Out of focus

10th July 1998 at 01:00
WHAT'S IN THE PICTURE? Responding to Illustrations in Picture Books. Edited by Janet Evans. Paul Chapman Publishing. Pounds 14.99.

This collection of essays looks at first as if it's going to say some interesting things about its subject. In fact, while being intermittently illuminating about that, it raises another question altogether: why do experts on literacy write so badly?

editor Janet Evans's piece contains some prize examples of clodhopping English: "he will also make a fine dancer too", "(children) thought the protagonist would be a male or a female and whom they thought would defeat the dragon". She also seems to think that "stereotype" is a neutral word meaning something like "image". She says that "ensuring that children have access to literature in which both girls and boys are seen as equals, doing similar activities, might actually change people's stereotypes".

This is formidable stuff, but the other contributors press her hard. Writing about comics, Geoff Fenwick attempts, and probably breaks, the world record for most inaccuracies in three lines: Herge, not Herge, created Tintin, not Tin-Tin, and Rupert Bear, not Rupert the Bear, was the work of Alfred, not Arthur, Bestall. His knowledge of how comics work is no more than approximate: "the narrative, in capital letters, was contained mainly in the speech bubbles". No it wasn't: that was the dialogue. The narrative is in the pictures, which is the whole point he fails to see.

It's a great pity. There are some interesting ideas here, and a more carefully edited book would have displayed them properly. Judith Graham, for example, has some illuminating things to say about children's understanding of tenses in storytelling, and how that relates to the tense of pictures and the wordless picture book in particular; a piece on children making their own picture books sensibly reminds us that making is a great aid to critical understanding, quoting an 11-year old: "My practice as an artist helps me understand . .. I think in art and language." And there is an interview with Anthony Browne in which he vividly articulates the problems encountered in creating his picture books, and explains the solutions he found.

But just when you think it's picking up, along comes another distracting jolt. Paul Johnson (presumably not the celebrated spankee) makes a simple mistake in his very first sentence: "The children's picture book is not only a powerful vehicle for teaching reading but also promotes the emotional and intellectual growth of children through the language of combined words and pictures. " A moment's thought, and he could have recast it to avoid the "not only .. . but also" clumsiness; but no one cared enough to point it out.

Does it matter? Of course it does, and it's no excuse to say that most people don't notice that sort of thing. If they don't notice when you get it wrong, they won't mind if you get it right. This careless attitude to language reveals vague and fuddled thinking throughout the book: half-digested jargon, plonking statements of the obvious, and a fatuous pomposity of expression (two-year-old Sarah returning to a favourite book "to fulfil personal agendas"). It's not good enough. Away with it.

* Philip Pullman's latest book is 'The Subtle Knife', part two of the trilogy 'His Dark Materials', published by Scholastic

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