Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Daniel Powers on Picture Books: Part 1 cont.

In the West we read text left-to-right; so too with images. Consequently the directional movement of illustration is worth considering when it comes to narrative structure, which (especially in picture books) is linear by nature: left to right, beginning to end. Formal elements within an illustration need to help move the viewers’ eyes through the visual narrative, left to right, beginning to end. Characters walk, gesture, or glance, from left to right, into the narrative.

But what happens when they don’t? What happens when a character on the right side of a spread faces left, not right? What happens is that we don’t turn the page immediately. While the text may compel us to turn the page, when a character causes the reading direction to change from left-to-right, we pause on our visual wandering and look back into the page. We follow the character’s contrary movement back into the image, ignoring what the text is coaxing us to do, and spend more time pondering the narrative content of that particular image before moving on.
This sort of visual device is often used at pivotal points in a narrative.

Jerry Pinkney does this in The Lion and the Mouse. Beginning with the title page, a curious gray mouse leads us left-to-right, through the first three spreads, until an owl swoops toward him. Up to this point the visual movement, as well as the movement of the mouse through the setting, has been left to right. But on the following spread Pinkney changes the directionality to read right-to-left; suddenly the mouse is facing the left.

Why? What is this change of movement signaling? Pinkney is playing with scale relationships in this spread. Relative to the size of the little mouse, the lion is so enormous that we cannot see him. The lion so easy to miss that Pinkney slows us down here, causing us to pause, to catch our breath (along with the pursued mouse), and when we slow down, we wonder, “What is this dark brown texture among all of this grass? Is it fur?”

When we turn the page to find out what this is, the initial visual movement is a quick one, left-to-right; like the mouse, we try to escape from the lion as quickly as possible, but to prevent us from leaving this page too quickly, Pinkney raises the lion’s paw, creating a stark vertical visual that blocks us from moving farther to the right, preventing us (as well as the mouse) from escaping the page immediately. While The Lion and the Mouse is a wordless text (and our discussion is, after all, about the relationship of image and text), this title illustrates the importance of movement and countermovement, and how the two can be manipulated to move a narrative along or to slow it. Writers do the same thing with sounds, with sentence length, and with the words themselves.

Writers and illustrators both need to be keenly aware of the page-turn and how to use it to build suspense, add humor, or to catch the reader unaware. In cinematic terms, the black-and-white scene of Dorothy Gale crashing into Munchkin Land is akin to the effective use of a page-turn; do you remember what happens when Dorothy crosses the living room and opens the front door to step outside? Do you remember what is revealed to us as viewers? That opening-of-the-door is an effective page-turn. What follows it is entirely unexpected.

A wonderful example of this can be found in Kathryn Lasky’s Marven of the Great North Woods (Kevin Hawkes, illustrator), when young, nervous Marven meekly tries waking a grizzly, snoring lumberjack by yelling “Lève-toi, Jean-Louis! Lève-toi!” into his ear. What follows demonstrates an effective page-turn.

And finally, the gutter. It's the physical separation of two pages that comprise a spread, and this tangible feature can be used as a narrative element. In Maurice Sendak’s We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, the two protagonists remain on opposite sides of the gutter from the Gandhi-esque character after he is kidnapped by the rats; the gutter reinforces the disconnect of  Jack and Guy from the kidnapped character, visually adding to the sense of the narrative.

Thanks, Daniel! Tomorrow the physical relationship of image and text.


  1. Hi Uma, Daniel,

    These articles give a great insight into working of a picture book. Thank you.

    This brings to mind the picture book 'Three Pigs' by David Weisner. It is a book where the readers have to visualize that the characters have popped out of the book. It is a wonder how he manages that within the framework of a book.

  2. Yes, the concept of movement and countermovement as evidenced by the direction the character is facing is really eye opening for me. I like the comparison to word choice and sentence length--tools in the writer's toolkit. I also wondered about the use of frames.

    What kinds of things might an illustrator be doing when s/he frames an image within a page? I thought the one in Pinkney's The Lion and the Mouse was very effective--the one where just the mouse's nose and whiskers were outside of the frame.