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Why study picture books?

Why do I study picture books? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to change the subject completely, and introduce my very favourite piece of pre-Raphaelite art.

This is The Awakening Conscience. It’s by William Holman Hunt and it was finished in 1853. At first glance it is a moment between husband and wife captured in time. But look closer. Why is the woman in her nightgown? Where is her wedding ring? See his hat and book on the table? The man is a visitor in this parlour: They are not husband and wife, they are lover and mistress.

The woman rises from her lover’s lap, reminded by the songs they are singing of her lost innocence – the music at the piano is Oft in the Stilly Night, the music discarded on the floor Tears, Idle Tears*. She is caught in a moment of dawning realisation while he remains smiling and unaware. Her attention is caught by something outside the room in the garden (which we can see reflected in the large mirror behind the couple). The garden is green, lush and full of light; the room covered in deep reds and blues and decorated in a way that would be seen as vulgar to Victorian society.

The piece is filled with symbolic references to  the woman’s predicament – the tangled ball of yarn, the vase of morning glory (symbolising love in vain in floriography), the unfinished tapestry, the cat (him) which has not quite caught its bird (her) representing her present; the soiled white glove representing her future should she stay with her lover – her only option if he leaves her will be prostitution as she is now, literally, soiled goods; a beam of light from the window out of which she stares in the lower right quadrant and the clock decorated with Chastity enveloping Cupid in her arms represent the possibility of redemption if she leaves him now.

As we look at the painting a story emerges, one of loose morals, the concerns of Victorian society and the subjugation of women. It’s a powerful piece.

But! This painting was not meant to be considered alone. It should be viewed in tandem with the  proverb that accompanies the work:

As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, so is he that singeth songs to a heavy heart.

Says Hunt,

These words, expressing the unintended stirring up of the deeps of pure affection by the idle sing-song of an empty mind, led me to see how the companion of the girl’s fall might himself be the unconscious utterer of a divine message.

Quoted on

This changes the meaning of The Awakening Conscience entirely. From a study on Victorian moral values the painting becomes a religious tract, demonstrating the mysterious ways in which God works, suggesting that our fallen women will ‘see the light’.

Consider another piece of art picturing a young woman in a predicament. This one’s by an artist called Michael Martchenko. It was published in 1980.

It  too is accompanied by a small amount of text:

‘Elizabeth was a beautiful princess. She lived in a castle and had expensive princess clothes. She was going to marry a prince named Ronald’.

These are, as you’ve probably already guessed, the first two pages of The Paper Bag Princess, by Robert N Munsch. Were we to take the text on face value, we wouldn’t learn a lot. There’s a princess who lives a princessy lifestyle and she’s going to marry a prince. So far, so par for the fairytale course.

But look at the picture. What does it tell you? Even at first glance it seems that Princess Elizabeth is a lot more interested in Prince Ronald than he is in her. She gazes longingly at him, a halo of hearts around her head and with a blanchissage – a blankness of face – that will disappear by the end of the book; he has his back to her, eyes closed. Does he look a little snooty?

As it is in so-called ‘high art’ it is in picture book art: we can learn a lot about characters just by looking at them. But it doesn’t stop there: this image from The Paper Bag Princess is as rich in symbolic content as The Awakening Conscience.

Princess Elizabeth stands before her throne. We can see that it’s her throne because it’s emblazoned with an ornate ‘E’, her initial. But doesn’t that E look an awful lot like an ampersand? Does that mean that the princess is not expected to rule alone? I think so. And what do the shield and swords above Elizabeth’s throne say about her character? That the swords are unsheathed and crossed suggests a willingness to engage in combat; that they sit behind the shield,  a protective weapon, suggests that Elizabeth’s combativeness is defensive rather than offensive, controlled rather than impulsive. This princess is looking out for number one, and as she’s closer to the centre of the image than Prince Ronald, it looks like she’s the controlling force in this narrative. So this will prove to be when Elizabeth later defeats the dragon that burns down her home with his firey breath.

So, rather than just knowing that the pair are betrothed, we know now that one partner is more interested than the other, and we’ve learned a little about each of the characters.

We can also learn something from this single page illustration about the environment Elizabeth lives in, and why she seems so keen to marry. The cross-hatching is thicker on Elizabeth’s side of the page, the mood darker. In accordance with William Moebius’s picture book codes, the  jagged, busy lines around speak of her troubled emotions; the roundness of her outfit making her appear slightly more three dimensional and symbolising her emotional depth.  In the centre of the bottom third of the illustration, Elizabeth’s ‘expensive princess clothes’ appear to be bleeding into the wall of the castle, suggesting that Elizabeth is trapped. Ignored by the man she loves, Elizabeth is literally fading into the background. The same cross-fade suggests that Elizabeth is nothing without her castle, that the dress and the building – symbols of Elizabeth’s status – are more important than the woman herself.

Like Hunt, Martchenko makes use of threshold symbolism in his image. The window behind Ronald gives us a view of the verdant and sunny kingdom beyond the castle walls. This time, though, the outdoors is ignored by Ronald and Elizabeth doesn’t even have access to it. He is comfortable in this world of privilege and order, he doesn’t need to look beyond. Picture books are unique in this type of narrative presentation. Image can both illustrate and supplement text. They don’t work in the same way as illustrated novels or graphic novels; they’re a species all of their own.

Before children are reading words, they are reading pictures.

David Wisner

I’m not suggesting that child readers will instantly understand the symbolic intent of every picture book illustration they see, but those who cannot read words drink in images. Pre-literate children spend much more time looking at pictures than literate children and adults do. Isn’t it worth knowing what they are looking at?

That, however, is not really an answer to the original question. “Why” is a double edged sword of an interrogative; the detailed symbolism of the images is half an answer, providing a reason to study picture books,  but it doesn’t address the other ‘why’ – to what end.

Again, this is a question that cannot be answered without asking more questions first. What is children’s literature? What is it for?

What children’s literature is can be defined in myriad ways, but my definition is this: children’s literature is literature produced for or by children, or literature that is enjoyed by children. This is a broad ranging definition, and it’s a problematic one. Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones, for example, is widely read by teenagers. So is Margaret Atwood’s  The Handmaid’s Tale.  Does that make it a Young Adult novel? Well… no, but it’s important to acknowledge the crossover between adult and young adult reading, especially in readers’ mid-to-late teens. Similarly, some books we now consider part of the kidlit cannon (Gulliver’s Travels, for example, or Robinson Crusoe) were not originally produced for children, largely because they were produced in a time when childhood as we now understand it did not exist**. An amount of flexibility is necessary.

What children’s literature is for is a much more easily answered question. It’s frequently posited that children’s books should aim to fulfil the dual goals of instruction and delight. I’d argue that now and again we can do without the instruction and just focus on the delight, but nevertheless the point stands. Kidlit should offer a pleasurable experience to the reader and if it also contains an edifying measure or two, that’s great. In the same way we sneak vegetables into children’s food by disguising them as something else – grating carrots into beef burger mix, mashing turnip into potato – we sneak learning into children’s books. We can’t help ourselves. What does that mean for picture books?

Well, to me that means that picture books transmit the messages our society deems most vital, the ones right at the top of the ‘must know’ pile. Social interaction. How our bodies and minds work. What society is. A picture book might seek to educate the reader in terms of pure facts – types of transport or food; British kings and queens; what happened to the dinosaurs – but the way that information is presented also speaks of our wider cultural values as much as, say, Babette Cole’s Princess Smartypants with its strong feminist message or Janet and Allen Ahlberg’s Mrs. Wobble the Waitress with its message of teamwork and perseverance. We can’t help it. We’re mirrors of society and as such so is the work we produce.

Understanding what the purpose of childrens’ literature is is key to understanding childrens’ literature itself. Without understanding the purposes of literature, how can we evaluate it? (Whether it needs evaluating is another question for another day.) It’s easy to say that the purpose of picture books is to help a child learn to read and leave it at that. But is that all there is to it? Do we not use picture books to help foster an interest in literature at a young age? Do we not use them to reinforce the cultural and political messages that we as parents, carers, friends and educators wish to impart? Do we not use them to build our own relationships with the little ‘uns around us?

Picture books are generally an interactive affair; they’re the literature that adults are most likely to share with children. Thus picture books are the most social of literary experiences outside of school. When we share a book with a child it is useful to understand the text in front of us, and there are various ways we can do that:

  • Mechanically – illustration techniques, the spaces on the page that text and image inhabit
  • In terms of educational goals – regarding child development & skill acquisition
  • Through textual messages  – does it have and ethical message? a social message? a practical one (eg. how to cross the road)?

Each of these modes of understanding helps us to discern how a society perceives its young people. Since picture books have been produced solidly for more than a century, they offer insight into the changing nature of childhood and what the words ‘child’ and ‘childhood’ have meant in the past. Put simply, we can ‘read’ children through their literature as much as we can read literature through children. That’s interesting, but it’s not necessarily immediately useful. What is useful is this: understanding the books we share with our children helps us to help them. If we understand the message a text is trying to convey and, critically, how it is trying to convey it, we can ask our children what they think of it. We can encourage conversation and dissent. We can develop reasoning skills. We can be good carers and teachers, and we can raise smart, savvy children. And what’s more worthwhile than that?

*Tears, Idle Tears and Oft in the Stilly Night are both songs about the loss of childhood innocence that make use of ambiguity and paradox in their lyrics.

** I’ll address this crossover at another time. It’s far too nebulous to go into here, when I’m supposed to be focussing on something else.


3 responses »

  1. Great website. Lots of useful information here. I’m sending it to a few friends ans also sharing in delicious. And certainly, thanks for your sweat!

  2. So many of my own interests and obsessions are addressed by this site. Thank you so much for it, and particularly for expanding my understanding and knowledge of what books are out there.


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