Virginia Lowe finds that a familiarity with picture books leads to children recognising different artistic styles.
Young children’s preferences for artistic styles has been researched quite extensively, but the majority of studies have focused on their reactions to a single painting, or groups of three or four, never to picture books. Young children sort pictures as similar by subject not by style, though exposure to many paintings by the same artist could be training in recognising their style. This is exactly what exposure to picture books offers. The average book contains at least fifteen illustrations by the same artist, and this must influence children’s ability to recognise style, especially when they are exposed to several books by the same illustrator. Cognitive psychologists do not expect children to recognise style until about seven. ‘Trained’ on picture books, they began commenting on style much younger.
In our house books were usually referred to by their titles. However we referred to some books generically by author/illustrator names. For instance, on rushed evenings we only had time for ‘a quick Dick Bruna’ and the children also used this term for the series of square brightly-coloured little books shelved together. The term was first used by the children at 2y11m (Rebecca, two years eleven months) and 3y3m (Nicholas).
One night Rebecca (3y9m) and her father John went to her bedroom to select books for the evening reading:
J: Time for a quick Dick Bruna.
R: You’re Dick Bruna!
J: ‘What does that make you? Miss Bruna? Or Rebecca Bruna?
R: ‘No, I’m a girl. I’m going to put you on the shelf.’
Another generic term was ‘Beatrix Potters’, because her books were also identifiable by their uniform appearance and were shelved together. When she was asked what book she wanted, Rebecca, (2y6m), replied, ‘I want two Be-ix Potters’. Nick, (3y3m) remarked, ‘More Potter books’ pointing to a pile of them on the floor. When Rebecca (3y10m) was trying to get me to remember a library book borrowed ‘a long time ago’, she described it as ‘about a cat catching a mouse in a bag’ and more details. Eventually I asked her about the colour of the cover. She replied ‘It had a white cover. It was a Beatrix Potter!’ Finally I recognised it as The Story of Miss Moppet. It had not occurred to me to ask her to name the author, as I would have done with an adult.
The first author name identified by Nick was to Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, rather than to an identically bound series. At 2y5m he would ask for ‘Dat big Scarry book’, but by 2y11m, he had extended this to others by the illustrator: Unlike the Bruna and Potter series, the Scarrys Ralph knew were not uniform in size and shape, and were recognisable as a set only by their drawing style and because we included ‘Richard Scarry’ in the author statement each time.
When Nick was 3y4m, Rebecca brought home a sheet of busy-work from school with Scarry figures along the top – photocopied line sketches in black and white. Although this was quite out of context, Nick recognised them at once: ‘That’s Scarry! Lucy [his friend] has got that in a book’. By now the term was clearly being applied not just to the books, but to a drawing style, although it was still a perhaps a generic term for a kind of picture rather than the person who created them.
Rebecca at 2y9m provided the youngest unambiguous case of identifying character by style. Looking through Veronica’s Smile by Roger Duvoisin, for the first time, she remarked on the endpapers: ‘Janet read me a book about Jim one day’. (Janet was a babysitter who had read her the book Round the Corner by Jean Showalter and Roger Duvoisin once, three months before.) Duvoisin illustrated both books, and the boy in Veronica does resemble Jim. From age 2y10m onwards, Rebecca always recognised Shirley Hughes’ pictures saying that they looked like Lucy in Lucy and Tom’s Day. Other books in which characters were recognised as similar were illustrated by Brian Wildsmith, Clare Newberry, and Margaret Graham.
In all of these cases the other book was not visible. Commonly the response was a spontaneous comparison on the child’s part, though occasionally we drew their attention to similarities. The children soon mimicked this prompting:
N (4y3m): What does that remind you of?’
J: ‘I don’t know’.
N: ‘The grandfather who pulled up the turnip!’
comparing Oxenbury’s illustrations in The Hunting of the Snark with hers in The Great
Big Enormous Turnip. He had not seen the latter for five months.
But it was not only characters they recognised. The children picked up other clues to the artist’s style
N: These have got the same noses (two books by Loup in contrast to one by Mordillo at 4y2m).
R: I know who this is by. It’s the Millions of Cats person, because it’s got the same clouds (Three Gay Tales from Grimm at 4y11m both by Wanda Gag)
Dr Virginia Lowe lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is a literature adjunct associate at Monash University. She is the proprietor of Create a Kids’ Book assessment agency. Her book Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two Children Tell (Routledge 2007) is based on the records of reading to her children. Lines Between John and Virginia Lowe a poetry chapbook has just been published.
Children’s books mentioned:
The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Carol, illus Helen Oxenbury
Veronica’s Smile, Roger Duvoisin
Millions of Cats, Wanda Gag
Three Gay Tales from Grimm, Wanda Gag
Lucy and Tom’s Day, Shirley Hughes,
The Architect, Jean-Jaques Loup
Patatrac, Jean-Jaques Loup
Crazy Cowboy, Guillermo Mordillo,
The Story of Miss Moppet, Beatrix Potter
Best Word Book Ever, Richard Scarry
Round the Corner, Jean Showalter, illus Roger Duvoisin
The Great Big Enormous Turnip, Alexei Tolstoy, illus Helen Oxenbury