The Value of Childish Things

Like most book lovers, I have fond memories of being read to as a child, hearing and seeing a story unfold with the turn of each page. Dr Seuss’s rhyming whimsy, Maurice Sendak’s respect for irreverence, the foodtastic excitement of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs—these books made impressions on me. But I really don’t know much about contemporary trends in children’s books, aside from the fact that within the publishing industry they are responsible for a large chunk of the revenue generated by illustrated books.

After spending some time at this year’s Book Expo America, I discovered Enchanted Lion Books, a Brooklyn-based publisher that, according to its website, champions “well-told stories, and illustrations that open up the visual world and deepen a child’s sense of story.” Somehow I missed out completely on all the raves its book Seasons received a couple of years ago, but it, along with several other titles, really grabbed my attention for their beauty and production values.

A spread from Seasons, by the French illustrator Blexbolex. Image via Brainpickings.org

Thinking about children’s books reminded me that I had come into possession of Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, by Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles. Admittedly, I hadn’t paid it much attention simply because the subject matter didn’t make it a priority, though it stuck with me enough that I thought to pull it out from the bottom of a stack of books. Children’s Picturebooks more than lives up to its title, providing a sober study of children’s books through time, touching on their history, common themes, issues of image reproduction, prominent artists, and even a guide for getting such a book published. Though covers and spreads from various children’s books are laid out prominently on the pages, they are samples meant to represent larger points.

Children's Picturebooks images: Laurence King Publishing

In their introduction, Salisbury and Styles write, “Today’s picturebook is defined by its particular use of sequential imagery, usually in tandem with a small number of words, to convey meaning. In contrast to the illustrated book, where pictures enhance, decorate, and amplify, in the picturebook the visual text will often carry much of the narrative responsibility.” A generalization to be sure, but point taken. Clearly, there is a difference between children’s books and other illustrated books in terms of the appropriateness of content and how that content is presented. But in how illustrated and written content fuse with design, the aim is the same.

In this sense, the book’s subtitle—“the art of visual storytelling”—really gets to the essence of the authors’ theories about picture books. And those theories apply to all illustrated books no matter the subject matter or intended reader. As they write, “The very best picturebooks become timeless mini art galleries for the home—a coming together of concept artwork, design and production that gives pleasure to, and stimulates the imagination of, both children and adults.”

From Children's Picturebooks

Another very good quotation is credited to Barbara Bader, writing in 1976: “A picture book is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historical document: and foremost an experience for a child.”

If you strike “for a child” and end this sentence at “experience,” I think it gets to the heart of what makes an illustrated book work. The stimuli of images and text entertain and impart knowledge, to both children and adults. Achieving the right balance between the two is crucial; when this is done well, the images and text become dependent on one another, and the act of reading the book becomes much more than running your eyes across lines of text. Children’s Picturebooks makes this point very clearly, though the lessons should not only be applied to children’s books.

Enchanted Lion’s goal of deepening the sense of story is something all illustrated book publishers should strive for, whether the story is fiction or nonfiction, a primer on sharing or a major monograph. Stories can be told in so many ways—and illustrated books, whether printed or digital, permit room to roam and encourage innovations that challenge conventions, something that is probably even more important in today’s multimedia world.

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For more on visual storytelling, listen to Kit Hinrichs’s audio presentation, “Using Storytelling in Design,” available at MyDesignShop.com.

3 thoughts on “The Value of Childish Things

  1. ELIZABETH

    There are more picture books than ever. Some are being digitized; not sure how that will work out (good for adult readers?). There is a tendancy to acquire the books one had when growing up, which I did with my daughter for sure. But I also tapped into new picture books, which to be honest, had to sell to me first (Maira Kallman’s books, many now out of print, come to mind). However, the books that undesigny friends and family gave to my kid generally were her faves. Sort of like how gaudy plastic toys always are the favorite over tasteful wooden toys.

  2. Sue Gutbezahl

    Would like to add Tomi Ungerer’s Crichtor. Whimsey, story, drawings,–a perfect fit. I am still intrigued and amused by the  O-shaped package. No longer have the book (one of my kids or grandkids does), but it was one of our favorites to be read to them over and over again. I (the adult reader) never got tired of it, and my kids certainly didn’t—unlike many other the classics and non-classics. 

  3. Paper Acrobat

    Picture books were so popular when I was a kid (I’m pretty old) but they seem to have gone out of favour in this digital age. So it’s good to see new illustrated children’s books for today’s more demanding children’s market.

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