1960-79: a period of change - the modern picture book emerges - 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


1960-79: a period of change - the modern picture book emerges


The same influences on the picture book continued, but at a vastly increased pace, and there was a divergence in the types of picture book published in Australia, the UK and the USA. This owed as much to the social, political, historical and geographical conditions in the three countries as it did to the desire to make the picture books reflect those cultural icons that were important in each country.

The 1960s and 1970s were times of great social change, notably with the effects of immigration in the UK, the civil rights movement and the space programme in the USA. In Australia there was a substantial increase in population, brought about by immigration from the Europe and by the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme that brought an infusion of cultural groups with new skills into the country. These developments were to change the market-place in each country in many areas of the economy including the picture-book trade. Expansion and experimentation also occurred in picture books, particularly in colour printing, photographic lithography and choice of medium - there was a marked shift from black and white to full colour illustrations.

In Britain, the changes were heralded in the work of Brian Wildsmith, Charles Keeping and John Burningham. Wildsmith’s brilliantly coloured and textured gouache paintings in ABC (1962), Birds (1967) and Fishes (1968), published by Oxford University Press, were a far cry from previous books and were an immediate success. Whalley and Chester (1988: 219) refer to Wildsmith’s work as ‘painterly’, suggesting that it was a work of art as well as illustration, thoroughly exploring the medium of gouache. This success signalled that young readers could profit from access to sophisticated art forms just as much as adults and reinforced the idea that the illustrative text was equally as important as the written text.

Charles Keeping’s work, from Black Dolly (1966) to Sammy Streetsinger (1984) and Shaun and the Cart-Horse (1967), was a complete departure from the work of previous illustrators, and became progressively more abstract; his use of medium was far more adventurous and experimental than Wildsmith’s. Keeping allowed colours to run into one another and used techniques such as wax resist, sponge work and overpainting. John Burningham, beginning with Borka, The Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers (1963) combined the painterly quality of Wildsmith’s gouache and the texture and overpainting of Keeping, and, as with Keeping, the illustrations emphasise emotions and themes. In Keeping and Burningham’s work, layout and design of both individual pages and the whole book - sizes and formats - became increasingly sophisticated.

Pat Hutchins’s Rosie’s Walk (1970) is the first of many picture books in which the illustrative text tells a story contrary, or additional to, the written text and demonstrates a further evolution of the picture book. It seems to tell the simple story of a farmyard walk by Rosie the hen, who is stalked by a fox. However, multiple meanings are realised through a subtext about the concepts of direction (‘across the yard, around the pond, over the haycock’) in the written text. Rosie’s story is told in the written text while the fox’s story that is of mishap and injury represented in the illustrative text. The landscape and frieze-type design and layout are also important features of the book, the linear layout of the illustrations taking the viewer across and over the page, and providing anticipation in the narrative. Hutchins, quoted in Cummins (1992: 73), suggested that this layout makes the action happen. The illustrations themselves are flat, naive, folk-art depictions of the farm, with texture introduced through the black line patterning (in contrast to the work of Wildsmith, Keeping and Burningham).

In the USA in the 1960s the heterogeneity of picture books led to a challenge of traditional themes, content and narratives. This caused a shift away from the more rose-coloured view of the world of the child to a more realistic one where childhood fears and humour could be explored. This movement had begun in the 1950s with Sendak and was developed further by a range of illustrators who more accurately represented the growing diversity of the culture and moved toward a more accurate representation of the different social classes and ethnicities.

Humour was taken to a new level by Tomi Ungerer, a French immigrant, who extended the picture-book genre by introducing a macabre and even violent tenor in his depiction of humour. Bader (1976: 548) suggests that Ungerer’s The Three Robbers (1961) is a melodrama, but it also contains elements of irony with its sophisticated, yet satirical, comments about human nature, in its parody of the fairy tale. (Tiffany enjoys being kidnapped by the robbers and encourages them to spend their ill-gotten gains - albeit on a worthwhile project.) Ungerer expects that the reader will be able to appreciate the different layers of meaning in the text and relate it to other texts. The reader needs quite sophisticated intertextual skills to appreciate fully the humour in the narrative.

Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963) (Caldecott Medal 1964) began the challenge to traditional picture-book forms; he experimented with the written text by spreading the first two sentences of the narrative over eight pages in contrast to the one sentence (or sentences) per opening that is still a feature of many picture books. The illustrative text extends the fantasy of the written text by expanding to full double-page spreads and then contracting to a half page as the fantasy of ‘the wild rumpus’ waxes and wanes. This balance between the illustrative and written text was picked up by many of the young readers of the book, who interpreted the ‘wild things’ as friendly since they were always smiling in the illustrations, while many of the adult readers focused on the written text and therefore expected the book to prove frightening to the young reader. This book also begins to challenge the notion of audience since it is as much a book for adults as it is for young children. Sendak also demonstrates that it is often what the illustrations do not show that is just as important as what is on the page - for example, we never get to see Max’s mother.

Ezra Jack Keats contributed to a multiculturalism in picture books with My Dog Is Lost (1960), written by Keats and Pat Cherr and illustrated by Keats. Through the hero Juanito, a Puerto Rican boy recently arrived in New York, we meet children from other races in China Town, Little Italy, Park Avenue and Harlem. In Cummins (1992: 95), Keats explains his decision to portray Peter, the main character in the Caldecott-winning The Snowy Day (1962) as black in order to show that goodness and beauty can be associated with black children as well as with white. He sustained these themes in Whistle for Willie (1963) and Peter’s Chair (1967).

The experimentation with form, style, audience and format continued with Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969). This mixes the factual life-cycle of the butterfly with the fictional (and metafictive) actions of the caterpillar (chewing holes in the book) and the non-naturalistic pictures. Carle’s collage explores the space between exposition and narrative.

While the picture-book industry was burgeoning in the USA and the UK, in Australia it was still very slow to develop because of the small population and the commensurately small and expensive print runs. Competition from the UK and USA also restricted output until the late 1960s when a high-quality printing industry was established in Asia. Ivan Southall’s Sly Old Wardrobe (1969), illustrated by Ted Greenwood, was highly influential in its use of either aquarelles or a combination of coloured pencil and watercolour. The changes in design, layout and point of view that Greenwood introduced represented a considerable change in Australian picture books of the time, and he continued to challenge the constructs of the genre into the 1970s.

In the UK, Fiona French, a pupil of Keeping’s, chose her media and style to emphasise theme and mood, and to fit the period in which the book was set. In Jack of Hearts (1970) she used the style of playing cards, in Huni (1971) Egyptian-style friezes and in Matteo (1976) the style of murals painted in Renaissance Italy churches. In this way French expects more of her audience and also appeals to a greater variety of audiences.

Similarly, John Burningham constructed his readers as sophisticated enough to read a number of texts simultaneously. In Come Away from the Water, Shirley (1977), a depiction of a young girl at the seaside with her parents, there are two illustrative texts for the reader/viewer. In one of these texts Shirley’s parents are pictured on the beach giving all sorts of instructions about what to do and what not to do. In the other illustrative text Shirley is off on a wonderful adventure with pirates that is not even hinted at by the written text. So there are two illustrative, but opposing, texts and one written text, all of which interact to provide a fourth text that is a clever exploration of the relationship between parents and their children. This book and Time to Get out of the Bath, Shirley (1978) are interesting parallels to the work of Sendak, as they explore a child’s view of the world, the child’s appreciation of the imaginary world, and the ability of the child reader to interpret both illustrative and written texts. There is a similar effect in Burningham’s later book Oi! Get off Our Train (1989).

In the 1970s, picture books in the UK increasingly incorporated social comment (as with Michael Foreman’s War and Peas (1971) and Moose (1974)), but in the USA, apart from the introduction of characters and settings from other cultures and classes, there was very little change. Some show great mastery of particular media and techniques and unusual approaches to layout, but they are somewhat limited in terms of their opportunities to challenge or engage the reader in anything other than the story. They contrast strongly with some picture books of this time which challenged the reading and viewing audience and suggested that more can be expected of the young reader without interfering with the enjoyment in the act of reading (see Arizpe and Styles 2003).

In Australia in the 1970s the picture book underwent marked change and ‘came of age’ with the establishment of school libraries and a reliable and competent printing industry in nearby Asia. Saxby (1997: 77) suggests the publication of Desmond Digby’s retelling of Waltzing Matilda (1970) established characteristics that formed an identity peculiar to Australian picture books during this period: a strong appeal to adults as well as children, a strong idea expressed in words and pictures, careful matching of words and pictures, skilled use of the artistic medium, and meticulous attention to the design of the book. Australian identity was celebrated in many of the winners of the Children’s Book Council (CBC) and Visual Arts Awards, particularly in the first publication of Aboriginal Dreamtime stories by Aboriginal authors and artists and in the interpretation of well- known Australian poetry, mythological creatures and events. Dick Roughsey, a north Queensland Aboriginal, wrote and illustrated on his own (Giant Devil Dingo, 1973) and later shared the stories of his area with a white Australian, Percy Tresize (The Quinkins, 1978). The illustrations in these books recreated the vastness and colour of the Australian landscape with amazing accuracy through a ‘naive realism’.

The growing sophistication of Australian children’s books, producing multi-layered, complexly designed texts, was shown in Ted Greenwood’s Joseph and Lulu and the Prindiville House Pigeons (1972), dealing with the theme of urban renewal. The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek (1974) written by Jenny Wagner and illustrated by Ron Brooks can be seen as a turning point in Australian picture books as it explores abstract and philosophical themes of identity. Brooks’s superb use of pen and ink, finely hatched, crosshatched and textured, which is then coloured, was also seen in the classic John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat (1977) by the same team, which won the CBC Picture Book of the Year award in 1978. The theme is one of jealousy and rivalry, but there are sub-themes about ageing, caring and loneliness. Brooks has the same illustrative technique as in The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek.