lisa and a very sad-looking Laughing Cavalier’ (Beckett, 2001). For those who are familiar with the originals, this adds intertextual meaning. But enjoyment of intertextual references depends on the reader recognising cultural allusions. Full appreciation of visual and verbal puns requires prior knowledge from the reader. Intertextuality assumes a knowing, or ideal audience. Browne however, says ‘What I wouldn’t like to do is to share some sort of conspiratorial wink with the adult reader – with the parent or teacher – over the child’s head’. Nevertheless, much of the humour, allusions, and subtleties in Browne’s books may be beyond the understanding of young children.

Other picturebooks break with the traditional convention of juxtaposing text alongside illustration, which has not only guided the way readers read, but also their understanding of the relationship between words and images. Examples of ironic discrepancy between text and pictures can be found in Jon Scieszka’s and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheeseman and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992) and David Weisner’s The Three Pigs (2001), which bend the traditional fairy tale into a new shape. The size and positioning of the text, the way the words relate to the characters, the change in their function, and the fact that characters speak about the words and the layout, all become part of the meaning. In the conventional children’s picturebook readers know what to expect and how to receive it, but postmodern books such as these break the rules and question the reader’s usual expectations about their form and nature. Bette Goldstone in her essay ‘Postmodern Experiments’ discusses how the spatial dimensions in postmodern texts have been reconceptualised to ‘allow for movement and interactions never before seen in picturebooks’ which present ‘startling new ways to read and view a page’ (Goldstone, p. 322 – 323). In The Three Pigs the old story of ‘The Three Little Pigs’ is pieced together in new ways, and as Goldstone explains, explores the space beyond the conventional margins of storytelling. The focus is consistently visual as characters break through the ‘picture plane’ to rearrange the words and manipulate the story which ‘allows the reader/viewer to witness the construction of the story, and permits a non-linear reading of the text’ (Goldstone, p. 326). Readers must be alert to the changing nature of the way that word and image interact on the page, switching from one mode to the other. Weisner’s parodying of the conventions of narrative literature is possibly one of the most appealing aspects for adults.

The interplay of the textual and the pictorial lies at the heart of the picturebook, a relationship that is being continually challenged and re-worked in the modern text. One innovative example is David Macaulay’s Black and White (1990). Four separate stories, which may or may not be connected, are presented in a four panel format. Macaulay employs multiple art styles and techniques as well as unusual perspectives and variable viewpoints. Words and images work together to bring story telling to new levels; sometimes the words help explain the illustration, and sometimes they contradict the illustration. Readers are encouraged to navigate the stories and draw connections between seemingly unrelated things. Irony, humour and playful deception are running themes in what is a multidimensional, nonlinear story. This book not only looks different but must also be read differently. Readers must work to resolve the conflict between what they see and what they read. This is not so much a book just to be read, as one that invites an interactive experience. Goldstone argues that by involving and challenging the reader in this way their reading experience is enhanced and intensified. For adults, this contravention of the conventional children’s picturebook may be the intriguing aspect, and one they are happy to delve into. With so many viewpoints, details, and features the modern ‘hybrid’ book certainly suggests a practised reader, one who is able to use their experience of conventional story structure and sequencing to negotiate these non-linear and sometimes confusing texts. But they also imply a reader who accepts and celebrates the changing landscape of the modern picturebook, be it the adult or child.

Picturebooks represent a unique literary form for learning and discovery, and for the adult can open up new ways of reading children’s literature. Although picturebooks are primarily aimed at the child, the text and illustrations, concepts and issues may be more relevant (and important) to older readers, whether the author-illustrator intends it or not. The contemporary picturebook is a sophisticated and multifaceted production which can be recognised and appreciated for its artwork, and the synthesis of text and illustrations. While the quirky postmodern text may not be considered quality literature, it is nevertheless thought provoking and invites engagement, making it an ideal medium for the adult as well as the child. In the debate over what constitutes ‘children’s literature’, the texts discussed in this essay are just a few examples where picturebooks written for children may appeal equally to adults, and where ‘illustrated’ does not necessarily mean belonging exclusively to children. Picturebooks can cross all genres and be enjoyed by people of all ages.

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