Picture Books

How They Work

The picture book, the first kind of reading many begin with, is not often recognized for the special kind of art that it is. It is not simply words plus pictures but something more complex and magical. To begin to understand, we might ask: “Which comes first? The pictures or the text?”

Where the Wild Things Are. By Maurice Sendak. HarperCollins, $8.99 (Paperback)

Different authors create in different ways. Maurice Sendak explained how he worked for years perfecting the 338-word text of Where the Wild Things Are before sketching the locales where his story unfolds. Other authors begin with pictures. Some twenty-five years ago, Chris Van Allsburg sent to the children’s book editor at Houghton Mifflin a portfolio of pictures that he hoped might win him a job as an illustrator. That editor, Walter Lorraine, urged Van Allsburg to come up with a story to accompany the drawings. The result was the award-winning The Garden of Abdul Gazasi.

The Garden of Abdul Gazasi. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin, $18.95 (Hardback)

Van Allsburg took his “pictures-first” impulse a step further in his terrific The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. There he presents a portfolio of fourteen separate drawings: one, for example, shows a man in a living room, holding a chair above his head and about to strike a mysterious lump that is moving under the carpet (the caption is “Under the Rug: Two weeks passed and it happened again”); another picture shows a nun seated on a chair floating some twenty feet above a church floor while two priests, their arms clasped behind them, eye this unusual levitation (the caption is “The Seven Chairs: The fifth one ended up in France”). In this book, Van Allsburg invites readers to make up stories to go with these pictures and, I understand, children have obliged and mailed him narratives by the truckload.

Caption: “Under the Rug: Two weeks passed and it happened again.” The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin, $18.95 (Hardcover)

Another way to talk about the richness and complexity of picture books is to notice how they differ from illustrated books. In the illustrated book, an image on the opposite page shows, more or less, what is happening in the text; the illustration is an aid to imagining but not necessary. But in the very best picture book, image and text are essential to each other and interact.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit. By Beatrix Potter. Warne, $6.99 (Hardcover)

Take the moment in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit when Peter has lost his shoes and jacket while escaping from Mr. McGregor. The text reads: “Mr. McGregor hung up the little jacket and the shoes for a scarecrow to frighten the blackbirds.” But Potter’s picture shows something else: the blackbirds aren’t frightened at all; indeed, they are lollygagging around the base of the scarecrow. Neither the words alone, nor the picture alone, is sufficient. Separately, each tells a different story. Together, they mean something more.

An even more dramatic example of this interaction between text and image is Kevin Hawkes’ new picture book The Wicked Big Toddlah. The story is a deliberately ho-hum description of the ordinary and generic life of a toddler. But the book is raised to hilarious heights by Hawkes’ pictures, since he imagines this youngster as gargantuan. The ordinariness of the text, then, collides with the extraordinariness of the pictures: baby has to have his diapers changed (this requires a helicopter and heavy machinery); baby likes to play with boats in his bath (tugboats, a lake); baby likes blueberries (and towers over the patch like King Kong); and so forth. This book is clever by a half.

The Wicked Big Toddlah. By Kevin Hawkes. Knopf, $16.99 (Hardcover)

Still, even this is not the extent of the picture book’s richness and complexity. There is also sequencing and design. For example, dig out your copy of Where the Wild Things Are and notice how Sendak’s pictures become larger and then smaller as Max goes into and out of his dream.

The Story of Babar. By Jean DeBrunhoff. Random House, $15.95 (Hardback)

On top of all this, the picture book — unlike other kinds of books — calls attention to itself as an “object.” For instance, when The Story of Babar first appeared, its gargantuan proportions were unprecedented at 10½ by 14½ inches; opened, the book is nearly newspaper-size. On the other hand,The Tale Peter Rabbit is a tiny volume measuring 5¾ by 4½ inches or a bit bigger than a deck of cards. Moreover, there are factors of style: Jean DeBrunhoff’s book about a triumphant elephant is full of huge pictures and a single one may occupy two pages and be drawn all the way to the edge, while Beatrix Potter’s book about a timid rabbit features miniature watercolors on a single page and that seem like little cameos surrounded by great expanses of white space.

In short, the picture book is a wonderful multimedia object that speaks in manifold and vivid ways. Indeed, Madeline, Ferdinand, Goodnight Moon, and many other beloved picture books rest on children’s shelves with other kinds of books; but unlike these mute others, picture books seem to glow with a kind of radioactivity and hum with a busy internal life of their own.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (September 2007).

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03. October 2016 by
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