Saturday, September 04, 2010

Daniel Powers on Picture Books: Part 3, Conceptual Relationship Between Text and Image

The interrelationship of image and text can free up writers. Our texts don’t have to single-handedly do all of the work because the illustration can do a lot of the work for us. Good picture book texts are solid yet open enough to allow illustrators to ply their craft of supporting or augmenting the narrative visually. Here, Daniel Powers discusses the conceptual relationships between image and text.

The way a narrative is developed throughout a picture book depends on the conceptual relationship of image and text. 

As Perry Nodelman points out in his Words about Pictures, image and text can carry the narrative through a picture book in at least three different ways (or in a combination of these):

  1. parallel structure in which the image and text essentially do the same thing, narratively mirroring one another (see Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans)
  2. pas-de-deux structure that allows the narrative to be tossed back and forth between the text and the images, so that at times the text does the work of carrying the narrative and at other times the images do that work (see Barbara Helen Berger’s Grandfather Twilight
  3. the text describes one particular narrative, while the images depict a different sort of narrative (something that might even be contrary to the text). The resulting combination creates an alchemical narrative that would be otherwise impossible to achieve (see Sendak’s We’re All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy). If you’re not familiar with this Sendak title, before even looking at the cover or cracking the book, have a friend read the text to you so you cannot see the illustrations. Try to imagine the narrative that this text describes. Afterwards, read the book yourself and see whether the narrative you had imagined in your mind matches the narrative Sendak describes on the printed page.
Berger’s Grandfather Twilight is a good example of this economy of word and image where words do what words do best:
Leaves begin to whisper. Little birds hush…
Gently, he gives the pearl to the silence above the sea…

…and images do what images do best.
Another wonderful example of this alchemical structure, one in which the author and illustrator are two individuals is Betsy James’s My Chair, illustrated by Mary Newell DePalma. James’s clever, sensitive text is a conceptual list of what a chair can be, while DePalma’s illustrations introduce and develop a narrative that the text ignores.

 It’s important to note, I think, that writers and illustrators have different tools by which to develop narrative. Writers’ tools are verbal and illustrators’ tools are visual.

[Uma] And they each have a place in the whole, they each contribute to the advancement of something that is greater than its parts. Thanks Daniel.

The last part of this series of posts will be about the narrative role of pictures in books where text does not inherently carry a story (concept books, poetry collections and some nonfiction titles).


  1. For more from me about picture book texts:

    Perry Nodelman

  2. Thanks for the link, Perry. I think the hardest thing to learn or teach about this form is that the text "must be visualizable" but "must not obviously convey visual info."

    I also found really valuable something you said in Words About Pictures about the absence of tone in some picture book text, where the words feel flat and understated, and their emotional quality is instead shown in the pictures.