Reviews 2013

Crossover Picturebooks: A Genre for All Ages

Crossover Picturebooks: A Genre for All Ages. Sandra Beckett. New York: Routledge, 2012. 398 pages. £85.00 (hardback).

Crossover Picturebooks opens with a quotation from the agent provocateur of French children’s literature, François Ruy-Vidal:

There is no art for children, there is Art. There are no graphics for children, there are graphics . . . There is no literature for children, there is literature.

Following this same logic, are there no children’s literature critics, just literature critics? Beckett’s volume, certainly, is an academic crossover in its own right – as likely to be read and enjoyed by researchers in children’s literature and ‘adult’ literature, in the fine arts and in book history. Enormously wide in scope, like its predecessor Crossover Fiction (2009), Beckett’s corpus of texts joyfully crosses geographical, generic, chronological and, of course, audience-related boundaries. Clearly Beckett is right to assert that she needed this second, thick volume, entirely dedicated to picturebooks, to complement her first book on crossover fiction.

The book is divided into six long chapters which tackle the subject of crossover picturebooks from different angles. The introduction highlights the particular potential of picturebooks – or more precisely, iconotexts (Hallberg, 1982), since in the vast majority of Beckett’s examples text and image are inseparable and mutually enhancing – to find an audience of both adults and children. Beckett then goes on to discuss artists’ books; the decision to place this chapter at the very beginning of the book may surprise readers, as she discusses some examples which, she grants, are not generally handled by children (if at all). The third chapter, on wordless picturebooks, makes the interesting point that the lack of verbal material may trigger fruitful and complementary readings by adults and children – hence their denomination as crossover.

Beckett then explores picturebooks alluding to the fine arts – their crossover nature coming from the sophisticated inter-iconicity. She acknowledges that these picturebooks are almost by necessity the property of the intellectual classes, providing and reinforcing cultural capital, but emphasises that understanding the allusions is not always essential to reading pleasure. The next chapter, on picturebooks with ‘cross-generational themes’, tackles what she identifies as crossover content. Finally, an unexpected chapter on celebrity picturebooks counterbalances the arguably elitist picturebooks and artists’ books discussed earlier.

We therefore have here access to many different aspects of the crossover iconotext: crossover qua artistic medium, then as reading event, then as referential network, then as thematically ageless, and finally as a publishing phenomenon. This choice of structure awakens the reader to the variety of reasons why an iconotext might be said to be crossover, providing what could be called a hidden conceptualisation of the term. For the volume is not directly concerned with theorisation. It showcases an astonishing quantity of works, spotlights some of them very efficiently, and discusses authorial and publishing practices, but the reader must actively glean from different places in the book snippets of definitions which could pave the way for a fuller theory of crossover iconotexts.

Not that theorisation would be absolutely indispensable, but a little more conceptual rigour would have made the book tighter. We can quibble endlessly over whether picturebooks, let alone crossover picturebooks, can be defined as a ‘genre’, as the title of the book and of some of the chapters suggest. Crossover picturebooks, I think, are no more a genre than children’s literature or adult literature; in fact, the whole volume constantly seems to betray this notion. There are very few aesthetic, narrative or ideological similarities between Goodnight Moon, artists’ books and Madonna’s picturebook series that could warrant their definition as generically related. If anything, this book shows precisely that very many different types of genres, worldviews, media, publishing practices, ideologies can work towards addressing a dual audience of adults and children.

Leaving semantics aside, the reader can regret the sometimes monolithic encapsulation of children and adults as ‘readers of all ages’. Perhaps due to editorial pressure, it feels like Beckett often makes herself end her descriptions of the iconotexts with short comments as to why they can be defined as crossover. The result is a series of clone sentences that flatten the diversity of readings, which she elsewhere rightly advocates, into general expectations that ‘readers of all ages’ will like these books:

‘When Enzo Mari addresses children… his goal is to stimulate their imagination and their creativity; in doing so, he manages also to appeal to adults’ (31)

Namida is a simple, yet powerful, narrative that touches readers of all ages.’ (60)

‘The book’s appeal with adults is undoubtedly due in part to this philosophical dimension. However, children are also capable of appreciating such depth of philosophical reflection.’ (85)

‘Readers of all ages have always appreciated Blake’s expressive cartoon-style illustrations’ (106)

‘At the same time, readers never know exactly where the scenes are set, so that his visual journeys have universal appeal for readers of all ages’ (111)

‘Vilela rejects the stereotypes of the grand narrative, offering a very original take on the traditional genre, one which appeals to all ages.’ (115)

Of course it is not entirely fair to take out sentences like these. In other places, Beckett does define critically and precisely how the dual address works – she sometimes concludes that one side of the audience is addressed more efficiently than the other, for instance. But the recurrence of these remarks as closing lines of her analyses has a lasting impact on the reader. It gives the impression of a general discomfort with the very term ‘crossover’; of a need for more solid conceptualisation. Words such as ‘appeal’, ‘touch’, ‘powerful’, ‘universal’, etc., often reiterated, create a web of assumptions as to the reading event and the reading levels of the audience rather than structure them into an argument about the nature of the crossover iconotext.

Beckett’s research on the authors, illustrators and publishers of crossover picturebooks is remarkably thorough, international and wide-ranging. She devotes much of her book to the producers of such literature, trying to understand their motivations, describing in a lively manner the challenges that they face both from the literary establishment and from the educational systems of the countries of publication.

Sometimes the authors’ quotations that she selects fall under the same kind of conceptual vagueness that I mentioned earlier. Katsumi Komagata’s quite unhelpful ‘books are books, that’s all’ (80) epitomises a certain kind of authorial attitude towards one’s art which, I think, comes much more from the fear of being perceived as a ‘kids’ writer’ than from any thorough reflection on the matter. Such statements (though this may be a matter of personal sensitivity) unpleasantly betray an aetonormative bias, to use the term from Maria Nikolajeva (2010:8) – giving the general feeling that a children’s book is ennobled by its appeal to adults. And when attributed to such authority figures as Maurice Sendak, the validity of these judgements is not easily contestable.

But these are matters which do not affect the general feeling of awe at the breadth and usefulness of this extremely dense and informative volume. Beckett’s study of publishing practices, paratextual strategies, buyers’ choices, media attention and the award industry complements her iconotextual analysis to form an exhaustive overview of such literature. This volume, like the previous one, will be an invaluable resource for researchers interested in one or several types of crossover picturebooks, from different angles, and for research, pedagogical or simply personal purposes.

Clémentine Beauvais
The University of Cambridge, UK

Works Cited

Beckett, Sandra. Crossover Fiction: Global and Historical Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Hallberg, Kerstin. "Litteraturvetenskapen och bilderboksforskningen."" Tidskrift för litteraturvetenskap 3-4: 163—168, 1982.

Nikolajeva, Maria. Power, Voice and Subjectivity in Literature for Young Readers. New York: Routledge, 2010.