In brief

20th June 2003 at 01:00
ART, NARRATIVE AND CHILDHOOD. Edited by Morag Styles and Eve Bearne. Trentham Books pound;15.99

As well as providing a wealth of information and new ways of thinking about the place and role of images in culture - especially young people's encounters with culture - Art, Narrative and Childhood offers readers a cosmopolitan and entertaining overview of the interactions between children, images and texts.

The collection is the result of a conference, Reading Pictures, held in September 2000 at Homerton College, Cambridge. Styles and Bearne have captured the essence of an event that interrogated and celebrated images from every conceivable perspective.

Their choice of 13 essays by writers from Australia, Canada, France, Sweden, the UK and the United States encapsulates the breadth and diversity of the conference. Topics featured range from a consideration of the early (1930s) links between commercialism and juvenile publishing found in Dr Seuss through a study of illustrators' sketchbooks and picto-diaries, to a consideration of how character is developed in picture books.

Several contributors focus specifically on children's responses to images, including works in the Tate Gallery. One looks at how children understand the work of illustrators and themselves as narrative artists; another looks at pairs of children reading a picture book and points to the unexpectedly physical nature of the process while considering how children's experience with PCs and consoles affects the reading and creation of texts.

All the essays are interesting in their own ways, but their quality is typified by a fascinating discussion of Aboriginal picture books in Australia, including one which its authors say "is true, although most of it hasn't happened yet". Jimmy and Pat Meet the Queen (1997) sets out the events that follow when an Aboriginal group discover the land they live on legally belongs to the Queen. "The Queen?" says Jimmy, astonished. "The Queen never bin fuggin walk around here! Bring her here and I'll ask her: 'All right, show me all the waterholes!'" The Queen duly arrives in high heels and a tiara, accompanied by two corgis. After a good-humoured camp out, she is set the test of finding the waterholes. Failing, she declares imperially: "There are no waterholes."

But once she has been taught to look according to Aboriginal ways (which the reader experiences through the wonderful illustrations), she claims "the Walmajarri mob's the owners for this country", and all ends happily.

The final contribution looks at the inevitable impact of screen-based technologies, organised according to the logic of images, on alphabet-based writing, arguing that new technologies do not (as many people fear) create passive mouse-clickers, but are ushering in an era that defines imagination more actively than in the past. The mixture of reassurance and excitement that identifies this closing piece is characteristic of the collection, which, above all, is concerned with new ways of seeing, understanding and responding to the images before us. This book will be used and enjoyed well into this new millennium.

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