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).

This publication is the book form of the New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship, volume 17, issue 2 (November 2011). The editors state upfront that the articles in the collection should be cited from the original date of publication, which is reasonable since new research on picturebooks has been published between the journal’s and the book’s publication. The articles examine picturebooks from epistemological, empirical studies and pedagogical perspectives.

Barbara Keifer’s article opens the book with a historical overview of the picturebook as a physical art form and the role of picturebook artists across time. Keifer identifies a number of important technological breakthroughs such as the first century Roman codex, the invention of paper and movable type printing press in the Middle Ages, which had set the form of picturebook we see today. Keifer then surveys the development of the picturebook as an art form for children from the mid-eighteenth century to the present day. She argues that the picturebook artist’s role throughout the centuries has been to provide readers “with first hand observations of human society” (13) and this has always involved supposedly postmodern techniques such as self-referencing, playfulness and intertextual referencing. As an opening chapter, Keifer’s article defines the object of study examined in the subsequent chapters.

Chapter 4 would be a logical chapter to follow from Keifer, since Teresa Duran and Emma Bosch continue the discussion of picturebook as an object of study. They enrich the idea of picturebook by redefining the boundary of the text of the picturebook to include what other forms of literature would refer to as paratext. Duran and Bosch suggest two new classifications, namely epitextual endpapers and peritextual endpapers, to include endpapers as part of the text which can influence the understanding of the narrative. Although the terms are clearly defined at the beginning of the article for the purpose of their study, and the criteria of the suggested classifications are valuable addition to the terminology for picturebook analysis, the terms can create confusion. The new terms depart from Genette’s original notions of epitext and peritext, which distinguish the two by the different physical spaces in which they exist, too much. The two new categories are essentially peritext according to Genette’s terminology. And epitext aptly labels the paratext that ‘[circulates]… freely in a virtually limitless physical and social space’ (Genette 344). Whereas Duran and Bosch coin the term epitextual endpaper to refer to the content on the endpaper which is externally alluded, “not closely and significantly related to the narrative” (44). It is very different from the original term since its definitive criterion is content focused and has forgone the notion of free circulation and expansion of epitext; whereas Genette define the object of study by its physical boundary, embracing discussion on content under his framework. In fact, the two new suggested categories fit under Genette’s framework. The new terms trespass the terminological hierarchy and therefore undermine the clarity of the original terms. Genette’s original terminology is still important, if not becoming increasingly significant since the picturebook is evolving and merging into new multimedia platform with limitless readers’ participation.

Despite using very different approaches, Chapter 5 and 6 are both concerned with space. Maria Nikolajeva and Liz Taylor explore the concept of ‘bed-ness’ through examining a common icon in children’s picturebook – the bed. It is as a functional object as well as an indicator of a chronotope. Incorporating cultural geographer Doreen Massey’s idea of space, the bed can be seen as a ‘meeting place’ (81) with a ‘bundle of trajectories’ (67) allowing emotional encounter, power struggle between adult and child, adventure and transformation etc. to happen. While Nikolejeva and Taylor explore one space through a larger corpus of sixty western picturebooks, Jean Webb analyses one text – Peter Stamm and Jutta Bauer’s When We Lived in Uncle’s Hat – and suggests multiple readings of this surrealistic text. Webb challenges the suggested reading provided by the publisher, which she finds reductive, and points out the demanding task the reader faces in attempting to fill in the gap between the subtly interconnected scenes. She further suggested a philosophical reading of the text from a surrealist and existentialist’s perspective. The various locations, some physically possible to inhabit and others not, in which the family lives has existential implications on how a family exist. Both chapters conclude upon the idea of stability being a desired state within the space of the bed and the home, which seems indicative of a shared notion about childhood.

Chapter 3 and 7 foreground theoretical development and political issue, which call for attention and further discussion. Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer and Jürgen Meibauer’s close reading of five Pop Art picturebooks in Chapter 3 surveys a possible body of texts for the theorization of the concept of strangeness for picturebook analysis. Maureen Farrell argues in chapter 7 for the recognition of an autonomous corpus for Scottish children’s literature which is vital for pedagogical purposes of national identity formation.

The last three chapters of the book offer the results of real readers’ responses to reading different picturebooks. Janet Evans studies how a group of readers aged between 10 and 11 benefit from discussing their thoughts on reading Colin Thompson and Amy Lissiat’s The Short and Incredibly Happy Life of Riley. She confirms the power of picturebooks as a stimulant for rewarding discussion among students since readers demonstrated the ability to discuss current affairs issues such as recession and poverty. They also showed empathy to others who are less fortunate than themselves. Also utilizing discussion among readers, Brenda Bellorín and María Cecilia Silva-Díaz share the reading of Shaun Tan’s The Arrival by a group of readers, both native and migrant, from Catalonia, Spain. The results show readers’ interpretation of the mental processes of the characters which are expressed purely by visual cues. By expressing the images through verbal languages, readers demonstrated metalinguistic awareness of the switch in media as well as the strength and limitations of the two media. The article concludes by confirming visual images as a media capable of communicating mental processes of characters. Working with another wordless picturebook, David Wiesner’s Flotsam, Evelyn Arizpe and Julie McAdam conclude the book by suggesting that photography has the potential to be an effective pedagogical tool for developing students’ critical literacy skills, which, in this case, refers to their awareness of image construction.

The collection skims through a wide range of topics, from epistemology, cross-disciplinary approaches, ground work for future theoretical and creative development, empirical reader responses to pedagogical implications, but only lightly touches on philosophical readings of the text. Discussion on multi-media and emerging platforms for children’s literature is also absent. One editorial error is that the chapter numbers in the Introduction do not correspond to the actual numbering of the chapters in the book. Other editing mistakes, such as poor image-text spacing and missing half a line of text, are also evident, but are not too problematic since the identical materials are available in the journal online.

Faye Dorcas Yung
University of Cambridge, UK

Work Cited

Genette, Gérard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.