The Victorian artist Walter Crane thought that children could learn from pictures long before they could read or write. His colourful, well-designed nursery books opened parents’ eyes to the educational value of picture book reading. Lesley Delaney, curator of a display of Walter Crane’s picture books at the V&A, explains his revolutionary approach to learning to read.
Walter Crane (1845-1915) was the most prolific and influential children’s book creator of his generation. His pioneering designs for nursery books helped to popularise the idea of visual literacy. Crane radically improved the standard of ‘toy books’ – cheap, mass-market colour picture books, featuring alphabets, nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and modern stories. He also created a novel series of musical rhymes and fables for babies, as well as a set of experimental books that show how reading, writing and arithmetic can be learned through imaginative play.
Crane believed that good art and design could stimulate interest in books and help children to learn to read from a very early age. He recognised that every feature of the book – including covers, end papers, titles, illustration, type, and page layout – can be used to encourage children’s enjoyment of reading.
This visual approach to reading is seen in one of his early toy books, Grammar in Rhyme (1868). Crane uses the text box like a blackboard, placing it within the illustrations of children at play to suggest the idea of learning as an enjoyable everyday activity. To help the child’s understanding, he creates a memorable rhyme that relates the parts of speech to the games and toys shown in the pictures.
‘Bright, frank colours’ and comic touches
Crane uses colour and pattern to attract children’s interest in reading. The exciting effect is shown in the vibrant illustrations for toy books such as Beauty and the Beast (1874), which display the influence of his work as a painter, designer and decorative artist. Crane drew inspiration from a wide range of influences, including Japanese art. This can be seen in the illustrations for This Little Pig Went to Market (1870), in which he uses the bold outlines and flat colours that were typical of Japanese prints. Crane’s designs also reflect his observations of young children. He noticed that they appear to see most things in profile and prefer ‘well-designed forms and bright frank colours’. Children are not concerned with three dimensions, he suggested; they could accept symbolic representations.
To encourage close observation of the pictures, Crane adds comic touches. For example, in This Little Pig he gives the hilarious cartoon character glasses and cloven boots; he places bows on both its curly tail and pigtail wig. Children can also spot the pig displayed on the mantelpiece in the picture on the facing page. The picture panels for Puss in Boots (1874) show Crane as an early exponent of the comic strip form. The design leads the child from one frame to the next in a sequence of detailed pictures that follows the cat’s actions, enabling even pre-readers to understand the story.
Crane introduces visual jokes to help the child’s understanding of reading conventions, such as turning the page. This can be seen in the playful illustration for ‘Hey diddle diddle!’ on the cover of The Baby’s Opera (1877). The three mice featured in the bottom panel appear to be running into the book. They reappear in the following pages engaging in various amusing antics, such as outwitting the cat. Crane wanted to excite children’s curiosity about what they would find on the next page. The square format of the baby books was inspired by designs for nursery tiles and provides a model for baby books even today.
The innovative fantasy series, called ‘The Romance of the Three Rs’ (1885-6), shows how early learning can be turned into imaginative games. The three titles – Little Queen Anne, about reading, Pothooks and Perseverance, about learning to write, and Slateandpencilvania, about counting – represent the first picture stories about the difficulties children face in early learning. The fluid illustrative style and use of heavy punning show similarities with the homemade books that Crane created for his own children.
Crane’s visual approach to learning attracted the interest of leading reading specialists. He collaborated with Professor Meiklejohn to produce The Golden Primer (1884-5) and also with Nellie Dale to create the ‘Walter Crane readers’ (1899). These popular reading schemes were the forerunners of the Ladybird ‘Key Words’ series and the ‘Oxford Reading Tree’.
© Lesley Delaney, UCL and the V&A
‘Walter Crane: Revolutionary picture books for the nursery’ runs from 8 November 2010 until 3 April 2011: Room 85, National Art Library Landing, V&A South Kensington, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL (020 7942 2000, www.vam.ac.uk).
Lesley Delaney, University College London and the National Art Library at the V&A, is supported by a Collaborative Doctoral Award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
Detail of portrait of Walter Crane by George Frederic Watts.