Friday, February 27, 2015

Words and Pictures go together like toast and butter! A ReadItDaddy Editorial.


We always love following some of the rather fiery conversations on Twitter that rage around the subject of children's books. In particular of late, the fact that children's illustrators are often overlooked, undervalued and their hard work scarcely warrants a mention in some reviews. As Sarah McIntyre quite rightly points out on her excellent blog and #PicturesmeanBusiness campaign, professional publications often play down or omit to mention entirely the illustrator in a writer / illustrator team who have worked on a book (in extreme cases, a well known children's classic such as "We're Going on a Bear Hunt" where Michael Rosen receives endless praise for the story in some articles, with ne'er a mention of Helen Oxenbury's utterly vital illustrations in the same article. Without Helen's illustrations, the book would never have become the classic it so rightly is IMHO).

(As an aside, Helen's art is utterly mesmerising. Her line work just completely blows me away, tiny tiny gestures and strokes to convey a whole gamut of facial expressions, movements and tone. As I said, mesmerising!)

It's not the fault of author nor illustrator, but does seem to be some quite bizarre set-in rot that seems to have been seeping slowly through the children's publishing industry for a number of years.

As our staple blogging subjects are predominantly picture books, we often find that the books that consistently hit the book of the week slot are not always visually stunning and perfect, nor are they works of wordy wonder. They achieve a perfect balance of each, with innovation both in story and illustration content.

To put this to the test, try reading a selection of picture books to your little ones - purposely obscuring the pictures, or not showing them to your children as you read. Did that work out for you? I can only think of one book in our recent reviewing history that works on that level - and it's "The Book with No Pictures" by B.J. Novak - a book that works as well as a piece of performance art purely through the act of making adults who read aloud to their children look a bit daft. Genius, sheer genius.

Once again though, try another exercise. Arm yourself with a pad of post-it notes and stick them over the text in a few picture books. Just show the pictures, don't read the story. How did that work out for you? In very few cases (unless purposely designed as such), picture books don't really work that well without their accompanying words either. The balance needs to be exactly that. A balance, and some extremely talented folk are equally adept at writing and illustration, pulling off the amazing trick of balancing both with aplomb in stories that completely blow us away.

One final thought on Sarah's excellent and extremely important observations about children's illustrators. We firmly believe that an appreciation of art, and definitely an appreciation of children's books (illustrations AND writing) does not require formal training in either. Absolutely not. Reviewers can only offer an opinion but that opinion is not lessened by a sharp lack of knowledge of the art techniques of Vermeer, or the fine-tuned lingual acrobatics of Shakespeare. Does your 3-6 year old have that training? (OK there probably are people out there who will answer 'yes but in general, they don't - so does this mean they can't appreciate children's picture books nor offer an opinion on them, even if their opinion is "I don't like this book, it's poo!"

We do not claim to be expert critics by any means and in fact we rather like a healthy debate around a book if someone disagrees with us on it.

We do not get paid to do this, nor would we ever try to tread on the toes of professional bodies whose job it is to ensure the growth of the publishing industry and for that matter those who carry the responsibility of promoting the services of some of the industry's leading illustrative and literate folk. But we are the consumers of the 'product', children are who these books were made for, so don't just scrub those opinions into the food waste bin.

1 comment:

Jen Morrison said...

Absolutely! When I am choosing picture books to borrow or buy for my lovely little chiddlers, I don't even look at a book unless it has brilliant illustrations. Secondly (but just as importantly) it has to win me over with delightful text that begs to be read aloud.

A picture book that gets that balance right is like a favourite song. The music and lyrics work together to make you feel something truly special. And when that happens, you know the book is a keeper!

It seems ludicrous not to give equal credit for a picture book to the illustrator. They are the ones who make the magic come alive. I can't imagine Julia Donaldson's "The Gruffalo" without Axel Scheffler's wonderful illustrations? Even with such winsome rhyme, it would be very hard to keep a young child's attention with pictures that were less compelling.

Perhaps the reason that reviewers sometimes overlook illustrators is that they are more focused on the words. After all they are writers themselves, so it is only natural.

However for those of us who are more visually wired (as many children are), the words take us on a journey, but the illustrations carry us away to picture book bliss.