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