Words about Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books (book #107)

Perry Nodelman, 1988.

Most of the books he discusses are American, so there were a few I hadn’t heard of. One was Trina Schart Hyman, who – among other books – illustrated Snow White with romantic images, some of which are here. There is an interview here, and a bibliography and biography on the same site, wch also has information on other women illustrators of children’s books.

I also found the Sur La Lune Fairy Tales Blog when looking for this, wch is worth a read.

Another book I haven’t read he talks about is Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There – about a child stolen away by goblins and rescued by her older sister. The Amazon reviews describe it as dark and frightening. He says

Before she was two, my own daughter insisted that we read her Outside Over There again and again. She did not express the same obvious delight in it that she took in other books and could not be persuaded to discuss the book or her response to it, but she always listened to the story with great attentiveness and carried the book with her wherever she went for some weeks. While many adults find such books disturbingly difficult, they seem to speak to children directly, presumably to a part of them that is eventually numbed by experience of the world and that may exist only below consciousness in adults.

I like the imagined dialogue here – the writer saying to the two year-old, “now, discuss the book and your response to it”.

Interesting stuff about Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present, wch I have read and wch is also illustrated by Sendak. He says that

“as Mr Rabbit and the girl discuss different colors, the green of the landscape around them is suffused with light of the color they discuss. As they discuss red the woods behind them contain red foliage … but as they discuss yellow the woods are lit with yellow-orange, and they walk towards a brownish-yellow road”.

He thinks that this results in a “calm serenity [tautology] … because of the unified concord created by their suffusion with tones of one secondary color”. He also says that the impressionist style Sendak uses contributes to a “calm peace” [again with the tautology] that balances some of the negativity of the text –

“a slightly nasty snippishness in both Mr Rabbit and the girl … she always seems to be accusing him of being a little stupid, and he always seems to be just a little sarcastic about how of course her mother only likes birds in trees”.

In the same way, he analyses how the illustrations by Garth Williams for Charlotte’s Web counter the lack of action in the text; it is “a surprisingly inactive novel – in fact, it is about how violent action is prevented, and it is filled with poetic descriptions that retard the action”. Williams “shows just about every occasion in Charlotte’s Web where people or animals are swept off their feet – Lurvy toppling over Wilbur, Wilbur in midair as he tries to spin a web, Avery turning a handstand at the fair. Even in less frenetic moments … Mrs Arable clutches nervously at her purse … Fern’s hands always seem to imply a hyperactive clutching or grasping”.

I like his description of “the matter-of-fact tonelessness common in European fairy tales”.

Talks about different ways boys and girls are depicted. “Those who smile and invite the gaze of viewers are most often femnale, the others usually male” – as in Shirley Hughes’s Lucy and Tom’s Christmas: “Tom looks in his Christmas stocking while Lucy sits on the bed and smiles out at viewers”. Nodelman calls this complicity with our gaze the act of “willing victims”.

The book also discusses whether picture books use techniques from films, and finds that mostly they don’t – “most pictures in most picture books are middle-distance or long shots, showing full figures in settings, usually seen at eye level”.

Talks about some pictures requiring more “reading” than others, and quotes Lamb on Hogarth: “His graphic representations are indeed books: they have the teeming, fruitful, suggestive meanings of words. Other pictures we look at – his prints we read” (source here).

Mentions Richard Redgrave’s painting The Poor Teacher, wch I hadn’t come across before.

The book ends by quoting from Peter Rushforth’s novel about the Holocaust, Kindergarten, a description “of a picture in a fictional picture book: an illustration made by a character in the novel for the tale of ‘Hansel and Gretel'”:

The little boy, and the younger girl, stood hand in hand at the edge of an immense dark forest, towering high above them, dressed in the fashion of the 1930s, the little girl with an elaborately woven shawl around her shoulders. They filled most of the picture, standing in the centre of the scene. The girl was looking in front of her, into the forest, and seemed frightened. The boy was looking over his shoulder, back the way he had come, looking straight into the face of anyone looking at the picture. The details were as intensely-observed as in a Victorian genre-painting, and the boy’s open, unguarded face could be studied in a detailed way that one could only give a face to in a painting or a photograph, or the face of someone who was loved, and who returned that love.

Nodelman follows this by saying that “the joining together of the objective detachment of art and the vulnerability of love say more about what picture-book art offers children than I could say in many pages”.

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