In the third of a new mini-series on visual literacy for Books for Keeps, Piet Grobler discusses visual codes and reading symbols in picture book illustration.
Reading a picture book is a detective game of sorts. The factors influencing the ‘meaning’ of a picture book are not always all that obvious to everyone or always visible on the surface where the words and pictures meet. In the first two articles in this series on visual literacy, the importance of colour, medium, design, composition, repetition, rhythm and proportion as potential creators of mood or a sense of place and time have been discussed. All of those may potentially add layers of meaning to a picture book.
But there is more that may influence both the illustrator and the reader and hence the ‘meaning(s)’ that could be attached to a picture book. A child from a private school in London who owns fifty picture books of his own and frequents art museums and a child from the outback of the South African Bushveld who only sees text books in her school, one could argue, may read the same picture book, yet gets different meanings or ‘messages’ from it, due to their different levels of visual literacy.
Likewise, illustrators may tell the same story very differently, depending on their own background, preferences and understanding or level of interest in the origins of the tale they are rewriting in pictures. Just think about the very different versions of Red Riding Hood that have been created by Susanne Janssen, Lisbeth Zwerger and David Roberts. All of these versions of the story assume that the reader will share or understand its visual code or visual language.
Janssen, also a painter and often working in very large formats combining collage with her painting, seems to draw from the dark and even animalistic origins of the tale. Distorted perspective and a combination of collage and painting reminds of expressionist images with an undertone of angst and tension.
Zwerger’s work is executed in her lyrical (though subdued) line-work, like that of a latter day Arthur Rackham, together with faultlessly executed watercolour that seems to approach the tale from a more romantic or a poetic angle.
David Roberts together with author Lynne Roberts, have rewritten the tale (with a boy as little Red and a period setting in 18th century England) in lighthearted and comical tone as they have done with several other well-known fairy tales. The intention was to send up and to amuse with a nod to caricature and at times even the comical grotesque.
The visual literate person will realize when paging through these three books (even without reading the words, which will undoubtedly all have a different approach to the story too) that the same narrative was handled in such different ways that their meanings or intentions may very well be very different too.
Visual literacy also means that one is able to read signs and symbols within the given context in order to appreciate the artwork, be it a picture book, comic or painting. A swastika relief in an ancient Hindu temple, indicated good fortune and well-being, but anyone who is aware of the holocaust, and the swastika as the Nazis appropriated and used it, will never be able to look at the swastika in a Hindu temple without bringing that terrible association to the reading of the image. When Art Spiegelman created the comic book Maus, he could assume that his readers would be visually literate and able to associate the swastika-like symbol on the cover of the comic with the Nazi logo, making it possible for them to understand that the comic is an allegory of a holocaust story. In addition, he created cats to represent the Nazis and mice to represent Jews, knowing that the association between predators and killers and prey and the persecuted would be evident.
While a well-known symbol like a swastika is easy to grasp and interpret, some ‘codes’ or ‘signs’ operate more subtly and often ties in with an illustrator’s own iconography. When Wolf Erlbruch portrays death, he creates a character: a skeleton wearing clothes. In Duck, Death, and the Tulip, Death comes to visit, befriend and eventually take the duck. Death is a smallish character, dressed in the frock of a young girl. Erlbruch’s character convinces as someone that is a bit macabre but at the same time sensitive and endearing. In The Big Question, Death, charmed by a bumblebee, is yet again a skeleton, this time dressed in a clown’s suit. A skeleton, normally used to depict a dead human being, has become Erlbruch’s personification of the grim reaper. By introducing gentle human attributes, his depiction of death is actually more convincing and closer to home (and thereby more ominous and chilling) than a generic evil-looking cloaked man would have been.
The work of Shaun Tan weaves his personal iconography – slightly surreal worlds that seem at the same time futuristic and retrospective – into rich narratives that never merely communicate on the surface. The subject matter as well as his meticulous and calculated illustrations make the informed reader aware of political (in the broadest sense of the word) commentary – be it Post-Colonial, Post-Industrial or raising an awareness of ‘The Other’. In The Lost Thing he depicts the main character as a geek-ish man with a nostalgic passion for collecting bottle caps who helps a lost thing to find a safe place in a hostile world. The thing is a creature that looks like something between an old boiler and an alien animal. The form of the narrative is a hybrid between a picture book and comic with the frames placed on pages of old technical handbooks. There is no plant in sight and the humans in the book seem like endless replicas of a tired and redundant prototype. If the reader considers this information, she cannot but ‘read’ a deep criticism of an industrialized society’s tendency to dehumanize, alienate and exclude. The Arrival, yet again a hybrid form – this time a silent narrative – also raises awareness of those who have arrived from elsewhere to find themselves lost in an alien and hostile environment. Even from the endpapers does it become clear that we have here a universal tale: rows and rows of small portraits reminding us of old ID or passport photographs of a large variety of ethnicities. This reference to identity and categorization sets the scene for a powerful and moving story. Tan’s earlier book with John Marsden, The Rabbits, confronts European, especially British, readers with their colonial history. Though neither Australia nor England is named per se, the sense of place created by Tan’s painting and the semiotic clues like a Union Jack-like flag; tea cups; rabbits and uniforms, to name but a few examples, leaves no doubt about the historical reference that underpins this picture book.
Whether we point out to young readers what the significance of colour and shape can be in the understanding of a picture book or whether us, older picture book aficionados set out to unravel a complex picture book, visual literacy is key. As much as one learns to read and gradually grows into an avid and intelligent reader, one can also learn to read a picture.
Piet Grobler is an award-winning picture book illustrator; joint course leader in Illustration at the University of Worcester and co-founder of the International Centre for the Picture Book in Society.
Little Red: The Exciting Story of a Boy, a Wolf and a Keg of Fizzy Beer, Lynn Roberts illus David Roberts, Pavilion Children’s Books, 978-1843650966, O/P
Little Red Cap, Lisbeth Zwerger, North South Books, O/P
Maus, Art Spiegelman, Penguin, 978-0734411365, £16.99 pbk
Duck, Death, and the Tulip, Wolf Erlbruch, Gecko Press, 978-1877467172, £6.99 pbk
The Big Question, Wolf Erlbruch, Europa Editions, 978-1933372037, O/P
The Lost Thing, Shaun Tan, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-0734411389, £9.99 pbk
The Arrival, Shaun Tan, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-0734415868, £10.99 pbk
The Rabbits, John Marsden, illus Shaun Tan, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-0734411365, £7.99