Towards a useful critical language about children’s books…
Held on 6 March in the Learning Centre at London’s Somerset House, the ‘Words About Pictures’ seminar and workshop was part of the education programme to accompany the exhibition at the Gilbert Collection, ‘Quentin Blake: Fifty Years of Illustration’. The idea for the seminar came out of the need expressed by BfK reviewers themselves, and also endorsed by Quentin Blake, for reviewers of illustrated children’s books to be better-equipped for their task. Ghislaine Kenyon explains.
‘Beautifully illustrated’ is the flat and summary little phrase that makes such regular appearance in reviews of illustrated books. It helped to prompt the setting up of a one-day seminar and workshop on how writing about the visual aspect of children’s books might be improved. The occasion of a retrospective exhibition of the work of one of the best (and most articulate) of illustrators, seemed too good an opportunity to miss: BfK, the Joint Education Department at Somerset House and the Quentin Blake Gallery of Illustration collaborated in this first attempt to provide a forum for such discussion. The aim was to present some key elements (without claiming to be exhaustive), by inviting illustrators, journalists and art editors to hold a conversation with reviewers, librarians, teachers and other interested professionals, with the exhibition as a kind of benevolent background beacon.
The illustrator’s task
The day began for its 30 or so participants in the lecture theatre of the Learning Centre with two 20-minute talks which attempted to put before the audience the kind of considerations that are present in the preparation of an illustrated book. In his talk (‘What an Illustrator Thinks About’) Quentin Blake explained that the illustrator of a children’s book does not simply go into some kind of innocent child mode. Part of the interest of the task is that the artist has to consider a number of things at the same time – the mood and atmosphere of a book elicited from close acquaintance with the text, and from that the kind of materials indicated to produce the appropriate effect; the appearance of the characters, their gestures and behaviour; the moments chosen for illustration and how they relate to the words. Also to be considered are questions about where the physical text goes; where images should fall on the page; what their relation is to reality; how they could direct the spectator’s eye; how the spectator could be encouraged to turn the page with particular expectations; and the appropriate scale and viewpoint of the illustrations; how the colour works and what is its function and what effect will the illustrations have on the audience for the book. He illuminated these points by reference to some of his own books, contrasting, for example, the cursory simplifications and lack of backgrounds of Zagazoo – a story which only exists, as he put it, on the page – with the importance of the richly-wooded surroundings of The Green Ship which provide the stage for a story which, importantly, could take place in a real world.
The role of the art director
Deirdre McDermott (Art Director at Walker Books) and Amelia Edwards (her predecessor) expanded on the points made by Quentin Blake as they explained how they set about putting together a picture book. They compared the graphic language and use of the page of artists such as Anita Jeram (Guess How Much I Love You) and Charlotte Voake (Ginger Finds a Home). Perhaps their most eloquent example was Owl Babies, illustrated with typography reversed out in white on largely black pages, by Patrick Benson – noting not only his techniques for producing effects of darkness, but the subtle drama in the positioning and stance of the owls and the pacing of the narrative; the grasp of narrative that makes what might at first appear to be a very simple story into a work that will repay frequent re-reading.
The purpose of these two talks was to put into the hands of potential reviewers a tally of some of the issues at stake, the relevant processes and procedures, ignorance of which may lead to superficial judgments and indiscriminately-bestowed praise which may in its turn actually encourage inferior illustration. (Additional vitamins were added, incidentally, in the form of some intensely relevant quotations from a letter* to the ‘workers in the field’ from critic Brian Alderson, who sadly was not able to be present on the day.) The third talk*, from reviewer Joanna Carey, could be seen as an object lesson in the skills of the reviewer.
The next stage of the day was for the participants to write some reviews. They divided into five groups, and each group had two books to write about. Every group had Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans. First published in 1939, the book has iconic status, and the aim was to think how to describe the illustrations effectively, how they work with the text and how they may have contributed to the book’s enduring popularity. The second book was different for each group; respectively illustrated by P J Lynch, Angela Barrett, Shirley Hughes, Neal Layton and Lauren Child, it is evident that they invited comment on both realism and informality.
The groups took on with surprising enthusiasm the challenge of reading and reviewing with a two-hour deadline that no journalist would have accepted, and this work continued until after lunch, when Emma Chichester Clark and Sara Fanelli explained the ways in which they each set about the illustration of a children’s book.
Emma emphasized the need for the illustrator beginning her career to find her own visual ‘voice’ which has to do with line and colour and tone; her initial voice was dark and rich-toned oil pastels. However, she realized that this medium was not the right one for her and over a period of time she developed a new style using crayons and watercolours and a lighter palette to be found in the ‘Blue Kangaroo’ books for example. Sara Fanelli has always been deeply involved in the book as a form. She has made books since childhood and engages with every aspect of an illustrated book. Front and back covers, endpapers and typography (including handwritten text) all become part of the creative vehicle that drives her ideas as she searches for different ways of using the form. In A Dog’s Life she uses paper flaps to make ears and legs; Dear Diary includes collage of ephemera such as labels and stationery, and in this book she employs different drawing styles including doodles. She also reminded her audience of the crucial role the publisher plays in helping an experimental illustrator such as herself to realise her ideas in print.
The talks led on to a plenary session where the reviews of the morning were presented and Quentin Blake chaired a discussion between the participants and a panel made up of the two artists, BfK editor Rosemary Stones and critic Julia Eccleshare. The reports themselves were encouraging, with many convincing analyses.
Space doesn’t allow us to reproduce all the texts but these extracts give a sense of how ‘review by committee’ actually led to good insights into technique, page design, pacing and many other of the elements that people agreed went into the making of a successful illustrated book.
On Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline:
‘Fifty years after her first appearance, Madeline is still in the bookshops. A strong 1950s aesthetic still somehow seems fresh, witty and elegant. Bemelmans’ view of France is presented through a kind of celebration of awkward draughtsmanship, a certainty in his slightly clumsy line. Each page is in the form of an individual print or tableau with its rhyming couplet. The combination of full- and two-colour plates is probably attributable to the technical/financial limitations of printing in the period rather than conscious reasons of visual pace. The two-colour pages carry the irreverent cheeky humour, while the colour plates with their evident Dufy/Matisse influences are particularly effective in painting the atmospheric Parisian backdrop of rainy streets and moonlit buildings. A combination of media that appears to include ink, watercolour, gouache and charcoal is an uneasy mix that shouldn’t work but somehow it does.’
People were also prepared to be critical: on Rover by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Neal Layton:
‘This is the story of an ordinary family doing ordinary things which it is easy for the 4-7 year old child to relate to, but we felt the illustration and design were somewhat bitty and rather too busy. The dog is not sufficiently emphasised and is sometimes hard to find. We thought the scale was not right in many cases and that there was almost too much colour with insufficient distinction and clarity… however we enjoyed the book’s subversive humour and it may be that the child reader would not have made any of our criticisms!’
Finally, Lauren Child’s I Am Too Absolutely Small for School:
‘… it’s not completely true to describe Lauren as an illustrator; she is a picture maker – the pages in her book are a symbolic fusion of design, illustration and text. Lauren employs scale, perspective drawing, collage and photography to convey the inner turmoil of a five-year-old girl who is refusing to go to school. This is direct emotional narrative and the lack of visual sequence from page to page contributes to Lola’s sense of unease. Lauren makes the reader look and search quite differently on each spread. By placing the type in circles and curving lines, she encourages the reader to use the book as an object. This also helps the reader believe the narrative; by using everyday photographic elements, the pens, the fridge door, the biscuits and combining them with her minimal, eloquent, naïve line, Lauren achieves a complete reality.’
Several of the authors of these texts were teachers; it’s perhaps appropriate to end this report with a thought about the transference of the critical skills acquired during this day to future generations of reviewers. If such ideas could inform the thousands of book reviews written daily in the nation’s classrooms, maybe there is a chance that the children’s book reviewers of the 2020s will never need to resort to that little phrase, ‘beautifully illustrated’.
Zagazoo and The Green Ship by Quentin Blake are published by Random.
Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney, illustrated by Anita Jeram, Ginger Finds a Home by Charlotte Voake, and Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson, are published by Walker Books.
Dear Diary by Sara Fanelli is published by Walker Books. A Dog’s Life is now out of print.
Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans is published by Scholastic.
Rover by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Neal Layton, is published by Bloomsbury.
I Am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child is published by Orchard.
Ghislaine Kenyon is Head of Learning, Joint Education Department, Somerset House, London
* Reprinted in this issue.