Reviews 2013

Picturebooks: Beyond the Borders of Art, Narrative and Culture

Picturebooks: Beyond the Borders of Art, Narrative and Culture. Evelyn Arizpe, Maureen Farrell and Julie McAdam (eds.). London and New York: Routledge, 2013. 164 pages. £85.00 (hardback).

It is more usual in reviewing to begin with a discussion of the contents of a book than with caveats about its presentation. In the case of this volume it is, however, impossible not to start by observing that problems with its editing, copyediting and physical presentation obstruct the reading experience. Due to difficulties with copyright, not all of the articles carry images from the texts discussed; this is a pity as in many cases, these are likely to be unfamiliar to Anglophone readers. Where images are reproduced, the overall quality of reproduction is very poor. That all of the chapters, apart from the Introduction, were first published in New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship (Vol. 17, issue 2, November 2011) makes the shoddy production standards all the more startling.

Originally these chapters were papers delivered at a conference on picturebook research at the University of Glasgow in 2009. The conference was based around the findings of a continuing international project, ‘Visual Journeys’, which explores children’s construction of meaning in picturebooks within the context of their experiences of immigration, journeys and their own cultural backgrounds. It would seem that the speakers’ papers were published as they were presented at the conference and were not rewritten or edited for print publication. The impression conveyed is that speakers were talking in a context where the audience could see images on the screen and where banal comments, likely to have been made en passant, might be more appropriate than when presented in a format that attempts to be scholarly. Some of the contributors apologise for a lack of illustrations due to issues with copyright, but in other cases the poor quality of the blurred grey reproductions do not add much anyway. Typographical, punctuation and syntactic errors permeate the volume, the last line of text on the recto in one page-gathering has slid almost completely from sight, the typeface in two of the chapters is smaller than in the others, and the running title throughout merely says ‘Picturebooks’ on both the verso and recto – thus offering no assistance to a reader who wants to refer back to earlier chapters. In addition, the referencing systems at the end of each chapter vary considerably, both in presentation and in content: in some cases references are missing, and there is also confusion between English language versions and original versions of some of the texts.

The content of the chapters ranges widely, starting with Barbara Kiefer’s ‘What is a Picturebook? Across the Borders of History’ and concluding with discussions of children’s response to particular visual texts. The structure of Kiefer’s article typifies a difficulty with several others in the collection: it takes too long to get to its most substantial points. Following several pages about the development of reading pictures and the history of the picturebook, already well-documented, she begins a more interesting discussion about the way in which visual artists connect with each other across centuries, including examples of how 15th century artists’ depictions of everyday life and that of present-day picturebook makers have much in common. This is followed by her arguments that the characteristics of postmodernism are evident in the work of book artists of much earlier periods than the present.

Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer and Jörg Meibauer in their discussion of a selection of 1970s picturebooks which they categorise as ‘Pop Art’, propose that ‘strangeness’ should become a new concept, expressing concerns about children’ ability to cope with the strange or unconventional. This is one of the articles where more illustrations would have been very helpful. As it is, the one image reproduced in blurry grey and white is not good quality. Again, poor reprographics reinforce the uncertainty and lack of firm conclusions in an effort by Teresa Duran and Emma Bosch to create a typology of endpapers. A whole page is devoted to endpapers from El pequeño (Ann and Paul Rand) described as ‘a simple, subtle pattern of small orange ls on a white background’ (50). Why this example was selected and why it was reproduced on a full page is baffling.

Beds and bedding as physical objects and as cultural and emotional signifiers in picturebooks are discussed by Maria Nikolajeva and Liz Taylor, and how picturebooks may be interpreted by different readers is considered by Jean Webb, who uses When We Lived in Uncle’s Hat by Jutta Bauer and Peter Stamm as the basis for her argument. These are chapters which might have worked better in a conference setting, accompanied by images to support the speakers’ points. This is true also of two other chapters where live audience participation might have brought extra dimensions to observations concerning older (10-12) children’s cognitive and emotional responses to two Australian visual texts. Janet Evans looks at The Short and Incredibly Happy Life of Riley by Colin Thompson and Amy Lissiat, and Brenda Bellorín and María Cecilia Silva-Diaz consider mental processes involved in a reading of Shaun Tan’s The Arrival.

Evelyn Arizpe and Julie McAdam also look at children’s responses. They took David Weisner’s wordless Flotsam as an impetus for reflection on visual images and the way in which photographs can span time and cultures; this was part of a project aligned to the ‘Visual Journey’s’ theme in which a group of Glasgow children were given cameras and asked to make their own visual stories. Both this chapter and Maureen Farrell’s overview of some Scottish picturebooks are the strongest contributions in this collection. Farrell reminds us of a distinctive literature that, like other non-English but English language literatures, is often subsumed into the category of ‘English’ children’s literature.

It is such a pity that this collection is marred in so many ways. So often publications in English discuss only, or mainly, texts from the English language world. This collection steps well outside that; it has the virtue of attempting to widen the parameters of a discussion that can often be focused on a limited range of texts, even within English. At £85 it is very expensive, particularly considering how problematic it is, and readers could do much better elsewhere.

Valerie Coghlan
Independent Researcher