Reviews 2011

New Directions in Picturebook Research

New Directions in Picturebook Research. Teresa Colomer, Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer, and Cecilia Silva-Díaz (eds.). London: Routledge, 2010. 261 pages. £80.00 (hardback).

As New Directions in Picturebook Research bears witness, picturebook research is probably one of the most sophisticated areas of children’s literature research, both theoretically and methodologically. This collection of essays deals with aesthetic and cognitive aspects of picturebooks, addressing three different sets of issues, namely narratological questions pertaining to multimodal story-telling (part II), the impact of “child psychology, cognitive linguistics, cognitive psychology, and memory research” (6) on the composition of and research into picturebooks (part III), and a section that focuses on “the relationship between children’s response, literacy, metaliterary awareness, the values of contemporary societies, the artistic constructiveness of visual and written text and its implication in cognitive development”(2) (part I).

The volume’s division into various sections is not fully transparent and definitely not the strongest feature of the book. The first section is quite heterogeneous, with the result that the distinction between the first and the last part is not always clear. The difference seems to be that the first five chapters wield tools and concepts from literary studies, while the contributions to the third section apply perspectives from the cognitive sciences. However, Nina Christensen’s paper on the diverse ways in which early and contemporary picturebooks introduce children to semiotics through particular types of interplay between the auditive, the visual, and the verbal could easily fit into the third section. Meanwhile, some chapters in the third section only have a tangential relationship to the cognitive sciences. Thus,Anna-Maija Koskimies-Hellman’s fine chapter on “mindscapes” in contemporary picturebooks is primarily indebted to categories from literary studies (narratology, Bakhtin, Nikolajeva and Scott), while its psychological focus is limited to passing references to psycho-analytical classics (Freud and Bettelheim) that only live on in literary studies nowadays. This argument applies even more strongly to Agnes-Margrethe Bjorvand’s fascinating analysis of the picturebook Angry Man (Sinna Man), which does not, in fact, employ psychoanalysis at all.

Although the categorization of the papers in this volume is not entirely satisfactory, this does not detract from the fact that they are of a very high academic quality, striking a proper balance between the close analysis of primary works and reflections on theoretical issues. The successive chapters cover a wide spectrum of topics, ranging from the ways in which picturebooks reflect society’s changing values (Teresa Colomer), over an analysis of the narrative potential of a wordless picturebook (Isabelle Nières-Chevrel), to an enquiry into the different roles of words and pictures in remembering and representing one’s personal past (Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer). This volume is also truly international in scope, combining Anglo-Saxon scholarship with contributions from Northern and Southern Europe, a rare phenomenon, unfortunately.

Because of its broad scope, this volume offers a highly informative synopsis of the current state of the art. As such, it reveals quite clearly which directions appear to be particularly promising for the further development of the field within the near future:

Firstly, as picturebooks are a multimodal form, approaches that take the interaction between words and pictures into close account stand out as the most useful. Pictures do not share the linearity of sentences and therefore cannot be dealt with adequately by concepts and tools that derive from exclusively literary and linguistic contexts. Therefore, enquiries into, for example, first-person narrative (Eva Gressnich and Jörg Meibauer), a strictly verbal category, are less to the point when dealing with picturebooks than contributions employing categories such as “frame-making and frame-breaking” (Carole Scott), “off-screen” (ellipsis or blank space, Fernando Zaparain) or “mindscape” (Anna-Maija Koskimies-Hellman),that apply equally well to verbal and visual signs.

Secondly, the criterion that picturebook research should come to terms with the multimodal nature of its object also points to the most promising directions for interdisciplinary cooperation. Interdisciplinarity is not a virtue in itself, and some forms of interdisciplinarity are more useful than others. It stands to reason that picturebook research has much to gain from forging ever closer ties with visual studies, i.e. enquiries into the narrativity of the fixed and the moving image and studies of rhetorical strategies for visual persuasion, as exemplified by cutting edge research into film, photography, painting, and advertising. This route seems more rewarding to me than creating alliances with the cognitive sciences, that are hampered by a certain blindness to the material specificity of diverse media formats. Judging from developments in literary studies at large, i.e. the emergent field of “biopoetics”, the cross-fertilization of literary scholarship and the cognitive sciences mainly produces observations at an extremely high level of abstraction, on the uses of art and poetry in general in the evolutionary history of mankind. The example is hardly inviting.

Finally, some chapters adopt an empirical approach to issues pertaining to children’s response to picturebooks. How do children actually react to ‘twist endings’ (Brenda Bellorín and Cecilia Silva-Díaz)orto metaliterary features (Evelyn Arizpe)? To what extent are their reactions culture-specific (Arizpe)? Observations of and interviews with child readers/spectators provide an excellent opportunity to put the theories of reader response to the test. We have speculated at length about children’s capacity to comprehend irony or metafiction, and about the uses of discrepancies between words and pictures for stimulating an initial comprehension of irony, so why not assess these hypotheses by observing the actual behaviour of flesh-and-blood readers? Empirically and hermeneutically oriented researchers are often cordoned off into separate camps, to the detriment of both. Empirical research without sophisticated theories is incapable of formulating substantial research questions, while theories that react to other theories without ever taking into accountthe existence of real people eventually become futile. This volume demonstrates how rewarding it is to bridge this gap, inviting further research along these lines.

Taken all together, this volume gives us a very clear picture of what picturebook research has on offer at this moment and that certainly is an admirable achievement.

Lies Wesseling
Maastrict University, The Netherlands