While a picturebook may be considered as simply words and pictures, when viewed as a whole, it can be considered a literary work of art. Indeed, commentator Martin Salisbury believes that picturebooks ‘must be appreciated and studied as art’. One of the first books to be honoured as an art form was Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963). It tells the story of a mischievous young boy named Max and his adventures into the make-believe world of wild monsters. With only ten lines of text, much of the narrative is told through pictures. Sendak’s visionary art work has been highly praised both for its imaginary quality and its relationship to the text; the changing balance between the two being key to the interpretation of the story. It is worth noting here that modern techniques and production capabilities have enabled illustrators to be more creative than ever before, and picturebook illustration is now an art form in its own right. As William Moebius points out, the quality of the artists work may well be one of the reasons that makes a picturebook attractive, and even ‘foster an appreciation of ‘good’ books’ (Moebius, p. 312). Illustrations can be the trademark symbol of a picturebook becoming just as, if not more familiar, than the narratives they accompany. Certainly, high quality illustrations are likely to appeal to adults as the predominant book selectors and purchasers, although ‘quality’ may be of little interest as far as the child is concerned. While the narrative may be primarily aimed at the younger reader, the interest of the adult can be carried along by creative artwork. As well as being the winner of the Caldecott Medal winner in 1964, Where the Wild Things Are represented a change in society’s views about the picturebook, its format, and its audience.
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 words and pictures 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 work may be beyond the understanding of young children.
Other modern 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 the 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 Wiesner’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. Wiesner’s parodying of the traditional 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, the variations of the traditonal elements and ways of reading picturebooks are certainly thought provoking, invite evaluation, and provide opportunities for enjoyment 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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