Brain Pickings

A Brief History of Children’s Picture Books and the Art of Visual Storytelling

By:

From cave paintings to Maurice Sendak, or what modern ebooks can learn from mid-century design icons.

Back in the fifteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci made the following remark about visual storytelling:

And you who wish to represent by words the form of man and all the aspects of his membrification, relinquish that idea. For the more minutely you describe the more you will confine the mind of the reader, and the more you will keep him from the knowledge of the thing described. And so it is necessary to draw and to describe.”

Finished artwork for Ajubel's Robinson Crusoe.

From very early on, we both intuit and learn the language of pictorial representation, and most modern adults, the picturebook was our first dictionary of this visual vocabulary. Yet the picturebook — defined by its narrative framework of sequential imagery and minimalist text to convey meaning or tell a story, and different from the illustrated book in which pictures play a secondary narrative part, enhancing and decorating the narrative — is a surprisingly nascent medium.

In Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, illustrator Martin Salisbury and children’s literature scholar Morag Styles trace the fascinating evolution of the picturebook as a storytelling medium and a cultural agent, and peer into the future to see where the medium might be going next, with case studies of seminal works, a survey of artistic techniques, and peeks inside the sketchbooks and creative process of prominent illustrators adding dimension to this thoughtful and visually engrossing journey.

Though pictorial storytelling dates back to the earliest cave wall paintings, the true picturebook harks back to a mere 130 years ago, when artist and illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886) first began to elevate the image into a storytelling vehicle rather than mere decoration for text. Maurice Sendak, widely regarded as the greatest author of visual literature (though he refuses to identify as a “children’s author”), once wrote of Caldecott’s “rhythmic syncopation” and its legacy:

Caldecott’s work heralds the beginning of the modern picture book. He devised an ingenious juxtaposition of picture and word, a counter point that never happened before. Words are left out — but the picture says it. Pictures are left out — but the words say it. In short, it is the invention of the picture book.”

Even early on, tensions between the creative vision and marketability of picturebooks captured the same friction between artist-storyteller and publisher that continues to plague children’s — if not all — publishing. Walter Crane (1845–1915), another Victorian-era picturebook innovator, famously grumbled about printer-publisher Edmund Evans’ approach to publishing:

“…but it was not without protest from the publishers who thought the raw, coarse colours and vulgar designs usually current appealed to a larger public, and therefore paid better…”

(Evans, per Crane’s remark, seemed to have taken on the role of a “circulation manager” of books, and with that came the same perception of compromised editorial integrity we’ve previously seen in the context of newspapers.)

Lewis Carroll's The Mouse's tale is an early example of text taking the visual form of that which it describes or alludes to.

But the picturebook didn’t fully blossom until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when new developments in printing technology, changing attitudes towards childhood, and a new class of exceptional artists catapulted it into a golden age. The first three decades of the twentieth century germinated such timeless classics as Curious George and the Babar stories. But as war consumed Europe, resources dwindled and the paper shortages of the post-war era placed new demands for keeping publishing costs low. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the austerity of the time, there was a profound longing for color as escapism, which reined in the neo-romantic movement.

Then, in the 1950s, a peculiar cultural shift began to take place — the line between artist and author started to blur, and a crop of famous graphic designers set out to write and illustrate picturebooks as a way of exploring visual thinking. (Just this week, one of the most celebrated such gems, the only children’s book by the great Saul Bass, resurfaced to everyone’s delight.) Among the highlights of this new frontier was a series of children’s picturebooks by legendary graphic designer — and, paradoxically, notorious curmudgeonPaul Rand.

He and his then-wife, Ann, produced Sparkle and Spin (1957), Little 1 (1962), and Listen! Listen! (1970), all an exercise in demonstrating “a playful but sophisticated understanding of the relationship between words and pictures, shapes, sounds, and thoughts.” (It was in the same period that Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco introduced young readers to semiotics, the study of signs and symbols.)

André François's Crocodile Tears (Universe Books NY, 1956) uses an extreme landscape format to reflect and emphasize the subject matter. It was François's first picturebook as author-artist.

In Um Dia Na Praia flat color without line is used with careful attention to the placement of every element in order to develop a wordless text. The very simple shapes need to carry the entire weight of a subtle pictorial narrative.

But many of these pioneering picturebook storytellers, just like Sendak does to this day, had an aversion to identifying as “children’s book” authors. Salisbury and Styles write:

Of course, many of the best picturebook artists would not describe themselves exclusively as such. André François was born in Hungary, in an area that became part of Romania after World War I. But it was as a French citizen that he spent his working life as a graphic artist, spanning visual satire, advertising and poster design, theater set design, sculpture, and book illustration. François’s work exhibited a childlike awkwardness that belied a highly sophisticated, biting eye.”

(Sound familiar?)

In the 1960s, as a generation of British artists emerged from art school, picturebooks entered a new era of vibrant paint and color, with many artists combining book illustration and painting to make a living. (Including, as we’ve seen, Andy Warhol.) It was in that era that some of the most influential picturebooks were born, including Maurice Sendak’s most beloved work and Miroslav Šašek’s timeless This Is… series.

Miroslav Sasek's 'This is…' series introduces children to countries and cities around the world. What distinguished them from many such books was the artist's eye for the anecdotal detail of different cultures. This is London was published by MacMillan in 1959.

(Don’t miss Šašek’s lesser-known 1961 gem, Stone Is Not Cold, in which he brings to life famous sculptures from London, Rome and the Vatican City in irreverent vignettes from everyday life.)

Maurice Sendak may be the greatest illustrator for children of all time and was certainly one of the earliest to make an impact on educators and scholars, as well as on children, parents, and the artistic community. Where The Wild Things Are (Harper & Row, 1963) was not Sendak’s first picturebook, but it was the first one to make a huge impression on children and adults alike. Interestingly, it caused a furor when it was published, with many critics anxious that it would be too terrifying for children.”

Vladimir Radunksy's swirling vortex of type and image perfectly complements Chris Raschka's rap text in Hip Hop Dog.

(You might recall Vladimir Radunsky, above, from his fantastic illustrations for Mark Twain’s Advice for Little Girls.)

But the book’s most fascinating feat is its discussion of the socially constructed and increasingly fluid criteria for what is suitable for children, with complex themes like violence, sex, death and grief, and human rights violations turning picturebooks into a powerful crossover storytelling medium for all ages. Even some of the most beloved storytelling of all time, like The Brothers Grimm fairy tales and Arabian Nights, was aimed at children but often featured dark, even savage, themes, and picturebooks have a documented history of radical politics.

The bleak, uncompromising visual and verbal text of Wolf Erlbruch's Duck, Death and the Tulip.

No Hay Tiempo Para Jugar / No Time to Play (text Sandra Arenal, illustrations Mariana Chiesa; Media Vaca, 2004). Produced in typical Media Vaca hardback format, the book gives voice to the child laborers of Mexico in words and pictures

Paradoxically — and disappointingly to those of us who celebrate the cross-pollination of genres, ideas, and narratives — traditional booksellers and the marketing departments of major publishers have remained oddly stringent about how picturebooks are labeled and sold, confining them strictly to children’s literature. (For an example of just how short that sells them, see Blexbolex’s fantastic, layered, remarkably thoughtful People, as delightful to kids as it is thought-provoking to adults — yet it remains shelved in the children’s section at the Big Corporate Bookstore.)

Color woodcuts by Isabelle Vandenabeele from Geert De Kockere's Vorspel Van Eeen Gebroken Liefde (De Eeenhoom, 2007)

The CJ Picture Book Festival in South Korea seems to get this crossover evolution, stating in its manifesto:

Picture books, in the present era, enjoy a status as a culture form to be enjoyed by people of all ages. It is a precious and versatile art that has already left the confines of paper behind, shattering the boundaries of its own genre and fusing with various other forms of art and imagery.”

The unique developmental capacities of children, Salisbury and Styles point out, also shape the stylistic suitability of visual texts, presenting their own set of paradoxes and challenges:

Many publishers and commentators express views about the suitability or otherwise of artworks for children, yet there is no definitive research that can tell us what kind of imagery is most appealing or communicative to the young eye. The perceived wisdom is that bright, primary colors are most effective for the very young. The difficulty is that children of traditional picturebook age tend not to have the language skills to express in words what they are receiving from an image. They can also be suggestible and prone to saying what they imagine adults want to hear. So, even with the best designed research projects, the world that children are experiencing will inevitably remain something of a mystery to us.”

In her Chain of Happiness illustration, Marta Altes screen-prints with three colors.

So where is this ever-evolving medium headed? Salisbury and Styles cite gaming developer turned children’s book illustrator Jon Skuse, who articulates both the tragedy and infinite potential of today’s children’s ebooks beautifully:

The eBook isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about an ‘exploration,’ and experience, rather like a pop-up book. What many publishers are doing wrong at the moment is just copying printed picturebooks on to this format, which does both media a disservice. It’s just like looking at a PDF. Children will simply flick through. A printed picturebook is a particular kind of physical experience that can be savored and revisited. The eBook needs to exploit its own particular characteristics and strengths to evolve as similarly special but distinct experience.”

The authors conclude with a metaphor for the future of picturebooks borrowed from Lane Smith’s fantastic It’s a Book:

Perhaps the last word (or, rather, the last word and picture) should go to that modern master of the idiom, Lane Smith. In his new picturebook, It’s a Book (Roaring Book Press, 2010), Smith’s ape tries to explain to Jackass that the thing he is holding is called a book. Among the stream of questions asked by Jackass are: ‘How do you scroll down?’, ‘Does it need a password?’, ‘Can you tweet?’ and ‘Can you make the characters fight?’. When Jackass eventually gets the hang of this strange object, ape is forced to enquire ‘Are you going to give my book back?’. ‘No,’ replies Jackass.”

As fascinating and rich as Children’s Picturebooks is, it suffers one conspicuous contradiction — with its concern with the format and future of the book, and its multitude of references to other books and historical materials, a kind of baked-in framework for truly networked knowledge, it would have, and should have, easily lent itself to the digital medium, where each of the dozens of books mentioned would be linked and explorable in rich media. Still, it remains a rigorously researched and compellingly curated survey of a tremendously important storytelling medium, one that equips young minds with a fundamental understanding not only of the world but also of its visual language.

Captioned images courtesy of Lawrence King Publishers

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

The Science of Why the Past is Different from the Future, Animated

By:

Measuring the universe’s disorder in order to understand the arrow of time.

I remain fascinated by time — its science, its visual representation, its subjective perception, its philosophical dimension. This wonderful short video from Minute Physics, based on Sean Carroll’s From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, explores one of the most mind-bending questions about time: what makes the past different from the future?

Every difference between the past and the future can ultimately be traced to the fact that the entropy was lower in the past and is growing — that’s the second law of thermodynamics: the universe was orderly, and is becoming more disorderly.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Systematic Wonder: A Definition of Science That Accounts for Whimsy

By:

On “the sheer love of allowing the mental engine to spin free.”

We march through the world armed with intuition and rationality to conquer the unknown, the two in near-constant friction in a culture that frames them as opposing forces. We turn to science and the scientific method as the ultimate bastion of rationality in our quest for Truth. But science isn’t merely reason, science is culture. It’s a poetic and practical sensemaking mechanism for the universe and our place in it, the totality of whose machinery is greater than the sum of its logical parts. In this poignant short excerpt from A General Theory of Love, one of the 5 essential books on the psychology of love, psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon eloquently capture that elusive, often intentionally dismissed, but wildly important aspect of science that embraces intuition and imagination:

Science is an inherent contradiction — systematic wonder — applied to the natural world. In its mundane form, the methodical instinct prevails and the result, an orderly procession of papers, advances the perimeter of knowledge, step by laborious step. Great scientific minds partake of that daily discipline and can also suspend it, yielding to the sheer love of allowing the mental engine to spin free. And then Einstein imagines himself riding a light beam, Kekule formulates the structure of benzene in a dream, and Fleming’s eye travels past the annoying mold on his glassware to the clear ring surrounding it — a lucid halo in a dish otherwise opaque with bacteria — and penicillin is born. Who knows how many scientific revolutions have been missed because their potential inaugurators disregarded the whimsical, the incidental, the inconvenient inside the laboratory?”

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Catalog of Humanity

By:

How an early-twentieth-century French banker shaped your favorite Instagram filters.

In 1909, millionaire French banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn decided to enlist the era’s burgeoning photographic technology in a mission far greater than aesthetic fetishism, and set out to use the new autochrome — the world’s first true color photographic process, invented by the Lumière brothers in 1903 and marketed in 1907 — to produce a color photographic record of human life on Earth as a way of promoting peace and fostering cross-cultural understanding. For Kahn, photography was a way of cataloging the human “tribes” of the world and constructing a vibrant, colorful quilt of our shared humanity.

Over the next two decades, until he was ruined by The Great Depression, Kahn dispatched a crew of photographers to more than 50 countries around the world, shooting over 100 hours of film footage and 72,000 images in what became the most important and influential collection of early color photographs of all time. Yet, for decades, the collection — which spanned everything from religious rituals to cultural customs to watershed political events — remained virtually unknown, until it was rediscovered in the 1980s.

In The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Archives of the Planet, BBC tells the story of Kahn’s ambitious project and its monumental legacy, exploring how his collection and vision came to shape everything from the visual vocabulary of photojournalism to your favorite Instagram filters.

Marne, France

Paris, France

Finistère, France

Norway

Sweden

Greece

Macedonia

Switzerland

Turkey

Serbia

Greece

Montenegro

India

India

India

Mongolia

Mongolia

India

Vietnam

Syria

Djibouti

Republic of Benin (formerly Dahomey)

Vietnam

This excerpt from the BBC program on Kahn, on which The Dawn of the Color Photograph is based, takes a fascinating look at how Kahn’s photographs helped frame the Balkans — my homeland — as the layered, multifaceted set of cultures they were, rather than the lump-sum caricature the world had seen them as after the fall of the Ottoman Empire:

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.