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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