Mairi Kidd argues that pictures enrich the experience of every reader.
Pictures in books are funny things. Certain genres are routinely illustrated, from diagrams in textbooks to war memoirs with obligatory signature of black-and-white photographs. Pictures can shift as many units of non-fiction as the words – just look at the yummy images in cookbooks for evidence.
But fiction is different. Until relatively recently, authors like Shakespeare and Dickens were published in handsome illustrated editions. Now illustration is rare in fiction for adults or older children, and there is a general consensus that books with pictures are the preserve of the very young. To paraphrase author/illustrator Sally Gardner, children’s ‘reward’ for increased reading ability is having the pictures taken away.
The Drawn to Reading campaign aims to challenge all that. We’re involved at Barrington Stoke because we are huge fans of illustration for readers of all ages. In part, this is simply because we love pictures. We’re visual people, as we believe most human beings are – just look at the way internet traffic is driven by visual content for evidence.
We also believe the old idiom that says that a picture can be worth a thousand words, and we see pictures as key to our storytelling. We use pictures to set tone, for example with stunning collographs of the rural setting of Anthony
McGowan’s Brock and Pike and forthcoming Rook (all by Staffan Gnosspelius). In our low reading-age fiction, pictures support the text and open up stories to new or unconfident readers. And in our picture books pictures interact with text to create new meaning, or carry the narrative themselves.
We know that emergent readers may find the words easier if they learn sequencing with pictures first, or if they can get to grips with an unfamiliar setting through visuals. Anyone can benefit from the latter support. Our graphic novels Alpha and The Pavee and the Buffer Girl are cases in point. Both are set in places that are probably unfamiliar to most readers, emergent or otherwise – the former French colonies in West and North Africa in the former and a Traveller halting site in rural Ireland in the latter. The fabulous visual treatments by Barroux and Emma Shoard anchor these in a reality many of us have never witnessed first-hand.
We also use pictures to challenge unconscious bias – for example, by increasing representation of minority groups. We would argue that pictures are especially good here because they show people as they are without making a big deal of it. Text often ‘others’ – describing only non-white characters’ appearance, say, or foregrounding the presence of a wheelchair by banging on about its user ‘wheeling’ about the place where able-bodied characters simply ‘come’ and ‘go’. We actively seek to widen representation in our pictures, as do many of our illustrators, and we’re especially proud that many of our recent picture books have featured characters from differing ethnic backgrounds.
Despite all this, there are those who would say that pictures are superfluous once an individual can read confidently, and those who would go further and say that there shouldn’t be pictures at all then, because pictures distract from the words, or interfere with the reader making meaning from text only, and that is the ‘best’ kind of reading.
These ideas are based around a very narrow definition of literacy and reading. No-one can deny that ability to access text is key to accessing chances in life. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that the point is the content, and not the graphemes. If we fetishise interaction with text, and dismiss pictures and audio as modes of access, we stigmatise those who struggle with the printed word and do a serious disservice to other forms of storytelling. After all, story was oral first and pictures pre-date writing by some margin.
The chances are that as a reader of Books for Keeps you are already a picture fan, but the views above are not uncommon. Perhaps adults secretly fear discussing pictures because they lack a vocabulary to do so. Perhaps they haven’t experienced the genius two-audience approach of picture book creators like Oliver Jeffers, or had the chance to hear an artist like Jon Klassen talk about his work. We hope that Drawn to Reading will help you help these people look again at illustration in books. Our own new picture book The Covers of My Book Are Too Far Apart looks at all sorts of reading ‘grumbles’ and prejudices including the debated place of pictures, and we hope too that this will help reassure anyone in any doubt that pictures enrich the experience of any reader.
Mairi Kidd is Managing Director of Barrington Stoke.