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Picturebook Study: Conventions From Photography

[F]or many decades after the invention of photography, blurred objects represented inferior work, for we do not actually see fast activity as a blur, and people therefore did not understand the blurs in photographs. But now we have learned from photographs to interpret blurs as objects in motion, and the conventionality of conventions is confirmed by the fact that even illustrators now sometimes imply speed by drawing a blur.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures


Scene from Hilda Bewildered

Blurred scene from Hilda Bewildered

Hilda Bewildered is full of illustrations which borrow from photographic conventions; indeed, that’s what the story is all about — surveillance. For more information, see the close-reading notes, available as a link from within the app.


Smile, baby! You’re on the cover of a picture book.

[L]ike the smiling image of the girl on the title page of Mr. Rabbit, pictures often imply through signifying gestures that the victims of our gaze are willing victims. We all know that we should “smile for the camera”–show a facial gesture that signifies pleasure to those who will eventually see the picture, and who will view it with a relentless attention that would cause us to stop smiling and feel abused if we experienced it in reality. The covers of many picture books ape such photographs and show their main character in a sort of introductory portrait that implies an acquiescence in the right of viewers to observe and to enjoy what they see. There are also, of course, many picture books whose covers show their protagonists simply getting on with the business at hand, whatever that business may be. But interestingly, those who smile and invite the gaze of viewers are most often female, the others usually male.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

Smiling Girls

As Nodelman points out, it’s easy to find illustrations of smiling girls in passive, portrait position. When both a boy and girl are depicted, it’s the girl who is more likely to be aware of the imaginary camera. Note that even The Little Match Girl smiles. Anyone who has read that story knows that the reader should perhaps be forewarned; this story is no smiling matter!

CinderellaThe Up And Down BookBaby's ChristmasWildLittle LuluGood Bye TonsilsThe Little Match GirlRed Riding Hood LadybirdLittle Red Riding HoodAlice In WonderlandThe Christmas ABCFun To Cook BookPepper Plays NurseLucy and Tom's ChristmasPhoebe and the Hot Water Bottles

Some Smiling Boys

The boy on the swing is aware of the camera but he is at least doing something (showing off). The boy in front of Baby’s House is proud and prancing about. The red-haired boy looking coyly at the camera is in more typically feminine pose. It’s no accident that he is doing something more typically feminine.

The Up And Down BookBaby's HouseThe New Baby

Smiling Group Portraits

It’s hard to get everyone in a group smiling at the same time, especially when doing something else at the same time, but not if that portrait happens to be an illustration:

The JetsonsLittle VersesHansel and Gretel


Smiling Creatures from Dr Seuss

Dr Seuss was a fan of the portrait-style smile on a front cover. This makes sense, because the inner stories were presented much like a pantomime, with ridiculous goings-on which seem designed to delight a young audience.

If I Ran The ZooGreen Eggs And HamCat In The HatFox In Socks


Other Smiling Creatures

If you’re hunting for smiling-at-the-camera male characters gracing the fronts of picture books, it’s a bit easier to find males smiling who are not human.

Frosty The SnowmanThe Monster At The End Of This BookPuss In BootsSomething ElseWordsChatterly Squirrel

Hell, I’m Not Smiling

Though these are obviously posed, portrait-type illustrations, in which the painted child is in front of an imaginary camera, these children are not actually smiling. Indeed, the twins look exceptionally creepy to a modern audience, though it wasn’t so long ago that nobody smiled for cameras; portrait-sitting was a solemn and expensive event.

My KittenMy PuppyMy Teddy BearThe TwinsWe Like Kindergarten

See also: Nudity In Picturebooks

Things That Appear In Picturebooks More Than In Real Life

Objects like tops and toy trains appear again and again in children’s books despite their absence from the lives of most contemporary children.

– Words About Pictures, Perry Nodelman

Putting the most obvious fantasy items aside, to that list I’ll add:

  • fathers reading newspapers in the kitchen
  • mothers wearing aprons in the kitchen
  • white people
  • boys (at a ratio of two to one), see the work of Janet McCabe
  • middle class interior decor and big grassy yards
  • tidy kid bedrooms
  • patchwork quilts
  • patterned wallpaper
  • old-style TVs with rabbit-ear antennae on top
  • symmetrical-looking trees that look good to climb (or shinny down)
  • healthy, green lawns and colourful flowerbeds
  • blue skies with white, fluffy clouds
  • farmyard animals on hobby farms
  • old women dressed like they’re from the 1870s
  • Americans
  • solitary goldfish in round bowls
  • dark forests
  • all-knowing pet dogs
  • retired grandparents with all the time and patience in the world
  • parents who don’t know a single thing about their kids’ imaginary friends
  • brown bears
  • wolves
  • fireplaces


Picturebook Study: Z Is For Moose by Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky

Z Is For Moose Cover

Z Is For Moose Back Cover

Kate de Goldi discusses Z Is For Moose on Radio New Zealand and has trouble not laughing. (This is what made me buy the book.)

There is something inherently funny about a moose. Is it the bulbous snout, or the slightly onomatopoeic name? (I’m not sure what real-world sound the word ‘moose’ makes, but it should, shouldn’t it?)

See also: Inherently Funny Animals in which the moose is still the funniest, precisely because there’s no reason for him to be.

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Picture Book Study: Mr Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs

Mr Chicken Goes To Paris Cover



Not a high concept book — indeed, a chicken goes to Paris. For a holiday. It’s what it says on the tin. This is a third-person version of someone’s summary of a trip, of the kind it’s possible to get quite bored of, unless, of course, the holiday maker happens to be an enormous chicken. A reader’s enjoyment of this story will depend on how funny they think huge chickens are.

There is no real story to this poultry’s holiday and each page jumps to one of Paris’ famous tourist attractions.

– 3 Star Goodreads Review

I’m approximately 30 years older than the target audience, I thought this was rather adorable.

– 4 Star Goodreads Review


The main drawcard of this story is the disproportionate size of the chicken, who grows larger and larger as the story progresses. Continue reading

Picturebook Study: This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

This Is Not My Hat Cover

“Jon Klassen’s darkly humorous illustrations are a joy to behold. Deceptively simplistic, the expressions and events that he captures, which range from the sublime to the sinister, are utterly wonderful.”

– The CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medal judges’ commentary

Someone on Goodreads called this a “hard-boiled crime thrillers for toddlers”. This is fairly apt description! Below I will refer to a number of 1 and 2 star reviews of this book on Goodreads, because these reviewers say something interesting about what adults think is good for children, and what should be kept from them. Committees who award big prizes are a lot less conservative than many book buyers, but I fear it’s the book buyers who drive the market.

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Irony In Decorative Illustration

Tales From The Brothers Grimm Zwerger

In a NYT review of some illustrated fairytales, Maria Tatar says the following:

Though Zwerger’s watercolors are sometimes disturbing, the decorative beauty of her work also functions as an antidote to the violent content of the tales. This dynamic is reversed in Hague’s “Read-to-Me Book of Fairy Tales”: Allison Grace MacDonald’s gentle prose mitigates the ferocity of some of Hague’s illustrations.

In other words, a beautiful picture can moderate violent images in a horrific story. Likewise, a sweet, innocent story can be spiced up by ferocious and daring illustrations.


Picturebook Study: Dogger by Shirley Hughes

dogger cover

I don’t remember seeing a pristine copy of Dogger, ever. Our own copy as a child had been cancelled from a local library and was covered in yellowing sellotape. I still have that copy. Many years later, this is one of my six-year-old daughter’s favourite books. It is also the number one favourite book of the now 13 year old who waits at the same bus stop. In short, Dogger by Shirley Hughes is a timeless classic. What makes it so good?

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Beauty Messages In Children’s Stories

The Evil Queen Snow White Disney

[T]here are rarely ugly heroes or handsome villains in illustrated versions of fairytales–assuming, of course, our usual societal values about what constitutes beauty and ugliness. Indeed, picture books help to teach us such values; when an illustration shows us that the princess whom the text calls beautiful is slender and blond and has a small nose and large eyes, we are being given information about the nature of beauty. Traditionally, the young characters in picture-book illustrations have almost always represented that sort of idea of beauty; many adults were so used to the conventionally blond, perfectly proportioned angels of previous picture books that, when Sendak began to produce his books in the fifties, they found his large-headed, fat-bellied, dark-haired gnomes repulsive. Yet Barbara Bader quotes Ursula Nordstrom’s comment that, by the early seventies, all real children had come to look like Sendak’s depictions of children.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures


Sendak’s goblins in Outside Over There look like babies but are described as goblins, which makes them extra creepy.


In stories which attempt to make readers think about beauty – or in stories which inadvertently portray beauty and its opposite in a certain light – what are the common messages? Can you think of any examples?

Consider one of the following tales and answer the following questions:

  1. Is there any clear link between beauty and goodness?
  2. Are there instances where danger or harm is associated with beauty or desirability?
  3. If so, is beauty or desirability the cause?
  4. Are there any links between beauty and jealousy?

Shrek – If you’re not beautiful you may well marry another not-beautiful creature, but you can still find happiness with that person. But know your ‘level’. I criticise the messages in this film, which is otherwise a beautifully constructed story:

Shrek has the best script I’ve seen this year. It’s the result of two elements of writing, structure and texture, that are rarely found together in Hollywood mainstream movies.

John Truby

Mean Girls—The most beautiful girls at school are less tolerant of individuality than the other girls and also, beauty correlates highly with vapidness and negatively with academic aptitude.

Cinderella—Kindness and beauty go together. If you’re ugly this will make you mean. Beauty can elevate a woman of low social status out of her class system and into the aristocracy.

Snow White —Mothers (including step-mothers) become jealous of their daughters, since a daughter enters her most sexually attractive years just as mothers move out of theirs.


The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children’s Fairy Tales

A Storybook [X]


In her novel We Were The Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates describes High Point Farm:

The gravel drive is lined with tall aging spruces. Around the house are five enormous oaks and I mean enormous–the tallest is easily three times the height of the house and the house is three storeys. In summer everything is overgrown, you have to stare up the drive to see the house–what a house! In winter, the lavender house seems to float in midair, buoyant and magical as a house in a child’s storybook. And that antique slight in the front yard, looking as if the horse had just trotted away to leave the lone passenger behind–a human figure, a tenderly comical scarecrow wearing old clothes of Dad’s.

A storybook house you’re thinking, yes? Must be, storybook people live there.


From Songs We Sing (A Big Golden Book), illustrated by William Dugan, 1957

If you’re an artist and you ever sit down to illustrate a picture book, even if you’ve not considered this question before it may come up as you illustrate:How much of your illustration is going to be ‘storybook’? Which parts of the illustration will draw attention to themselves by not being classically ‘storybook’?

For there are certain ‘storybook’ ways of depicting certain objects. The interior of a child’s bedroom will have a single bed, elevated on four legs (or perhaps bunks); curtains on the window, a few toys scattered artfully around (likely some books). A futon on the floor or a foldout sofa will draw attention to itself. A child’s house will basically be clean, with no peeling wallpaper, or crayon marks where a parent tried to scrub off two-year-0ld artwork and didn’t quite manage it that time. Storybook homes are not mobile ones. They are most typically found in leafy suburbs.

My Goodnight Book: pictures by Eloise Wilkin Children's illustrator, book author and doll designer.

My Goodnight Book: pictures by Eloise Wilkin Children’s illustrator, book author and doll designer.

Parents will drive sensible family cars like station wagons (not convertibles fitted out with child booster seats). Towns will comprise everyone’s idea of perfect capitalism: a grocer’s, a butcher’s, a bakery, rather than the more likely alternative of Walmarts in America and The Warehouse in New Zealand…

Fathers go out to work in the morning rather than at night. They wear button down shirts and carry briefcases. Families eat breakfast together.

These are not rules, of course. These are simply the storybook conventions which don’t draw attention to themselves. Except when they do. Like when more and more readers become dissatisfied with the fact that this storybook world we imagine is in fact a white, middle-class world, which seems to have the 1950s era as an ideal, even when modernity is also apparent.

There is a place for storybook fantasies. It’s also true that we need more diversity in picturebooks. We need:

  • working mothers and shift-working fathers
  • microwave dinners and lunches out of paper bags
  • families without cars of their own
  • untidy houses with piles of un-ironed washing and dirty dishes stacked on the bench
  • mobile homes, and multiple families living together, shared bedrooms, queues outside the bathroom, fold-out sofas
  • urban environments with concrete landscaping
  • lice combing after dinner
  • very tired parents


Children need to see these things, as part of everyday stories rather than ‘stories about poverty’. A good writer/illustrator team can make any setting a reassuring one. Young readers need these settings even though it will mean replacing cosy with the real. There will remain a need for cosy, existing alongside the real. But unless the real is included, what we have is symbolic annihilation and invisibility of the poor.


Lane Smith apparently lives in a house with ‘storybook charm’. Pictures here.

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