So it seems fitting to talk about pictures the day after illustrator Chris Riddell was named the new Children’s Laureate, replacing the esteemed Malorie Blackman. No one who works or associates with anyone in the field of children’s publishing can be unaware that there is an ever-growing penchant for text to be accompanied by pictures in today’s children’s books. Although there are lots who will argue that pictures have always been essential in children’s books – I’m not denying it – there seem to be an ever-increasing number of books for children that heavily feature images to partner words.
The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney with its comic drawings first published in 2007, won the Blue Peter Book Award in 2012, and regularly tops the bestseller charts. The Tom Gates series by Liz Pichon, complete with doodles and drawings, was our side of the pond’s offering, and published in 2011 to huge acclaim. It won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, a Red House Children’s Book Prize, Waterstones Prize, and also a Blue Peter Prize. Hot on the heels of that came Timmy Failure by Stephen Pastis, another US offering.
For younger children, the illustrations came thick and fast. Cakes in Space and Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and illustrated by Sarah McIntyre showed everyone what they could achieve in a chapter book rather than a picture book. Chris Riddell’s own Ottoline and Goth Girl series highlight the wonderfulness of his incredibly detailed illustrations, and more and more middle grade titles are starting to increase the number of illustrations within, such as Demolition Dad by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie.
However, many parents don’t quite share the twitterati’s enthusiasm for highly illustrated chapter books. They decry that although the books are lovely, they tend to be released in hardback first, with a steeper price point, and that their children read them in one sitting. The nice but expensive problem of the one book a day child!
So what are the pictures doing there? Just when your children had started to read independently, and with some vigour, why are they choosing books that are doodled on, illustrated and filled with drawings? Although you want the children to love reading, you also want them to increase their vocabulary, gain better comprehension skills, and expand their grammatical prowess. How do they do this by looking at pictures?
Here’s how. Let’s take two books – Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell (the first in the wonderful Ottoline series) and Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre (look out also for their soon to come Pugs of the Frozen North).
Ottoline and the Yellow Cat introduces Ottoline, who lives with Mr Monroe because her parents are away travelling around the world. She lives in a very particular way, excels at disguises, and solves incredibly exciting mysteries. Her stories are punctuated by postcards arriving from her parents who are themselves having far flung adventures collecting magnificent things. You can purchase it here or on the Amazon sidebar.
Oliver and the Seawigs is about a boy called Oliver, whose parents are explorers. Just when they all decide to settle down, Oliver’s biggest adventure begins. With the help of an albatross, a short-sighted mermaid called Iris, and an island that’s alive, Oliver goes in search of his missing parents. He hadn’t warranted on the sea wig competition or the sea monkeys getting in his way though. You can purchase it here or on the Amazon sidebar.
Pictures help to set the scene. No child wants to read a long rambling description of a place before the story begins. In Ottoline, the text describes where Ottoline lives, on which floor and the type of building. The illustration cleverly shows all the other buildings around Ottoline’s, giving it context and detail. It also begs the question, if she lives on the 24th floor, why does the illustration not show 24 floors? Inside the apartment, Instead of writing all the marvellous things that Ottoline’s parents have collected, Chris chooses to draw them –so the reader is left to study each one and work out what it is – then they use their own descriptive powers and vocabulary to respond to it.
Pictures help to illuminate characters: Not just from the artist drawing them but by the artist giving more information than you would glean from the text. They add another layer of understanding rather than reinforcing your impression. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Chris Riddell’s portrayal of Mr Monroe, described in text as small and hairy and not liking the rain. Although you may expect him to be a fully formed adult human being as befits someone living with (and hopefully taking care of) a girl, the pictures show something quite different. It gives the entire story a different perspective. As do the drawings of Ottoline – one minute an everyday child wearing a hoodie, the next dressed in a Mongolian dressing gown. In Oliver, Sarah MacIntyre’s drawing of Iris the mermaid is inspired. The detail in the illustration belies more personality than you would think possible. The pictures of comical characters are helping the reader to interpret and understand visual metaphor, and in particular, irony. What can you interpret from a facial expression?
They develop plot themselves. In Ottoline, the progress of the cat burglar through the town is told in pictures while Mr Munroe’s progress is simultaneously told in both text and pictures. When the cat is caught, the illustration of the bear is very telling – the text simply says “The bear caught her in a big bear hug”, the picture shows much more about the hug!
They help to provide mood. This can be adding comic elements, or perhaps just creating an impression of darkness or sadness. This is something that children are only just learning – as it’s more of a feeling than a physical description. It can be hard to portray. The Ottoline pictures of the city give an impression of a deserted place with an element of mystery and fear. (see the shadowing/the light/tall buildings). Whereas the comical illustrations in Oliver and the Seawigs, despite all the danger Oliver is in, give tones of adventure, mystery, unexpected surprises and fun rather than darkness. Particularly the sea monkeys. You must find a copy and see them!
They can give a different viewpoint from that given in the text. Oliver and the Seawigs is written from Oliver’s point of view. So, without the illustrations, we wouldn’t be able to see the face of the Rambling Isle on which Oliver sits – by the fact that he is sitting on its head, and can only see so much by peering over the top. Our omniscient illustrator shows us what lies beneath the surface.
Pictures expand on the imaginative creative process. In the same way as you use your own life experiences to mentally picture what’s happening in a story that you read, so you can use the pictures provided in the same way. Just like text, they are a starting point from which to jump off – what might happen next? What colours would you add to the black and white, or one tone illustrations? What extra details would you add? Even the page numbers are illustrated differently in Ottoline, which prompts questions as to why.
Pictures assist struggling readers. Of course, for struggling readers, pictures are hugely helpful. They can extrapolate buried meaning, explain difficult vocabulary, and give visual clues to what’s happening in the story. In Oliver, Philip Reeve describes “two big glass globes dangled in cradles of knotted rope, like earrings, or baubles on a Christmas tree.” His text description itself is wonderful, but Sarah provides a beautifully detailed illustration to help the reader. Barnacled rails, megaphones and all sorts of difficult words are illustrated too.
Pictures are our aesthetic way into creative text Lastly of course, pictures provide and inspire a love of the visual. They make the book more interactive. Illustrations give us an aesthetic appreciation of books, they introduce us to an appreciation of art and creativity. Many of my fellow booklovers have been known to stroke a book for the beauty of its cover…the illustrations play such a huge part in this.
I feel like I’ve only highlighted the icing on the cake, but I’m hoping you’ll see for yourself in the books when you read them.
Encourage children to race through the books with searing excitement by all means, but also encourage them to spend some time imbibing the wonder of the illustrations. I would urge all adults to embrace the narrative – whether it’s told by text or illustration or both. Illustrated books, comics, graphic novels can all be scintillating ways into literature for children, all can help with developing understanding of narrative, inspiring children’s creativity, and sparking a love for books. Chris Riddell wants to promote visual literacy – if we all carried a sketchbook as he suggests, we might all take in more of the world around us – the excitement outside our windows. Chris said yesterday, ‘I write because I want to give myself things to illustrate’. I implore you to let your children pour over the illustrations in the same way as they pour over the text. The two are intertwined.