Thursday, 24 February 2011

A Little Rant about Picture Books Meg Harper

I’m preparing for a library workshop on Friday – the theme is Cops and Robbers because my latest book, an early reader, is called ‘Stop, Thief!’ So we’re going to bring it to life with props and hopefully no actual theft and read other Cops and Robbers stories and make board games and the like. Hence, I have been re-reading wonderful old ‘Cops and Robbers’ and ‘Burglar Bill’ by Janet and Allan Ahlberg – and once again I am thinking, ‘What’s happened to picture books with subtle, delicate pictures and rich, satisfying texts of more than a few words?’ Ones that feature people rather than cutesie blob-like animals in garish colours? What’s happened to books like the ‘Church Mice’ series by Graham Oakley or classics like ‘Dogger’ by Shirley Hughes or wonderful, satisfying cartoon picture books like those of Philippe Dupasquier and Posie Simmonds? To the gentle pastel palettes of Helen Oxenbury or John Burningham? I support my wonderful local independent bookshop Warwick Books which though marvellous is tiny so maybe I should be visiting a bigger store – but the impression I get is that the vast majority of picture books now feature brash illustrations and minimal text. Some of that text is excellent, of course, and we’re seeing some wonderfully quirky exceptions such as the work Emily Gravett, but my over-riding impression is that the richness and diversity of picture books is diminishing. Picture books are a wonderful source of ideas for drama with young people but I’m struggling to find new ones these days. I leapt with glee on ‘Library Lion’ by Michelle Knudsen illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, the other day. Here we have delicate, evocative touching pictures and a ‘proper story’ which held me gripped and I know children will love – and it even has a wonderful, thought-provoking message embedded.
I don’t think I’m being an old fuddie duddie who can’t move with the times here. I know children are bombarded with technicolour TV and so perhaps publishers think that they need to compete with all that brightness and bittiness. I’m not suggesting we dump delightful Nick Sharratt or eschew Elmer. I’m just asking for more substantial stories in picture books and more variety in characters and styles. I’m quite happy with anthropomorphosis at its best – who can forget Jill Murphy’s hilarious Large family of elephants or Mick Inkpen’s Penguin Small who meets the Neverwasanocerous? But I’m fed up with endless blobby creatures with unmemorable characters and only a passing resemblance to the animals they’re supposed to be, especially when nothing much happens to them anyway!
Perhaps publishers could take a look at some of the work coming out of the Cambridge MA in illustration from which SAS member Sue Ferraby is just graduating.
Those are her pictures, heading this blog. I’ve been a fan for years.
Do take a look at the web-site above. Haunting pictures and the hint of enthralling stories to go with them. I wish!


catdownunder said...

So it is not just me who feels this way? I had a hard time finding a suitable book for my godson at Christmas time. He is five. He is highly intelligent and wants something with a bit of body and depth but which is still age appropriate. He loves complex illustrations - and so do many of the other children I know.
I do not see why complexity or challenging illustrations should be considered "old-fashioned"!

Michele Helene (Verilion) said...

I don't think you're being an old fuddy duddy. My daughter's language is developing and although I haven't read it to her yet, she spends hours with The Mousehole Cat looking at the pictures and making up her own stories and she has the French and English version of Peepo. We don't have any of those blobby picture books because we pick the picture books not for our daughter (confessions of a bad parent coming up) but for us. We figure we're the ones reading it night, after night, after night, so WE'VE got to like it. So lastly, a big thank you for all the recommendations Meg.

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you so much for drawing attention to Sue's wonderful illustrations! I think they have a beautiful and mystic quality that deserves acknowledgement and, hopefully, wider publication.

Lynne Garner said...

Meg half of me agrees with you the other half disagrees. My first book "A Book For Bramble' has wonderful illustrations by the very clever Gaby Hansen. They are full of detail and what I would consider traditional. However there are other books where the illustrations make me cringe as well as the story (one author/illustrators work does spring to mind but I'm not here to bad mouth someone elses work - we all have our own taste). The one thing I will say is that as with many things picture books follow a fashion and fashions repeat themselves. So one day the fashion will return for the type of book you long for.

Meg Harper said...

Sue Ferraby has emailed me and thinks that the 70s and 80s were better times for picture book makers...there was more artistic freedom and more respect for writers and image makers. She has heard the term "flat art" used to describe the current trend. Because you cannot walk into it somehow.

She finds that publishers seem to want ideas that they can shape/write their own the unique flavour of a work is lost or watered down.

I'm not an illustrator so I don't know myself - but it does seem to me we're lacking the rich diversity that we used to see - though I do appreciate what Lynne has said.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Good blog Meg with interesting comments. Writing as I do for both older children and the picture book market, I'm acutely aware of how often I've been told by a publisher that although they like the story, it's too 'complex' or too long for the present day picture book market (read Sales and Marketing say so!) So as picture book authors we cut back and cut back until the stories lose their magic potency. At the moment 1000 words is far far too long for what publishers want. 400-500 words is more in keeping. I've found it particularly frustrating esp. when an illustrator has been found and they love the story and in fact ask for all the words to stay.

But having said that, I really believe in editing once the illustrators have done their work. The words have inspired the images and some are then made redundant. I always do another edit once the illustrations are in place.

Julie P said...

My daughter and I love looking through picture books and she often spends a lot of time staring at the illustrations. Each time we notice something different in them! She's six now and can read the text but she prefers to examine the pictures first before she reads the words beneath them. I do agree, though, that the books aren't like they were in my day. And that's a shame.

I'm joining the revolution for a return to better picture books!

Julie xx

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

Yes. My just-turned three-year-old son loves the Gruffalo and books with dinosaurs and whatnot, but, the picture book that most captured him was a beautifully written and delicately illustrated rhyme: A Summery Saturday Morning by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Selina Young.

The story is "quiet" compared to many recent published picture books (this was published 11 years ago), but there is a lot of magic and expectation in the trip to the beach and watching the dogs chase whatever they can, including the geese, who then chase them.

It was a complete find in the library (and there's another point, too).