Challenges in Developing Countries for Picture Book Authors & Illustrators

by Marjorie van Heerden
A PowerPoint Presentation at AFCC Conference in Singapore May 2012

Let me start with a personal experience:  I remember when I was about four years old my mother gave me a book called Ferdinand the Bull.
More than half-a-century later I realise what a profound impact that little book had on me – Not only did it trigger in my young mind a fascination with the interaction between words and pictures, but I believe that Ferdinand played a role in me becoming the peace-loving adult I am today.
The book is about a little bull - he lived in Spain – and he loved smelling the flowers. He did not like to fight. Years later I learnt that Ferdinand the Bull was one of the earliest anti-war picture books ever published, if not the very first. It was first published in 1937 and is still in print today! 1937 was, of course, right in the middle of the Spanish Civil War. But, when I was four years old I could not be bothered with boring issues like civil wars. I remember pouring over that wonderful book and loving lines like:

“His mother saw that he was not lonely, and because she was an understand­ing mother; even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.”

I remember some of the pictures showed far away scenes with big, empty, white areas on the rest of the page. Other pictures showed close-up figures completely filling the page. And I wanted to draw pictures like that.
Ferdinand loved to smell the flowers – like the American flower children of the sixties did. In those days my husband and I were also flower children, but we did not protest against some faraway war in Southeast Asia we had read about; we protested against an unbelievably scary thing right there in our own land, a thing called apartheid...
The sixties became the seventies and my head was buzzing with thoughts; anti-apartheid thoughts, anti-war thoughts, anti sexism thoughts…  I was a painter and sculptor and I tried to express my feelings through my work.

And then, in 1977, something happened that changed the course of my life as a human being, but also as an artist, in so many ways. I became a mother. Our daughter was born in 1977 and our son in 1980.
 Becoming a mother brought my focus back to children’s books.  I started illustrating and then writing my own picture books. I started collecting and studying literally thousands of illustrated children’s books. And I realised and became fascinated with what a powerful genre it was.
I studied how the young mind develops. And I learnt how high-quality picture books were much more than entertainment; how a single picture book can play a role in shaping a child’s mind; how it could even contribute to that child becoming a compassionate, caring adult.
And I dreamed of creating that one really beautiful picture book...

But the reality is that to be a children’s book writer and illustrator in Africa you can never forget how desperate the needs of Africa’s children are.
So I had to modify my dream. I now dreamed of creating picture books that might help our kids break out of their vicious cycle of poor education and poverty, give them self-esteem and stimulate their creativity and initiative. I really wanted to create books that could do for them what Ferdinand did for me all those years earlier.
The reality in the developing countries that I know, is that there are only a very small number of children who grow up with books, who have mothers and fathers who have the time to read to them or who have the ability to read to them... The reality is that there are only a very small number of children whose situation is suitable for developing a love for reading or even whose parents can afford to buy them books.
The reality is that the unemployment figures are high and the literacy rate is low and education is inadequate.  And due to current world economics it does not look as if this will improve in the near future.
So what can be done? How can that very young child, who will be very young only once, and whose mere survival is often uncertain, how can she or he be stimulated and inspired to get educated...  to break out of this vicious cycle of poor education and poverty? And to, in the very first place, develop a measure of self-esteem?
What can we, writers and illustrators of children’s books, what can we do? And how? If we do write and illustrate books, how will they ever reach the children?
While painting this bleak picture, I realise that I am actually talking about war. And we, the writers and the illustrators of children’s books, we need to arm ourselves – in the developing countries we must arm ourselves by getting educated ourselves. We need to really understand how a child’s mind develops. We need to understand that the genre we work in could have a profound impact – profound, even if it is on only one single child. We need every book we create to be our best work. Our work may never carry the label “it’s good enough for... (dot, dot, dot)”.
Through our words and our pictures,  a child can glimpse happiness, laughter, can come to terms with his or her fears, can feel understood, obtain clarity, find their dreams, realise that nothing has to be impossible . Through our words and our pictures the child can obtain those special ingredients he will need to develop an Inquiring Mind, Logic, Lateral Thinking, Self Initiative, Creativity.
The child could learn to be humane, to have respect for the environment, respect for himself, respect for other people and especially for people different from himself. He could learn codes of civilised social behaviour. He could learn the knowledge necessary to protect himself and to develop inner strength to cope with whatever the future may throw at him. And he or she could develop a love of books which will make his or her education that much easier.
I absolutely believe that, for a young child to become a healthy well-function­ing adult, it is as important that he or she should be given good quality books, as it is that he or she should be given good quality drinking water and food.
You might think I’m  a dreamer?  NO, I’m a realist who knows about a dream that can become true.
So, what can we, writers and illustrators, do and how can we do it?

Let me tell you about a journey I took:
My early books, like A Monster in the Garden, published in South Africa in 1987, had very subtle anti-racism messages imbedded in the illustrations, and today some local univer­sity lecturers even use them as examples of early South African anti-racism picture books.
Although these books were bought by libraries, I realised that most of our children seldom visit a library or even saw a book before they got to school. And I realised that to get books to children, books like Ferdinand, I would have to look at alternative methods to get the books to them.
So I became involved in projects “work-shopping” books specifically for children in under­privileged areas. We were divided into groups and in each group would be a teacher, a writer and an illustrator. The books we produced were good - our Little Library collection won the IBBY Asahi Award in 1996. But in the end there was simply not enough money to reach as many children as we hoped to do.
Then came a lucky break. I was commissioned to design and illustrate educational posters to be distributed to preschools in rural farming areas. Most of these schools had no class­rooms. Lessons were given under shady thorn trees. I thought the posters might be handy, but I sold the project manager another idea. This was in 1993.  I knew most of these kids had hardly ever seen a picture book and certainly none of them owned one.
So I wrote and illustrated twenty-one stories with interesting black & white line drawings. And I laid each story out on the two sides of an A3 page – four pages on the one side and four pages on the other side.
And then the child or the teacher could simply fold it, staple it and cut the top off.  This way the child could end up with her very own eight-page picture book – her very first book! A book to keep, to colour and to read aloud to grandma back home.
These A4 “master pages” were distributed across the rural areas in South Africa. The local doctor or police chief or post mistress was persuaded to make available their photo­copier to Xerox a free copy for each kid in the class.
These twenty-one titles became the first picture books owned by thousands of youngsters in our land. The master copies spread quickly… A colleague of mine even saw copies of these little self-made books in Nigeria, more than halfway across the African continent!

And then a publishing house approached me to develop the twenty-one stories into a literacy series of books for beginner readers. Books specifically to be used in the  first three years of a child’s schooling - the foundation phase. And these were to become prescribed books across the country. This was my chance! Here was my opportunity to create books that will not feel like school books, but like picture books. And still they will reach young readers all over South Africa. So, back to the drawing board... without the pencil.
I realised, educationally speaking, that there were gaps in the 21-story folding-book project. I’m a mother, but I am not a trained educationist. I did not know enough about how children learn, how children develop, their fears, their needs. I also realised that there were many teachers and even educational specialists in our country who were poorly trained.
Writers and illustrators working in the developed countries have the luxury of simply riding on the wave of their imagination – but in a developing country (what is also known as “the Third World”) we need to educate ourselves before we ride that wave. That’s what I meant when I said you need to “arm” yourself.
So I started arming myself to tackle this challenging project of turning my twenty-one little stories into a proper literacy series for beginner readers, for little children who were to become future book lovers and scholars and researchers and leaders. I started by activating my inner child - tapping into my own memories - remembering what it was like to be a child - remembering what I really enjoyed and explored - remembering my worries and my uncertainties and my fears. I thought back to what I experienced while reading Ferdinand the Bull and why that one book had such a lasting effect on the four-year-old child who was me.
I started doing research on how a child’s brain develops and exactly how a child learns. I studied the works of brilliant scholars, like:

·         Bruno Bettelheim: He was a well-known child psychologist and writer who wrote up and published his work from the nineteen-forties into the nineties.
·         Ursula Le Guin, academic and writer of fantasy and science fiction.
·         Joseph Schwarcz, particularly his 1983 book, Ways of the Illustrator: Visual Communication in Children’s Literature and the one he published in 1991: The Picture Book Comes of Age: Looking at Childhood Through the Art of Illustration. One of his comments had a particularly strong influence on my own approach to picture books: he said, “Do not let us treat children’s literature as a well-kept garden, thus robbing it of it’s nature as a windswept field.”  And...
·         Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, writer and crystal-clear lecturer. I cannot over-emphasize the impact Campbell’s thoughts and brilliant insights had on my own thinking and my work. He is the one who said, “...stories are the only lasting way to teach children codes of social behaviour.”

And there were many others... These people opened up my world – they helped me to get rid of boundaries and limitations.
And then I let my imagination loose and I wrote and illustrated a series of sixteen books.  It was a series for beginner readers and each one was a picture book. And we called it the Bright Books Literacy Series.
But let me tell you how I went about creating these books. I realised that, in our third world circumstances, the school system was probably the best way to get books like Ferdinand to the child. I realised that many of our children, through circumstances outside of their parents’ control, had already missed out on essential early development, but I was not concentrating on the problems - those I accepted - I was concentrating on solutions.
I started by identifying and analysing various areas of development in the young child and then I wrote a story to address each of those areas. Some stories were built on ones I had written for the folding books, and others were new.
Taking each story, I made a list of playful activities the teacher can use to take the child on a journey of experience, exploration, fun and learning. And in doing so, developing that specific neglected area of development. The earlier stories can be “read” (in inverted commas) without the words, but each illustration has some words associated with it and those words are also listed at the end of the story. I made a list of the elements in each story that are suitable for discussion and/or practical activities for the kids. And the publisher also commis­sioned some excellent, highly-experienced educators to create a teacher’s guide for those teachers who might not have enjoyed training of a very high quality themselves.
The objective of the Bright Books seems to be to lead learners along the early steps towards learning to read and write. In fact, the primary objective is for the children to learn about basic values and about life in general. And, at the same time, to develop neglected areas of development like counting and basic maths concepts. To develop spatial awareness - concepts like up, down, in, out, over, under. To learn about:  shapes;  opposites;  food groups;  personal safety;  night and day;  names of the body parts;  emotions, and many more...
Such focus areas form the core of each story, but the stories are told in such a manner that the tale and the characters always come first, while the lessons are unobtrusive, discreet and learnt through the fun of reading and enjoying the pictures. The situations and characters described, and the colourful illustrations are often humorous and this creates an easy, light-hearted learning situation, where the development of reading skills is associated with pleasure.
I developed a number of families for the stories, and the same characters appear again and again in different stories. And often the element of subtle humour in the characters or the situation is introduced, to make the learning process as enjoyable a possible.
The Bright Books package for the first year consists of the following: Eleven reader books – the books are graded from one to eleven and are meant to be introduced to the child in that order. Each book contains four or five stories illustrated in full colour and a list of activities after each story. In the package is also a Workbook that the child can work and write in, the Teacher’s Guide, and two wall charts, one with the alphabet and the other with numbers, both illustrated with the familiar characters from the books.
For the second school year there are four books, each with six illustrated stories. These stories are populated by amusing and familiar characters in exciting situations and often tinged with humour. The reader is very subtly and unobtrusively introduced to the basic codes of social behaviour, such as:  Respect for yourself and for other people, whether they are similar or different to yourself;  Respect for the environment;  Pride in who you are. The stories, while developing the learner’s reading and literacy skills also help the reader to develop self-confidence, initiative and skills such as communication and entrepreneurship on a basic level.
Here are some thoughts on children learning the codes of civilised social behaviour:  According to Joseph Campbell, learning these codes through the story format at an early age has proven to be lasting – and I agree with that. On the other hand, learning the codes of social behaviour through an authority figure, as is so often the case, has the danger that as the child grows older there is the distinct possibility (which happens more often than not) that the child becomes disillusioned by that authority figure. Sadly, the next step, almost inevitably, is some form of violence. We have too many examples in our own South African society...  I believe it is essential that young children should be exposed to wonderfully entertaining, stimulating and memorable stories that will help them develop literacy, a love for reading and, at the same time, subtly help them to learn the basic codes of how to behave in the social environment.
In the stories I also incorporated all the phonics to help the child to develop a good grounding in spelling and pronunciation. As with the stories of the first year’s books, the activities of these stories are phonics games and exercises that help the learner to connect sounds with specific letters and groups of letters to develop a good grounding in spelling and pronunciation.
The Bright Books package for the second year consists of the following: Four thicker reader books – the books are graded from one to four and are meant to be introduced to the child in that order. Each book contains six stories illustrated in full colour and a list of activities after each story. In the package is also the Teacher’s Guide and two wall charts, one with Animals in their Environments, and the other with People and Places, both illustrated with the familiar characters from the books.
For the third school year there is only one book of 186 pages with a number of illustrated stories and activities after each story. There is also a separate  Educator’s Guide. In the third year book I concentrated on developing the child’s individual creativity and self-initiative and to broaden his or her horizon by introducing the young reader to the outside world. I used the device of “pen pal” letters, ostensibly written by children of the same age, but from foreign parts of the world and from cultures totally different to those in South Africa, such as China, Egypt, Canada and the Amazon forest in Brazil. The activities are more advanced than in the first two years.  Learners are provided with fun, appealing material in a combination of fact and fantasy, that will encourage them to discover more about the exciting, challenging and changing world they live in.
In South Africa, a developing country, the following is very important:  On all sixteen reader books there is never an indication of a suggested age for the reader, simply levels one, two and three.
Although these books were very carefully conceptualised and planned, I took great care to set aside all the planning and intellectualising while I wrote and illustrated the stories. My focus was on telling the story to a child, trying to create stories that are fun and exciting – really enjoyable for the child. Riding on that wave of one’s imagination! I worked exactly the same way as I do when I write and illustrate a picture book - a Ferdinand the Bull type book! And only when the book was completed, did I check if it did in fact cover the areas I listed beforehand.
Of course the publishers extensively tested each book and it was carefully evaluated by consultants and specialists and formally approved by the Depart­ments of Education, before the series was accepted for the Government schools.
This whole project took me five years, until 1999, to complete. They are still in print and schools are still using the Bright Books today.

I have shared with you some of my own, personal experiences as a mother and a children’s book writer and illustrator from a developing country. The challenges that face us are daunting, but at the same time exciting and stimula­ting. Over the years as a creative artist, and although my true dream is simply to create lovely picture books for young readers, I have found myself being drawn closer and closer to the world of formal education. I am no educationist and I will never pretend to be one. But I am not blind to what is going on around me in the country where I was born and brought up. And, as a writer and illustrator of picture books for young readers, I believe I can also make a contribution to the basic education of our kids and, much more importantly, to their develop­ment of civilised codes of social behaviour. In Africa storytelling has been going on for millennia and it is through the stories that I tell, that I am trying to make my own small contribution.

For the Bright Books series I identified a number of very specific develop­ment areas I wanted to focus on. And then I covered each of these focus areas through the stories and the pictures. Different stories may cover one or more focus area, but the primary objective in each story is to provide enjoyment and stimulation for the young reader
The first very important focus area I want to mention, is the Cognitive Development of the young child. The child’s cognitive skills are concerned with understanding, thinking and knowing – how the child learns and processes information and organises systems of the mind. Cognitive development involves language, mental images, thinking, reasoning, problem-solving, memory development, and so on. Remember, a child learns seventy percent of all he learns in his whole life, in the first seven years.
The story The fat cat is very early in the graded series of books in the first year. It is the second story in the first book. Therefore the language is simple, but the images are engaging. The primary focus area, the child’s Cognitive Develop­ment, is stimulated by the pictures and the text: “A fat cat. A fat fish. Where is the fat fish? The fish is in the fat cat!”

I’d like to underline one of these Cognitive Development areas, and that is the area of Language Development:  Language Development in the very young child involves many things... These include things like spoken words, body language, communicating with someone else, understanding someone else... And, in time, the ability to recognise and to read written words and to have conversations. Clearly, the development of language skills at a very young age will help lead to literacy and literacy is critical in the future of developing countries.
When the Bright Books reach Level 2, the second year, the language used in the stories becomes more complicated as is illustrated by this story: The big bad blue fly:

Another focus area in the Bright Books is the area of Social and Emotional Development in the young child. This starts with the dynamics and relationships within the immediate family circle, and then the extended family circle. Then it includes the interaction with people outside the family circle, like other children and adults. Focusing on Social and Emotional Development, some of the Bright Book stories look at feelings, fears and emotions and typical problems that the young child may experience at some point. Stories related to the child’s fear,  read in a safe environment, will help the child develop the inner strength to cope with those fears. Stories can enable the young child to deal with the scary things in his or her life. The child can identify with a story character who experiences similar fears, and subconsciously the child confront his or her own monsters, like the character in the story does. And all this can happen on Mum’s lap or in the safety of the armchair in the child’s own home.
In the story My brother, a young girl learns to accept a new baby into her small family circle and to share her home and her parents with him...
In the story New Friends, a young girl makes a new friend, a girl who happens to be deaf, and the two of them learn to communicate...

An important part of  Social and Emotional Development is developing a Sensitivity and Respect for the Environment. This is a focus area in the Bright Books that looks at Nature and the Animals around us. The children’s book writer and illustrator, Robert McCloskey wrote:  “The picture book may well be the child’s first and most meaningful introduction to the beautiful. And it may even play a role in making future citizens more sensitive to our natural environ­ment.”
The story, The little elephant, also looks at nurturing and respecting the environ­ment and the creatures around us.
In this story, My Bed, various animals appear in a young girl’s personal environment, her bedroom. They also need a place to sleep. Then the story focuses on basic issues of ownership and sharing.

Another development area I focused on when I created the Bright Books stories, is the area of Creativity. I find the development of Creativity of the utmost importance in the early years of a young child’s life. Creativity cannot be learnt – it is a subconscious development . It happens while the young child looks and sees, while he or she experiences the “messages” (in inverted commas) in and around the images he or she is seeing and observing. These images may be three-dimensional, like the world around the child, or they may be two-dimensional, like illustrations or pictures in a book. This impact is especially great when an image is unfamiliar, or stimulating, or interesting, or beautiful, or puzzling, or whatever – so long as it triggers an emotional re­spon­se. Ideally this emotional response will end in a question mark, a “What If ?” And to find an answer, the imagination is triggered and the result is Creativity!
Creativity is basically a form of problem-solving – and often through lateral thinking. It involves adaptability and flexibility of thought. Creativity involves solving problems for which there are no easy answers: that is, problems for which popular or conventional responses do not work. Creativity involves expanding existing knowledge.
Although educators often point to creativity as very important in the learning process, the developing and stimulation of creativity and creative thinking is very often neglected, even in the early years of school! Even educators often link creativity to artistic talent only. Intuitively many people feel that one only needs to develop creativity if you are going to be a painter or a writer or a composer. Obviously this is extremely narrow- minded, and it is clear that creativity and creative thinking will play a role throughout the curriculum, in science, in social studies and in other areas. For a proper understanding of creativity in the young child, one must immediately distinguish creativity from intelligence and talent. Research has shown that intelligence and creativity are independent of each other - a highly creative child may or may not be highly intelligent, and vice versa.
The story, Our colourful hut, opens up the child’s mind to lateral thinking: It tells about a city family who has to downsize – the father takes them back to his roots in the country, but he does not paint the hut they move into. He wants them to see the way nature will change the colour of the walls as the seasons and the time of day changes. – Lateral thinking!
This story also helps the young reader to develop a sensitivity for the fact that one can only see the beauty around you if you take the time to look.

Another development area I focused on when I wrote the Bright Books stories, is the area of basic mathematics and science concepts. In the develo­ping countries of Africa I’ve found that, for very young children, the learning areas around mathematical and scientific thinking have very often been neglected. I believe, however, that the ability to develop rational and logical thinking skills can be nurtured from a very early age.
Here’s an example:  The story The magic chicken is later in the graded series of books in the first year. It is the first story in book eleven. It tells the story of a chicken who could change her shape. This story, together with the Bright things to do section at the end of the story, introduces basic mathematical shapes to the beginner reader. Although the main focus is on introducing some mathematical  and scientific concepts, the story also contains some other elements. It has elements of creativity – seeing and identifying the different shapes – and also elements of Social and Emotional Development, like the element of self-discovery – who am I? And the element of copying and imitating someone or something else.
 The mathematical concepts are important components of rational and logical thinking. It also involves the children’s interaction with their environment and with other people in their world - how they begin to see order in and make sense of their world. Learning to count is a process similar to learning the alphabet - recognising and understanding numbers, to add, subtract, divide and multiply.
But mathematical understanding does not only involve numbers... On an introductory level Maths is to explore ideas related to patterns, shapes, numbers, and space.... to understand concepts such as tall and short, empty and full, near and far, first and last, high and low, in and out, few and many, light and heavy, all and none... It goes together with developing basic skills like how to pair, to group, to sort in a logical way, the concept of comparing...  Recognising sequences helps the young child to develop a sense of order, logic, and reason – and eventually it helps the child to start developing a basic mind-set for rational and logical thinking.

Another development area I focused on, is the area of basic scientific con­cepts. In Book Four of Level Two I tell the story of A magician on the moon.
One night a magician cannot fall asleep because the moonlight is too bright in his bedroom. So he uses his great-grand­mother’s book of magic spells to catch all the moonbeams...  and then things go wrong. Eventually the magician jumps onto the moon to take the moon’s beams back and to tie them to the trees on the moon – but he cannot find any trees! (quote) “So the magician decided that he had to stay on the moon and hold the moonbeams himself, so that they would shine down on the earth below...”
This fantasy story about the man on the moon intrigues the young children’s imagination. They know the story is not true and they are amused by the use of the old nursery rhyme of the cow who jumped over the moon and that the magician creates magic while he is sitting on the moon. This playful reference to other well-known stories and the creation of new versions is a way to release the child from constrictive thinking – it also stimulates his or her creativity. At the same time, in a subtle and entertaining way, through fantasy, the story introduces some basic scientific concepts to the young reader.
Some time ago I read an article by Chet Raymo, an American professor of Physics, in the Horn Book magazine – this is a very good bi-monthly periodical about literature for children.  The article was called Dr Seuss and Dr Einstein: children’s books and scientific imagination. Raymo talks about the importance of developing the young child’s imagination, because (quote) “if you cannot imagine that there could be something like an atom, how will you every go looking for it?” (end of quote) I’ll read it again: “if you cannot imagine that there could be something like an atom, how will you every go looking for it?”
My conclusion: If we, the children’s book writers and illustrators in develop­ing countries, can contribute to free our children’s imagination, and if we can make them realise that anything is possible, then I think we have made quite a good start.
And I constantly remind myself that every book I create for our children has to be as good as I possibly can do it – because that book might just be some little girl or some little boy’s very first book. Or maybe... his or her only book.

Thank you.

The Function of Illustrations in a Children’s Book

by Marjorie van Heerden
PowerPoint Presentation at the AFCC conference in Singapore May 2012

I have often been asked the question: Do children’s books really need all those illustrations? Is it not better to allow the child to use his or her own imagination? Or does the child need the pictures to understand the story? I have thought about this a lot. 

More than forty years ago, in 1970, the American futurist Alvin Toffler wrote a book called Future Shock. It was the first in a series of books in which he deals with what he calls “future shock”. He defines future shock as “too much change in too short a period of time”. He also looks at the impact of new technologies on individuals in a rapidly changing world. Just think about this impact on individuals here in the twenty-first century! On you. On me. On our children.  
Toffler predicted that this change, the accelerated rate of technological and social change, will overwhelm people, leaving them disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation”. Toffler went so far as to say that the majority of social problems were symptoms of this future shock.
Looking at the world around us today, it seems as if many of Toffler’s predictions have come true. Today people are really being bombarded by technology and by the media. And I’m sure you can recognise the symptoms of the “shattering stress and disorientation” that Toffler predicted.
We are mostly talking about the adults living in this modern world. But the reality is that most of these “media messages” meant for the adults also radiate towards our children.  
Now… just imagine for a moment what the effect of that bombardment, the bombardment of new technology and the bombardment from the media, have on a child – on a child who is experiencing and discovering life with wide-open young eyes!
From colourful packaging, advertisements, billboards and posters to tele­vision screens, mobile phones, iPhones, laptops and personal computers – this is all part of the continuous bombardment of very, very loud visual noise to which these wide-eyed young children are being exposed day after day!  TV’s and computers are becoming more and more a major part even of every-day family life. They even take up a prominent space in many households. And very often, and very unfortunately, the PC or the TV is even used by adults as a convenient baby­sitter.
And it’s becoming more and more commonplace. Today it has even become part of households in the lower-income communities where the TV and related overwhelming media noise have become part of the people’s everyday lives. And also part of the lives of their young children.
Of course one cannot deny that there is a lot of positive, even educational value in the use of mobile devices, television and computers. These techno­logies have made our lives more comfortable and safer and they have made information more accessible.  But the problem is that young children are, by nature, like sponges. And they absorb the bad with the good. Unfortunately they are too young to discriminate for themselves.
Something else, very often today’s young child does not develop a certain part of his or her brain at all. For example, in many cultures kids do not have to memorise, through rote learning, the times tables any more – they just use a pocket calculator, or even a mobile phone! And that little part of the brain remains undevelop­ed. But that little part of the brain actually has many different functions (not only to remember what nine-times-eight or six-times-seven is) – important functions that may play a part in the child’s social and other life skills. But it is not stimulated and developed, because that function has been taken over by a little electronic device.
That is just one, tiny example. One of my great concerns is to what extent today’s children miss out on crucial development when these devices are over-used, or used wrongly. Think what is happening to our children’s language development. Not only language development; what about the all-important cognitive deve­lopment processes? I’m talking about processes that include things like the ability to concentrate, to pay attention, to remember, the ability to truly understand words and concepts, to solve problems, to make decisions. I’m concerned that many of these things may be left behind today.
Of course there are concerned parents, who diligently protect their children from the bombardment of the visual media and technology – parents who try to control it. However, I suspect that the largest percentage of today’s adults allow their children to be deafened by this media and technology noise. This may be through igno­rance. Or maybe they say “these are the times we live in”. It may be that these adults are technology addicts themselves.  Or maybe they simply do not care...
Think of some of the children you know yourself. And remember, a day has only 24 hours. What do these kids do with these 24 hours? Think about some things they could be doing, like imaginative play, non-systematic learning, free exercise, down-time relaxation, time to think, time to do just nothing, time to rest, time to recover… Do those kids have the time to do these things? Do they have the time simply to be a child? Simply to be a toddler? Simply to be a baby?

A question: Is it not us – the responsible adults – is it not maybe our duty to try and balance that bombardment of our very young children? This is a question I have wrestled with for years and years. One of the paths I followed was to study children’s picture books and to analyse them in depth.
I became totally fascinated when it dawned on me what a powerful genre this was. And what an incredibly impor­tant role it can play, not only in the development of our very young and impressionable wide-eyed little ones  – that is obvious. ..
But what about the role these picture books can play in the social and cognitive sensibility and develop­ment of the adults and the parents and the leaders and the decision-makers of tomorrow and the day-after-tomorrow! Those who will grow out of these wide-eyed little ones...
First I studied exactly how the young mind develops. And I learnt how high-quality picture books were much more than fun and entertainment. I learnt how a single high-quality picture book can play a role in shaping a child’s mind. I learnt how it could even contribute to that little child becoming a compa­ssion­ate, caring adult.
Here I want to mention a few of the brilliant scholars I came across during my own journey of discovery:

-         I was much impressed by the writings of Bruno Bettelheim: He was a well-known child psychologist and writer who wrote up and published his work from the nineteen-forties into the nineties.

-         I was fascinated by the immense depth in the published works and the children’s books of Ursula Le Guin: She is a brilliant academic and writer of fantasy and science fiction and she started publishing in the 1960’s when I was an art student at university in Cape Town.

-         A lot of what I talk about here today I gathered from my studies of the books by Joseph Schwarcz, particularly his 1983 book, Ways of the Illustrator: Visual Communication in Children’s Literature and the one he published in 1991: The Picture Book Comes of Age: Looking at Childhood Through the Art of Illustration. One of his comments had a particularly strong influence on my own approach to picture books: he said, “Do not let us treat children’s literature as a well-kept garden, thus robbing it of it’s nature as a windswept field.” I think that’s brilliant!

-         And then, of course, there was Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, writer and crystal-clear lecturer who had such a profound influence on George Lucas and his Star Wars series. I cannot over-emphasize the impact Campbell’s thoughts and brilliant insights had on my own thinking and my work. He is the one who said, “...stories are the only lasting way to teach children codes of social behaviour.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our own children – those little ones who will one day be the adults and the leaders – if they could really learn and absorb the codes of social behaviour! ... the codes of civilised social behaviour! And Campbell said that, if those little ones are to live the rest of their lives according to those codes and values, then they must learn at a young age and through the medium of tales and stories.
“...stories are the only lasting way to teach children codes of social behaviour.”  This is so immensely important and fundamental and challenging that I am tempted to get stuck here, but unfortunately we don’t have time to go into that discussion – we’ll have to leave it for another time.
These clever people helped me to open up my little world – they got rid of the boundaries and the limitations for me.

And so, this brings me specifically to the importance of illustrations in books for children. Every newborn baby is like a clean sheet of white paper – ready for adults to start writing on it. And then that young, impressionable and hungry little mind, from the very start, is bombarded with messages, as I mentioned before, often through the noise of the various media and technologies. But, what if we, if you, could balance or even intercept that bombardment?
The creative artist who focuses specifically on a child audience, implicitly accepts the responsibility of supporting parents and care-givers in shaping the young minds. And also the responsibility of helping the young ones to discover and to develop.  Little children learn subtly and naturally, almost intuitively, while experiencing, wide-eyed and with pumping heart and bated breath, the exciting and unforgettable actions and adventures of the characters in the stories we tell them.
And, I must stress, this apparently “educational” (in inverted commas) challenge should never be pursued at the cost of joy and pleasure, wonder and excitement – the wide eyes and bated breath I talk about. The children’s book and specifically the picture book for the younger ones, is one of the few art forms specifically practised with the child in mind. And in my experience it is nearly always practised by individuals who honestly care for the child, the child’s interests and, eventually, the adult and future parent who will emerge out of that child.
The kind of children’s book I am talking about here has the potential to powerfully balance, to counteract and even to defuse the relentless bombard­ment I speak about.
Those few moments of reading the illustrated book or being read to in the safety of the parent’s or care-giver’s or teacher’s arms is like a safe island in a wide and chaotic sea; they are like a few moments of calm. The information can be absorbed without fear and in the child’s own time – wide-eyed and with bated breath.
For example, a child with a problem, whether a perceived or a real problem, can find comfort and strength in reading about another child or even an animal who is in the same situation. He or she can then build up the inner strength to cope with similar situations.
The toddler can learn to cope with fears – fears such as Where’s my mommy? or There are monsters under my bed! This way they can gain the security that will help propel them to the next stage of development.
The young child, through the right books or stories, can learn how to cope with the schoolyard bully. Having learnt and absorbed this lesson lastingly, that same child, later in life, will be able to cope better with prejudice, with abuse, with racism, with the world around us, with nature, with people who seem to be different. He or she can learn about patience, tolerance, fears, uncertainties, blame and no blame, self respect, self confidence – another endless list...
If we keep in mind that every writer and illustrator was also a child once, and that they usually tend to tap from memory and personal experience, we will understand why there is a suitable illustrated story for practically every situation the young child may find him- or herself.

Keeping all that in mind, let’s look for a moment at the aesthetic development of the young child. I suppose I’m talking about what is broadly known as “good taste”.
Picture books definitely play a fundamental role in the aesthetic develop­ment of young children. I have mentioned the development of social and cognitive sensibilities and codes of social behaviour, but those kids who are fortunate enough to grow up with stories and high-quality illustrated picture books will also learn a visual sense of using shape and form and space and they could even develop good taste later in life...
These children will also develop visual literacy which is as important as verbal literacy in the real world. Many people do not realise that an important part of being fully literate is to be able to understand visual symbols and visual messages, as well as words.
 But there’s even more: through the spontaneous interaction with an illustra­tion’s aesthetic qualities and beauty, there is the aspect of liberation – of escaping into the picture and leaving the cruel world behind… Escaping, and then, beyond that, experiencing the world out there, beyond the limited borders of the child’s own environment and his or her own little world of reference… Escaping... and broadening the mind.  This, once again, can only be done through the visual images. The images aid the text to make the story real.
An illustration in a children’s book communicates information and emotion in a unique way. It could cultivate a growing child’s ability to develop his or her own creativity and through that even the ability to think laterally. It could also play a role in developing the child’s self-initiative skills. If, for instance, the child reader registers a certain dignity in a character illustrated with aesthetic beauty, it could lead to a process of humanization in the child’s mind. This way the images in an illustrated children’s book could contribute to developing a certain humaneness in the individual child reader’s emerging personality.
An illustration can, through subtle communication of information and emotion, through the way the illustrating artist handles the subject, defuse stereotyped messages and labels the child might have been exposed to. An obvious example used in many children’s stories is the old assumption: “all that’s beautiful is good and all that’s ugly is bad”. But, even a very young child, when reading a well-illustrated version of the old fairy-tale Beauty and the Beast, will quickly learn that this is simply not true.
Another example is how young readers, through sensitive illustrations, can become aware of the physical beauty of nature and the world around us.
They can also learn about its vulnerability. These young readers can then develop a healthy respect and a love for the environment – something mother earth could certainly benefit from. Obviously this could be achieved through field trips or through sensitive documentaries on TV or through other media, but having seen the impact of  a high-quality illustrated children’s book on a sensitive young mind, I tend to agree with Joseph Campbell when he says, “...stories are the only lasting way to teach children codes of social behaviour.” I stress, ...the only lasting way to teach children codes of social behaviour.” And surely this social behaviour will include the children’s behaviour towards Mother Nature and her world.

At this point I’d like to spend a moment to look at the way children see. How do they actually see something when they look at it?
The illustrations in children’s books are usually two-dimensional. And to be able to understand how children perceive these two-dimensional images, we need to first look at how we, adult people, see. To learn more about this, I turned to Donald Weisman. He is a professor of Art at the University of Texas. He is also a painter and an art historian. And Professor Weisman has done a lot of research on exactly this subject: our visual perception. In other words, how we see things. In 1970 he published a fascinating book on the subject, and he called it The Visual Arts as Human Experience.
Weisman describes three different kinds, or levels, or ways of seeing: 1) functional, 2) associational, and 3) pure. Let’s have a closer look at each of these three ways of seeing:

-           In the first, the “operational” way of seeing there are no remembered feelings or ideas concerning the object, and the object is left unexplored. An example of this type of seeing is when a person sees a ball rolling towards him, he thinks, “I must be careful, otherwise I can fall over it.” This kind of seeing looks towards the future all the time. That he calls the functional way of seeing.
-           In the second, the “associational” way of seeing, a chain of reactions is unleashed when the viewer associates the object with a word or a memory. To follow the example of the ball, the object is related to the word “ball”. You look at the ball and from your memory you remember, perhaps fondly, of playing with such a ball. This way of seeing looks at and collects from the past all the time. That he calls the associational way of seeing.
-           In the third, the “pure” mode of seeing, we are interested in the aesthetic properties of the object; in the specific qualities of the object. This mode of viewing is a learning discovery process through the study of the qualities, charac­teristics, and attributes of the object. The pure mode of seeing also triggers emotion. In the example of the ball again, we might say, “How gracefully the ball glides towards me!” OR “How complete the sphere’s shape is!” This is seeing the situation in the present the  now. Weismann calls this pure way of seeing. And, interestingly, this is the way we see art, when we look at it.

To summarise; In the functional way of seeing, we look towards the future. In the associational way of seeing, we collect from the past. And, in the pure way of seeing, we see the situation in the present, in the now.
Adults mostly view using all three ways of seeing at the same time, but, mostly due to all the media noise, many adults are consciously or unconsciously suppressing the third kind of seeing, the pure seeing. As Weisman puts it, “One hasn’t the time to sit down and smell the flowers”.
The problem is that these adults do not see detail, because they are too intent on gathering information and looking ahead – while they look at something, instead of also using the pure way of seeing, they’re using their brain for other processes.
It is very interesting to note that more and more adults today are actually trying “to sit down and smell the flowers” again. They call it mindfulness – experiencing the moment – getting rid of the clutter and really seeing again. A state of heightened awareness.
This takes us all the way back to the days of the hippies – those days when I was also one. There is a much simpler way of looking at this: simply use all of your senses to the full!
Now, young children instinctively use all of their senses. And Weismann found that they use the third way of seeing, the pure way, much more than the functional or the associational ways. They immediately zoom in on detail and their reaction to illustrations is pure emotion. And emotions play a very important role in aesthetic processing. They identify with the main character, whether a child or an animal or another creature, and they experience the story together with this character - in real time.
But, because it is a two-dimensional visual image and it doesn’t rush past him or her, the child experiences the story through the illustration at their own, natural pace – at their own inner rhythm.

Let’s now look at some clear, tangible elements concerning illustrated children’s books: The illustrated children’s book is a special case of visual communication created by adults but specifically with the child in mind. It is therefore one of the few art forms where adults take information and transform it into material that is digestible specifically for the young child.
An important element of these illustrated children’s books is that their use is different to that of formal text­books. They offer other possibilities. For instance, these illustrated children’s books are not normally linked to a fixed time or place – like the classroom. They can be picked up at any time – the child is in control! And, crucially, there is no time limit to how long or short the child can experience the visuals in the illustrated book. Have you ever watched a child totally engrossed in a picture book – totally lost in the world of that one picture?
In picking up any book, one’s first impression is the cover illustration, if there is one.
In the case of an illustrated children’s book, it is the emotional appeal of the picture on the cover that attracts and draws the child into the book. A cover has to reflect the story but it should also have an element of mystery that stimulates and attracts the potential child reader. I always regard a cover like a poster – it must attract attention from a distance and when viewed from closer-up, it should have a bit of magic in it… The subject matter, the figure or figures, the shapes and the colours should invite the child to open the book and to try and understand what it’s all about and what it means. Inside the book the first picture should lead to the text, the story, and from the text to the next picture and so on…  The rhythm and the pacing of the text and the pictures then take over and carry the child along the storyline to the final conclusion. 
When I start planning a picture book for a story, the first thing to consider, is the size and the format. Typical formats are portrait, landscape or square, but of course there are all the shapes in-between as well. Normally the story itself, its rhythm and energy intuitively guides me to which format I should use. There are no strict rules, but usually the story itself indicates to me what format I should use.
For instance, if it’s a story about the stars, a portrait format is generally more suitable.
Or, let’s say the story is about a journey, a physical or a mental journey. Or maybe it’s a really fast-moving and quick-paced story that moves a head quickly. Then I find that a landscape format usually works best.
And if it’s a really quiet or intimate story, I find a square format often works very well.  
The story tells me in which format it would like to be told. The same is true about the size of the book: does the story want to be told in a large, loud, dramatic book? Or does it want to create a smaller, more attentive, quieter experience?
The next step is to work out the how the story should develop over the sequence of pages. Remember, a picture book is not only a mental experience; it is also a physical experience. The handling and the turning of the page, forwards or backwards, is part of the experience.
The child immediately experiences the drama of the book’s size and its format, and then turning the page becomes part of the excitement of the unfolding story. The picture book illustrator not only draws pictures to decorate the text of a story, he or she designs the whole book - the book which will become the flying carpet that’s going to transport the child reader all the way through the story. To decide what portion of the text fits on what page, you have to look at the key elements of the story and how they fit into the fixed number of pages the book will have. The pacing, the visual rhythm of a picture book is often a key factor in its success or failure – the illustrator of a story becomes like a musician interpreting a piece of music, playing softer or louder, stronger or gentler...
Or like a filmmaker shooting a script, zooming in or zooming out, cutting tightly or cutting loosely...
The illustrator uses colour and shape and space to lead the reader through the sequence of pages all the way to the story’s final conclusion. 

So, it is clear that the illustrations in a children’s book or in a picture book should take the story to the next level. The relationship between the words and the pictures is a complex one. But it is also a unique one. The words and the pictures should be complementary to each other – never a duplication; Do not put into words what can better be shown in an illustration, and do not illustrate what can better be put into words.
Let’s look briefly at a few different kinds of children’s books. And let’s start with picture books and illustrated storybooks:
In a perfectly constructed picture book neither the words nor the pictures can stand alone - they depend on each other. Neither the pictures nor the words are totally complete until they are combined together - together they show the full picture – create the magic.
The illustrated storybook, however, is quite different; Although there may be a picture on every page, here the story can stand on its own and can be read and understood without the illustrations.  Here the illustrations are provided to visually create a sense of place and atmosphere, and further to extend the text.
As children grow older, they move from storybooks to readers. Readers are very much like storybooks, mostly fully illustrated, but here the text is very carefully written, specifically to help the child with the process of learning to read him- or herself.
And then, as children grow even older, they move from readers to chapter books. The books get longer, the font size gets smaller, the stories become more complex and there are fewer illustrations.
To me, personally, a very exciting genre is the picture book for the older child. These books often cover quite complicated subject matter. I’ve seen many of them that are gloriously illustrated.
Although the subject matter may be challenging, there are sensitive and highly gifted writers and illustrators who make these books quite accessible and digestible to young child readers.

To conclude: There are many different types of illustrated books specifically aimed at child readers. I have tried to focus on the different functions of the illustrations in the different types of children’s books. But, whatever the type, the illustrator has a key role to play in the creation of that book. And, specifi­cally in illustrated storybooks and in picture books the illustrations are key.

I have often been asked the question:  How do you know when an illustration is of good quality? And of course it is something I have thought about deeply...
Over the years I have come across a number of children’s book illustrators whose work made a deep impression on me. These are colleagues I admire. I admire their originality, their imagination, the depth in their work, and the fact that they create their work for the child – whether all of this is consciously done or unconsciously.
I have seen the genius in the simplicity of their work. I have noticed the rhythm and I have discovered the powerful story embedded in their images... the few words... the brave creativity of their work.
But the one element that stands out the strongest for me, is that their illus­trations seem alive. Alive! It’s these illustrators’ passion for their work that is clearly reflected in the pictures they create - it seems to transfer into their images and make them appear really alive.
That passion I’m talking about somehow becomes an energy that is clearly reflected in their work, whether they use just a few lines, like Shel Silverstein or Quentin Blake, or whether they create lavishly luxurious illustrations, like David Wiesner or Trina Schart Hyman.
This is not an easy question to answer, but if I may give a short answer, I will say: Let a child tell you whether the illustration is good or not. My four-year-old grand­daughter once spent a long time looking at one illustration in a picture book. Eventually, without looking up, she asked softly, “Ouma, is it alive?” And then I knew that illustration was a good one. My second, three-year-old grand­daughter became absorbed in a picture the other day. And, eventually, after quite a while, when she turned the page, she drew in her breath... and she whispered, “wow!”

Thank you.

April 2012