The Biggest Sandwich Ever is a book from 1980. It was my first “Lucky Book Club” purchase, and I loved it. (I don’t agree with my husband either, who says there should also be an “Unlucky Book Club”.)
The Biggest Sandwich Ever is such a simple story and that’s why it works. My own daughter loves it as much as I did.
What makes it great? It’s not especially original, but it does follow a successful formula. Although the plot feels quite Dr Seuss-ish, Rita Golden Gelman didn’t fall into the trap of trying to rhyme like only Theodor Geisel can. Instead, she sticks to simple rhyme. There are no special tricks in the rhyming scheme but it is easy to read aloud.
A descendent of this kind of picture book is the bear series by Jez Alborough, also featuring simple rhyme, playing with scale (a massive teddy bear) and a circular ending.
Why are stories of excess and outsize so memorable? I don’t know, they just are. In fact, people who specialise in training others to have good memories recommend making use of this trick of the brain. We’re more likely to remember to buy lemons at the supermarket if we imagine a massive lemon beforehand, squirting juice painfully into the eye.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE BIGGEST SANDWICH EVER
Although it’s a rule for main characters to have a psychological and moral weakness, the rule doesn’t necessarily apply to stories for children. More specifically, it doesn’t seem to apply to carnivalesque children’s stories.
Instead, the story begins:
We were having
Just Tammy and I.
In other words, these kids were just fine as they were. Like a Cat In The Hat plot template, a character arrives unbidden and the purpose of that character is simply to liven up the day.
The general rules of story are quite different in a carnivalesque tale. This becomes apparent when I take a closer look, comparing this picturebook to John Truby’s universal plot template:
In any carnivalesque story the children crave a fun time.
Ostensibly, however, they don’t seem to want anything at all. Adventure seems to find them.
The man with the pot
Watching an enormous sandwich being built in the countryside
The eating of the sandwich
Self revelation is perhaps replaced by an achievement: the finishing of the sandwich.
This is a circular story. The reader predicts the same story will happen over again, but this time with a pie. In other words, this was a moment of fun, and there will be many more such moments for these children.
OTHER TALES OF ABUNDANCE
Many, if not most, children’s picturebooks include an element of fantastic excess.
Some of those stories are veritable tall tales, in which the excess is so exaggerated that the excess is the story.
The inverse of a tale of excess is the miniature — memorable, again, for its playing with scale.
But the story was originally illustrated by William Nicholson (1872-1949). He and his wife had four children, two boys and two girls, though because of wars and illness only one of the sons and one of the daughters lived full lives; one son was killed in the first world war and a daughter died of the Spanish flu.
William’s own daughter died of the flu around the same time — just before — he illustrated this, about a little boy who becomes very ill due to an epidemic of illness. This knowledge makes the illustration ‘anxious times’ particularly resonant, with the bottles of medicine in the background.
Marjery Williams had been writing children’s books since the age of 19, but it took her until the age of 41 to write The Velveteen Rabbit, her runaway success story.
She has recreated here a similar sort of household set up as she herself would have had in London as the daughter of a barrister — the absent parents, the staff, the large collection of toys and the means to afford a trip to the seaside, which is what people did in the pre-antibiotic era. Alexander Fleming didn’t discover the healing powers of penicillin until 1928, six years after this book was published.
Scarlet fever is an infectious bacterial disease affecting especially children, and causing fever and a scarlet rash. It is caused by streptococci (strep throat or a strep skin condition). These days — at least for now — any child with access to antibiotics isn’t going to suffer the dire consequences of this illness, which we are told caused Mary Ingalls’ blindness in the Little House On The Prairie series. However, scarlet fever does not cause blindness. Mary may have caught a virus from a tick, such as West Nile virus. Or she may have had the mumps or suffered complications from the oral herpes virus (cold sores), which most people have in their system. (Just because you don’t get cold sores doesn’t mean you don’t have the virus.)
There are instances of scarlet fever in the following fictional tales:
Five Are Together Again (Famous Five series)
Kit Kittredge (American Girl series)
And yet herpes is rarely mentioned in children’s books.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE VELVETEEN RABBIT
The Velveteen Rabbit is a literary fairytale — one which is written down by a known author rather than having evolved from a long mysterious history of oral folklore.
There is indeed a fairy, which comes about after the rabbit sheds a tear. (A flower pops up and out comes the fairy.)
Velveteen rabbit isn’t ‘real’. (Alive)
Velveteen rabbit wants to have a full life with meaningful relationships. We know this because the rabbit is very interested in what the Skin Horse is telling him.
Nana is the first opponent, cast as a woman who basically wants to get rid of anything that looks old and nasty. Young modern readers will probably assume this is the boy’s grandmother, but given the era, it’s more likely referring to the female servant of a middle-upper class household in charge of the care of young children. This nana is not the warm grandmother more often found in modern picturebooks. Modern grandmothers have plenty of time for their grandchildren — usually more than the parents do. But in this story:
Nana was in a hurry, and it was too much trouble to hunt for china dogs at bedtime, so she simply looked about her…
Next, the field rabbits stand in contrast to this toy one, to highlight how much better it would be to be able to prance about on the prairie.
The Velveteen Rabbit has no real plan other to hang around waiting to become real.
It was a long weary time, for the Boy was too ill to play, and the little Rabbit found it rather dull with nothing to do all day long. But he snuggled down patiently, and looked forward to the time when the Boy should be well again, and they would go out in the garden amongst the flowers and the butterflies and play splendid games in the raspberry thicket like they used to.
This toy plans to become ‘real’ by basically being a loyal companion to the Boy.
Velveteen Rabbit is almost a goner before the trip to the seaside. This time the doctor is cast as the main opponent — Nana has come around a bit because she’s noticed the toy has a knowing look on its face:
“How about his old Bunny?” she asked.
“That?” said the doctor. “Why, it’s a mass of scarlet fever germs! — Burn it at once. What? Nonsense! Get him a new one. He mustn’t have that any more!”
And so the little Rabbit was put into a sack with the old picture-books and a lot of rubbish, and carried out to the end of the garden behind the fowl-house. That was a fine place to make a bonfire…
But because he’s part real he manages to wriggle out of the sack.
When the Rabbit realises he has full use of his hind legs he realises he is really real.
He will now live with the rabbits in the field.
The Boy remembers his lost toy whenever he catches sight of that rabbit, with the similar markings.
Anton Can Do Magic by Ole Könnecke is a great book for parents who would like to teach their kids The Magic of Reality (as expressed by Richard Dawkins and others).
Written and illustrated by a German picturebook maker, this was translated by New Zealand’s Gecko Press.
Anton Can Do Magic is part of a trilogy (The Anton Saga):
Anton and the Girls (2004)
Anton Can Do Magic (2006)
Anton’s Secret (2007)
As far as I know, only this one has been translated into English by Gecko.
STORY STRUCTURE OF ANTON CAN DO MAGIC
Anton’s weakness becomes clear only as the story progresses and we see he is easily duped and overconfident.
Anton wishes to impress his friends by performing a real magic trick. This desire is made clear even before the story begins, on the interior title page, where we see Anton gazing up at a poster of a famous (we assume) magician.
The reader is addressed as one such friend, and from the first page we are told, ‘Here comes Anton. Anton has a magic hat. A real one.’ We are invited to believe it. On the following page:
Anton wants to do some magic. He wants to make something disappear.
This little bird with a mind of its own may ruin Anton’s magic trick and the stakes are upped when ‘the girls’ come along, since boys are especially keen on impressing girls.
But the bird turns out to be a false-enemy ally, or we might consider the bird to have no motivations whatsoever. The bird simply flits around. This is a ‘real’ bird rather than a storybook bird who wears clothes.
A better opponent is Luke, the boy who doesn’t believe that Anton can do magic. There’s more at stake when the opponent is human, because there’s a chance Anton will be humiliated. The reader does not want him to be humiliated, no matter how silly he is.
Often in stories the initial plan does not work and needs to be modified.
Anton stares at the tree.
Then he does some magic.
When this doesn’t work he changes his plan slightly. He’ll try something smaller. The bird.
The battle scene is the bit where three children are waiting for Anton to produce the missing bird.
Anton produces the bird from under the hat and wins the battle, as well as the respect of the three children.
This is a Chekhovian story in that the main character is not the one who undergoes the revelation — Anton walks off the page at the end of the story and as far as he knows, he has made a bird appear. But the reader knows differently. We learn that although sometimes something appears to be magic, but it is really just coincidence and circumstance.
The final image shows us that Greta is happy to have her bird back, Luke is trying to do his own magic with the flower in his little pot, and Anton is satisfied.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST ANTON CAN DO MAGIC
When the child is a few years older, it’s time for this book. (Yes, much could be said about Richard Dawkins and all the junk that comes out of his Twitter feed, but I have to say it, this book is excellent.)
Black Dog by Pamela Allen (1991) is about a girl who actually neglects her dog, but learns not to by the end.
A few weeks ago I took a close look at the much more recent picture book with a similar name, Blackdog by Levi Pinfold. In that, I interpret the black dog as agoraphobia or a similar mental illness that descends in winter.
Here is another book with a black dog, a winter setting and a mental illness metaphor, this time from 1991.
For a history of the symbolism of depression and black dogs, see here. (tl;dr: Winston Churchill made it well-known, but the symbolism goes back to medieval times.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF BLACK DOG
If you’re ever wondering who the main character of a story is ask the following question: Who undergoes the greatest character change?
After thinking carefully about who is the hero of this book — Christina or the Black Dog — I’ve come to the conclusion that the girl and the dog are two halves of the same character.
The first three pages of the story, written in the iterative, explain how happy Christina and the dog are playing together during spring, summer and autumn.
Then we have a switch to the singulative: One cold day in winter the wind blew and the trees shivered.
The personification of the trees (‘shivering’), and the image of the girl and her dog walking into the forest, shows how much the girl is part of the landscape. Christina is the winter.
Wind symbolises change. Also, the wind is blowing towards the house, which makes the trees lean in to retrieve her.
It was then Christina first thought how hungry the birds must be now the worms were deep in the ground and there were no seeds to be found.
So she goes to the cupboard and breaks a small piece of bread and scatters the crumbs on the ground, in an image that will immediately put the reader in mind of a scene out of Hansel and Gretel. The forest in Hansel and Gretel is the ultimate ur-Forest — whenever a child character enters a forest we know that danger lurks.
Christina wants to keep feeding the birds through winter.
Using a trick from classic fairytales, Pamela Allen sticks to the rule of three: first one little bird comes to eat the crumbs; next two little birds, then a magnificent big blue bird.
Who is the opponent in this story? It’s a bit tricky to work out, but not if we start from the idea that in children’s books featuring animals, the animal and child character very often meld into one.
You could argue it’s the blue bird, who probably doesn’t even exist. This figment of Christina’s imagination causes her to obsess, and neglect her dog (and herself).
Christina is Black Dog’s opponent because she is supposed to be taking care of him.
Christina is her own worst enemy.
Depression, obsession and false hope is the overall opponent here.
After getting thinner and thinner from neglect, it is black dog who hatches the plan.
He will climb the tree and pretend to be a bird.
As is usual in children’s books in which the animal hatches (heh) the plan, we don’t actually see the plan until it’s carried out. But we do see him lying on the ground with his eyes looking up as if he’s thinking about something.
The ‘set piece’ of the book is when Black Dog leaps from high in the tree.
Birgitta Sif is a picture book illustrator originally from Iceland, now living in England. So far she has produced four books. Oliver was first published by Walker Books 2012.
A nice touch is that the opening page says ‘This adventure belongs to’, where most books say ‘This book belongs to’, leaving space for the child owner’s name. This already feels a lot more exciting. Perhaps this is something Walker books has decided to do with all of their publications recently?
THIS ADVENTURE BELONGS TO
That said, this story is not what I would call an ‘Adventure story’ in the technical definition of the genre. This is a mythic journey: The (male) hero leaves home and goes on a journey to find himself, meeting people and changing in the process. Still, that’s not what most people think of when they think of a mythic picture book, so it’s probably best the opening page doesn’t say ‘This myth belongs to…’.
It’s not unusual these days to find picture books with this few words, but even so, this stands out for its brevity — more than half of the story by far is told by the pictures. My reading of the story is that Oliver is on the autistic spectrum, though readers will bring their own interpretations, I’m sure. He may just be a highly imaginative little kid with some social anxiety issues. Since we don’t hear any dialogue, it’s possible that Oliver does not speak.
Slinky Malinki is a picture book by New Zealand author illustrator Lynley Dodd.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF CATS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Sometimes it is difficult not to resent their apparent success, and they are good or evil according to their creator’s feelings. […] Perhaps Kipling was right, and cats are neither for nor against us, but both or neither, as they wish or feel*. As characters they have great possibilities and depths that few writers, with the possible exception of Paul Gallico, have made use of. Their long history of connection with witchcraft has suggested tales of magic cats such as Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel, 1955, or, in a more down to earth setting, Rosemary Weir’s Pyewacket, 1967; and their urbanised versatility (dog stories are more usually about country life) is categorised unforgettably in T.S. Eliot.
— Margaret Blount, Animal Land
* When creating the character of Slinky Malinki Lynley Dodd absolutely makes use of this historical duplicitousness: Slinky is one thing during the day, another thing altogether come nightfall. The werecat, in other words.
The Dark is a picture book written by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Jon Klassen. A boy faces his fear of the dark in an archetypal dream house.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE DARK?
As usual I’ll break the narrative down according to John Truby’s seven essential elements, which seem to apply to everything from advertisements to novels. Picture books are great for studying this structure, because it’s often made so very plain. You can sometimes even lift direct quotes to illustrate the steps:
Psychological Weakness: “Laszlo was afraid of the dark.”
In children’s books, characters don’t need a moral weakness. (In other words, a child character doesn’t have to be treating anyone else badly in order for us to find them a sufficiently interesting and engaging character.)
On the first page we can see what Laszlo desires: He is playing with his toy cars in peace and solitude on the floor, so he obviously wants to continue doing that without being afraid of anything.
The Dark. “The dark lived in the same house as Laszlo”. Normally the opponent has to be another human or monster, but here the dark is anthropomorphised, and might as well be a monster: ‘Sometimes the dark hid in the cupboard’. Daniel Handler spends quite a bit of time describing this monster and what it does.
Lazlo’s trick for keeping the dark out of his bedroom is saying hello to it during the day.
But when the bulb on the night-light burns out (we assume at this point), the dark does come into his room. The dark challenges Laszlo to visit it in the basement, which requires a scary trip down several flights of stairs. (Why he doesn’t just turn that torch on and use it as his night-light I’m not sure. I don’t think we’re meant to think that’s a possibility, though I have to admit it bothers me some — I think it’s a minor weakness in the plot.)
Laszlo’s self-revelation comes in the form of a lecture, delivered by the author, meant for the young reader. There’s a very Roald Dahl feel to it, because Dahl used to do the same thing (for example in The Twits, when the reader gets a — rather hypocritical — lecture about not judging people based on what they look like):
In The Dark we have:
You might be afraid of the dark, but the dark is not afraid of you. That’s why the dark is always close by.
Young readers are then told that every scary thing with dark insides is actually necessary and useful and, ‘without the dark, everything would be light, and you would never know if you needed a lightbulb’, which is of course the far more humorous thing to say rather than, ‘without the dark you wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep’, and is very Daniel Handler.
We assume Laszlo has achieved this revelation on his own without the help of a narrator, and now the open drawer in the basement looks like a smiling face. He has realised there is nothing at all to be afraid of.
The dark can be kind, helpful even.
The Dark, written by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen, shows us the dark through Lazlo’s eyes, which at first is scary and menacing. But through the shadowy illustrations and the lovely one page monologue in the middle of the book, we realize that we need the dark, and by the end, we fall in love with the dark’s generosity.
‘The dark kept on living with Laszlo but it never bothered him again.’
We even have the very same image bookending the story — the one where he’s playing with his toys on the floor. But this time the sun is in a slightly different place and Laszlo doesn’t look worried. Also, he no longer feels the need to carry a torch everywhere. This small detail shows that he has now overcome his fear of darkness.
Darkness is of course symbolic throughout the history of literature and folkore and everything that came before. Below is a beautiful excerpt illustrating the dark in words by Joyce Carol Oates:
The house looked larger now in night than it did in day. A solid looming mass confused with the big oaks around it, immense as a mountain. The barns too were dark, heavy, hulking except where moonlight rippled over their tin roofs with a look like water because of the cloud shreds blowing through the sky. No horizon, solid dark dense-wooded ridges like the rim of a deep bowl, and me in the center of the bowl. The mountains were only visible by day. The tree lines. By night our white-painted fences and the barbed wire fences were invisible. In the barnyard, the humped haystack the manure pile, I wouldn’t have been able to identify if I didn’t know what they were. Glazed-brick silo shining with moonlight. Barns, chicken coop, the sheds for the storage of machinery, much of it old, broken-down and rusted machinery, the garage, carports–silent and mysterious in the night. On the far side of the driveway the orchard, mostly winesap apples, massed in the dark and the leaves quavering with wind and it came to me maybe I’m dead? a ghost? maybe I’m not here, at all?
— from We Were The Mulvaneys
Fear of the dark is at its peak in early childhood, between the time we first learn of the daily dichotomy and the age at which we can logically comfort ourselves that the dark is simply the absence of light; no more, no less.
It’s that in-between period of literature that seeks to reassure rather than scare. There are no monsters here; just nothingness.
As far as picture book houses go, this is a castle rather than an inviting, warm home. The floors are bare. Hard surfaces everywhere. It’s the oneiric house of Gaston Bachelard’s dreams (The Poetics of Space). Of course a house like this needs a cellar. A story like this needs a cellar, because cellars are always dark. From other stories we have learnt to be afraid of cellars — murders and criminals and all sorts can be found in a cellar, or at least suspected, and even when you take a torch down there, the place is still cast mainly in shadow.
(Interestingly, my version reads ‘flights of stairs’ rather than ‘sets of stairs’. Flights definitely feels nicer to me. Is ‘sets of stairs’ an Americanism?)
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION
Illustrators have many different ways of illustrating the dark. For other examples, see my post Illustrating The Dark.
Many modern books include plenty of white space — white is the neutral choice. But where black is chosen as a fill, the effect is dramatic. Here, of course, the black simply equals darkness. These areas of flat blackness emphasise the geometry of the pages. Here we have a rectangle and a couple of triangles, formed by the light from the torch. The triangles themselves almost form a monster’s mouth, with the bed-end resembling a grille of teeth. The effect of these strong, geometrical shapes is to complement the ‘cold windows’ and hard surfaces of this huge, unwelcoming house, which in real life might be nothing of the sort; this is the dream house of a little boy, and when you’re little, your house always seems much bigger in your mind.
This kind of geometry really is well-suited to the horror genre in general.
The verso image below includes a couple of interesting shadow. We can’t see what is casting the shadow in the foreground. Likewise, we don’t know exactly where that rectangle of light is coming from down the hallway. (We do know it’s from Lazlo’s bedroom, but we can’t see the bedroom.) All of this ‘off-the-page’ lighting lets us into Lazlo’s fear.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
It creeps all over the house.
I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs.
The above is an excerpt from the feminist short story from 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper. Charlotte Perkins Gillman inverted the usual trope of the dark, gothic house and applied horror symbolism to yellow, a colour most often associated with sunshine and happiness. The attic at the top of this particular haunted house is an example of a well-lit room, which is quite unusual in horror. Then again, the author isn’t writing a straight horror story; she is writing an allegory for postpartum depression, pointing out how horrifying the condition can feel when you’re in it. She’s inverting the very hauntedness of the house, saying it’s not the house that’s haunted at all; it’s the people inside the house.
This is a favourite from my own childhood, and now that my daughter loves it just as much, I appreciate its timelessness.
I only have the old version, published 1969 by Scholastic. The pictures by satirist Robert Osborn fit the story perfectly. (Osborn was a direct influence on the Dilbert cartoons.) It appears the book has been rewritten and reillustrated, and the later edition seems to include more modern fears. For example, the fear of a friend moving away, in a more mobile, modern world. This page doesn’t exist in the earlier edition:
The hamster page doesn’t exist in the original, either:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Florence Parry Heide (rhyming with tidy) sometimes wrote under the pen name of Alex B. Allen, when she collaborated with other authors. I’d love to sit down and ask her what was behind the choice of a male name — was it a response to industry sexism? (The same kind that made J.K. Rowling publish using initials rather than the ultra-feminine name of ‘Joanne’?)
She lived from 1919 until 2011, which confirms my theory that being a children’s author is almost a recipe for a long life. (Beverly Cleary, for instance, recently turned 100.) Florence started getting published at the age of 48, presumably after her children had become independent. (She had five all up.) I’m not sure how long she had been writing before getting published, but I guess she would have been quite busy running the household, so she may not have picked up the pen until she was in her late forties.
Over the course of her lifetime Florence wrote over 100 works, including poems and songs. She is best known for the Treehorn books, with Edward Gorey.
INSPIRATION FOR THE STORY
Florence Parry Heide wrote SOME THINGS ARE SCARY, a humorous look at childhood bugaboos, more than thirty years ago. “I had finished another book and was in the mood to write something else,” she says. “I decided to get some kindling from the garage, reached into the kindling box and–good grief!–grabbed something soft and mushy. I fled back to the house, scared to death.” A brave return visit to the kindling box revealed the object of terror to be nothing more than a discarded wet sponge, but the thought remained: some things are scary. As she recalls, “What scared me as a child was that I’d never learn how to be a real grownup–and the fact is, I never did find out how it goes.”
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION
Here’s an example of what a great cartoonist can do in just a few lines:
In the older picture books colour was limited too, due to cost. The pages which make use of ‘stock scary’ are white crayon on black paper. (Witches, pirates, skeletons and this scary monster, who bookends the narrative.)
When colour is used it’s loose and sketchy, as if a child has coloured the line drawings themselves. In fact this copy of the book does have some kid’s scribbles in it, but this is the illustrator’s. The unintended benefit of this style of cartooning is that it encourages kids to try drawing and colouring for themselves — art looks doable! (Of course, once you try it, it’s very hard.)
NOTES ON THE WRITING
One way of eliciting a laugh is to juxtapose the ordinary with the ridiculous. This book does that perfectly: Receiving socks as a present does not compare to the level of fear you’d experience when being eaten by a huge reptile.
The author’s syntax has a distinctively childlike quality to it, and it comes from ditching simple sentences in favour of an extra clause:
Holding onto someone’s hand
that isn’t your mother’s
when you thought it was
is scary [italics from the original]
The following is the page that elicits the biggest laugh from my daughter:
The even more hilarious thing is that after reading this book she did find an apple with a ‘moustache’ — certain imperfections in winter fruit do actually look like moustaches. I’m left with no doubt the author also once ate an apple with a moustache. It takes a genius writer to save these observations and position it in just the right part of the story — after many equally ridiculous scenarios, but which form genuine fears. This one is a scary example the child reader won’t have encountered before (probably).
Keep an eye out for a moustache next time you eat an apple.
Overlapping shadows tend to suggest the power of the objects that cast them over the objects they overlap.
– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
Nodelman offers as example Errol Le Cain’s clever use of shadow in Beauty And The Beast. In that book, the Beast has an unusually shaped shadow which overlaps the father’s foot. This tells the reader that the father is afraid of the Beast.
That shadows can cause overlap effects suggests the importance of light sources for creating relative weight and focus. Not all pictures imply a source either inside or outside the picture for the light that illuminates the scene–books like Rosie’s Walk deliberately avoid any hint of darkness, and everything is bathed in the same even, cheerful light. But pictures that do imply a light source focus our attention on the objects in the light–and, if it is depicted in the picture, the light source itself.
– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
Other illustrators include highly idiosyncratic shadow in their illustrations. Below is an example from Wolves In The Walls.
The verso image
The light above the door highlights the text without even seeming to. The light coming from the TV should really be casting a different sort of shadow from the boy lying on the floor (the shadow should be cast behind him rather than in front) and the girl, who is emotionally distant from this otherwise cosy scene, casts no shadow whatsoever. The colours are warm and this could easily be a cosy living room scene, but the shadows at the edge of this room combine with the off-kilter perspective to create an uneasy atmosphere.
The light implied by pictures may come from sources both inside and outside the pictures. Like the bright lamps often seen in Nijinsky, an actual light source depicted in a picture draws attention both to itself and to what it casts light on. For example, each of the lamps in the scene of a theoretically happy family evening nevertheless lights only one of the Nijinsky children, and so implies their isolation from one another. The light that shines onto Brian’s face from an unseen but implied sun as he peers through a window in The Salamander Room emphasizes the way in which the window itself, its borders jutting out from the rest of the picture like a jet taking off, offers an opening into the bright and free world outside. An implied light from the rear of a picture places characters in front of it in shadow, and Human takes advantage of this to place the evil brothers in shadow throughoutThe Water of Life; but when the good brother first meets the dwarf, the light comes from the front and illuminates his face. Viewers expect light to fall from above, and therefore variations from this convention, such as those Van Allsburg uses in The Polar Express and M.P. Robertson uses in The Egg, create an atmosphere of strange mystery.
– The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Nodelman and Reimer
The recto image
Again, heavy use is made of shadow, though we can’t see — or even guess — at any light source. The light seems to be coming out of the opaque wall. The reader senses that there’s something inside the wall (aided, of course, by the huge clue in the title.) The light sources throughout this book are unknown and illogical, but also foreshadow the story. The reader doesn’t know what’s about to happen but we feel appropriately uneasy.
Gyorgy Kepes [Hungarian artist and art theorist] suggests that we expect light to fall from above, so “every shift from this standard light condition is registered and interpreted by us as an exaggeration of spatial dimensions”.
– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
InIn The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, Van Allsburg switches the light source on each page.
What is occlusion anyway, when we’re talking about art, and not dentistry or meteorology?
Occlusion is rarely discussed as a major issue in art, yet it could be regarded as the major issue in depicting a three-dimensional scene on a picture plane. By occlusion is meant that in any view of a scene some surfaces are hidden in part by nearer surfaces.
First, what is a metonym? A metonym is a part that stands in for the whole.
Suit for business executive
The turf for horse racing
Canberra for Australian politics
The breast for motherhood
In picture book illustrations, sometimes we see an image of a part and this, too, is meant to stand in for the whole.
A choice is set up between a depiction of a character that is complete (realised by inclusion of the head, which is so important for recognition) and a depiction that is metonymic (realised by only a body part, silhouette or shadow.)
— Reading Visual Narratives by Painter, Martin & Unsworth
When does an illustrator show the whole thing and when to show only a part? The inclusion of a head with facial expression imparts more meaning, of course, than if you’re only showing a shadow. This choice is all to do with focalisation: What does the illustrator tell the reader to look at? But what else must we notice about the picture? Inclusion of someone’s shadow shows that although that character was there before, now they have gone. This cuts out the need for an interstitial image showing the character actually leaving.
Similarly, a verbal description of a character as an attractive young Australian girl with a healthy tan commits more meaning than one describing her simply as a girl.
— Reading Visual Narratives by Painter, Martin & Unsworth
SHADOWS AS MORPHED REFLECTIONS
A trick sometimes utilised in picture books is seen in the two images below, in which the shadow cast differs from the person/object casting the shadow. It’s generally used for ominous effect, but could also be comical. I use it in our picture book app Midnight Feast to show how the main character is angry at being sent back to bed.