Thursday, September 02, 2010

Daniel Powers on Picture Books: Part 2, Physical Relationship Between Text and Image

[Uma] Daniel talk about how elastic the physical relationship has become between text and image in picture books and where that came from historically.

[Daniel] Traditionally, image and text did not appear on the same page; text was neatly contained within a block (usually) on the left side of a spread, and a comparably contained image was situated across the gutter (usually) on the right side of the spread. The gutter prevented image and text from interacting.

Then came Wanda Gág with her Millions of Cats. She broke the mold when it came to traditional page layout. In her timeless title, images cross the gutter and wrap around organically shaped bodies of text, while on another page text flows across the gutter and wraps around organic contours of illustrations. She creates rhythms throughout the book based on the physical relationship of image and text and the way they interact with one another.  As an author she works with the audible rhythms of the language. As an illustrator she works with the visual pattern and rhythms of her images, and as a designer she has works with both image and text to create movement and repetition in the page layout. Pretty cool stuff! No wonder Millions of Cats is still in print after nearly ninety years!

I like to cite Millions of Cats as a contrast to traditional page layout. Even today I marvel at Gág’s cutting edge design. But there are equally remarkable titles where the physical relationship of image and text contributes to the viewer/reader’s response to the narrative, including (but not limited to) Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, illustrated by Lane Smith.  This title perhaps touches on the metafictional, since it parodies not only folk tales, but the picture-book form as well; it brilliantly demonstrates the formal organization of picture books.  

The way in which text and image physically relate to one another brings with it a particular aesthetic that ultimately contributes to the overall sensibility of the book. Millions of Cats and The Stinky Cheese Man are clearly nontraditional in regard to layout and the resulting aesthetic; in contrast, titles like Diane Stanley’s Charles Dickens: The Man Who Had Great Expectations or Chris Van Allsburg’s The Wretched Stone reflect very traditional page layouts or image/texts relationships, whose formal, conservative aesthetics are entirely appropriate for these works.

[Uma] Thanks, Daniel. Next, the conceptual relationship between text and image.


  1. In Caps For Sale By Esphyr Slobodkina the text appears on the right side of the page and the illustration on the left during the first act of the story. However, the text and illustrations cross the gutter when the story problem is introduced (also propelling us into the second act), the monkey's are wearing the peddlers caps. After this, the text appears on the left and illustrations on the right. How cool! Your posts on the physical relationship between text and illustrations has made me think about this element in picture books.

    Thank you.

  2. It's very cool, isn't it? Really makes you think about the space on the page in a different way, a way writers aren't used to thinking but illustrators are. It's why these conversations are really important.