Defining picture books - The picture book - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


25. The picture book


Michele Anstey and Geoff Bull


Defining picture books


Townsend (1987: 304), writing originally in 1965, defined picture books in terms of illustration. Sutherland and Arbuthnot (1986: 81) introduced the concept of a typology of picture books where either the illustrations or the text were predominant. In both cases picture books were seen as the province of ‘young children’ although specific age ranges were not defined. Writers such as Huck et al. (1987: 197), Cullinan (1989: 29) and Saxby (1997: 184) were more concerned with the integration and relative roles of illustration and text than they were about the age of the audience. Debate over the role of illustration led some art historians and authors to suggest that ‘true’ picture books were solely the creation of the artist where the illustrations were seen more as a work of art rather than a different text that had its own role to play in the construction of the narrative. Later, picture books came to be seen as sites where illustrative and written texts related to each other in a way that went beyond merely supporting one another in the telling of the story; for example, the illustrative text might provide additional meaning and clarity to the narrative. Lewis (1990: 142) suggested that this characteristic, the interplay of written and illustrative text, makes picture books a supergenre.

Since the illustrative text has a role in the creation of the narrative, it produces a continuous interplay and has the potential to construct multiple narratives. Conceivably a picture book can contain more meanings and be able to be read in more ways than the novel, by virtue of the presence of both the illustrative and written texts. Therefore in Bakhtin’s (1981) view a picture book can be polyphonic or have many voices that can work contrapuntally combining to produce a dialogic whole, consisting of many different genres that continually ‘reshape’ to produce different meanings. More recently both Kiefer (1995: 6) and Sheahan (1995: 15) referred to this concept as ‘combination’ or ‘harmony’. While this position is supported by de Certeau (1986), Foucault (1973: 9) and Stephens (1992: 158), there are those such as Tolkien (1964) and Bettelheim (1976) who believe that pictures add little meaning to written text.

The issue of the intended audience of picture books is still debated. Recently, because of the blurring of boundaries between picture books and other genres, and between adult and children’s literature, by picture-book authors such as Gary Crew in Australia, Anthony Browne in the UK and David Macaulay in the USA, the notion that picture books are only for younger readers is difficult to maintain. Critics such as Rudd (1994) and Hollindale (1997) have questioned the idea that the readability level or degree of difficulty of some books is a sufficient reason for denying young readers access to more sophisticated texts. They take the view that readers may make many different readings of a book at different times and may read themselves into meaning each time a particular book is revisited. Similarly we would suggest that issues of audience and age with regard to picture books has become largely irrelevant, as childhood and reading are socially and culturally determined and, as we will demonstrate in this chapter, picture books adapted and will continue to adapt to change in society.

We propose the following definition: a picture book is a book in which the written text and the illustrative text are in concordance and work interdependently to produce meaning (Anstey and Bull 2000: 5).

In this chapter we have limited our discussion mainly to Australia, the UK, and the USA, and generally to books of agreed historical importance. For a detailed history see Whalley and Chester (1988) and Anstey and Bull (2000).