Picture books

19th May 2000 at 01:00
Visual literacy is becoming such a buzz phrase that I couldn't stop myself using it to kick off this review. Now that it's got your attention, and before you get annoyed by my talking about the way I'm writing the review, rest assured that I'm trying to make a point. Just as words can describe the way words can be used, pictures in picture books do something similar.

One of the many components of visual literacy is understanding how the layout of the pictures tells a story. These layouts can be informed by cinema, comics, paintings, theatre, animation, textiles - even computer games.

Maurice Sendak has long been recognised as a picture book master, perhaps the master, and his interest in theatre and the stage underpins many of his books, the latest being Swine Lake (Collins Children's Books pound;10.99). Sendak's cosily crowded artwork complements the late James Marshall's sophisticated tale of the transcendental capacity of the arts. Having sneaked into an all-pig ballet to catch a juicy pig dancer, a shabby and hungry wolf is transformed by the beauty of the ballet.

Every page looks like a cut-out diorama, with all its fakey charm. This helps Sendak achieve a distancing effect, with the reader a member of a distant audience and therefore taking an objective point of view rather than being drawn into the mind of a main character. There are visual witticisms throughout, and well observed characters among the porcine theatregoers. Dare I say it: I, a relative picbook pipsqueak, think it's his best work for many years.

In The Sea King's Daughter (Simon amp; Schuster pound;12.99), a Russian legend retold by Aaron Shepard, Genn dy Spirin's paintings use layouts informed by illuminated manuscripts, tapestry and the Old Masters (particularly Breugel). At first, Spirin's work might be mistaken for realism, and thus passed over for those in search of friendlier, scribbly picture books. But he skilfully uses realistically rendered figures and materials to enhance the once-upon-a-tie quality of the tales, creating something quite out of this world.

The award for cleverest use of the page goes to John A Rowe in The Elf's Hat (North-South Books pound;9.99). Brigitte Weninger's cumulative yarn is a take on "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly" and Rowe complements it by exploring variations on the story's themes of containment and overflow. He plays a variety of tricks on the plane of the page itself, playfully subverting the sense of space.

You're never quite sure what your point of view is; on one page, it's as if you're looking down on a glass-covered surface at a chorus of bugs reacting to the picture story below. In another, you're peering into a square hole watching the overcrowded elf's hat filling up with one animal after another. This is nifty stuff, a whole arcade of subtle impossibilities.

It wouldn't take many more drawings to make an animated cartoon of Hilary Knight's Eloise (text by Kay Thompson - as seen in the film Funny Face with Fred Astaire - Simon amp; Schuster pound;12.99). Eloise has been a favourite in the US since the 1950s, and she returns to the UK after a long gap. The six-year-old daughter of wealthy socialites who have left her to her own devices in New York's Plaza Hotel, she fills her days making mischief.

The text wriggles and rambles in the first person, while the pictures express her every twist and turn to the point where she appears to move on the page. If you fall for her, there are several Eloise books in print, and new titles in the works.

Layout is just one of the many visual tools illustrators have at their disposal. Its use is a subtle subject to ponder, and may be best introduced to early teens and older pupils (unless children are precociously visually literate). However, because of the broad audience pictures address, these books will appeal to a far wider age-range than if they were unillustrated texts.

Ted Dewan

Picture book illustrator Ted Dewan has a website:www.wormworks.com

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