Reading Pictures Is A Skill In Its Own Right

Any sort of close reading of a picture book turns the reader into a semiotician, points out Perry Nodelman in his essay Decoding The Images: How Picturebooks Work.

I have been literate in the former sense since I was 6. As for the latter, I still struggle. Hit me with subtitles, for example, and I read the movie instead of watching it. Likewise when faced with a graphic novel, I read the dialog, wonder why I don’t understand what’s going on, then remember — oh, yeah! — to go back and look at the pictures.

From reading online reviews, I know there are still parents who disparage picturebooks that have few words, or who assume those books are only for the youngest children. Extrapolating, I suspect these same adults believe graphic novels are mere comic books, a lower art form than stories told exclusively in words.

I offer my own failings in visual literacy as evidence to the contrary.

A graphic novel is experienced, not just read, and the full experience requires developing important powers of observation, concentration and aesthetic appreciation. Like reading, these skills have the capacity to enrich one’s life immeasurably.

– from Graphic Novels Aren’t Just Picturebooks Anymore at Centredaily, in which the headline manages to condescend to the medium of picturebooks while its contents, in contrast, elevate pictures to heroic status in one of the most mismatched headlines I’ve seen yet.

I believe we are still some way off understanding many of the picturebook’s most significant features. Even though we are experienced readers of verbal text we are still learning how to read the picturebook, both in the sense of reading individual books, and in the sense of understanding how they work. … We now take sophisticated combinations of word and image in books, magazines and advertising for granted but it is only relatively recently that printing technology has permitted this creative freedom.

– Reading Contemporary Picturebooks by David Lewis

Young people need to understand that not all images are out there to be consumed like, you know, fast food and then forgotten. We need to educate them to understand the difference between moving images that engage their humanity and their intelligence, and moving images that are just selling them something.

– Martin Scorsese, film director

See also:

The Importance Of Using Images In The Classroom from Edudemic

Top Ten Wordless Picturebooks from The Nerdy Book Club

Visual Literacy: Investigate and play with images from The Book Chook

Picture books DO boost literacy: It doesn’t matter what you read to your children as long they are interested in the story from The Daily Mail

Tips For Reading Wordless Picturebooks from What Do We Do All Day?

Wordless Books

 

The Opposite Of Beer Brewed By Monks

John Cranch Monks Merrymaking c.1804

Episode 55 of the 99% Invisible podcast goes into the strange psychological phenomenon whereby certain consumers will pay huge amounts for a scarce commodity. Alcohol and handbags seem especially open to this marketing manipulation, and in this case beer, not because beer connoisseurs are being manipulated per se, but because there is a monastery in Germany whose monks brew beer — but only enough to generate funds for the monks to get by on. Turning a profit is not their business. The beer is good, apparently, but adding to its goodness is the story behind it: the monks don’t brew on Sundays of course. Nor do they brew on Fridays, because they don’t eat on Fridays. To pick up a box of the stuff you have to phone first and make a reservation. It’s hard to get through on the phone, especially since the lines are only open at certain times of the week. Then, if you manage to get through, in order to pick it up you have to drive and drive and drive through the countryside. Consequently, the beer fetches a very high price, even for its high quality, and there’s a blackish market on eBay.

I mention this because apps are the opposite of monk-brewed-beer.

Apps are available anywhere, anytime, to anyone with a device. Apps are the opposite of ‘limited supply’. They are the opposite of exclusive. The opposite of exclusive is ubiquitous; the opposite of expensive is free, and there seem to be a lot of consumers who expect good apps to be free, knowing that when they’re downloading an app, they’re not depleting any sort of resource. A traditional point of view, based on years of evolution.

The difference of course is that in order to deliver an app to the end-user, unless the end-user spends significant time scanning the long list of new apps list coming onto iTunes each day, the developer has had to spend time and resources (probably both) making the end-user aware of its existence. That long country road is no shorter, but it is traveled instead by the marketing team, not by the end-user.

Header painting: John Cranch Monks Merrymaking c.1804

Glossary of Picturebook Terminology For Review and Analysis

Carlton Alfred Smith - The Young Readers 1893

Is it picture book or picturebook? When commentators put the two words together, they do so mindfully:

The terminology we apply to books, texts and reading do not seem to attach to the picturebook so readily. For example, if we speak of ‘the text’ of a picturebook, do we mean the words or the words-and-pictures together? … And when we say ‘read’ a picturebook does the word — and the process — apply equally well to the visual images and to the sentences and paragraphs alongside, or do we need another term that better represents the special relationship of picture and beholder?

from the introduction to Reading Contemporary Picturebooks: Picturing texts by David Lewis

The more detail in the words, the less room there is for pictorial invention.

from Reading Contemporary Picturebooks by David Lewis
Abecedary

An ABC book, from Medieval Latin abecedarium (“alphabet, primer”).

Absurdism

when highly unlikely or impossible things happen it is called the absurd, most often used for comic effect. There is purposely no logic or continuity.

The Carnaval A Book Of Poems by Sef Roman Semenovich and Leonid Roshidaev 1994
The Carnaval A Book Of Poems by Sef Roman Semenovich and Leonid Roshidaev 1994
The Carnaval A Book Of Poems by Sef Roman Semenovich and Leonid Roshidaev 1994
Abstract Expressionism

Art that while abstract is also expressive or emotional. Abstract expressionists were inspired by the surrealist idea that art should come from the unconscious mind.

Achrony

When the temporal deviation from the primary story cannot be placed in any given moment within the scope of the story. Rare outside purely experimental prose, but perhaps all pictures are achronical.

ADAPTATION

Retrospective adaptations reward audiences for any prior knowledge of the hypotext (or origin story). Retrospective adaptations offer a parallactic view of an older story.

Prospective adaptations can stand alone. Their relevance does not depend upon prior knowledge of earlier texts. Since the child readers of picturebooks have little life experience, when picturebooks come from adaptations, they are highly likely to be of this kind.

Aetonormative

Describes the phenomenon of setting adults up as the norm. Can be a problem in children’s literature, which is written by adults but meant to be read by children.

agogic

In music, pertaining to or emphasizing slight variations in rhythm for the sake of dynamic expression.

Allegory

a device in which characters or events represent or symbolise ideas and concepts. A message is communicated with symbols.

Allusion

(adj. allusory) An allusion is a reference to another story, for example an illustrator might include a girl in a red riding hood in a modern story, alluding to the classic fairy tale. Allusions are good for creating new dimensions.

Anachrony

chronological misplacement of any kind. (You probably know the word ‘anachronistic’.)

Analepsis

another word for a ‘flashback’ or ‘switchback’. A secondary narrative precedes the primary one. For example, a grandparently figure looks back in time. This might be expressed pictorially with a thought bubble, or sepia tones, or other recognised devices for expressing retrogression. The plural is analepses.

ANARCHY

Childhood according to Seuss is a perpetual zigzag between good sense and nonsense, between the anarchy of the Cat in the Hat and the selfless stoicism of Horton. They are like the ego and the id, not so much eternal antagonists as complementary poles. The books that he wrote, averaging one a year from the late 1930’s to the mid-1980’s, alternate between ever loopier (and sometimes forced) excursions into whimsy and ever more pointed (and sometimes forced) fables.

A.O. Scott, Sense and Nonsense, NYT Magazine
Antiphony

A poem or hymn which is divided into two parts. Each part responds to or echoes the other. [Much like words and pictures in a picturebook.] Antiphony: I Am The Great Sun

Backdrop Setting

(as opposed to integral setting) A setting exists, but it is separate from the story. The setting could be changed and the story would still exist, basically unchanged.

BOARD BOOK

A board book is a picture book printed on stiff board, designed to be used by toddlers who may damage books made of paper.

The humble board book, with its cardboard-thick pages, gently rounded corners and simple concepts for babies, was once designed to be chewed as much as read.

But today’s babies and toddlers are treated to board books that are miniature works of literary art: classics like “Romeo and Juliet,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Les Misérables”; luxuriously produced counting primers with complex graphic elements; and even an “Art for Baby” book featuring images by the contemporary artists Damien Hirst and Paul Morrison.

A Library of Classics, Edited for the Teething Set, NYT
Callout

a call-out or callout is a short string of text connected by a line, arrow, or similar graphic to a feature of an illustration or technical drawing, and giving information about that feature (comic book speech bubbles)

Cautionary tale

A tale told in folklore, to warn its hearer of a danger, e.g. in “Little Red Riding Hood” children are warned not to dilly-dally on the path and talk to strangers. Cautionary Tales are now outdated and more often satirised, for example by Hilaire Belloc in Cautionary Tales For Children.

DEICTIC

This is a linguistics term and refers to a word or expression whose meaning is dependent on the context in which it is used (such as hereyoumethat one there, or next Tuesday). When addressing a very young audience, certain words or expressions won’t be familiar to them due to life inexperience. This affects the vocabulary and situations storytellers use in stories for children, or affects how they are introduced (without the same presumption of prior knowledge).

Chronotope

the treatment of spatiality and temporality. A word to describe the way time and space are described by language, because time and space are impossible to depict via visual signs alone. Time can be indicated only by reference. In picturebooks time might be represented by changing light as the day fades, or with clocks and calendars or seasonal changes or ageing characters. But mostly in picturebooks, the passing of time is underscored by words. (Later, at ten o’clock that night, that afternoon, etc.)

CINEMATIC (VS STAGE) PERSPECTIVE

Some illustrators work on a ‘stage’, while others are more ‘cinematic’, changing the camera around, including various angles and a mixture of close ups, medium shots and long shots.

The illustration below is literally bordered by some stage curtains, and therefore makes for an excellent example of ‘stage’ perspective on the page.

Barbara Cooney is a good example of an illustrator who works with stage perspective. We seem to view scenes from the distance of a chair in the audience.

A picture book illustrator who works with cinematic perspective is Chris Van Allsburg. The proportion of cinematic picture books has increased over time. This is down to the influence of television.

Co-author, Co-illustrator or Co-narrator

Words for ‘users’ when the apps require participation (or the illusion of participation) in order to complete the story.

Interactive engagement on a creative level is, indeed, what most apps promise but seldom offer in a meaningful way.

COLONISATION

Why do children get different literature? Because adults think children are different. Childhood is ‘colonized’ by adults. (See article by Perry Nodelman: “The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children’s Literature.”.) This happens for two reasons: For education and for entertainment, to experience something vicariously. But we have this idea that kidlit must teach kids how to read and how to behave. Books can be too preachy or have lots of fun and these two things can have a tension in them. (Both of these two things do include a definition of a child.)

Colour Field Painting

Describes the work of abstract painters working in the 1950s and 1960s characterised by large areas of a more or less flat single colour

CONCRETIZATION

Texts often describe how places, people, or objects look or sound or smell. Readers can enrich their experience and increase their understanding by forming mental pictures: by imagining what is being described as exactly as the words of the text allow them to. This process is what theorists of reader-response call “concretization”. […] Concretization is a skill often possessed by children. In fact, imagining as literally and completely as possible the world and the people a text describes is the only way that many children know of building consistency from the texts they read. This seems to be the reason that so many children and other inexperienced readers worry about the logic and coherence of the worlds that texts enable them to concretize—why they so often get angry when there are inconsistent details in descriptions of places and people or confusions in the sequence of events.

On the other hand, concretization is a skill that many adults have forgetten. Many readers have been taught to focus so much on using texts’ potential for engendering sights and smells and sounds. That’s a pity. Not only does it deprive such readers of a source of pleasure, but it also prevents them from understanding the subtle richness of the texts they read.

The Pleasure of Children’s Literature by Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer
Continuous Narrative

Continuous narrative art gives clues, provided by the layout itself, about a sequence. Sequential narrative without the frames. Vignettes are often presented continuously, too.

Contradiction

On Nikolajeva and Scott’s scale of interanimation taxonomy we find ‘contradiction’, in which pictures and words do not match each other – one tells a different story from the other. This sort of picturebook demands more from the reader in terms of active synthesis, and may appeal to an older, more sophisticated audience, or to a dual audience, in which young readers understand one part of the story and the adult reader understands another. Of course, pictures and words can never be absolutely contradictory. It is a matter of degree. Stories with contradictory pictures and words are also called ‘twice-told tales’.

Contrapuntal

On Nikolajeva and Scott’s scale of interanimation taxonomy we find contrapuntal (the adjective form of ‘counterpoint’) This is a useful word when talking about words and illustrations which deviate from each other somewhat. Further along the scale comes ‘contradiction’, in which the pictures and words completely contradict each other.

Conventional Interaction

Unsurprising interaction in an interactive text, given what has come before. For example, the book app works like a digital version of a book, complete with ‘page turns’.

CYBERTEXT

As defined by Aarseth: The cybertext is, literally, “a machine for the production of variety of expression”. Aarseth’s textonomy of the cybertext can only partially be applied to book apps. For example, the aspect of “transiency” (meaning that in a transient text “the mere passing of the user’s time causes scriptons to appear” (Aarseth 1997, 63)) is not very helpful since virtually all book apps for children are intransient text. If a book app is played in the “read-to-me” mode (the closest thing to a transient text I have encountered in a children’s book app), the reading can usually be stopped and modes switched.

Degrees Of Interactivity
  1. selective participation, in which the user chooses among the options offered by the program
  2. transformative participation, in which the user selects and transforms the contents proposed by the author
  3. constructive participation, in which the user can select, transform and build new proposals that are not planned by the author
Dialogic

Relating to dialogue. When literacy researchers use this word they’re talking about how children and adults talk together about a book before, while and after reading.

DIDACTIC

Didactic refers to a story with a clear pedagogical purpose. “Moralistic”.

Everything has a moral, if only you can find it.

Lewis Carroll, Alice In Wonderland

Adults often assume that all children’s stories are fables or should be read as fables […] Aesop’s fables usually end with an explicit statement of a moral. But these stories have been retold by many people, and Joanne Lynn points out that “those who retell the fables always manage to find ‘morals’ that mirror their own values”. When the printer Caxton first published the fables in English in the fifteenth century, he said that the story of the fox and the grapes showed that the fox was wise not to want what he couldn’t have.

In more recent versions the fox’s behaviour is neither wise nor admirable but shallowly self-deceptive; the moral is something like “It’s easy to despise what we can’t have” It seems that, if readers assume a story is a parable or a fable, the presence of a moral is so important that almost any one will do.

Anyone who expects a moral or a message is sure to find one. That this is the case reveals the degree to which messages or themes are separate from the texts readers relate them to.  In seeking messages, readers tend to confirm their own preconceived ideas and values: to take ideas from outside the text and assume that they are inside it. That prevents them from becoming conscious of ideas and values different from their own.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

Each reader has to find her or his own message within a book.

Laurie Halse Anderson
Diegetic

Communicates by telling. The flipside of mimetic. In a film, a soundtrack is ‘diegetic’ if it occurs naturally as part of the story, such as in the films of Quentin Tarantino, or on the TV series The Wire, in which any music must come from a radio, or from a CD that a character is playing in the background, rather than added later as part of the editing process. In picture books, verbal text is diegetic.

A phrase such as ‘the diegetic real’ is useful when making a distinction between what is meant to be understood as realism versus what is meant to be understood as ‘happening within the child’s imagination’.

DOGGEREL

Doggerel refers to comic verse composed in irregular rhythm. Bemelmans’ Madeline series is considered ‘doggerel’. The word also describes verse which is simply badly written.

Double Address

When an author intends adults to get things out of a story that children would not. (See also: single address). Some commentators have called the middle grade version of this The Mark Twain Wink, as he was well-known for it. E.B. White and A.A. Milne also used this technique. Note that all of these men also wrote for adults.

Doublespread

a graphic/illustration spreads across two open pages

Droodle

“Droodle” is a nonsense word suggesting “doodle”, “drawing” and “riddle.” Their general form is minimal: a square box containing a few abstract pictorial elements with a caption (or several) giving a humorous explanation of the picture’s subject. For example, a Droodle depicting three concentric shapes — little circle, medium circle, big square — might have the caption “Aerial view of a cowboy in a Port-a-john.”

Dual audience

A ‘children’s book which appeals to both children and adults. Big budget stories (e.g. Pixar movies) are expected to appeal to both children and adults.

Picture books are synonymous with Children’s Literature. But is this is a necessary condition of the art form itself? Or is it just a cultural convention, more to do with existing expectations, marketing prejudices and literary discourse?

from an essay by Shaun Tan

With their violent excesses and winning magic, fairy tales once entertained adults and children together. As John Updike said, they were the television and pornography of an earlier age, and they rarely pulled punches, even when the young were listening in.

Maria Tatar, NYT

‘Children’s books’ in general must appeal to adult co-readers as much as to the child. Picture books in particular must have a ‘dual audience’.

What does this mean, exactly? It can mean one of two things:

  1. The material must be so universal that it transcends age.
  2. The story must operate on more than one level, with some things understood only by the adult co-readers.
Ecology

Used primarily for the life sciences, this term has also been employed by sociolinguists and psychologists to describe the ways in which organisms interact with environment. The term ‘ecology’ might also come in handy for discussing picturebooks, and the ways in which words interanimate with pictures. The term ‘ecology’ may be especially appropriate because the ways in which words and pictures feed off each other are different from book to book and even from page to page. One moment words can step forward to occupy centre stage; next moment they return to the wings or comment like a chorus on some key point of action. Ecology is far more dynamic than any kind of taxonomy.

Emergent reader

describes readers who have not yet achieved fluency, and who may need a slightly different kind of picturebook from fluent readers

Enhancement

On Nikolajeva and Scott’s taxonomy of interanimation we have ‘enhancement’ somewhere in the middle, in which the pictures enhance the words without being contradictory. Agosto calls this ‘augmentation’.

ENDPAPERS

Also called end pages. Peritextual parts of a hardback picturebook found on the flipside of the back and front of the cover. Endpapers have been a part of bookbinding since the mid 1600s. We have front endpapers and back endpapers. These pages are the first parts of the interior of the book seen when the book is opened, and the last to be seen after the story has been read and the book is about to be closed.

EPITEXT

Gerard Ganette’s word for the creations that exist around an author’s work: interviews, publicity announcements, reviews by and addresses to critics, private letters and other authorial and editorial discussions. These exist ‘outside’ of the text in question but still influence how an audience will come to a work, and their reading of it.

ERGODIC LITERATURE

As defined by Aarseth: Cybertexts are part of “ergodic literature,” that is, literature in which “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text”. The keyword in defining a text as ergodic is, of course, “nontrivial” which is vague enough. While swiping and tapping to navigate from one screen to another can clearly be defined as “trivial” (much like turning a page), gestures like tapping on a hotspot to trigger an animation should be regarded as alterations of the text, namely the story, and can thus not be qualified as trivial.

Extraliterary Experiences

The real-world experiences readers bring to the page, and that author/illustrators can assume of readers. For example, children know that some children go to school on a school bus, so this basic concept need not be explained.

FABULA

In contradistinction to ‘story’: Fabula refers to “a series of logically and chronologically related events that are caused or experienced by actors”—thus answering the question “what happens?”—the term story indicates “a fabula that is presented in a certain manner” (answering the question “how is it told?”) In other words: “discourse for the analysis of hypertexts”

In relation to picturebook apps:

multiple fabula apps = in which user follows the concepts of “creating your own story” or “choosing your own adventure.” This type of app is most strongly affiliated with gaming and role-playing, sometimes to the extent that border lines become blurred. users can determine (to a certain extent) what happens in the narration. To evaluate multiple fabula apps, it is useful to consider the actual purpose of this narrative device. Is it to create a random text out of random fragments or is it to encourage users to explore narrative modes ? Does it give the user the opportunity to alter the fabula to produce aesthetically satisfying narratives that have been noticeably affected by the user in a purposeful way? Is randomness the result of the app’s mechanization or an aesthetic failure?

contrasted with:

alternative story apps = Basically, all apps that offer some kind of tap-triggered dialogue, sound or animation fall into this category.

Fairy painting

a genre of painting and illustration featuring fairies and fairy tale settings, often with extreme attention to detail. Fairy painting was popular in the Victorian era and made a comeback in the 1970s.

FIRST PERSON POINT OF VIEW

Remember that illustrations as well as textual narration can be described in terms of first (and third) person.

Funny animal

Funny animal is a cartooning term for the genre of comics and animated cartoons in which the main characters are humanoid or talking animals, with anthropomorphic personality traits. The characters themselves may also be called funny animals.

Graphic poetry

A category including acrostics, calligrams, concrete poetry and other kinds of visual poems. Also called ‘shape poems’.

Hedcut

A term referring to a style of drawing, associated with The Wall Street Journal half-column portrait illustrations. They use the stipple method of many small dots and the hatching method of small lines to create an image, and are designed to emulate the look of woodcuts from old-style newspapers, and engravings on certificates and currency.

HETEROGLOSSIA

Multiple voices. A diversity of voices, styles of discourse, or points of view in a literary work. Postmodern picture book authors like Wanda Gag and A.A. Milne utilised the space of children’s literature to play around with the interrelationship between words and images.

The term was introduced by the Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin in his “Discourse in the Novel” (1934). Adjective: heteroglossic.

He was talking about the presence of two or more expressed viewpoints in a text or other artistic work. In a novel, you might have the voice of the characters (dialogue) and the voice of the unseen narrator. These are two different voices, at least. We all speak differently to our friends, children, partners and work associates. This is heteroglossia.

Bakhtin was saying there is no such thing as a single, solitary language which exists in a linguistic, literary, or existential vacuum, untouched and unaffected.

Even young children do this. When they play, children appropriate social roles and rules in pretend scenarios and use a variety of ‘voices’ in role enactment.

During the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, picture book creators such as Wanda Gag and A.A. Milne were experimenting with children’s experience of heteroglossia. These authors were part of the Modernist art movement. One of the standout features of Modernism: The idea that there’s no such thing as a single, veridical truth. Everything depends on your viewpoint and where you happen to be standing.

Postmodern picture books continue to explore our heteroglossic human experience. A stand-out example is Voices In The Park by Anthony Browne.

Related word: Polyphony (multiple voices). This is another of Bakhtin’s words. He came up with polyphony before he came up with heteroglossia. The two words are now basically the same. If there’s a difference, it’s this, laid out by Morson and Emerson (1990): Heteroglossia describes the diversity of speech styles in a language while polyphony is to do with the position of the author in a text.

HIGH CHROMA

Chroma is another word for ‘saturation’ and describes the departure degree of a color from the neutral color of the same value.

Colors of low chroma are sometimes called “weak”. High chroma images (as shown below) are also called “highly saturated,” “strong,” or “vivid.”

Service for Everybody by Charles Relyea 1935 high chroma
I’ll Never Let You Go, Austin Briggs, 1948
Štěpán Zavřel (1932 - 1999) 1977 illustration for his own children's book 'The Last Tree'
Štěpán Zavřel (1932 – 1999) 1977 illustration for his own children’s book ‘The Last Tree’. In children’s stories which happen at night-time, the dark is regularly depicted as high key. This is less scary and also allows the artist more detail.

High chroma art can sometimes lend an atmosphere out of the first half of the 20th century.

HIGH KEY

High key images comprise a range of light value colors. (At the other end, a low key scheme contains a range of dark value colors.) More specifically, high key color describes the set of colors that range from mid-tone hues to white, while low key color spans the range from mid-tone to black.

In photography, high-key lighting results in brightly lit subjects with more fill light and softer shadows. Low-key is a photography term, but the art world had had its own word for ages: chiaroscuro. Technically, chiaroscuro is when an artist uses a high contrast between light and dark with the effect of creating a dramatic mood and also to draw the viewer’s eye to a particular part of the composition.

Basically, high key equals lighter. Low key equals darker, and probably with more shadows.

A picture book sometimes goes from one key to another over the course of the story, matching the main character’s mood.

Horror vacui

In visual art, horror vacui (Latin for ‘fear of empty space’) or kenophobia (from Greek for ‘fear of the empty’) is the filling of the entire surface of a space or an artwork with detail. In physics, horror vacui reflects Aristotle’s idea that “nature abhors an empty space.”

Italian art critic and scholar Mario Praz used this term to describe the excessive use of ornament in design during the Victorian age.

If something is so detailed it almost makes your brain hurt, you might describe it as horror vacui.

Hotspot

In a book app, a part of the screen which initiates an action when touched. The effect is said to be ‘tap-triggered’.

HYGGE

Hygge, meaning ‘snug’; is a Scandinavian concept that evokes “coziness”, particularly when relaxing with good friends or loved ones and while enjoying good food.

This word also describes a large number of picture books — those which aim to create a snug and cosy atmosphere for readers.

HYPERTELY

An extreme degree of imitative coloration or ornamentation not explainable on the ground of utility. (Adjective: hypertelic.)

Hypertext

The relationship between a given text (the ‘hypertext’) and an anterior text (the hypotext) that it transforms e.g. Snow White in New York is the hypertext of Snow White the traditional fairytale (the hypotext). This word relates to diegetic levels.

The concept of cybertext is neither limited to nor does it include all kinds of literary texts published in the digital medium. Hypertexts, on the other hand, are a specific type of fiction within this medium that is distinguished by certain technical characteristics, that is, “a text that […] will ‘branch or perform on request’ (by links or other means)” (Wardrip-Fruin 2010, 40). Even a cursory glance at children’s book apps reveals that only a limited number of them fall into either category. Therefore, a different framework must be used to assess this kind of media.

Iconotext

A genre in which neither image nor text is free from the other. A term (first?) used by Richard Wagner, who wrote the book Reading Iconotexts: From Swift To The French Revolution. Author/illustrator Jon Klassen discusses this ‘middle space’ between illustration and writing which the reader must fill for themselves, creating a much more expansive world than either the illustrations or words could achieve by themselves. The process in which the reader interacts with an iconotext and fills in the gaps is called interanimation.

Iconophor

An artform around a letter of the alphabet. Its origins lie in medieval illuminations, though the abecedarian connection was usually coincidental in the Middle Ages.

FOUR AND TWENTY BLACKBIRDS (1937) Robert Lawson alphabet
FOUR AND TWENTY BLACKBIRDS (1937) Robert Lawson
Illustrated fiction

A broad term encompassing not only picturebooks but also comics, graphic novels, illustrated magazine fiction and anything else in which words and picture work together to tell a story.

Illustrations do have a narrative purpose. They must show us not just beautiful patterns and evocative atmospheres but what people look like as stories happen to them; that is, as they move and talk and think and feel. So their faces and bodies usually have the simplicity, and consequently the expressiveness, of cartooning, a simplicity at variance from the frequent richness and detailed accuracy of their backgrounds, which give us a different sort of narrative information. When faces and bodies do have the same solidity and detail of shading and lines as their backgrounds, they may come to seem static and inexpressive…The extraordinary expressiveness of cartooning seems to make it a particularly appropriate means of communicating narrative information. To suggest that all picture-bo0k art is a sort of cartoon or caricature is no insult; it merely stresses the extent to which the purposes and pleasures of this art differ from those we assume of other kinds of visual art.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures:
Impressionism

A movement in art which can be seen in some picture books. Impressionistic paintings make it seem as if the viewer only caught the scene with a glance.

IN MEDIAS RES

In medias res is a Latin phrase used by the poet Horace; it means “in the middle of things.” Poet Horace was describing the ideal epic poet.

IN STATU NASCENDI

In statu nascendi is a Latin phrase and means “in a state of being born”.

When a story begins in medias res (in the middle of things) and the character is given no backstory, we may say the character is presented to us in statu nascendi.

A good example of a picture book which begins in statu nascendi is Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, although modern picture books tend to begin this way in general. Older style picture books often have a short build up which describes what a character does regularly (the iterative), then switches to the singulative when describing what happens in this particular story.

Integral Setting

(As opposed to backdrop setting): Describes a setting which is an essential part of the story. It may even be considered a ‘character’ in its own right. If the setting were anything else, the story would not be the same or would not work at all.

INTERROGATIVE TEXT

An interrogative text has the force of a question.

In an interrogative text, authority is questioned. Harry The Dirty Dog is an example. Carnivalesque texts are interrogative by their function.

Intraiconic text

Writing that appears as part of an illustration, such as book titles on spines of books, writing on a computer screen, an addressed envelope. Slows down our ‘reading’ of the visual text and adds to the text-image tension.

The illustration below is especially interesting because the intraiconic ‘text’ is also a picture.

A Brand New Day: A Banana Split Story by A. S. Chung and Illustrated by Paula Bossio
A Brand New Day: A Banana Split Story by A. S. Chung and Illustrated by Paula Bossio
Cover by Saul Steinberg, 1963
Cover by Saul Steinberg, 1963
Leo-Lionni-intratext
Leo Lionni
Irony

A rhetorical figure based on a deviation from the dictionary meaning of words. Irony cannot be expressed by pictures alone, but can be achieved when the words in a picturebook don’t match up with the pictures, creating an ironic counterpoint. In order to work, all stories everywhere need a certain degree of irony.

Picturebooks are ironic in ways specific to picturebooks.

In their book How Picturebooks Work Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott came up with a taxonomy to describe how words and text work together to tell a story. When picture and text do not line up, they say there is ‘ironic distance’ between them. The difference between a picturebook (one word) and another kind of illustrated text: Picture and text must be working together in some way to create something new.

Here is the taxonomy they came up with:

  1. SYMMETRY: Words and pictures are on an equal footing.
  2. COMPLEMENTARY: Words and pictures each provide information.
  3. ENHANCEMENT: Words and pictures each enhance the meaning of the other.
  4. COUNTERPOINT: Words and pictures tell different stories.
  5. CONTRADICTION: Beyond different narratives, words and pictures tell the opposite of each other.

Nikolajeva and Scott are talking about the ironic distance between words and pictures in terms of narrative.

There’s another layer of ironic distance which comes from mood (for lack of a better term).

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

Though [Lisbeth] 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.

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.

Isochronical

A story is isochronical if the timespan of the story and the time it takes to read the story (the discourse timespan) are the same. See also: Talking about story pacing.

JATAKA STORIES

Sometimes called birth stories, Jataka are accounts of the previous lives of the Buddha in vairous animal and human forms. They have been absorbed into the folklore of many countries. Jakata tales have many similarities to the Panchatantra and Aesop’s fables.

A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books by Denise I. Matulka

Picture book examples:

Buddha Stories (1997) illustrated by Demi
The Brave Little Parrot (1998) illustrated by Susan Gaber
Foolish Rabbit’s Big Mistake (1985) illustrated by Ed Young

KINDERCULTURE

Shirley Steinberg and Joe Kincheloe came up with the concept of ‘kinderculture’: a new form of children’s culture which emerged in the late 20th century. This culture was driven by “changing economic realities coupled with children’s access to information about the adult world.” The 1980s marked the beginning of the boom in children’s consumer culture. Before then, marketers didn’t target children directly.

People were feeling pretty anxious about this change. The horror film Child’s Play (1988) feels like horror comedy now, but is all about those very real 1980s anxieties. A doll literally talks directly to a vulnerable child without the safe go-between of the adult.

Child's Play 1988 movie poster

The main concern for parents of the 2020s is that children have direct access to the entire Internet without the safe go-between of the adult.

LOW CHROMA

Chroma is another word for ‘saturation’ and describes the departure degree of a color from the neutral color of the same value.

Colors of low chroma are sometimes called “weak”.

Farm House and Field, Eric Ravilious, 1941. It depicts Ironbridge Farm, Shalford, Essex
Eric Ravilious, 1941
Literacy

Most often, two distinct things:

  1. learning to read and write
  2. such things as drawing conclusions, making associations and connecting text to reality

There is another kind of literacy required for reading digital stories: technical literacy—knowing how to progress through a story. A higher level of literacy again involves creating meaning, understanding and at the same time being critical. There is no evidence that literacy, in and of itself, leads to the cognitive functioning of, for example, logical, analytical, and critical thinking that the ‘literacy myth’ prescribes.

Literature

In literature, style is paramount, the work is thematically integrated, character is rounded, originality at a premium. Contrast with genre fiction.

LUDIC READING

‘Ludic’ or ‘absorbed’ reading is a virtually trance-like state in which readers willingly become oblivious to the world around them. The term as used here comes from Hugh Crago and Victor Nell.

Magic realism

Some people think that ‘magic realism’ is an unnecessary term to describe a type of low fantasy, for people who don’t like using the word ‘fantasy’. Others believe we should be making more use of the word fabulism. A highly political term, magic realism generally describes a story which seems grounded in our real world but which contains fantastical elements.

MAN BITES DOG HUMOUR

‘Man Bites Dog’ describes inversion humour. I’ve also seen ‘hat on a dog’ describing the same category of joke, in which the audience laughs because the usual way of things is back to front.

MARK TWAIN WINK

Mark Twain is famous for a style of narration in which a narrator cracks jokes which tend to go over the heads of child readers and appeal to the adult co-reader. We also see E.B. White and A.A. Milne writing in this way. We might hypothetically see this in picturebooks, though contemporary writers usually mean something different when they’re talking about picturebooks and ‘winks’.

The wink commonly refers to the ending in which a careful observer notices there’s something more to the story. Commonly there’s a clue which tells the reader the story is about to repeat, or that magic is actually real.

MATERIAL BODILY PRINCIPLE

This is Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s term. Picture books about the human body and its concerns with food and drink (commonly in hyperbolic forms of gluttony and deprivation) are stories about the material bodily principle.

Gross-out middle grade texts are often concerned with excretion (usually displaced into opportunities for getting dirty). Sometimes we get gross-out picturebooks, too. The Disgusting Sandwich is one example.

In stories for older readers this turns into concerns with sexuality (often displaced into questions of undress).

Harry The Dirty Dog (1956) is a good example of a picture book concerned with the body and the unfortunate need for maintenance.

Metafiction

Fiction which draws attention to the fact that it is fictional, not attempting verisimilitude. In children’s literature, directly addressing the reader (or ‘breaking the fourth wall’) is a common metafictive technique.

METAPHORICAL GENDER

Beef vs. chicken’ is a classic example of what’s known as ‘metaphorical gender’, where the two items in a pair are judged to express a masculine/feminine contrast despite having no directly gendered meaning—other examples include ‘square vs. circle’ and ‘knife vs fork’

language: a feminist guide
  • dog vs. cat
  • blue thing vs. pink/purple thing
  • cottage cheese
METATEXT

Meta, meaning all, refers to the coming together of text and image. All elements of a picturebook must be seen in relationship to each other. One element may be dominant on first appearance, though all contribute to meaning.

I’ve also heard metatext to mean a secondary text which talks about a main text. (The person writing or talking has to first define which is the main text, in the same way they have to define diegetic levels.)

Mimetic

Communicates by showing. Illustrations are inherently mimetic. Mimetic is the flipside of diegetic.

Mise en scène

Mise en scène is a ‘grand, undefined term’ which in film refers to the arrangement of space and the objects within it. The following things all contribute:

  • sets
  • props
  • acting styles
  • lighting
  • camera angles
  • and other elements

The concept may also be useful when describing picturebooks.

On the one hand, mise en scène describes the limits of human experience by indicating the external boundaries and contexts in which people live. On the other, it reflects the powers of the characters and groups that inhabit it by showing how people can have an impact on the space in which they live. While the first set of values can be established without characters, the second requires the interaction of characters and mise en scène.

From The Film Experience: An Introduction

Mise en scène as an external condition indicates surfaces, objects, and exteriors that define the material possibilities in a place or space. One mise en scène may be a magical space full of active objects; another may be a barren landscape with no borders.

  • The interiors of trains and subways, with their long, narrow passageways and multiple windows and strange anonymous faces mean that a character’s movements are restricted as the world flies by outside (The Lady Vanishes, The American Friend).
  • Deserts and jungles can be threatening to visitors (King Solomon’s Mines, The African Queen)

Mise en scène as a measure of character dramatizes how an individual or group establishes an identity through interaction with (or control of) the surrounding setting and sets. The mise-en-scène and the character mutually define each other, although the mise-en-scène may be unresponsive to the needs and desires of the characters.

  • A forest can be a sympathetic and intimate place (Robin Hood) or it can be an environment fraught with psychological significance (“The Company Of Wolves“).
  • A wide open space can expand the characters’ horizons (Brokeback Mountain).
Monoscenic Narrative

Monoscenic art represents a single scene with no repetition of characters and only one action taking place.

MULTIMODAL NARRATIVE

A digital story is defined as a ‘multimodal narrative’ text comprising  pictures, music, speech, sound and script.

Mythopoeia

The creation of artificial myths; artificial mythology (see also: pourquoi story)

Narratology

The theory and study of narrative structure.

Visual representation of setting is ‘nonnarrated’, and therefore nonmanipulative, allowing the reader considerable freedom of interpretation.

from How Picturebooks Work by Nikolajeva and Scott
Negative space

Most often white space, sometimes negative space comprises another colour such as black. In many ways, picturebooks are like film, but negative space is not an option in most kinds of films, where there has to be some kind of backdrop. Advantageous because lack of setting means a story may not date so much.

The Country Bunny and the Little Good Shoes, DuBose Hayward illustrated by Marjorie Flack
The Country Bunny and the Little Good Shoes, DuBose Hayward illustrated by Marjorie Flack
Nonce Words

Technically, nonce words are signifiers that lack the signified. In effect, these tend to be words used for the purposes of this story only. Also called ‘occasionalism’. Fictional coinages do not fill any lexical gap, nor do they enrich the lexicon. Thus, the ‘one off’ characteristic of fictional coinages is a predominant feature of such new words. In literature, the main motivation for new word formations is not to enrich the lexicon but to enrich the text itself. Since there is little chance for literary coinages to enter the language, they can be classified as nonce formations.

Note: The word ‘nonce’ is not related to the word ‘nonsense’. It means ‘for the once’.

That said, every now and then a nonce word from a very popular children’s book does enter the shared lexicon. Runcible probably comes from Edward Lear’s limerick The Owl and the Pussy-cat (1870). 

The difference between a neologism and a nonce word: Neologisms are young words which have occured naturally in our shared lexicon. Nonce words are performed for a work of art, and, generally, remain meaningful only within that work of art.

The popularity of Dr. Seuss has given rise to what we now call ‘The Seussian idiom’. See ”If I Ran the Circus” and ”Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book”, which initiate young readers into the enjoyment of language. When learning to speak, children learn to master the phonetic patterns of their mother tongue(s) by babbling streams of plausible but nonexistent words. This explains the popularity of made-up language with early readers.

NONSENSE

Literary nonsense (or nonsense literature) is a broad categorization of literature that balances elements that make sense with some that do not, with the effect of subverting language conventions or logical reasoning. … The effect of nonsense is often caused by an excess of meaning, rather than a lack of it.

Gibberish, light verse, fantasy, and jokes and riddles are sometimes mistaken for literary nonsense, and the confusion is greater because nonsense can sometimes inhabit these (and many other) forms and genres.

Wikipedia (Literary Nonsense)

Anne Carroll Moore, superintendent of children’s work for the New York Public Library system, called Dr. Seuss the American counterpart to Edward Lear, the tentpole author of British nonsense. Lewis Carroll popularised nonsense literature further. But some (e.g. Leonard Marcus) say Dr Seuss is not really a nonsense writer. He uses nonsense as a device to hold the interest of the reader.

A picture book example of nonsense is Meal One by Ivor Cutler.

Laura E. Richards and New Zealand’s Margaret Mahy are rare female examples of nonsense writers. (Nonsense may be related to the Tall Tale tradition, which is also masculine.)

Oral Tradition

Some children’s authors write in the style of oral tradition. Enid Blyton is a good example, as is folklore, making use of formulaic language, schematic and derivative characters, stories which change to suit the circumstances of time and audience and an open form. (Contrast with ‘literature’.) Oral traditions are no less valid than literary works. Stories making use of the above conventions might be described as ‘written folklore’. This type of story has a low status, partly because of its popularity.

Panoptic Narrative Art

Panoptic narrative art depicts multiple scenes and actions without the repetition of characters. Think of the word ‘panorama’. ‘All-seeing’ (pan + optic)

Parallelism

Symmetry by another name.

Paralepsis (paralipsis)

In a word: omission. Also spelled paralipsis. The device of giving emphasis by professing to say little or nothing about a subject, as in not to mention their unpaid debts of several million. In picturebooks, too, a kind of paralipsis can happen when something mentioned in the text is left out of the picture, or vice versa. Negative space might be said to be the picturebook equivalent of paralipsis. For example, a page might be deliberately left blank because the character has disappeared for a time. An empty chair may draw attention to the fact that its usual occupant has died (See The Heart And The Bottle by Oliver Jeffers. Paralepsis can also be a secondary narrative in which time is independent of the primary story. For example, there’s a paralepsis in Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, when Max travels ‘through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year’. This kind of anachrony is common in picturebooks which describe an imaginary journey. For example, all the happenings of Narnia can’t possibly fit into the time the children would’ve spent at the country house.

Paratext

Gerard Genette’s word for the sum of the peritext and epitext. Peritext is within a book aside from the author’s words whereas the epitext includes author interviews and other marketing materials.

Readers may make of my work whatever they please…The problem with my telling people what I think it means is that my interpretation seems to have some extra authority and that sometimes shuts down debate: if the author himself has said it means X, then it can’t mean Y. Believing as I do in the democracy of reading, I don’t like the sort of totalitarian silence that descends when there is one authoritative reading of any text.

Philip Pullman
Participation

Academics are distinguishing between the several possible meanings of the concept participation:

  1. conventional participation, such as letters decoding or the passing of pages or screens
  2. active participation, a complex interpretive demand related to a postmodern configuration of meanings
  3. interactive participation, or physical cooperation with the work
Pedagogical Applications

Used to describe parts of a story which encourage some sort of learning, for example via puzzles, counting things, finding objects.

PERITEXT

All the physical features within a book aside from the author’s words. Front and back covers, dust jacket, endpapers, half-title and title pages, and dedication page all work together with the text and accompanying illustrations to produce a unified effect. These are known as a work’s peritext, a term first used by Gerard Genette in 1987.

An example of a picturebook in which the peritext starts the story is Rosie’s Walk. Virtually all of the story is on the title page of Rosie’s Walk, with one little exception. The fox exists only the pictures, never in the text, so immediately there is a tension between the text and the illustrations.

PICTUREBOOK APPS

Short for application software: Software designed to accomplish specific user tasks (in contrast to “system software”).

PICTUREBOOK EBOOKS

While e-books are single files that require specific software (e-reader software), apps (being software) run by themselves.

Point-of-View

In a picturebook, point-of-view might be conveyed via the text or via the perspective of the illustration.

The most common point of view in modern novels is ‘close third person’, which contemporary readers are used to. In children’s novels, introspective narrators are common. Picturebooks tend to be narrated (via the words), with the point of view expressed (via the illustrations) by facial expressions and body language, in particular. Pictures are very good at presenting an omniscient perspective via panoramic views of settings/various scenes of different characters doing different things.

POSTMODERN

In postmodern picturebooks: reality is presented as less certain than assumed, meaning is not inherent to the work, non-linear narratives are common, the voice is often sarcastic and self-mocking, it is frequently self-referential, metafictive and anti-authoritarian. The reader is required to complete the story themselves after thinking about it.

Pourquoi story

Also known as an origin story or an etiological tale, a pourquoi story is a fictional narrative that explains why something is the way it is, for example why a snake has no legs, or why a tiger has stripes. A classic example is Rudyard Kipling’s collection of Just So Stories. See also: mythopoeia.

Prolepsis

A flashforward/anticipation. The opposite of analepsis. A secondary narrative that is moved ahead of the time of the primary narrative.

Reading event

Describes the ‘lived experience of reading — the experience of sitting down to read a picturebook — from cover to cover — as opposed to ‘studying’ a picturebook, or examining some part of it.

Recto and Verso

the front (recto) and back (verso) of a leaf of paper in a book

REDUCTION

Reduction can make texts intended for both adults and children appear to have been written for children alone. For instance, the fairy tales of Hans Chritian Andersen have long been considered solely children’s stories in the English speaking world because of their translations into English…this was a reduction of multiple address.

from Comparative Children’s Literature by Emer O’Sullivan
Register

A variety of a language or a level of usage, as determined by degree of formality and choice of vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax, according to the communicative purpose, social context, and social status of the user. In picturebooks the word ‘register’ describes a kind of atmosphere evoked by both words and pictures together e.g. grotesque, nostalgic, everyday registers.

REMEDIATION

Remediation is the act of remedying or correcting something that has been corrupted or that is deficient. But in the context of picture book media, the usage is difference.

Whereas books are ‘adapted’ for screen, books are ‘remediated’ as apps.

REPEATED READING

Picture books must stand up well to repeated reading. There are developmental reasons why children return to the same books time and again.

It may be that narrow input is much more efficient for second language acquisition. It may be much better if second language acquirers specialize early rather than late. This means reading several books by one author or about a single topic of interest.

from The Case for Narrow Reading by Stephen Krashen

What makes a picturebook re-readable?

Rhymed prose

a literary form and literary genre, written in unmetrical rhymes.

SCOPOPHILIA

A love of looking. Film theorist Laura Mulvey uses it. Comes from Freud.

Simultaneous Succession

Widely used in medieval art (in ‘hagiographies’, depicting the life of a saint), this term implies a sequence of events. Think of those cave paintings showing a stick figure with a spear, hunting down an animal. The moments are disjunctive in time but imply a sequence. For example, a series of pictures in a picturebook might show a child getting ready for bed: pulling off her jumper, taking off her shoes, brushing her teeth, retrieving teddy bear, getting under the covers. This technique of showing the passing of time works better for slightly older children, because younger children may interpret a series of pictures of this girl getting ready for bed as five different girls. (However, adult co-reading is assumed.) The books of Sven Nordqvist make much use of simultaneous succession. This is most often a type of continuous narrative art.

Simultaneous Narrative Art

Not to be confused with ‘simultaneous succession’. In this kind of illustration, everything in a picture appears to be happening at once. This kind of illustration has very little visually discernible organisation unless the viewer is acquainted with its purpose. There’s an emphasis on repeatable patterns.

Simulative Participation

The user is given the illusion of doing something that actively moves the story along but in fact the user is not free but must adhere to the app programming.

Single Address

When an author intends only to write a picturebook for children, even if the picturebook ends up being enjoyed by adults anyway. (See double address. Not to be confused with ‘dual audience’) It may be useful instead to think of multiple addresses rather than an either/or.

Screentone

When lots of tiny dots are used to fill a shape. Is still used today in manga, so if screentone is used in a modern picturebook, it’s likely to evoke a retro or comicbook feeling.

Solipsism

The philosophical idea that only one’s own mind is sure to exist.

Speed, Order and Frequency

These categories are helpful when applied to hypertextual structures and further distinguish between empirical and computed behaviour or strategies.

For example, the computed minimum or maximum speed for progressing from one page to the other might substantially differ from the empirical speed of a specific user at one specific running of the app.

Synoptic Narrative

A synoptic narrative depicts a single scene in which a character or characters are portrayed multiple times within a frame to convey that multiple actions are taking place. Synoptic is the adjective of synopsis.

Surrealism

A movement in art and literature that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images.

Syllepsis

A poetic device, a type of zeugma. In picturebooks, this occurs when you see two or more parallel visual stories, either supported or unsupported by words. A fairly common example in picture books is when the pictures depict the lives of small creatures doing their own thing but who remain unmentioned in the main text. The plural of syllepsis is syllepses. See also: parallelism.

by Richard Scarry for 'What Do People Do All Day' (1968). Scarry's Lowly Worm was often seen doing something different from the other characters.
by Richard Scarry for ‘What Do People Do All Day’ (1968). Scarry’s Lowly Worm was often seen doing something different from the other characters.
Symmetry

Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott have created a sophisticated taxonomy of picturebook interactions (between words and pictures) and came up with a sliding scale. ‘Symmetry’ is at one end, in which the pictures pretty much repeat what the words have already explained. At the other end is ‘contradiction’, in which the pictures say something completely different from the words, often creating irony or humour. The problem with having ‘symmetry’ at the ‘extreme’ end is that pictures cannot help but say more than the words, since ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ (or thereabouts). So there will never exist a perfectly symmetrical picturebook.

Teaching stories

A term used by writer Idries Shah to describe narratives that have been deliberately created as vehicles for the transmission of wisdom. Teaching stories include folktales, fables and didactic fairytales.

TEXTUAL NARRATOR

In stories without pictures we talk simply of narrators, but in picture books with a meaningful gap between the story told by the words and the story told by the illustrations (e.g. Rosie’s Walk) we might specify the narration as told by the words, in which case I have heard ‘textual narrator’.

THEME

The concept of theme means different things in different settings. In high school literature class we are told that ‘theme’ is a word — a sort of abstract noun like ‘love’ or ‘independence’. This is okay — this gets most students passing year 11 English, but if you go on to study literature, or if you’re a writer, the single word example of theme isn’t enough.

THEME AS USED IN EVERYDAY ENGLISH: “Well, the theme of today’s meeting was definitely muffins.” In everyday usage, ‘theme’ can refer to any collection of ideas which are somehow connected.

DEFINITION FOR WRITERS: A theme is a sentence, not a single word.

Theme is a coherent sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning.

WAR is not a theme. War is a setting.

LOVE is not a theme. Love is a genre (Romance, love story)

TEEN DRUG ABUSE is not a theme. Teen drug abuse is subject matter.

That said, when people talk about theme in relation to picture books they are often talking about the tags given to picture books by library cataloguers: family, friendship, loneliness etc.

TITLE

Titles (and headings) are a text-type in their own right. They serve a variety of functions and are of special interest to translators. Translated titles must fulfil the same functions in different markets. (This is why authors don’t often get a say in titles — it’s complicated!)

  1. DISTINCTIVE: A book’s title distinguishes it from other books. In some cultures (e.g. in Germany) there’s a law to protect book titles against unfair competition. Book titles must be unique.
  2. METATEXTUAL: Indicates information such as the genre of the book e.g. a funny, English language picture book
  3. PHATIC: Since titles are on the front covers, or appears on publisher’s lists and book recommendation sites, the title has a phatic function via first contact with the person looking at it. Length and memorability (mnemonic quality) is important here. If a title is too long and unmemorable the potential consumer won’t remember it, and the phatic function remains unfulfilled. (The word ‘phatic’ describes language used for general purposes of social interaction, rather than to convey information or ask questions.)
  4. REFERENTIAL: Offers information about the most important characteristics of the text regarding content/style. Information in a title must be comprehensible and acceptable for the recipients otherwise a title’s referential function remains unfulfilled. The title might say something about theme e.g. Pride and Prejudice. It might give us a clue about register Howe: The Day the Teacher Went Bananas. It might signal intertextuality e.g. William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury.
  5. EXPRESSIVE: Gives the author’s opinion on the text or any of its aspects. Basically, this means titles convey opinions. Titles have positive, negative and neutral connotations, make use of evaluating adjectives and adverbs and so on. The evaluation might apply to something in the book e.g. The Prettiest Love Letter In The World or it might refer to the readers themselves e.g. Hillaire Beloc: Bad Child’s Pop-Up Book of Beasts. This function is heavily culture specific.
  6. APPELLATIVE: Evokes the attention and interest of readers, including those with no previous interest in this kind of book, because the publishing team and author desire this book to be purchased and read. Basically, titles are meant to appeal. There’s a subfunction as well: to persuade. To guide readers’ interpretation.

For more on this see Text Functions In Translation Titles and Headings as a Case in Point.

TRIM SIZE

A publishing industry term for the size of a printed book. Below, Leonard Marcus explains how trim size is important (in a conversation about ebooks and their limitations).

Barbara Basbanes Richter: You don’t sound like you are against the use of technology, rather in favour of its judicious employment.

Leonard Marcus: I’m not against technology, but it’s no substitute for a parent. And in certain respects, paper books function more effectively than e-books do. I think that these are two art forms that are going to both develop and each will put pressure on the other to do better at what it can do best. A Kindle, for example, can’t change its format. Every picture book has to be exactly the same size to fit in the screen, and that is a real problem for creator of picture books, whereas the trim size and other physical aspects of the book have always been considered expressive elements. But that’s not to say that some brilliant person couldn’t take an e-book – which is really a form of animation – and do something on an aesthetic level that someone working in a picture book format could only dream of doing.

from Book Chat Part One with Leonard Marcus at Literary Kids
TOY BOOK

Toy books were illustrated children’s books that became popular in England’s Victorian era. The earliest toy books were typically paperbound, with six illustrated pages and sold for sixpence; larger and more elaborate editions became popular later in the century. In the mid-19th century picture books began to be made for children, with illustrations dominating the text rather than supplementing the text.

Wikipedia
User-Device Response Techniques

Describes the sort of interaction that happens between computer and user in games, but which is rarely seen in book apps. Book apps cannot offer the same narrative freedom of choice as role-play gaming where the user directs an avatar more or less freely through a virtual world.

  • character editing
  • various forms of multi-user experience which could be fruitfully applied to concepts of multiple fabula or alternative story apps to create alternative texts in interaction with other users.
  • the introduction of blanks, either literally in the interface as free space where the user can fill in words, drawings, or photos of their own choice or by using the possibilities of the device that allows users to make videos, take photos, or record their own words all of which can then be integrated into the app as forming part of the narrative.
Vanishing Art Style

Design created with large colour areas, enhanced in specific places with details only to suggest important features or clues

Verbal, Visual, and Sonic signs

The analysis of book apps calls for a broad use of the term “text.” The text of an app as I understand it comprises its totality of verbal, visual, sonic, and interactive elements, or the “surface” of the app as distinguished from the underlying structure of the source code.

Vignette

A small illustration or portrait photograph that fades into its background without a definite border. In picturebooks vignettes are often used to show the passing of time e.g. a child getting ready for bed might be depicted by the same child brushing her teeth, pulling on a nightgown then getting into the bed.

Visual motifs

Decorative designs and patterns used in visual artwork, such as rabbits (to indicate various things in different cultures, such as rebirth or fertility); sunbursts, curlicues etc.

Vita activa and Vita passiva

Those who are active versus those who mindlessly consume.

World literature

Is sometimes used to refer to the sum total of the world’s national literatures, but usually it refers to the circulation of works into the wider world beyond their country of origin. Sometimes the German word ‘weltliteratur’ is used even in English to mean the same thing.

SEE ALSO

This list of art terms relates specifically to Vermeer, but includes many words that are useful when describing artwork in picture books.

Header painting: Carlton Alfred Smith – The Young Readers 1893

Lemon girl young adult novella

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The Secret Self In Storytelling

Eastman Johnson - The Toilet

All of us have a Public, Private and a Secret Self.

Clarissa had a theory in those days . . . that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places after death . . . perhaps—perhaps.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

The degree of delineation and the stakes depend on our individual circumstances. Because we rarely have insight into the secret selves of others, fiction functions as a useful window. Fiction shows us that we are not alone, whatever our secret self may be.

That, my dear, is what makes a character interesting, their secrets.

Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden

WHAT IS SECRECY?

What we consider secret depends on time and place. Historian Jill Lepore draws a distinction between mystery, privacy and secrecy, three separate epistemological categories:

MYSTERY: what we can’t know, but are asked to believe.

PRIVACY: what is known, but not to everyone.

  • the law allows us to keep what we know to ourselves
  • the right to be left alone
  • What is considered private depends on the time and culture. The invention of the smartphone challenges the concept of privacy.

SECRECY: the secularisation of mystery. What is known, but not by everyone.

  • The European ‘age of secrecy’ happened between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries
  • This was the age of the secret sciences, considered ‘good knowledge’: everyone kept secrets: the state, nature, the human heart, trade guilds, God.
  • This culture was the perfect setting for occutism: spy networks, esoterica, ciphers and secret societies (the Jesuits, the Freemasons, the Illuminati)
  • Even into the eighteenth century, the common people had no idea about the level of state debt, details of taxation, the size of their own country’s army.
  • What is considered secret depends on the time and culture. For instance, secrets of nature were exposed after invention of the camera.

BENEFITS OF EXPOSING THE SECRET SELF

Jack will act in ways which recognise, and are sensitive to, Jill’s interests, only if he is able to grasp how things are for Jill, and understands why they matter to her; and, further, recognises that things being that way for Jill makes a claim on some of his own attitudes and behaviour.

Any Jack’s gaining access to Jill’s perspective on life thus demands a degree of sympathy. But when Jill’s interests and aims lie outside the normal range of Jack’s own experience, his ability to sympathise with Jill’s concerns enough to be considerate about them in relevant ways, will require him to see beyond his own usual range. Most people can learn about the needs and interests of others by extrapolating from their own experience and from their observation of people around them, but if these were the only resources for insight, the scope of an individual’s sympathies would be limited. And this is where the narrative arts come in. Exposure to the narrative arts overcomes that limitation: it enormously widens an attentive individual’s perceptions of human experience, and enables him — vicariously, or as a fly-on-the-wall witness — to see into lives, conditions and experiences which he might never encounter in practice. This extension and education of the sympathies is therefore the basis for a richer moral experience and a more refined capacity for moral response.

A.C. Grayling, The Reason Of Things

Grayling goes on to explain that educating moral sensibility through education ‘has a general tendency, not a universal effect, and works by heightening morally relevant insight in at leat many cases, in not all of which will the insight necessarily conduce to the good (after all, the sadist has to have insight into his victim’s circumstances in order to dow hat he does; so mere possession of the insight is also not a guarantee of such goods as kindness and consideration).’

INTERIORITY

Interiority describes parts of a story that convey a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Storytellers achieve interiority when they let the audience inside the character’s head, revealing the part of a person normally hidden to the outside world. Written stories are especially well-suited to conveying interiority. On screen it is much more difficult.

Because interiority is one huge advantage of the written word, writers would be silly not to make the most of it. 

In terms of interiority, I am always begging writers for more interiority, and less Bad Telling, and less Physical Telling (which we will get into next week and which I do admit to using once in my rewritten examples below). But I think for writers unused to writing good interiority, you can cross the line over to telling every once in a while and we won’t really notice it that much or fault you. It’s when interiority is missing that telling becomes a problem.

One of my most frequent comments on manuscripts is highlighting a piece of telling and writing “Interiority instead.” I harp mercilessly on all of my clients to include more interiority.

KidLit, Mary Kole

DENNIS FOSTER’S FOUR STEPS TO SYMPATHY

When writing, a storyteller decides how much of each character’s secret life to expose. The more of their secret and private selves are exposed, the more rounded the characterisation. By allowing readers insight into a character’s secret self, readers tend to understand, judge, forgive and then sympathise with the ‘confessor’.

A four step progression comes from the work of Dennis Foster who wrote Confession and Complicity in Narrative (1987). Though these steps apply to fictional characters, they apply in real life as well. This is the astounding power of fiction — when we learn that others have a secret self, and when we learn to empathise with fictional characters via this secret self, we tend to apply these skills to real people.

Secrets bind and separate in strict accordance with who’s in on them.

Lionel Shriver, We Need To Talk About Kevin

PRIVATE, PUBLIC AND SOCIAL CLASS

Freedman and Hellerstein (1981), write of “the doctrine of the separate spheres” which prescribed British women’s “personal lives centre around home, husband and children”. These values were of course exported to the colonies by British settlers.

What happened with the separation of home and work? Families became more private and a refuge from the world. This reinforced the Victorian middle-class Cult of Domesticity. Women were idealised as “the angel of the house”. Home was the woman’s private sphere; the public world was a male domain. This was not disrupted until women demanded emancipation. With emancipation came a natural blurring of the public/private divide.

But this was a middle-class thing. For working class families, there was no clean distinction between public and private life. Judy Giles (1995) suggests that the concept of privacy for these groups means simply ‘not public’. The middle-class ideal was to ‘keep yourself to yourself’, so some understanding of private self and inner life was required. Middle-class women understood privacy and what was their own business.

THE USEFULNESS OF THE CONFESSION

Stories which focus on a character’s Secret Self are often described as confessional. There is a huge advantage to writing confessions — the confessions themselves lend suspense. This suspense is caused by the reader’s desire to acquire certain information from the character. Each new piece of information functions as a reveal. Reveals are a necessary component of any suspense story.

Confessional stories have the quality of immediacy, especially when a character conveys information directly to the reader. Readers feel like the special chosen ones, with characters conveying secrets directly to them.

RELIGION AND THE SECRET SELF

I’m in no position to offer a comparative analysis of how various religions deal with the concept of the secret self, but I’ll offer this from an anthropologist studying supernatural beliefs and Pentecostalism Papua New Guinea. In short, sin is thought to exist in hidden areas of the body, especially in the uterus. Hence, women are blamed more often for concealing things they shouldn’t. This plays into an historic, enduring, cross-cultural notion that women are basically liars:

Pentecostals often describe two types of Christian—“spirit Christian” (the truly devout) and “body Christians” (those too concerned about material things, those who do not truly “believe” or have “faith”)—a sort of interdenominational pejorative that condemns doctrinal emphasis on outward ritual rather than inner belief (Keane 2007). The outer body should ideally reveal an inner “spirit body,” as, for example, through the kinds of ecstatic experience often associated with Pentecostal religious fervor.

In contrast, sin is understood as hidden in the body. Sermons that focus on sin as hidden thinking or emotions are interpreted by people listening as themselves a form of veiled speech referring to a problem of great consequence in communities: witchcraft. Through notions of hidden resentment or unseen discord, this Christian discourse associates sin with the gwumu witchcraft …. Following the sermon on Cain and Abel, church members told me that the visiting preacher was referring to witchcraft by using a local metapragmatic category of talk called tok bokis (literally, “box talk,” but usually referred to as “veiled speech”) or gramiyi harekeneve (“hidden talk”) in Dano. Ideas about hidden sin are extremely common in Pentecostal services and discourse, and the idioms in which hidden sin is described are frequently also associated with witchcraft. Sin is often described in the local language as hidden in the bilum (“netbag”) of the self, where the word bilum (ro in Dano) also means uterus, the location in the body where gwumu lives. This is a gendered, but flexible, discourse, as some accusations are also made against men. Nevertheless, Sunday morning altar calls seemed to me to be directed mainly at women congregants; speakers might even turn toward the side of the church where women sit when discussing hidden sin.

Becoming Witches

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Nikos Aliagas is a photographer of celebrities but he doesn’t ‘know how to use photoshop’. He shoots famous people in natural light, aiming to show something that isn’t visible with all the other, modified, highly staged photographs which abound, and which are more familiar to us all.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Header painting: Eastman Johnson – The Toilet

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Decisions To Make When Storyboarding For Interactivity

First things first: Does this story require an active and alert reader, and do the interactions reward interactivity and alertness?

1. Should interactions be user-initiated or autoplay? A mixture?

I prefer narration to autoplay, with the option of turning it off completely from the main menu. When I have to press a button to start the narration on each page it takes me out of the story. As for the rest of the page, a mixture of autoplaying actions and user-initiated interactions works well in many cases, as long as any auto-play noises are not too irritating. Irritating = loud, unpleasant tones or even a pleasant sound that’s on too short of a loop.

2. How much animation, if any?

Too much animation and the storyapp runs the risk of emulating a film, losing its true interactivity. For small development teams, too much animation is costly and therefore not an option. When simple animations are utilised, which ones help to tell the story?

3. Should interactivity be allowed before the narration is over, or must the reader wait?

I still get frustrated when I can’t start the interactivity when I want to, regardless of whether the sound that accompanies the interaction drowns out the narration. It’s about user control. Also, I prefer gentle sound effects, which don’t drown out the narration even if played simultaneously.

4. After an interactivity has played out, should the user be able to cycle through again, or will the page fall inactive, waiting for the reader to turn the page and move on with the story?

The advantage of looping is that readers can linger on a page for as long as they like, which makes the reader feel more in control. The disadvantage is that younger readers in particular may lose the thread of the story, derailed by the interactivity. We used both finite and infinite loops of interactions for The Artifacts on a case-by-case basis. I’ve grown to slightly prefer finite looping, because if readers really want a specific page they can jump to it via the navigation pages, or simply turn onto the page again from the previous, losing no control — only a small bit of convenience.

5. Should the developer offer hints with flashing/arrows, or should the reader have to find all the interactivity themselves?

We believe young readers are more than capable of uncovering any interaction we think we’re hiding in an app. We hear quite a bit from parents that children find Easter eggs in apps that they never suspected were there. We don’t believe everything needs to be handed to a child on a plate, and goes with our general philosophy of ‘try it and see’ — an important attitude when using any type of technology.

The best children’s apps are successful because of a pair of more traditional qualities. Great storytelling. Strong characters. It seems apps aren’t so revolutionary after all, but that’s a good thing.

Stuart Dredge at The Guardian
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Why So Many Animals In Picture Books?

why so many animals in picture books
There’s a growing number of non-human characters in children’s programming. This cannot be minimized. Here’s the full report. (The Landscape of Children’s Television in the US & Canada.)

Before talking about the various categories of animals in picture books for children, let’s take a brief look at how people from antiquity have divided the animal kingdom.

According to from the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge by Jorge Luis Borges, animals divide into:

  • those that belong to the Emperor
  • embalmed ones
  • those that are trained
  • suckling pigs
  • mermaids
  • fabulous ones
  • stray dogs
  • those included in the present classification
  • those that tremble as if they were mad
  • innumerable ones
  • those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush
  • others
  • those that have just broken a flower vase
  • those that from a long way off look like flies. 

The Evolution Of Animals In Stories Over Time

1. Animals are magical. See folklore and fairy tales. They can take human identities with their magic, and sometimes heroes take on animal identities to carry out their plans.

2. Animals are amusing. Animals are no longer objects but characters in their own right. Now they are being used to show up human foibles. (Mrs Gatty, Charles Kingsley)

3. Guilt. Animals in stories are there to show us all our human shortcoming, and also how animals should properly be treated. (Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Sarah Trimmer’s religious stories (1782-1819). Other writers such as George Orwell use them as pawns in satire (Animal Farm). Other writers  allow animals to retaliate against humans who have treated them badly (Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds, The Chronicles of Narnia).

Animal stories rose as religious stories declined in popularity.

Firsts

Fables go way back, of course. But when it comes to published work, the advent of animals in literature, it all started happening from the mid 1700s. Black Beauty started a trend.

The first dog book was The History of Pompey the Little (1751)

Black Beauty is the first real animal novel (1877)

The Jungle Book (1893) is the first attempt to enter an animal world

The Story of Dr Dolittle (1922) is the first to consider animal rights

Mary Plain (1930) is the first animal (a bear) to share the human one

An astonishing number of the characters depicted in picture books are not people at all, but animals—or rather, humans who look like animals, for Horton the elephant of Horton Hatches the Egg and Pearl the pig heroine of The Amazing Bone are certainly more human than animal in their interests and motivations. In many picture books, indeed, only the pictures inform us that the characters are animals; to give just one example, Russell Hoban’s Frances is a badger only in Lillian Hoban’s illustrations of her; in the text, she talks and acts like an ordinary human child.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
Comic strip by Guy Kopsombut

1. EFFICIENCY

Certain animals come with prepackaged character traits: wolves are evil, foxes are cunning, bears like honey.  These animals are character archetypes. Cats and dogs don’t get on, pigs are messy and baby chickens are cute and vulnerable. When an author wants to use (or subvert) one of these tropes, it’s efficient to make use of an animal archetype. Also, one specific character trait can be emphasised in this way, and readers expect flat rather than rounded characterisation.

Related to animals as archetypes, animals have long been seen as ‘plain speakers’. While humans don’t say things as they are, animals in storybooks do, like sages. The reader then has the choice to either appreciate what’s been said at face value, or to look for some deeper meaning.

2. MORE EMPATHY WITH ANIMALS

In some books, the animals don’t have the power of speech. Children identify with animals because young children cannot express themselves verbally either. On the other hand, it’s difficult to identify too closely with an animal character, which is just as well when we have small, cute birdies chased down by big, bad wolves. Animal characters can provide just the right balance of empathy and distance.

Young readers seldom have problems identifying with anthropomorphic animal or toy characters as long as these hold the disempowered subject positions similar to their own (therefore, mice, bunnies, and kittens are more popular in children’s fiction than tigers and other aggressive carnivores.)

Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric Of Character In Children’s Literature

3. VISUAL HUMOUR

An animal dressed up on clothes will never lose its appeal, although I’d love to go back to the day Beatrix Potter’s first book came out and see the look of true delight that must have crossed the faces of readers who saw animals dressed as, and acting like, people for the first time.

Salvador Rojo, Mexican artist

4. PRACTICALITY

In a cast of many characters, making the characters animals saves the need for an author to assign names and likewise, saves children from having to memorise them. ‘Miss Fox’ obviously refers to the character who looks like a fox; ‘Squirrel’ would be the squirrel. Also, animal characters can be more easily accepted as flat and static. Curious George can have his ‘monkeyness’ amplified. A non-human friend has no social obligations (no parents of their own), and can do things like sleep in the same bed as the human child.

Again I’m talking about making use of archetypes, and as Perry Nodelman explains, much of this practicality is owed to Aesop:

There are historical reasons for this concentration of animals who act like humans, among them the fact that some of the first stories considered suitable for children were the fables of Aesop, in which supposedly characteristic animal attributes are identified with human behaviour. These identifications still operate in picture books today. The image of a fox in The Amazing Bone immediately evokes the idea of craftiness, and in picture book after picture book, we are meant to understand immediately that the lions depicted are arrogant, the peacocks proud, the pigs gluttonous, the mice timid, the rats nasty. As Leonard Marcus says in “Picture Book Animals,” “animals as images in our everyday thought and expression are among the most association-rich classes of symbols. Just under the surface of picture book fantasies, cultural meanings may well be at work.”

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

Nodelman also points out that traditional (Aesopian) ideas about which personalities belong to which animals can be subverted, inverted, used ironically. He gives the example of Pearl the pig in The Amazing Bone. Traditionally, we expect pigs to be dirty and gluttonous, but Pearl is delicate and refined. Dr Seuss does a similar thing with Horton the elephant, who would normally break a tree by sitting in a nest. We see Horton’s bulk and don’t immediately expect him to be timid. Young readers learn not to judge characters based on their appearance. These stories contain the message that we shouldn’t judge others based on preconceived ideas.

I’d suggest that picture books with animal characters are a great way to avoid all those visual mis-match problems whilst getting to the emotional heart of the matter.

Pippa Goodhart

So now, after a long tradition of storytelling, we are used to stories about animals which are really about humans. Why did Aesop tell stories about animals instead of humans in the first place?

Legend has it that Aesop was an African slave born in 620 B.C. and a hunchback with a quick wit and tongue. If you understanding that these stories were created in a situation where free speech was dangerous for the lowly, you will grasp the special flavour of the fables. Take the story of the “Lion and the Mouse” where a lion frees a mouse he has captured because of the little creature’s laughable promise to perhaps someday help the larger one; later that promise is fulfilled when the mouse gnaws through ropes after the lion is captured in a net. Here we can imagine a slave trying to subtly suggest to his master that sometimes the lowly should be listened to and can assist their betters; but we should note that this point is being made in a completely inoffensive and oblique way, by means of animals.

Jerry Griswold

However, problems of the dominant culture don’t suddenly become absent as soon as illustrators/authors turn people into animals. On the contrary: the pettiness of current social practices can be universalised, as described by John Berger.

5. DELIBERATE AVOIDANCE OF HARD HUMAN TRUTHS

The Humans Are Dead

It’s impossible to create a picture book — or any work of art — without covertly commenting on social and economic status, ethnic identity and gender roles (for starters). When characters are animals, some of this extraneous stuff can be avoided, at least if they’re moles living in a hole. Not so much if they’re middle-class white rats living in a suburban house. (Pinocchio can endure more than a human child would. Horrible stuff happens in that book but the animals — as well as the fairies — soften it up a bit.) There’s a school of thought that children don’t see gender, for instance, so therefore it’s okay to code all animal characters as masculine. I don’t buy into this idea, but I believe it’s an influential idea which has influenced the number of animals in picture books.

However, animal characters can still be coded as white dudes.

Previously I delved deep into how jokes can be broken into categories, using a taxonomy proposed by the writer of The Onion. Today I will talk about an implicit rule of comedy to do with gender and also race: White dudes are the Every Person. Any ‘extra’ identity muddies the joke. This rule is less talked about, but is starting to be acknowledged. Next, it needs to change.

animal white dude default from Bojack Horseman

The creator of Bojack Horseman, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, explains for us all why gender diversity is such a tough hurdle, and why the subjects of comedy are still — despite an increasingly woke population — white and male:

In one of the episodes from the first season (I think it’s 109), our storyboard artists drew a gag where a big droopy dog is standing on a street corner next to a businessman and the wind from a passing car blows the dog’s tongue and slobber onto the man’s face. When Lisa designed the characters she made both the dog and the businessperson women.

My first gut reaction to the designs was, “This feels weird.” I said to Lisa, “I feel like these characters should be guys.” She said, “Why?” I thought about it for a little bit, realized I didn’t have a good reason, and went back to her and said, “You’re right, let’s make them ladies.”

I am embarrassed to admit this conversation has happened between Lisa and me multiple times, about multiple characters.

The thinking comes from a place that the cleanest version of a joke has as few pieces as possible. For the dog joke, you have the thing where the tongue slobbers all over the businessperson, but if you also have a thing where both of them ladies, then that’s an additional thing and it muddies up the joke. The audience will think, “Why are those characters female? Is that part of the joke?” The underlying assumption there is that the default mode for any character is male, so to make the characters female is an additional detail on top of that. In case I’m not being a hundred percent clear, this thinking is stupid and wrong and self-perpetuating unless you actively work against it, and I’m proud to say I mostly don’t think this way anymore. Sometimes I still do, because this kind of stuff is baked into us by years of consuming media, but usually I’m able (with some help) to take a step back and not think this way, and one of the things I love about working with Lisa is she challenges these instincts in me.

Boring Old Raphael, Tumblr

Bob-Waksberg goes on to say that this thinking is everywhere. He also says this:

White Dude As Default In Children’s Stories

It is also everywhere in children’s literature. In fact, it may be at its worst in stories for children. Bob-Waksberg even brings up The Lego Movie as his prime example — a big budget film which is first and foremost designed to draw in a young audience, with a large adult audience as bonus.

The LEGO Movie was my favourite movie of 2014, but it strikes me that the main character was male, because I feel like in our current culture, he HAD to be. The whole point of Emmett is that he’s the most boring average person in the world. It’s impossible to imagine a female character playing that role, because according to our pop culture, if she’s female she’s already SOMEthing, because she’s not male. The baseline is male. The average person is male.

That’s why Jon Klassen’s characters are male. That’s why Aaron Blabey’s Pig The Pug characters are male. The main guy in Pig The Pug is even called ‘Trevor’ — the most non-descript, white, male Australian name possible. That’s probably why Oliver Jeffers writes a story about a boy called Wilfred and not a girl called Wilhelmina.

Bojack Horseman isn’t entirely problem free. It’s still about the problems of a white dude, as clearly explained by Eleanor Robertson at The Guardian.

But I have heard interviews with various comedy writers whose default position is this: My books are not gendered. This boy could be anyone. Even academics will argue that Winnie-the-Pooh is gender free. (Winnie-the-Pooh is sex free, but cannot be gender free because we have not settled upon a gender free pronoun in English as it’s widely used.)

It is remarkably rare to find a writer who will acknowledge the reason for why their main character is white and male. It is even more rare to find a writer/illustrator acknowledge that even though their character is an animal, that animal is obviously coded as white.

double spread from This Moose Belongs To Me

That’s why the creator of Bojack Horseman is so unusual. He is talking about a specifically comedy example of an implicit rule of writing, but writers have long called this “The One Big Lie Of Storytelling“. According to this rule, audiences can’t cope with too much new stuff in a single story. It is a particularly cynical view of audiences, but not without basis. (And in case I need to clarify, I do not subscribe to this rule. But I have heard it. I have heard it round the traps, and I know that writers subscribe to it.)

"The King of Ireland's Son" written by Padraig Colum, by Willy Pogany, 1916
Bojack Horseman isn’t the first horse head on a man’s body. This illustration from the book “The King of Ireland’s Son” written by Padraig Colum, with illustrations by Willy Pogany, 1916. There are also many horse headed men in the Indian folktale tradition.
'The King of Beasts and Other Creatures' by Ron Searle (1979), book cover lion
‘The King of Beasts and Other Creatures’ by Ron Searle (1979).

White Dude As Default In Speculative Fiction

Alongside comedy,  the genres of fantasy and sci-fi suffer badly because of this thinking. That’s because if the audience sees anything other than a patriarchy they must work extra hard to work out what’s going on. If speculative fiction is about the real world, only highlighted by dint of its being transplanted to an alien setting, both writer and audience must work very hard because:

a. They’re already working hard to form a mind-picture of this new world

b. Even just imagining an alternative political set-up in this real world of ours is beyond the imagination of most.

That’s why Game of Thrones is a white patriarchy, and why almost every big, popular fantasy series is also a white patriarchy, where dragons are a thing, where time travel is a thing, but where only one kind of oppressive system of politics works.  We recognise this political structure immediately, because it’s all around us in our everyday lives. Because it’s all around us, it is invisible within our stories. This lets us sink into the fantasy of the rest of it.

(When I say ‘the audience’, I mean the popular, ticket-buying audience who cite ‘entertainment’ as the main reason for engaging with story. That’s all of us at least some of the time. For most people it’s us almost all of the time. We don’t want to work too hard for our stories.)

This rule of storytelling needs to change, and I’m glad to see young, woke writers with a decent platform, like Raphael Bob-Waksberg, talking about it. I hope he keeps talking about it.

For those of us working in children’s literature world, little kids have not yet learned to question jokes about female characters. Humans are not born harbouring gender stereotypes. The place to start changing this expectation of male as default in storytelling is with picture books. Writers: don’t assume that simply by making your characters animals you are suddenly free from all gender and racial constraints.

6. AN OLD FASHIONED VIEW OF CHILDREN

To represent characters as animals or toys is a way to create distance, to adjust the plot to what the author believes is familiar for child readers. This reflect a stereotypical and obsolete attitude to children as not fully human, at least not fully developed as human beings… Fables, which represent human faults in animal figures, were considered suitable for children during certain periods. Animals are seldom portrayed as protagonists in books for teenagers or in mainstream literature, outside allegory, such as Watership Down, or satire, such as Animal Farm.

The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature, Nikolajeva

7. ANIMAL UTOPIA

A countryside populated by small, indigenous animals is many people’s wish, hope, and memory; but such a place, if it is to give imaginative satisfaction, has to be happy and romanticised. Animal life is not happy in the human sense; it is merely neutral. Human life can be, might be, more often is not, but always has, the possibility. Giving these small animals human qualities is to put them out of reach of inevitable fear, pain and death which is their natural lot. But the device also waves a magic wand and makes humans small, giving them animal qualities and cutting them off from human miseries and frustrations, sexual pangs, jealousy, bitterness and revenge, so that these minute societies have the best of both worlds.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount
  • The Wind In The Willows — this story does not entirely succeed at keeping real-world miseries out of the talking animal utopia. This is deliberate, as Kenneth Grahame has important things to say about real life.
  • The Little Grey Men — written by Denys Watkins-Pitchford under the nom de plume “BB”.  The story follows the adventures of four gnomes who may be the last of their kind. It also features the countryside during three seasons of the year.
  • Tales of Sam Pig and Brock the Badger — by Alison Uttley, a British writer who wrote lots of animal stories for children. Sam Pig lives in a thatched cottage with Tom, Bill and Ann Pig, and also Brock the Badger. The Derbyshire countryside setting shines through as an animal utopia.
  • The Butterfly’s Ball by William Roscoe — a poem from 1807 , so different from the moral stories that had come before that it forms the first of a new type. Animals are now dressed/humanised for ‘gaiety and charm’ rather than for ‘amusement and strangeness’. It was enormously popular at the time.

These sorts of stories don’t work nearly so well without illustration.

8. ANIMALS MAKE FOR GOOD COMEDY

Ayano Imai – Japanese artist

Due to the efficiency of animals mentioned above, with animals as characters the writer has an inbuilt set of jokes. Animals have their own characteristics (some common only within fiction) and writers can use these characteristics to launch character humour. Puns are also abundant when you have an animal as a character, e.g. in BoJack Horseman you have Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is a maggot.

I do think animals evoke a tone within a story automatically, simply by their presence. Each species has its own characterisations based on what we know about their behaviour. If a character is walking in the woods, for example, the presence of a deer evokes something different than say, a wolf, or bald eagle, or something totally unexpected like . . . an elephant. At a reading of Jasper Fforde’s he once said that crabs are funnier than lobsters, and that he wasn’t sure why, but he felt strongly that they were. We all have generalized associations with animals, and writers use those associations to drive an emotional reaction in their scenes. In the novel The Sisters Brothers, both protagonists have different relationships with their horses, treat and speak to them differently, and it reflects a great deal about who these characters are, what they value, how much empathy they have, and how relatable they are. In myriad ways, the presence of animals in stories enhances what we know about a character, foreshadows an event to come, or gives the scene mood and texture.

We have automatic, instinctual associations with certain animals, and I also really enjoy it when an author plays against them. Children’s stories often use animals as their main characters, very blatantly, but not in the ways that you would expect. My favourite book growing up was Charlotte’s Web. Charlotte, the spider, is the book’s real heroine and when she died it was the first time I ever thought about mortality, as grim as that sounds. Now, I love the work of writers like Laura van den Berg, Abby Geni, and Karen Russell, who use animals and other elements of the natural world in their stories. A lot of their work plays with the tension between the strange and the familiar, and I think this says a lot about the way we relate to animals: we want to understand them, but they will always be a little bit unknowable to us. Animals play so many different roles in stories it would be impossible to discuss them all here, but one interesting trend we’ve touched on in this discussion is how the line between the “human” and the “animal” is often blurred in fiction, with animals taking on human roles and humans, literally, assuming animal form.

The Masters Review
Easy Answers to Hard Questions pictures by Susan Perl text by Susanne Kirtland (1968) why can't animals talk
Easy Answers to Hard Questions pictures by Susan Perl text by Susanne Kirtland (1968) why can’t animals talk

Perhaps of Interest

A new study by University of Toronto researchers has found that kids’ books that feature animals with human characteristics not only inhibit factual learning, they may also hinder children’s thinking and reasoning about real-life animals.

Children’s books that feature animals with human traits create confusion in young minds about nature and biology: University of Toronto study, National Post
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Do You Look Like Your Dog?

There are some researchers, who’ve been very lucky with their funding, who have studied the ways in which pets resemble their owners. If you’ve ever been to a dog show you’ll probably have noticed the phenomenon yourself. Sure enough, it’s been noted that when shown a random mixture of owner/pet photos, people are able to match those owners with their pets at a higher than random rate.

30 Owners Who Look Like Their Dogs, from Buzzfeed

I sometimes wish I could see photographs of illustrators alongside their pictures. I bet illustrators most naturally draw people look like themselves — similar face shapes and stature, even if they don’t mean to. Indeed, even if they go out of their way. Because we spend a lot of time looking at family members, and they tend to look like ourselves. We must also have a ‘default setting’ for a face, and that default is ourselves.

Do you look like your pet? We own a rather attractive Border collie. Though if I think harder, he hasn’t had a good brush in quite a while, and I have to admit I care about my own coiffure just about exactly as much. Think I’ll duck off to the bathroom and run a comb through my hair…

Wladyslaw Theodor Benda (1873 - 1948)  Elegant Woman and Afghan
Wladyslaw Theodor Benda (1873 – 1948) Elegant Woman and Afghan
The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960) girl dog
The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960)
The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960)
The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960)
The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960)
The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960)
The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960)
The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960)
The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960) don't point
The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960)
Julian de Miske 1929
Sisters by Dorte Clara Wolff. 1928 (Dodo) (1907 – 1998), German painter and illustrator, women dog
Sisters by Dorte Clara Wolff. 1928 (Dodo) (1907 – 1998), German painter and illustrator, women dog

Related: Stuart Freeborn designed Yoda based on himself. Who else looks like the character they designed?

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Children’s Literature: How scary is TOO scary?

Writing scary tales for children is difficult, because it has to be interesting without being too scary. How is it done? Where’s the line?

What have storytelling experts said?

I’ve always believed that children, even at a very young age, know their limits, and if a story is too frightening and overwhelms them in some way, they will either fall asleep or walk away.  If you read to your child on a regular basis, it’s easy to navigate this terrain with conversations about each story that help you instinctively calibrate what is appropriate for bedtime reading.  Reading fairy tales may expose children to the dark side, but it also introduces them to survival skills, teaching them to use their heads to outsmart predators.  Shoving the witch into the oven may be a bridge too far, but no reason to be reverent about the words on the page, especially for the younger crowd.

Maria Tatar

People say, ‘Your book keeps giving me chills,’ but I don’t know what that feeling is. Horror always makes me laugh. Normal adult things scare me, but not things from a book or a movie.

R.L. Stine, from an interview with Village Voice

There’s no formula. I think you have to create a very close point of view. You have to be in the eyes of the narrator. Everything that happens, all the smells, all the sounds; then your reader starts to identify with that character and that’s what makes something really scary.

R.L. Stine from an interview with mediabistro.

What’s the difference between a monster movie and a dark fairy tale?

It’s a very, very, very thin difference. I think that horror stories come from fairy tales, in a way. They share a lot of similarities. I think the difference is tonal. You know, the fairy tale contains a lot more elements of magic and whimsy and the the horror story contains a lot more, sort of, almost existential feelings — sort of dread, and ultimately they are similar melodies, played at a very different key.

Guillermo del Toro

Over time, supernatural and horror fiction that has been targeted to children and young adults has become darker. If we look at books from the early 20th century through to the 1950s or 60s, we see books similar to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in their mild handling of frightening characters and scenarios. As we move into the 1970s we start to find horror novels targeted towards young adults. Stephen King’s works Salem’s Lot and Firestarter won the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults award in 1978 and 1981 respectively, showing that children and young adults have been quite willing to read scary literature for some time. Neil Gaiman’s books Coraline and The Graveyard Book are also targeted for the tween audience, and could easily be considered scarier than even these specifically labelled horror books from authors such as King and Dean Koontz. In recent years, it appears clear that more and scarier books are being targeted to the child and young adult audience, and as a result, children are reading scarier books than in the past.

Thomas Pynchon

It is debatable whether or not fear of the unknown is greater than fear of the known, but in childhood so much is unknown that a child, in order to make sense of fear, must isolate and identify it; only the known can be dealt with.

Jan Mark, British Writer

I believe that children should be allowed to feel fear … Walter de la Mare … believed that children were impoverished if they were protected from everything that might frighten them … Once one has answered this basic question … the second problem arises of how it is to be presented. This is really a technical problem which has to be faced by every writer for children.

Catherine Storr, from ‘Things That Go Bump In The Night’ in the Sunday Times Magazine, March 1971

We’re not really being scared by movies at all, at least not in the ‘brain chemistry way’.”

FilmmakerIQ

What Does The Research Say?

The Center for Scholars and Storytellers has come up with seven factors which induce fear in children:

  1. The threatening appearance of a character
  2. A character behaving threateningly
  3. A character children identify with being under threat and helpless
  4. Stories that make children aware, for the first time, of threatening scenarios within their experience
  5. Stories in which safe places are deliberately breached
  6. Music and sound that signify danger
  7. Scenes depicting injury and homicide

Importantly, ‘many programs that most parents and professionals would not consider problematic, induce fear reactions as well – from Disney animated movies to even educational programs. For example, little Dumbo’s trunk reaching out to his caged mother was painful to watch for many children. Similarly, scenes from the classic Wizard of Oz that included the Witch and the monkeys elicited strong fear experiences.’

The researcher recommends content creators and parents offer thrill experiences rather than fear experiences. Unfortunately no further clarification is provided for the word ‘thriller’. I have taken a deep dive into the meaning of thriller and it’s a nebulous term, used differently by storytellers than by marketers.

Whatever is meant by that, most children can’t cope with thrillers until about 7 or 8.

When you were a kid, did you like scary stories?

What about those of you who have kids of your own? Do your kids like scary stories?

Our four-year-old daughter loves the Hayao Miyazaki movies (Studio Ghibli). I’m sure there are many, many reasons for this, but she loves those films partly for the periodic frisson of horror. Her favourite of the lot is Spirited Away, which includes a particularly scary scene in which Chihiro briefly loses sight of her parents, only to come back and find they’ve turned into pigs. This scene haunts and delights our daughter in equal measure. She asks to watch Spirited Away over and over again, and some days she only wants to watch up until the part where the parents turn into pigs (the first inciting incident, as it happens) before turning the DVD off and doing something else. For that reason, I can tell she watches it for the thrill.

She also loves Princess Mononoke. Like Spirited Away, this film has a well-deserved PG rating here in Australia, not least for the ‘monster covered in worms’, as she puts it. You can see a screenshot of that horrible thing on this blogger’s list of Top Ten Movie Monsters. Demon boars deserve their place on that list, though I’m sure Japanese stories could fill a top ten list all on their ownsome. If you’ve never delved into the monsters and demons of Japanese folklore, you’re in for a miserable and thrilling treat. (Who needs Stephen King when you’ve got Wikipedia?) Then, when I look at this seriously unsettling clip from the disturbing new children’s film Toys in the Attic (brought to us via io9), I see that the Czechs have a higher tolerance than we do for scaring the bejeebus out of their children, so maybe we in the West are particularly antsy about what we let our children watch.

I sometimes wonder, though, whether our four-year-old should be watching these films.  She enjoys them, all right. She is mesmerised by them in a way ABC for Kids can’t quite achieve. That said, she also likes eating McDonalds, and I wouldn’t give her unlimited access to that. I’m reluctant to limit her viewing to the bright and cheerful though, for a few reasons.

1. These stories all come good in the end.

At the end of Spirited Away, the parents turn back into people, and Chihiro leaves the spirit world safe and sound, ready to embark on her new life. At the moment when the parents turn back into humans, our daughter rushes in to tell me this, with a big smile on her face. In children’s literature there are rules which don’t necessarily apply to adult literature, and the happy ending is one such rule. (Actually, I’m going to stick to the phrase ‘reassuring ending’. ‘Happy’ can sound trite and cliched.)

2. Children imagine terrible things endogenously.

They don’t need outside media input: children seem universally terrified by the idea of parental abandonment for example, and no one taught babies to cry out of loneliness at night. If anything, stories with reassuring endings might have a healing function rather than a terrorising one. Also, how good are we, really, at predicting what our children are going to find scary? It’s impossible to reimagine any children’s show as horror, even The Magic School Bus.

3. Once we get to a certain age, we know when we’re being (over)protected from the harsh realities of life.

Drawing on my own childhood experience, I was sent to bed to read every night after dinner, so I never viewed TV that was meant for an adult audience. I don’t begrudge this I was allowed to read in bed until much later, and this did wonders for my imaginative life.  But it also meant that the few times I caught a glimpse of adult TV, those scenes became memorable for their rarity.

One Saturday night I must have been up later than usual and I caught the beginning of a horror film before being sent up to bed. The film was probably a terrible 1980s B-grade thing, and I have no idea what it might have been called; I only remember the horrific scene of a child being locked inside a wooden chest in his grandmother’s attic, then etching a cry for help into the wood with his fingernails. That must’ve been the scene that alerted my mother to the inappropriate content, and I was sent to bed at that point, protestations ignored.

Had I watched the movie to its conclusion, it’s likely I’d have been disappointed, because no film lives up to a child’s imaginative world. Instead, I concocted my own events, and even managed to terrorise my younger cousin with that made-up story, because we shared a bedroom over the Christmas holidays and that scene formed the basis of my ghost stories. My cousin still remembers those stories. (I remember those evenings for a different kind of disappointment: Lisa had always fallen asleep before I got to the really scary part.)

So this point is related to my second point: the imaginings of children out-colour much of the media content out there, and certainly out-colours the scariest of the scary stories produced with a child audience in mind. All children are different in this regard, and parents are the best judge of their own children’s scariness thresholds. But there’s a fine line between ‘protective’ and ‘over-protective’. Some commentators argue that some parents are going too far in an attempt to shield their children from anything less than peachy:

‘If it’s true that childhood is a kind of walled garden, then it shouldn’t surprise us that children try to poke through the wall at every chance they get’, writes Kathleen McDonnell in her book Honey, We Lost The Kids: Rethinking Childhood in the multimedia age. ‘If there are secrets, kids will try to uncover them, simply because it’s their nature to want to know. In fact, it’s precisely because this knowledge is kept secret that it becomes so highly charged for kids. The forbidden fruit is invariably the most appealing.’

  1. The Most Unintentionally Terrifying Movies Of All Time, from io9
  2. 22 Incredibly Creepy Toys, from Buzzfeed. I don’t care what it is, if it’s got those shutting and opening eyes with stiff black lashes on it, it’s creepy. (Those Jolly Chimps come a close second, and I drew one in The Artifacts. Did you see it?)
  3. This limbless amphibian family discovered in India is pretty scary. But then I don’t like diaphanous life forms in general.
  4. Someone’s list of scariest movies, on IMDB. I haven’t seen all of the films on this list, but the ones I have seen are super spooky!
  5. The Earth Might Have A “Pulse” Which Causes Extinctions Every 60 Million Years, from io9
  6. The World’s Largest Rodent on Wikipedia I wouldn’t want to feel this massive thing swimming between my ankles in any dogdamn South American waterhole. It’s a lot less cute when you know it’s a rodent though, no? Otherwise it might pass for a catdog.
  7. The Spooky TV Movie That Caused Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, from io9 (the website of many spooky things).
  8. A list of the 8 Scariest Places On Earth. The closest to me is Victoria’s Beechworth Lunatic Asylum. I intend to pay a visit someday, since I somehow forgot to visit when I actually lived in Victoria.
  9. I think all ice-cream vans play scary music, but this one on YouTube is pretty darn scary indeed.
  10. The Most Disturbing Books Of All Time from Pop Crunch
  11. 5 Scary Reads from To Be Read Blog
  12. Watch a GIF of The Joker applying lipstick
  13. An incredibly simple horror short to make you afraid of the dark, shared by io9
  14. This ‘Goodnight Moon’ Remake Will Ruin Your Favorite Children’s Book from Mashable
  15. The Bloodlines series from Wired breaks down what exactly it is that makes a movie scary.
  16. Scaryish Stories (for Halloween) from Imagination Soup
  17. Terrifying macro pictures of polychaetes or bristle worms from The Telegraph
  18. Top 10 Scariest Monsters in Children’s Books according to Smashing Lists
  19. Monsters Inked from Teach With Picture Books, in which teachers are provided with some great classroom ideas.
  20. Terrifying French Children’s Books from The Guardian
  21. 10 Terrifying Children’s Books from around the world, collected by Oh No They Didn’t
  22. 9 Unintentionally Terrifying Children’s Books from Flavorwire
  23. 8 Disney Movie Scenes I Refuse To Show My Daughter from Mommyish
  24. Fairytales too scary for modern children, say parents, from The Telegraph
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