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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Musings of a lifelong reader, part two

Why do we have books without illustrations?

Only in the last few years has the concept of a “visual learner” become familiar to me. By all definitions, and pedagogical controversy aside, this describes the way I absorb knowledge. I wasn’t aware of a name or theory when I was learning to read, or actively engaged in school, but I always understand better if I can see a diagram or a map or a photo or an illustration. I often studied for tests an hour before answering the questions by looking at the pages in the textbook—during the test, I could recall the image of the page and locate the information in my mind. I understand ideas better if I can sketch them on a piece of paper.

Sweethearts of RhythmPicture books were the perfect medium for me. They still are. I learn quickly and remember more easily when ideas are illustrated in some fashion. With fiction, recalling the images brings the words to mind. Pink and Say (Patricia Polacco), Sweethearts of Rhythm (Marilyn Nelson, illus by Jerry Pinkney), Nasreen’s Secret School (Jeanette Winter) … it’s the illustrations that float into prominence in my brain, allowing me to savor the story at will.

When I was growing into a fully-fledged reader, I distinctly remember a feeling of horror when I discovered there were books without illustrations … they only had words! I recall thinking that I hadn’t seen an illustration yet, then riffling through every page of the book in disbelief. I was bereft when I realized that I had to be satisfied with words alone.

How was it possible to read a book that didn’t have illustrations? Who would want to?

Brown Fairy TalesIllustrated books were common at the beginning of the last century. Books were prized as an art form then. It wasn’t unusual to find a book with cloth boards (the cover) decorated with gilt. This copy of The Brown Fairy Book (Andew Lang), published by Longmans, Green & Co in 1904, is an example of a gilt cover. My own copy of English Fairy Tales (Joseph Jacobs), The Knickerbocker Press, 1906, has illustrations by John D. Batten. The images of Childe Rowland and the drowned sister of Binnorie … they are indelibly etched in my memory.

One hundred and thirty years ago, Howard Pyle gathered a group of artists at the Brandywine School. They illustrated some of the most memorable books of their day. Pyle’s own illustrations for Pepper and Salt, The Wonder Clock, Men of Iron, The Book of Pirates, and Otto of the Silver Hand were exciting treats scattered throughout the tale. The publisher knew this: they included a table of contents for the illustrations, making it easy to find them among the pages with words.

Illustrations are important to all manner of people. In fact, I hear a lot of adults refer to books by their illustrations. “You know, the Lois Lenski version of Strawberry Girl, that’s the one I remember.” “If they ever replaced Mary Shepard’s illustrations in the Mary Poppins’ books, I’d have to boycott the publisher.”

Who could imagine Edith Hamilton’s Mythology without Steele Savage’s magnificent drawings? His version of the Trojan horse springs to mind whenever someone utters the phrase. Or Stuart Little, The Little House on the Prairie books, and The Cricket in Times Square without the whimsical, wonderfully interpretive illustrations by Garth Williams?

He was jumping up and down

Garth Williams illustration

Why then must we have books without illustrations? I know the answer to this. It’s economics, pure and simple. Ursula Nordstrom wanted Garth Williams to create eight full-color paintings for each of the Little House books, but the cost was prohibitive. That’s why he worked in pen-and-ink and charcoal, creating black-and-white illustrations. (The Horn Book, March 1, 1993) Publishers look to make more money—and illustrations disappear from books. Not only that, but we lose the range of artwork that our wonderfully talented illustrators would create for a wide spectrum of books for all ages.

Today, we’re bemoaning the parents who are urging their children to skip the picture book “phase” and move ahead to chapter books. The sooner their children can read, apparently, the sooner they’ll be out there earning their own incomes as doctors, lawyers, and Internet entrepreneurs. How many of us have overheard parents say, “You don’t want to read [fill in the name of the picture book]. That’s a book for babies.” When did we make this switch to categorizing picture books for the pre-kindergarten crowd?

Even in our Chapter & Verse book clubs, we frequently hear that elementary school, middle school, and high school students would “never pick up this picture book, because those are for the little kids.” As long as we keep accepting this idea as the norm, we’ll miss out on the enrichment of picture books for all ages.

Blockhead: the Life of Fibonacci

A well-layered Everybody Book by Joseph D'Agnese, made whole by John O'Brien's illustrations

Let’s rename them, if we must. Let’s call them illustrated books. Remove the stigma. One of the librarians I know has a section in her school library called “Everybody Books.” She’s educating her students to understand that it’s acceptable for all ages to read and appreciate books with illustrations. As parents and teachers, we need to understand the importance of the visual layer of learning—in varying degrees, we all need those images to help our brains process information.

With the addition of digital books in the mix, it’s even more appropriate to have this discussion. Our abilities for, and reliance on, learning visually are increasing all the time. Let’s employ more illustrators to create the images we’ll carry with us throughout our lives.

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