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What Makes a Great Picture Book Tick?

By: Jude Stewart | October 22, 2018

Reverse-Engineering Visual Literacy with NYRB

Why aren’t graphic designers more gaga for picture books – particularly in this golden era of inventive kid-lit? What can picture books – the building blocks of actual literacy – teach us about visual storytelling across many media? I’ve been fixated on these questions for a while and interviewing picture book experts to learn more. (See my Q&A with Argentinian author-illustrator Isol, a review of Tomi Ungerer’s rediscovered children’s treasury, and this two-part series on ideas designers can steal from children’s books.)

The Magic Pudding, a NYRB Kids reissue.

The New York Review of Books came onto my radar recently as another pocket of experimentation in kid-lit. The NYRB Children’s Collection began in 2003 as a series of rediscovered hardcover children’s titles, unified visually by designer Louise Fili and recognizable by their red spines. While the Children’s Collection’s premise grew shaggier over time – encompassing translations and original titles – another imprint, NYRB Kids, emerged to offer paperback children’s books with a design-forward feel that didn’t fit into the Children’s Collection.

Both imprints are smashing: loose yet thoughtfully designed, enjoyable off-beat, both NYRB imprints convey deep respect for children as readers and visual thinkers. Why should children be shielded from unconventional narrative styles, from ambiguous imagery, when they’re all too ready to plunge into fully imagination-soaked books?

The Fire Horse, a Soviet-era reissue from NYRB.

Interior illustration from d’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths by NYRB

Picture Book Experts Speak

To reverse-engineer what makes a great picture book tick, I spoke with NYRB editors Edwin Frank and Susan Barba. I met Frank in his New York office – a cubicle comically overstuffed with teetering stacks of books – and talked with Barba, who works in Boston, by phone.

Frank founded the Children’s Collection as an outgrowth of the NYRB Classics series for adults. “One of the first books we did in Classics was Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, about a witch. I owned a used copy, and on the flyleaf there was a ballpoint-pen drawing of a witch, clearly done by somebody who was much younger. And underneath was written, ‘This book is owned passionately by so and so,’ he laughs. “That’s when I thought that Classics, which was designed to be eclectic, should also have room for certain kinds of children’s literature.” Publishing’s marketing structure pushed them to siphon the children’s titles into their own imprint. Frank set out to reissue popular books that had fallen out of print recently enough to recapture fans – a clever strategy in that it revived many steady sellers.

Thirteen by Remy Charlip and Jerry Joyner.

Thirteen by Remy Charlip and Jerry Joyner.

Once such title is Thirteen by Remy Charlip and Jerry Joyner, published in 1975 and still a cult-hit. A non-linear read, each spread contains a still from thirteen parallel stories. In the Sinking Ship, a decrepit boat slowly sinks. To its left, a watercolor image is labeled “Tree becoming lobster”. Flip the page, and the tree morphs into an angel.

To Barba, Thirteen is “all about transformation. It transforms the idea of what a book can be, because there are so many different ways to read it. Each tableau tells a different story that you can read all at once and spend ten minutes on each page, or you can read the book thirteen times.” She points out a jacket quote from dancer and choreographer John Heginbotham, “He loved that, in Thirteen, a single idea could be expressed in multiple vocabularies. That idea is present in all the best picture books,” she continues. “You have the design hand-in-hand with the text, the illustrations, and presumably you also have this element of voice when the book is read out loud. There are so many levels of perception and absorption going on.”

The King of Nothing by Guridi

Kid-Worthy Elements of Design

Design, text, illustration, sound – and tactility, not to mention white space. Picture books accept that books are also touchable objects, that empty space can be eloquent. Another NYRB title, The King of Nothing by Spanish author-illustrator Guridi, takes white space seriously as a book topic. The ruler presides over a kingdom of nothing, a self-constructed fantasy threatened only by the encroachment of Something. Frank points out a spread in which the king floats alone on a transparent-white page, the dotted lines of his kingdom visible behind. “This happened by accident,” he says. “Somehow the king didn’t get printed on that page,” necessitating an insert later. “But it’s one of those happy accidents. When I saw it, I thought it’s brilliant that he exists in this strange, misty nothingness.”

That book also attuned Frank to how page-turns pace narrative time. In laying out Saul Endor’s translated text, Frank realized, “Well, of course. The sentences have to be broken up with respect to the images, as well as the rhythm of the sentences. In that way, typography of a picture book is not unlike setting a poem.” He flips to another spread, where the text reads: “In his dreams, terrifying somethings were transformed into marvelous nothings with the stroke of a sword” – cleaved precisely in two across the pages.

The King of Nothing’s accidental transparency.

Frank describes picture book reading as parallel activities, of word and image in tension. While the text is read aloud in a soothingly repetitive drone, illustrations provide scope for roaming thoughts, divergent narratives even. I already own The Two Cars by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire and remarked to Frank that I found the moral refreshingly old-fashioned. In it two cars race, one fast and flashy, the other older and steadier. After vicissitudes, the older car wins: the fruits of taking your time.

Frank temporizes: “I had that book as a child, but the moral didn’t mean much to me. I liked how they race at night, and the dark seemed sort of palpable and mysterious.” With books children have read over and over, “you know exactly what happens on a given page,” he explains. The words are so familiar, they vanish into backdrop. “So it’s the pictures where your eyes can wander and draw out different implications that weren’t intended, or your parents may not have seen. You dream over the pictures.”

Ounce Dice Trice by Alistair Reid, Drawings by Ben Shan

Ounce Dice Trice by Alistair Reid, Drawings by Ben Shan

Kids not only demand repetition of their favorite books; repetition is a core feature of the genre. Much like designers field commissions for the same projects – whether it’s logos, websites, business cards – kids’ libraries always have room for another ABC, color or counting book. Frank flips to Ounce, Dice Trice, a counting book by poet Alistair Reid. “It’s all about the texture and feel of words, making up words for different activities or sounds, archaic words,” Frank says. The book starts with a skewered counting-list – ounce, dice, trice – and pinballs off in zany digressions in that vein. Supposing, also by Reid, is a similarly experimental narrative: you can imagine the book arising from a what-if game with a delighted child, pushing for wilder and wilder theoreticals.

Supposing by Alistair Reid, illustrated by Bob Gill

Supposing by Alistair Reid, illustrated by Bob Gill

Slow Down and Enjoy

Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of picture books – a feature creatives will appreciate – is how the genre can knit fragmentary ideas into a cohesive world. It is as if you’re witnessing creativity happening live. The Milk of Dreams is such a book: by author-illustrator Leonora Carrington, this book originated from her artist’s notebook, brown-paper scraps on which Carrington jotted nonsense drawings for her children’s amusement. This loose collection was rediscovered and bound into a book. The disconnected tales now read like strange, funny poetry: beautiful, weird and fleeting, they also encourage you to slow down and marvel.

The Milk of Dreams by Leonora Carrington

The Milk of Dreams by Leonora Carrington

Herself a poet, Barba argued for the ambiguous cover image of The Tiger Prince by Chen Jiang Hong (translated from French by Alyson Waters). “Some people in the office were taken aback,” she recalls. “But I felt strongly it was an arresting picture. The book is all about overcoming fear, and also this kinship between humans and animals. The fact that the boy feels safe inside the lion’s mouth, that’s not how you read the cover initially. The book itself teaches you how to read the cover [differently].” An adult reader knows the lion probably won’t eat the boy in a picture book – but nevertheless wonders how he arrives at such intimacy. A child may entertain more alarming prospects, but that spark of fear renders the picture numinous. The book’s entire narrative is packed inside this picture.

The Tiger Prince by Chen Jiang Hong

Paying Attention

Which brings us back to the big question: What is visual literacy, anyhow? For Frank, visual literacy simply means reading pictures as carefully as one reads words. “Obviously, for children the appeal of picture books is that they don’t require literacy,” he remarks. As an adult reader often revisiting his childhood favorites, Frank is often struck by “how simple and unembellished the prose is. Reading them is not unlike the experience of a coloring book. Your mind is always coloring in these rather open sentences…In adult books you’re conscious of the work shaping the language. But in children’s books that doesn’t get in the way of imagining yourself into the story.”

Barba defines visual literacy more simply still: “It’s paying attention, I think. Paying attention to what’s there on the page and really seeing it, rather than having some preconceived notion that obscures what’s actually there. Visual literacy may be learning how to see more clearly.”

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