Verbal and Visual Literacy: The Role of Picturebooks in the Reading Experience of Young Children

Maria Nikolajeva. Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Editor: Nigel Hall, Joanne Larson, Jackie Marsh. Sage Publication. 2003.

There seems to be a common understanding among scholars and educators that referring to the reading experience of young children we often speak about texts in which words and pictures are equally represented. Although young children are naturally exposed to other types of texts, narrative as well as non-narrative—for instance, fairytales and stories, nursery rhymes, and songs—these will most likely be presented in oral form. By contrast, the child’s first encounter with written texts probably includes images as well as words. Examining a large number of overviews and textbooks in children’s literature, we can clearly see that in those arranged by the readers’ age, in chapters devoted to ages up to seven, illustrated books prevail (Hearne, 1990; Tucker, 1981). Further, textbooks overtly dealing with literature for young children (Bennett, 1982; McCann and Richard, 1973; Renck, 1988) are likely to consider picturebooks.

While such an attitude is by no means an absolute truth, and while there is no comprehensive empirical research showing that young children’s aesthetic appreciation of reading is indeed dependent on visual support, it is a fact that printed reading matter for young children, including fairytales, verse and song collections, consists exclusively of books containing both words and pictures. Thus this chapter will focus on research into picturebooks and their significance for early literacy. As mediators of literature to young children, we should be aware of the complexity of the texts we provide, and before we can seriously examine the young readers’ responses to literature, we should investigate the texts themselves in order to see the potentials and problems of what they offer. While young children in the past were mainly referred to primers for their reading practices, today they—or rather their parents and teachers—can choose from a vast and extremely diverse body of printed materials that have different premises and offer different aesthetic, social and educational experiences. The intention of this chapter is to show how our knowledge and assessment of this diversity are relevant for the development of early literacy.

In mapping the research into picturebooks, I will start by looking into the role of picturebooks throughout history and in different countries and cultures. I will then discuss the word/image interaction as the most significant aspect of meaning making, and the various kinds of picturebooks that provide different reading challenges for the child. I will further probe into the ways picturebooks are used for socialization purposes, as well as some research into visual literacy as such. The last aspect I will deal with briefly concerns the dual readership of picturebooks.

In this chapter, I use the terms ‘picturebooks’ and ‘illustrated books’ interchangeably, even though many critics, as will be shown, make a clear distinction between the two concepts. I have also decided for the solid spelling of the word ‘picture-book,’ so far more widely adopted by British scholars (for instance, Lewis, 2001).

Picturebooks Throughout History

The first aspect essential for the adult mediator of picturebooks to be familiar with is their historical and social context. Illustrated children’s books are a relatively late phenomenon in human history. Although one of the earliest books unquestionably intended for young readers, Orbis sensualium pictus (1685), was exactly what we today call a picturebook, with pictures supporting words, the emergence of illustrated books was impossible until the development of printing technology enabled mass production of full-scale colour illustrations. Naturally, illustrated books do not appear in a vacuum, and it is essential to study them in the context of children’s literature at large. Any historical survey of children’s literature will provide information about the social, economic and educational background for the emergence of illustrated printed matter for young readers (see e.g. Hunt, 1995). It is, however, important to bear in mind that illustrated books, as we know them in our society, are not necessarily included in children’s literature in every country and culture. Furthermore, the view of children’s literature in different countries may vary, and thus in some countries picturebooks may have purely entertaining purposes, while in others they may be chiefly used for educational and ideological goals. These factors are valuable to take into consideration in order to understand the role of picture-books in the development and promotion of literacy.

The history of children’s book illustrations is presented in a number of studies with a wide variety of purposes, from very broad and general, focusing on thematic and stylistic diversity (Feaver, 1977; Hrlimann, 1968; Marantz and Marantz, 1995; Whalley, 1974; Whalley and Chester, 1988), to devoted to just one country (Bader, 1976; Bergstrand, 1993; Birkeland and Storaas, 1993; Christensen, 2003; Doderer and Muller, 1973; Muir, 1982; Parmegiani, 1989; Steiner, 1999; Stybe, 1983). Historical surveys are also found in catalogues for illustration exhibitions (Alderson, 1973; Barr, 1986; Blake, 2002; Hearn et al., 1996; Thiele, 1997; Ziersch, 1986). In most of these sources, each illustrator is represented by one single picture. The sequential nature of picturebooks is ignored, as individual pictures are taken out of their context and considered outside their relation to the narrative text. Even though such publications can be useful for general orientation, they hardly address the question of how picturebooks communicate with their readers. Panoramas of contemporary international picturebooks can be found in a number of books and essay collections (Cotton, 2000; Halbey, 1997; Schwarcz, 1982, Schwarcz and Schwarcz, 1991; Styles and Bearne, 2003), and some essays try to capture the specific nature of a particular country or area (Cotton, 2001). National volumes often contain historical surveys, theoretical approaches, and presentations of specific illustrators (Baumgrtner, 1968a; Baumgrtner and Schmidt, 1991; Edstrm, 1991; Escarpit, 1978; Fridell, 1977; Goga and Mjr, 1999; Hallberg and Westin, 1985; Mrck, 2000; Paetzold and Erler, 1990; Peltsch, 1997; Rtty and Raussi, 2001; Thiele, 1991). Thus for anyone wishing to become acquainted with a broad variety of international picturebooks, the opportunities are ample, even though, for obvious reasons, Western European and North American publications dominate. Yet, there are substantial gaps in the mapping of international illustration art, owing both to the absence of illustrated books as such in many countries (often because of the dominance of oral culture) and to insufficient research.

If one is interested in a particular illustrator, the sources are more limited; however, the most prominent picturebook creators have become objects for critical study. Maurice Sendak is, not unexpectedly, the artist who has attracted most attention from the scholars, resulting in several book-length studies (Cech, 1995; Lanes, 1980; Sonheim, 1991; Tabbert, 1987). The works of Sendak have also been analysed in articles by North American (Ball, 1997; Roxburgh, 1983; Shaddock, 1997; Sipe, 1996; 1998; Scott, 1997; Stanton, 2000), British (Doonan, 1986a; 1994), French (Nires, 1980), German (Halbey, 1997) and Swedish researchers (Rhedin, 1992), to name just a few. Most of these are devoted either to Where the Wild Things Are or We Are All the Dumps with Jack and Guy, and take a variety of approaches, from semiotic to socio-ideological.

Another outstanding picturebook creator is Beatrix Potter, with several books and essay collections devoted to her art (MacDonald, 1986; Mackey, 1998; 2002; Taylor, 1986) and a number of chapters and journal articles (Carpenter, 1985: 138-50; Sale, 1978: 127-63; Scott, 1992; 1994). Great Victorian illustrators such as Walter Crane (Spenser, 1975), Kate Greenaway (Taylor, 1991) and Randolph Caldecott (Engen, 1988) have been thoroughly studied. A recent book-length study examines the reception of Crane, Caldecott and Greenaway (Lundin, 2001). We can also find books on Jean de Brunhoff, the author of Babar (Hildebrand, 1991; Weber, 1989), Wanda Gg (Hoyle, 1994), and Ezra Jack Keats (Alderson, 1994). Among contemporary illustrators, Anthony Browne (Bradford, 1998; Doonan, 1983; 1986b; 1998; 2000; Perrot, 2000), Chris van Ahlsburg (Neumeyer, 1990; Stanton, 1996), Satoshi Kitamura (Doonan, 1991) and Peter Ss (Latham, 2000) have received much attention. A recent volume on Russell Hoban contains several essays on his picturebooks (Allison, 2000). As clearly seen from these references, apart from de Brunhoff, all the illustrators mentioned are British or American, which is hardly surprising, but far from satisfactory.

Events such as the Illustration Biennale in Bratislava and the Andersen Medal for illustration usually get noticed in the scholarly world; a collection of essays is occasionally published (Perrot, 1998), and journals in children’s literature, notably Bookbird, carry essays on the winners. A special issue of Bookbird (vol. 40 no. 2, 2002) is devoted to picturebooks and features countries such as India, Croatia, and Turkey. A large number of publications in many countries offer short presentations of illustrators and picturebook creators, often brought out by library services. The volume of Touchstones, published under the auspices of the Children’s Literature Association, contains essays on best-known picturebooks, including Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House, Wanda Gg’s Millions of Cats, Robert Lawson’s The Story of Ferdinand, and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (Nodelman, 1989).

The Significance of Word/Image Interaction

Until recently, studies of picturebooks have been strictly divided into two separate categories: those carried out by art historians and those carried out by children’s literature experts. While the first group paid attention to aspects such as line, colour, light and dark, shape, and space, ignoring not only the textual component, but frequently also the sequential nature of the picturebook narrative (Cianciolo, 1970; Klemin, 1966; Lacy, 1986), the second group treated picturebooks as any other children’s books, applying either literary or educational approaches, but often without taking into consideration the importance of text/image interaction (Kiefer, 1995; Stewig, 1995; Spitz, 1999). The latter is certainly a legitimate position with its own premises and by no means outdated; yet it is in a way problematic to discuss picturebooks without paying special attention to how words and pictures cooperate to create a meaning. Picturebooks are in fact different from other literary texts in their conveyance of meaning, and as mediators we should be aware of their specific nature. The German volume Aspekte der gemalten Welt, edited by Alfred Clemens Baumgrtner (1968a), was a pioneer work in this respect. The essays discuss mostly visual aspects, such as the influence of contemporary art on picturebooks, as well as psychological and educational issues. Baumgrtner (1968b) raises the question of the relation between words and pictures, but gives the verbal text priority in the creative and interactive process, considering primarily how textual structures are transformed into images. In a later essay Baumgrtner (1990) touches upon the unique nature of picturebooks in their combination of spatial (image) and temporal (word) means of expression, moving from his earlier standpoint toward accentuating the complete parity of word and image. Another early venture into the problem appears in a French study (Durand and Bertrand, 1975: 83-162), where the dialogue between word and image is investigated.

Among the first to bring the text/image interaction into the limelight, as the most essential feature of picturebooks, were Joseph Schwarcz (1982: 9-20; 1991: 1-19), Kristin Hallberg (1982), Stephen Roxburgh (1983), David Topper (1984), Perry Nodelman (1984), Blair Lent (1988), John Stephens (1989), and Peter Neumeyer (1990). Two important landmarks were the special issues of The Lion and the Unicorn (vol. 7/8, 1983) and Children’s Literature Association Quarterly (vol. 9 no. 1, 1984). All these studies emphasize the unique character of picturebooks as an art form based on the combination of two levels of communication, the verbal and the visual. This aspect has been further developed by Clare Bradford (1993), who regards the complex text/image interaction as a part of the general postmodern trend in contemporary literature for young readers; Lawrence Sipe (1998), who also provides an excellent overview of earlier research; and Bettina Kmmerling-Meibauer (1999), who focuses on the ironical tension between the two narrative levels. In Criticism, Theory and Children’s Literature (1991: 175-88), Peter Hunt draws our attention to the obvious lack of metalanguage for discussing the complexity of modern picturebooks. Such metalanguage has been under expansive development during the past decade. In the introductory chapter to the German essay collection Neue Erzhlformen im Bilderbuch (1991), Jens Thiele also calls for a syntax of picture-book language, for working tools and concepts necessary to read and understand ‘new’ picturebooks, that is, picturebooks based on complex interrelations between word and image. Several scholars in the volume (Grnewald, 1991) emphasize this interrelationship and comment on some specific traits of picturebook narrative, such as movement from left to right, linear development, framing, simultaneous succession, and point of view. The theoretical chapters in Thiele’s Das Bilderbuch (2000: 36-89) and Hans Adolf Halbey’s Bilderbuch: Literatur (1997: 149-82) add substantially to the general discussions on picturebook aesthetics. David Lewis (2001: 31-45) and Nina Christensen (2000c) provide a good overview of the field.

Among the terms proposed to describe the tension between words and images we find iconotext (Hallberg, 1982), composite text, duet, poly-systemy, and counterpoint (Schwarcz, 1982), contradiction (Stephens, 1992), synergy (Sipe, 1998), and congruence (Thiele, 2000), which all emphasize that the true meaning of a picturebook is created only by the joint efforts of the verbal and the visual communication. The variety in the terminology reveals some clear difficulties: while ‘iconotext’ or ‘composite text’ refer to the static unity of text and pictures, ‘counterpoint’ or ‘synergy’ point at the complex dynamics of interaction in the process of meaning making. Closer to a more subtle reflection of the wide spectrum of visual-verbal narrative is Joanne Golden (1990: 93-119), who distinguishes several types of text/image interaction: (1) the text and pictures are symmetrical; (2) the text depends on picture for clarification; (3) illustration enhances, elaborates text; (4) the text carries primary narrative, while the illustration is selective; and (5) the illustration carries primary narrative, while the text is selective. Some of the favourite picturebooks used by scholars to illustrate how words and pictures can tell two separate stories are Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins, Come Away from the Water, Shirley by John Burningham, Not Now, Bernard and I Hate My Teddy Bear by David McKee, and Nothing Ever Happens on My Blockby Ellen Raskin. Interestingly enough, an investigation of picturebook translations also reveals the importance of balance between text and pictures (Desmet, 2001; O’Sullivan, 1999; Oittinen, 2000: 100-14; Nikolajeva and Scott, 2001a: 31-41), as does a study of books with the same illustrations, but different texts (McCann and Hiller, 1994).

Although few of these studies focus on the young reader, such approaches lead to a better understanding of the role of picturebooks in the development of a child’s literacy. In learning to read, we make the arbitrary connections between words—signi-fiers—and the objects or concepts they refer to—signifieds. The relationship between the signifier and the signified in a picturebook can be simple, as in ABC books or picture dictionaries, or substantially more complex; yet picturebooks provide an excellent training in understanding the relationship as such. While the empirical studies of young readers’ responses to picturebooks reveal how they make sense of what they see and read or what is read to them (see Martinez, Roser and Dooley, in this volume), theoretical studies of text/image interaction offer mediators guidelines in introducing books to children at appropriate levels.

Nevertheless, some of the most comprehensive studies of picturebooks, such as Joseph Schwarcz’s pioneer book Ways of the Illustrator (1982) and Jane Doonan’s Looking at Pictures in Picture Books (1993), while offering excellent tools to decode individual illustrations, do not pay sufficient attention to the dilemma emerging when the story is told in two different media. Yet, these works produce an important counterbalance to many studies of picture-books where pictures are ignored or treated as mere decorations, as pointed out by Kenneth Marantz (1988). Both Doonan and Schwarcz discuss thoroughly the pictures in picturebooks, and their specific way of conveying space, movement, and other visual aspects.

Similarly, while Perry Nodelman’s Words about Pictures (1988) repeatedly states that the meaning in a picturebook is revealed only through the interaction of words and pictures, the focus is primarily on the visual aspects, mainly the individual communicative elements of the visual text, such as colour, shape, the mutual position of objects on the page, or the depiction of movement. Thus the book emphasizes extracting information from individual pictures rather than extracting a meaning out of the interaction of picture and words, although it does pinpoint the ways pictures add to the meaning of words. Nodelman’s book provides an excellent grammar for reading and understanding pictures in picturebooks which, because of their sequential nature, need a very different approach from that which views pictures as individual works of art. A similar comprehensive grammar is to be found in William Moebius’ essay ‘Introduction to picture-book codes’ (1986).

The most systematic investigation of the nature of text/image relationships is to be found in the studies by Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott (2000; 2001a), where five categories are proposed—symmetry, complementarity, enhancement, counterpoint, and contradiction—all of which can work independently on the different levels of the picturebook narrative, such as plot, setting, characterization, perspective, and so on. Nikolajeva’s Swedish-language textbook (2000) is based on the same theoretical ground. Whatever terminology one chooses, it is necessary to bear in mind that text/image interaction can be both relatively simple and extremely complex, and that the readers’ understanding of complex interaction is part of the literary competence that can and should be trained.

Types of Picturebooks

While scholars indeed agree that word/image interaction is the essential element of any illustrated text, there is no agreement on the various types of interaction. In assessing children’s understanding of illustrated texts, it is, however, important to realize that words and pictures may carry different loads in meaning making, and that the relationship between words and images can considerably affect the young reader’s perception of the book. One of the first attempts at a picturebook typology is found in a short article by the Dane Torben Gregersen (1974), who makes the distinction between (1) a picture dictionary that carries no narrative, (2) a picture narrative, wordless or with very few words, (3) a picturebook, or picture storybook, in which text and picture are equally important, and (4) an illustrated book, in which the text can exist independently. Most (of the few) scholars who have probed into this area distinguish between the illustrated book, where the verbal text can exist on its own, and the picturebook, an inseparable entity of word and image, cooperating to convey a message. Schwarcz does not identify any principal difference between illustrated book and picturebook; however, he does observe the quantitative ratio of text and pictures in different types of illustrated books (1982: 11). Nodelman (1988) does not problematize the concept. His material ranges across many categories from picture dictionaries to illustrated fairytales; he also includes photographic books and non-fiction illustrated books.

The Swedish scholar Ulla Rhedin, in The Picturebook: Towards a Theory (1992), partly leaning on Nodelman, suggests three picturebook concepts: (1) the epic, illustrated text; (2) the expanded (or staged) text; (3) the genuine picturebook. While the first category, the illustrated text, also appears in the other scholars’ classifications, the two other categories are somewhat artificial, for the difference is very subtle and obviously subjective, and no clear criteria are proposed once Rhedin has exemplified each category by one single picturebook. John Stewig suggests three types: picture books (including alphabet books, counting books, and concept books), picture storybooks, and illustrated books (1995: 3-7). These few examples show that there is no more consensus among scholars about the possible subcategories of picturebooks than about the nature and variety of text/image interaction. Yet, the different approaches clearly demonstrate that the corpus of illustrated books for young children is far from homogeneous, which is necessary to bear in mind when assessing their exposure to literature. A child’s understanding of a text is obviously different depending on whether the words or the images are dominant, and on whether the child is better trained in verbal or visual literacy.

The ability to recognize genre conventions is an important aspect of literary competence, and since picturebooks are the first written texts a child usually meets, the diversity of picturebooks sets the reader’s genre expectations. In most standard textbooks on children’s literature, picturebooks are treated as a separate genre, alongside fairytales, fantasy, adventure, domestic stories, animal stories, and so on (Cullinan, 1981: 150-217; Lukens, 1990: 210-39; Lynch-Brown and Tomlinson, 1993: 54-86; Nodelman, 1996: 215-44; Norton, 1999: 212-75, just to name a few). The same is true of general histories of children’s literature (Meigs et al., 1969: 369-76, 633-53; Townsend, 1990: 318-46) or thematic essay collections (Egoff, 1996: 236-75; Powling, 1994: 41-72). However, even a very brief look at the examples discussed in such chapters reveals that picturebooks encompass all of these genres. There are hundreds of picturebooks based on classical and contemporary fairytales; books such as Where the Wild Things Are or Outside Over There have all the unmistakable features of fantasy; and domestic and animal stories are too many to enumerate. Obviously, genre is not a sufficient category to differentiate picturebooks from other kinds of children’s literature, and within the scope of picturebooks we can distinguish a number of separate genres or kinds. While some of these are similar to genres in fiction for older children (fantasy, adventure, school story, family story), picturebooks display a few unique generic categories, for instance picture dictionaries, ABC books, counting books, concept books, and wordless picturebooks. While there are no book-length studies devoted to any of these categories, chapters in general studies of picturebooks often touch upon the specifics of a particular kind. Most often, ABC books and picture dictionaries are treated as educational tools used for language acquisition, without taking the aesthetic aspect into consideration. One of the most illuminating recent studies examines the changing concept of the ABC book from a simple, symmetrical relationship between word and image (‘A is for apple’) toward a complex and playful interaction, involving the young readers’ imagination and developing their sense of language as well as visual perception (Coats, 2000). Studies such as this one emphasize that picturebooks can enhance young readers’ understanding of literature not merely as a simple reflection of the external reality (a direct connection between word and object), but as a complex network of referential relationships.

Similarly, while there are no book-length studies of illustrated fairytales, some essays bring forward illustrators’ choices that reflect not only individual styles, but quite often the values and ideology of the culture within which they were produced (Bergstrand, 1985; Freudenburg, 1998; Hendrickson, 2000; MacMath, 1994; Mellon, 1987). These are valuable aspects to take into consideration when assessing children’s perception of stories. Illustrated poetry books containing at least one poem or verse on each doublespread, accompanied by at least one illustration, seem to be a neglected kind, apparently because the category itself is largely marginal (some classic examples are CM. Barker’s Flower Fairies or the Swiss Ernst Kreidolf’s floral fairytales; good modern examples are Michael Rosen’s illustrated verses).

Finally, a special category of picturebooks is non-fiction or information books. Here, a striking difference from general criticism can be observed, revealing the specific nature of children’s literature research. While there are few, if any, critical studies of non-fiction for adults, information picturebooks receive a lot of attention owing to their educational purpose. Most studies of picturebooks include chapters on non-fiction, which, however, seldom take illustrations into consideration beyond simple acknowledgements of their existence.

The vast majority of picturebooks fall into the loosely defined category of picture storybooks, that is, narratives in which words and pictures are used together to convey a meaning. The verbal text can be written in prose or in verse, and the word/image interaction is one of the above-discussed types, that is, symmetrical, complementary, enhancing, and so on. Themes vary from everyday stories to fantasy, and styles from refined to grotesque. The characters can be human beings, animals or animated objects. There are some interesting studies examining the role of animal (Scott, 1992; 1994) and object (Schwarcz, 1982: 150-68) characters in picture-books. For an overview of themes and styles, Nodelman (1988), Schwarcz (1982) and Schwarcz and Schwarcz (1991) are the best sources.

Most often, a young reader will move from books with very little text (such as picture dictionaries, which sometimes do not have any text at all) toward books with verbal dominance. However, the prevalence of words does not necessarily imply a more complex text; in fact, an illustrated story or fairytale is fairly undemanding in terms of meaning making. It is therefore important for mediators to be aware of the various subcategories of picturebooks and the text/image interaction in them in order to provide young readers with adequate reading experience.

Socialization Through Picturebooks

While some of the above-mentioned sources focus on the aesthetic aspects of picturebooks and the development of visual literacy in young readers, the overwhelming majority of studies are devoted exclusively to the content of picturebooks and their socialization purposes. Often picturebooks are treated as an integral part of children’s fiction, with critics employing a literary approach, discussing themes, issues, ideology, or gender structures. However, such literary studies frequently neglect the visual aspect or treat pictures as secondary. Although many of the texts discussed by John Stephens in his well-known study Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction (1992: 158-201) are picturebooks, he concentrates on the topics, the depiction of society, ideological values, and adult control, rather than upon the dynamics of the picturebook form. Most studies, in fact, ignore the vast potential of images to convey ideology enhancing or occasionally subverting the messages expressed by words. Since pictures convey ideology implicitly, it is all the more important to train young readers to read visual messages alongside the verbal ones.

Yet this is far from common, as most studies are satisfied with discussing the overt social issues of the books. The chapter titles in Patricia Cianciolo’s handbook Picture Books for Children (1990) are typical: ‘Me and My Family,’ ‘Other People,’ ‘The World I Live In,’ and ‘The Imaginative World.’ Such thematic approaches are helpful for teachers looking for particular topics. Ellen Handler Spitz’s Inside Picture Books (1999) is an example of a study in which picturebooks are examined in connection with developmental psychology, and which focuses upon their therapeutic effect on the child reader. Though Spitz is an art critic, this work concentrates on the messages that picturebooks send, and the chapters are organized by the relevance of the lessons they teach to various childhood experiences: ‘It’s Time for Bed,’ ‘Please Don’t Cry,’ ‘Behave Yourself. The treatment of texts is rather superficial, and the approach as such feels primitive and outdated. The psychological approach to picture-books also appears in the study of Tove Jansson’s three picturebooks by Lena Kreland and Barbro Werkmster (1994); in the various examinations of bedtime stories (Moebius, 1991; Galbraith, 1998); or in articles exploring the tension between children and adults (Bradford, 1994; Christensen, 2000b).

Another approach is investigating the social aspects of picturebooks. Schwarcz and Schwarcz (1991) offer a wide panorama of themes and issues in picturebooks (for instance, the family, the representation of grandparents, the quest for identity, the portrayal of the socially disadvantaged, war and peace), concentrating on educational and social functions of picturebooks, as well as the psychological aspects of visual perception. Learning about the world, in a very broad sense, is something a young child is likely to do through books. It can be questions of international awareness (Christensen, 1999; 2000a), multiculturalism and ethnicity (Cummins, 2000; Iskander, 1997; Kroll, 1999; LaFaye, 2001; Lamme, 2000; Lempke, 1999; McCallum, 1997; Sands-O’connor, 2001; Smith, 1999; Stephens, 1995; Tabbert, 1995), traumatic war experiences (Galbraith, 2000a; 2000b), violence (Koehnecke, 2001), disability (Christensen, 2001), or other social issues. In these studies, the main focus is on the didactic aspects of the narrative. Holocaust education has become a prominent subject where picturebooks, according to some critics, can be more effective than novels (Kertzer, 2000; Thiele, 2000: 170-6; Williams, 2001). Gender is yet another issue that at least a few articles have touched upon (Chatton, 2001; Pace and Lowery, 2001). The imperialist values of some picturebooks, such as Babar (Kohl, 1995: 3-29; Malart-Feldman and Yeager, 1998) and Curious George (Cummins, 1997), have been repeatedly interrogated. The weakness of many studies is that they fail to observe that images can take the narrative in the opposite direction from the words. For instance, the text can be gender-balanced and even convey a strong feminist message, while pictures present characters as clearly stereotypical. The text can appear neutral and fairly innocent in its treatment of power structures, while images can produce an undesirable effect. On the other hand, tokenism, for instance the superficial portrayal of an ethnic group, is more likely to appear in the visual part of the narrative. Before we can teach young children to discern covert ideology in images, it is essential that we are aware of it ourselves. Here, research into picturebooks has vast potentials.

One area where little effort so far has been made is a more general discussion of the connection between the socializing function of picturebooks and their aesthetic function. The Swede Kristin Hallberg (1996) has developed a theory of ‘pedagogy as poetics,’ claiming that the overt didacticism of picturebooks is their specific aesthetic feature, and that there is in fact no contradiction between pedagogical and literary values. Since picturebooks, at least allegedly, address very young children, the incentive to convey practical knowledge, from potty training and table manners to mastering aggressions and coping with death, undoubtedly affects the way picturebook narratives are constructed, on the verbal as well as the visual level. Graeme Harper (2001) offers an interesting sociohistorical perspective, tracing the changes in visual representation as reflecting the changing views on childhood. Some remaining questions are whether complex artistic forms always produce a stronger effect on the young reader and thus underscore the socialization purpose; here, empirical research could illuminate theoretical argument.

Visual Literacy and Aesthetic Perception

The awareness of visual literacy being a significant part of literacy in general is a relatively new insight in pedagogy; until recently, verbal literacy has been given priority. Much general research has been done on visual depiction, and many children’s literature scholars find inspiration in the works of Rudolf Arnheim (1954), and more recently W.J.T. Mitchell (1994) and Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen (1996), to name just a few. One of the latest contributions to the understanding of the importance of visual education is the bilingual volume Siest du das? Die Wahrnehmung von Bildern in Kinderbcher—Visual Literacy (1997). Its main concern is reader response, and all the chapters, focused on concrete cases, emphasize the importance of images for early literacy. Yet the most profound resource in this area is Molly Bang’s Picture This: How Pictures Work (2000). In this highly unusual book, the award-winning illustrator explains everything one might need to know about visual perception. Using four colours and some basic shapes, she demonstrates how composition, size, shape, and colour affect our ‘reading’ of pictures. She starts with some exciting pictorial experiments while creating one single illustration to ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ offering her own insights in a plain and comprehensible language. She then proceeds to discuss the most essential elements of visual design, generously sharing her discoveries, based on her own work as well as on classroom experience.

Most general studies of picturebooks already mentioned (Doonan, 1993; Nodelman, 1988; Schwarcz, 1982; Stewig, 1995) include chapters or sections on reading and understanding images. They embrace such pictorial elements as shape, line, edge, colour, proportion, detail, and space. Some pay attention to the various techniques employed by illustrators (drawing, watercolour, woodcut, etching) and book design elements. The composition of individual pictures is thoroughly discussed, and some critics notice the essential difference between composition in paintings and in picturebooks, for instance that the centre of gravity in a picturebook picture is normally shifted toward the right edge. Thus, an analysis of a picturebook is somewhat different from traditional art criticism. One of the important observations is that picture-books contain doublespreads (or openings) rather than pages, and unless a doublespread is one single illustration, the balance between the left-hand page (verso) and the right-hand page (recto) is essential. Essays by Isabelle Nires (1993; 2000) treating space and composition open interesting new vistas. Nodelman (2000) discusses the specific demands that picturebook aesthetic puts on the reader/ viewer. Quite a few contemporary picturebook scholars, notably Doonan and Stephens, have found inspiration in the study by Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (1996). The problem with using this source for picturebook analysis is, however, that while it certainly offers excellent (though hardly revolutionary) tools for analysing visual signs, it provides no insights into the text/image collaboration characteristic of picturebooks, or into the sequential nature of the visual narrative. While the book has no intention of addressing these issues, this fact often affects the way picturebook studies influenced by Kress and van Leeuwen approach their material.

Two areas within visual literacy are of special significance: point of view and modality. Nodelman (1991) was among the first to problematize the use of first-person narration in the verbal text of picturebooks. Pictures in picturebooks seldom convey first-person point of view, which creates a confusing contradiction. Picturebooks are supposed to be addressed to a young, inexperienced audience, yet they use within the same story two different points of view. While identification with the ‘I’ of the verbal text in itself presents a problem for young children, the contradictory perspective of the visual text is rather confusing. In a picturebook, a consistent first-person visual narrator would mean that, while we share his point of view, we never see him appear in any picture (corresponding to the so-called ‘subjective camera’ in film). For an unsophisticated reader, this would present considerable difficulties. Nikolajeva and Scott (2001a: 117-38) discuss some more or less successful ways in which this dilemma can be circumvented.

Modality is a linguistic category expressing the possibility, impossibility, contingency or necessity of a statement. Modality enables us to decide on the degree of truth in the communication we receive. The term is used by Kress and van Leeuwen (1996) to describe the way images convey the sense of reality, ascribing photography a higher degree of modality (‘closer to truth’) and abstract or surrealist art a lower degree (‘far away from truth’). Stephens (2000) makes use of this concept in his picturebook analysis. Yet, while this use of the term is certainly acceptable and perhaps fruitful for reading visual images, it is less applicable to word/image interaction.

Since modality is a purely linguistic category, a visual image in itself cannot convey modality. Beholding a single picture unaccompanied by words, we cannot as a rule decide whether what we see is real or unreal, a dream, a wish, a prescription, a permission or a doubt. However, even in isolated pictures artists have means, based on conventions, to manipulate the viewers to interpret the image in a certain way, for instance as a fantasy. A sequence of visual images immediately creates a potential for modality. By adding verbal statements, the author can further force the viewer to adopt a particular interpretation. In picturebooks, complex modality can be achieved through the interaction of words and images. While the verbal story is often told from a child’s point of view presenting the events as true, the details in pictures may suggest that the story only takes place in the child’s imagination. The pictures thus subvert the verbal narrative as an objective story. Nikolajeva and Scott (2001a: 173-210) propose three modalities applicable in picturebook analysis: indicative (expressing objective truth), optative (expressing desire) and dubitative (expressing doubt).

Studies of perspective and modality, as well as analyses of picturebooks representing internal life (Nikolajeva and Scott, 2001b) take the discussion of visual literacy to a higher level, beyond the questions of composition and style. Other aspects worth mentioning in this connection are the growing metafiction (Lewis, 1990; Mackey, 1990; Stephens, 1991; Trites, 1994) and intertextuality (Desmet, 2001; Nires, 1995; Thiele, 2000: 31-5; Beckett, 2001) of contemporary picturebooks. These two aspects are especially prominent in postmodern picturebooks, the subject of David Lewis’ (2001) book. Metafiction implies that a text consciously draws the reader’s attention to itself as an artistic construction; in picturebooks, it is frequently expressed by frame breaking (for instance, a character stepping out of the picture frame and ‘entering’ the neutral space between the narrative and the reader). Intertextuality (sometimes referred to as ‘intervisuality’ in picturebook context) encompasses the various connections to other texts: pictorial quotations and allusions, imitations and parodies. Among contemporary picturebook authors, Anthony Browne has especially elaborated various intertextual devices.

While metafiction and intertextuality certainly can be appreciated by young readers, much of their appeal may just as well be addressed to the adult co-reader. This brings me to the final aspect of research into picturebooks that I would like to point out, namely their dual audience, which falls within the recent critical concept of cross-writing. Picturebooks, more than any other kind of children’s literature, are read and appreciated by children and adults together, most often with the adult reading the book to a child or a group of children. Contemporary picturebook creators seem to be very much aware of this reading situation, addressing the adult co-reader parallel to the child, for instance, through specific intertextual and inter-pictorial references. This does not, however, imply that the adult is addressed at the expense of the child (the infamous ‘double address’); on the contrary, an intelligent picturebook takes into consideration the dual audience, offering both parts something to appreciate and enjoy. An illustrator’s experience confirms this statement (Ormerod, 1992). Crosswriting child and adult in picturebooks has so far been investigated on a very modest scale (Rhedin, 1991; 1999; Scott, 1999; Beckett, 2001); yet it appears to be one of the most promising directions of further inquiry.


I started this chapter by maintaining that illustrated books are the most essential source of reading experience for young children. The reading experience is here understood in a very broad sense, as enjoyment, knowledge of the world, self-knowledge, moral and social lessons, and so on. Contemporary research provides some insights into these aspects. Picturebooks are one of the many contemporary multimedia in which the receiver is challenged to assemble the meaning from different means of communication. Therefore picturebooks provide excellent training for many other later reading experiences. Further, picture-books are by no means a homogeneous body of texts, but offer a wide variety of challenges in extracting meanings. Contemporary research shows that, contrary to common belief, picture-books are far from simple and can offer profound aesthetic and psychological experience. Yet not all picturebooks do so, and not all of them intend to do so. Knowing this, and knowing exactly how different types of picturebooks are supposed to affect the readers, we would be able to supply young readers with books that satisfy their needs according to their cognitive level and individual interests, while also meeting educational and socializing demands.