Evolution for Kids: Teaching Resources

HOW DID I GET HERE BY PHILIP BUNTING (PICTURE BOOK)

From the Big Bang to your birthday, and (almost) everything in between, this funny and informative book tells your story.
You are one of the newest members of a family tree that goes way, way, way back to the very first life on Earth. A lot of incredible things had to happen between the beginning of the universe and today in order to make you. The fact that you (and everyone you know) are here is nothing short of mind-boggling! Read this book to discover how it happened, and prepare to be amazed by the awesomeness of you.

HOW THE BORKS BECAME BY JONATHAN EMMETT (PICTURE BOOK)

Borks live on a planet quite like our own Earth. They have shaggy yellow fur and long thin necks. But once they had short blue fur and almost no necks at all. How could this happen? Well, it didn’t come about all at once … Jonathan Emmett tells a delightful story in verse about the Borks and all the things that happened to make them gradually look quite different, while still remaining Borks. And by the end of the story, the reader will have a very good notion of how Evolution by natural selection works.

GRANDMOTHER FISH A CHILD’S FIRST BOOK OF EVOLUTION BY JONATHAN TWEET AND KAREN LEWIS (PICTURE BOOK)

Where did we come from?

It’s a simple question, but not so simple an answer to explain—especially to young children. Charles Darwin’s theory of common descent no longer needs to be a scientific mystery to inquisitive young readers. Meet Grandmother Fish.

Told in an engaging call and response text where a child can wiggle like a fish or hoot like an ape and brought to life by vibrant artwork, Grandmother Fish takes children and adults through the history of life on our planet and explains how we are all connected.

The book also includes comprehensive backmatter, including:

– An elaborate illustration of the evolutionary tree of life
– Helpful science notes for parents
– How to explain natural selection to a child

WHEN THE WHALES WALKED BY DOUGAL DIXON AND HANNAH BAILEY (PICTURE BOOK)

A 2019 Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students: K–12 (National Science Teachers Association and the Children’s Book Council).

From the moment life crawled out of the oceans and onto land, to when our primate ancestors climbed down from the trees, the history of Planet Earth is filled with incredible stories. This beautifully illustrated guide explores some of the most exciting and incredible events in evolution, through 13 case studies.

Step back in time and discover a world where whales once walked, crocodiles were warm-blooded, and snakes had legs! Meet terrifying giant birds, and tiny elephants living on islands in this fascinating creature guide like no other. Learn how whales once walked on four legs before taking to the oceans; how dinosaurs evolved into birds; and how the first cats were small and lived in trees.

Featuring a stunning mix of annotated illustrations, illustrated scenes, and family trees, evolution is explained here in a captivating and novel style that  will make children look at animals in a whole new way.

ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES BY SABINA RADEVA AND CHARLES DARWIN (PICTURE BOOK)

The revolutionary scientific book that explained evolution to millions of people for the first time, retold in stylish and accessible picture-book form.

The first ever picture-book retelling of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species; this accessible work brings evolution to the younger generation through stylish illustrations and a simple, easy-to-understand text.

On The Origin of Species has been the definitive explanation of the theory of evolution since it was first published in 1859. Now molecular biologist and illustrator Sabina Radeva unites her two passions to create a 48-page retelling of this seminal text.

Pulling together Darwin’s observations from his travels around the world and his groundbreaking – and controversial – explanation of how species form, develop and change over hundreds of thousands of years, On The Origin of Species is as relevant and important now as it ever was.

An activity book inspired by Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution, by the creator of the bestselling picture-book retelling of On The Origin of Species

Learn about variation, competition and the struggle for existence with the help of this beautifully illustrated and accessible activity book for children.

Packed full with detailed colouring pages and mind-grabbing activities, this is a book to inspire creativity as well as an understanding of one of the most fundamental scientific theories of all time.

THE BORN WITH A BANG THEORY SERIES (PICTURE BOOKS)

Learning Magazine Teacher’s Choice Award National Gold Ink Awards Silver Award Children’s Books Endorsed by astronaut Edgar Mitchell, Nobel prize winner Leon Lederman, cosmologist Brian Swimme, and others.

“Once upon a time” meets science in a children’s picture book that tells the thrilling story of how life began on Earth.

The second in a trilogy of Universe stories — the first being “Born with a Bang: The Universe Tells Our Cosmic Story”– this book picks up the story with the first appearance of life on Earth. It’s a thrilling story about how Earth triumphs over crisis to become bacteria, jellyfish, flowers…even dinosaurs! The author, Jennifer Morgan, studied evolutionary science and saw its storytelling possibilities when she explained it to her elementary-age son. Coupled with brilliant artwork by Dana Anderson, who also studied Cosmology, these books will intrigue children and adults alike with their storytelling style and colorful pages.

The third book of the series is a scientifically accurate telling of the story of mammals and humans. Gorgeous and ethereal illustrations and a story that brings children into a state of connectedness with the universe makes this an amazing book for parents and teachers who want to instill in kids a deep appreciation for themselves, their community, and the need to protect this planet that we all reside.

This book picks up after From Lava to Life: The Universe Tells Our Earth Story with the extinction of dinosaurs, and tells how tiny mammals survived and morphed into lots of new Earthlings–horses, whales and a kind of mammal with a powerful imagination–you! It’s a story of chaos, creativity and heroes? the greatest adventure on Earth! And it’s a personal story . . . about our bodies, our minds, our spirits. It’s our story. As the president of the American Montessori Society said, “These books are alive with wonder, radiance, and deep relevance.”

Why Do Tigers Have Whiskers? from the creators of Curious Kids at The Conversation (Australia)

In this book on animals venture into the jungle to discover why tigers need whiskers dig deep with echidnas to find out how they breathe underground and shimmy up a tree with your pet cat to learn how it uses its claws. Aimed at kids aged 4-7 the series asks the big questions about the world as only a child could with factual explanations that break down the fundamentals and check our assumptions. A glossary helps young readers learn more complex terms and immersive collages illustrate each answer with layers of stuff to marvel at and identify. Learn thewhy thehowand thewow!as you explore your world through the eyes of a curious kid.

The book was written to address questions asked by kids.

WHAT MR DARWIN SAW BY MICK MANNING AND BRITA GRANSTROM

In 1831, at only 22 years old, Darwin was offered the position of Naturalist on HMS Beagle‘s world voyage. He was set to become a clergyman but returns after five years at sea an inspired genius. This book follows the journey of HMS Beagle, showing life on-board the ship for Darwin, the captain, crew and the expedition’s artist. The reader sees Darwin discovering and observing insect life in Brazil, fossils in Argentina, earthquakes in Chile and turtles in the Galapagos Islands. The reader is therefore able to follow the steps which led to Darwin’s inspired theory of evolution, while also showing the adventures and escapades he had during the voyage. A fascinating and colourful story of Darwin’s life, this book also introduces young readers to one of the world’s most important scientists and his discoveries. It concludes with a simple explanation of the theory of evolution. Written by an outstanding team in the field of children’s non-fiction, this is a book to enlighten and inspire young readers.

WHO WAS THE FIRST PERSON? (PODCAST)

Listen here.

Who was the first person? Paleoanthropologist Adam Van Arsdale answers one of the most frequent questions we get here at But Why. Also: how does evolution work? Was there a first of every living thing? How did the first animal come alive? How did monkeys turn into people? And what did cavemen eat that we still eat today?

VPR, BBC

THE COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY (TV SERIES)

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » science

Interesting Science About Human Skin

man gets inked in a tattoo parlour

If you’re buying a gift for a young artist, a favourite of mine is a box of skin tone pencils or pens.  My Crayola box of the 80s included a ‘skin’ colour — in reality no one’s skin — symbolically and problematically the crayon was ‘white skin’. An entire box of skin tones is a far more inclusive gift.

Derwent skin tone pencils

WHY THE DIVERSITY OF SKIN COLOUR?

Our hairlessness has become a source of what we think of as beauty, a reality validated in every National Enquirer article about a “wolf boy”. It also has widespread consequences for our health and quality of life. It is the reason for the origin of melanin (the compound that, when present, makes dark skin) in sunny regions. The production of melanin in cells is just under the surface of the skin evolved in Africa, along with our loss of hair. All of our ancestors produced melanin and so were dark skinned, but when some of our ancestors moved out of hot climates, melanin blocked too much sun. At least a little sun on the skin is necessary for our bodies to produce vitamin D. Dark-skinned individuals in sunless places suffered rickets. The died, and so, with time, pale-skinned genes were favoured, not just once but several times independently, with the northward migrations of humans. In other words, the variety in our skin color would not exist were our skin not exposed in the first place by our lack of hair.

Rob Dunn, from The Wild Life Of Our Bodies

MORE

1. Nina Jablonski on the Evolution Of Skin, a Research Unplugged Podcast, available on iTunes U podcast from Penn State. She also did a TED talk, breaking the illusion of skin colour.

NOTES FROM THE PODCAST

Human skin is not much different in its basic structure from the skin of other animals walking around. But other mammals tend to be covered in hair, so it looks quite different. Humans are functionally hairless. This makes us very sweaty.

The next uniqueness is that human skin comes in a variety of natural colours. This is unique to our species.

The last unique feature of human skin is that compared to other animals we actually do things to our skin. We decorate it and use it as a canvas for self expression. Makeup, tattoos, piercings have great social significance.

Nakedness and sweatiness go together. In the course of evolution of our lineage, skin is hard to learn about because skin cannot be preserved. Nevertheless we have good evidence and we know we’ve had naked skin for a long time. This has been necessary for us to be more efficient sweaters. Humans and other primates are excellent at losing body heat through sweat. A dog pants to lose heat. A sheep loses heat through a mechanism at the base of its brain which allows it to cool a lot of blood flowing through the brain in particular via its nose. The more active the primate the more numerous its sweat glands. We come from a type of ape that has a moderate number of sweat glands. Other apes were extremely energetic in their activity, similar to modern humans so they must have had the ability to cool themselves with sweat glands. We’ve had excellent sweat glands for 2 million years.

When a horse sweats a lot they actually lose their ability to keep cool because their hair becomes compressed and their ability to lose heat through evaporation is limited. So the more hair you lose the more cool you can become by sweating. This is why we became hairless.

The ancestral form of our lineage lived only in equatorial Africa (2 million years ago). Hairless skin without pigment is very subject to burning. Recently we’ve become very aware of the sun but before that people didn’t protect ourselves well from the sun. Before that unpigmented skin burned a lot. This damage is not just the kind that causes you to have wrinkles and have skin cancer when you’re older but is actually damaging the DNA in your body essential for normal health and reproduction. So all of a sudden sun doesn’t become a little bit bad for you but a positive liability.

It was at this time in our evolutionary history that our species became darkly pigmented. All of us around 2 million years ago were darkly pigmented. The story of skin pigmentation then really starts out at this common denominator and it becomes interesting as the population disperses. This occurred quite quickly and we have humans going into Eastern and central Asia then Europe over the next million or so years.

When people went into these places their skin colour underwent major changes. Pigment in skin not only protects against dangerous effects of ultraviolet radiation but also is to do with making Vitamin D. Evolution is happening in our skin all the time. The pigment is filtering out a certain amount of radiation but also allowing a little bit in so that you can make vitamin D. Organisms like humans are remarkable in that through the course of natural selection we’ve tinkered with the amount of pigmentation in skin exactly right.

Outside the tropics, where humans first evolved, there isn’t very much of the UV radiation that makes vitamin D, and yet we need vitamin D to be healthy. That’s why, as humans moved into higher latitudes lost pigmentation, many of us have lightly pigmented skin, especially in northern Europe and northern Asia. This pigment (melanin) can be produced temporarily by people who tan. It was an important response that evolved in some people to deal with the increased UV that occurred for part of the year. (Summer)

We use skin constantly to advertise ourselves. Even for those who put no decoration on our skins, our skin tells a lot about your state of health. It immediately gives a signal to any observer about age, how much sun exposure you’ve had and what your likely ancestry is, even from 50 yards away.

If you have a certain amount of makeup on of a particular kind, or if you have tattoos of various kinds and positions we learn even more about you before you say anything. We use these cultural mechanisms to great advantage, to give people info about ourselves before they even talk to us. In modern society where speedy social interactions are the rule rather than exception more and more people are relying on this kind of advertising. (eg black and white goths)

Little Girl with Lipstick, Norman Rockwell, 1922

There’s a difference between cosmetics and something like a tattoo or piercing. Many older people can’t relate to tattoos as a visual medium and think it’s a foolish thing to do. After interviews, I realise young people think extremely carefully about it because they want a tattoo to be another symbol of themselves. Tattoos are not something people undertake frivolously. The vast majority consider it very carefully. It speaks of very deeply held aspirations about themselves, and have become extremely popular in the last 10-15 years.

There have always been men who tell women not to wear make up. One example from history is a London minister of St Giles in the Fieldswas not fond of cosmetics and in 1616 railed against ‘paps embossed, laid forth to men’s view’.

A treatise against pain and tincturing

We use our skin to gather information about our environment through the sense of touch. A lot of animals do this but we use our sense of touch tremendously, especially the tips of fingers and face. We gather a huge amount of info about our environment and about each other. Primates evolved to constantly touch one another. Humans living in a hunter gatherer society have a tremendous amount of physical touch between members, but our society has regulated against most of this kind of touch. If we were chimpanzees a roomful of students would be intertwined with one another, grooming. We tend to discount this part of our legacy. Touch is very important to normal childhood development and physiological well-being. Individuals in nursing homes do much better when they are touched and hugged.

Makeup Counter by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) The Saturday Evening Post cover March 10, 1951
  1. Surprising Siblings: Black and White Brothers Are Actually Twins shows that people of Caribbean descent often carry European DNA.
  2. Some Doctors Aren’t Wild About Self Tanner And Prefer You Stay Pale from Jezebel.
  3. And if this article doesn’t stop you from using sun beds nothing will, from Women’s Health.
  4. Based On The Colour Of One’s Skin, in which we are cautioned against confusing skin colour and racial identity, from Zero At The Bone
  5. Crayons that come in lots of different ‘skin colours’.
  6. The Enduring Popularity Of The Tan from The Beheld
  7. A depressingly large number of Nigerian women use harmful skin bleach, from Jezebel
  8. Tanning Is a Young, White, Female Problem. And It’s Deadly, also from Jezebel.
  9. Pigmentation: the simplest of complex traits not so simple? from Discover
  10. Neanderthals Came In All Colours, Discover

Header photo by Paladini Mauro

FURTHER READING

The robots of the future will hide in your garden under this pulsating silicone skin: Say goodbye to the garden gnome By Rachel Becker

Miss Saunders, whose skin is blotched with a rare skin condition, serves as a mirror to Maleeka Madison’s struggle against the burden of low self-esteem that many black girls face when they’re darker skinned. Miss Saunders is tough and through this, Maleeka learns to stand up to tough-talking Charlese.

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » science

Everyday Words Whose Scientific Meanings Are Different

THEORY

In everyday language, a theory is something that hasn’t been proven. We use it to mean ‘hypothesis’.

I don’t know why socks go missing but I have a  theory.

MARK COLVIN: Do you think that to a degree [the theory of evolution is] a communication failure by science? Do you think that just the very word, “theory”, in the “theory of evolution” has misled people?

RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes, I think that’s not the only communication failure. I think that simply not bothering to go out there and talk in the public square is part of the problem.

from this interview

Here’s how the word ‘theory’ works in scientific literature, compared to some similar words:

  • Hypothesis–> An educated (or uneducated) guess
  • Science Method–> The 7 step process to test said guess
  • Theory–> The “why” of something works
  • Law–> The “what” of something that works

via Freethought Blogs.

NATURAL

In common usage, ‘natural’ = ‘good’.

The Incredible Arrogance of Thinking ‘Natural’ Means ‘Good’

This one is a marketing difference and it pays to remind oneself regularly: brown packaging and ‘natural’ on the box doesn’t mean jack. Cancer. That, too, is ‘natural’.

CASUISTRY

A college professor taught me the word “casuistry” when it came up in office hours during a conversation we were having about a presentation I was slated to give on John Donne. It has two definitions: the first more technical definition has something to do with applying abstract rules to concrete instances. The second, in more common usage, is something like “specious, sophistic reasoning.” It’s especially associated with the Jesuits, who (allegedly) used it to rationalize light punishments for aristocratic sinners. It’s a great word. I especially like to use it when I’m losing an argument, because even if, say, my husband is being perfectly logical, nothing undermines a debate by calling him a casuist.

Persephone

SYMBIOSIS

In science, symbiosis means ‘a close relationship’. There are four main kinds of symbiosis, one of which is mutualism.

In everyday English, when people talk about ‘a symbiotic relationship’ we are most often talking about mutualism, or ‘a mutual relationship’. ‘Mutually symbiotic relationship’ would be technically more accurate.

Apart from mutualism,  three other types of symbiosis are:

  1. Commensalism, in which one species benefits while the other remains unaffected
  2. Parasitism, in which one species benefits while the other is harmed
  3. Neutralism, in which both species are unaffected

TOXIN

Common Usage: Man-made chemicals

Scientific Usage: Biologically produced poisons.

(Toxoid: A toxin which has been rendered no longer toxic eg. a vaccination is ‘toxoid’, which doesn’t exactly help the vaccination cause.)

MYTH

When thinking about the origin of science and philosophy we often show a tendency to underestimate the value of myth. It was critical, rational thinking that replaced the irrational, mythical approach to unknown phenomena. We treat myth as a fable or fairy tale invented by primitive people to recount to their sons and grandsons. However, the story has yet another aspect. There is something unknown, something that transcends our current knowledge and we want to comprehend it, but we are lacking adequate tools to do so. Therefore, we create a myth so that we might at least assimilate this unknown into the realm of our actions. It is true that science and philosophy have converted many myths into rational knowledge, but it is far from true that we no longer use myths.

In some schools of contemporary philosophy the myth concept is still widely employed, but it has evolved into a kind of technical term. Myth in this sense refers to a reality that evades any precise linguistic description. Since this reality cannot be precisely described in our language, it cannot enter into a logical nexus with any linguistic description of our experience. This does not mean that this reality cannot be experienced, but, if it is experienced, it transcends any logically organized linguistic description.

from A Comprehensible Universe: The interplay of Science and Theology

SPACE AND DIMENSION

Space and dimension mean different things to physicists and mathematicians than they do to the ordinary person in the street. This is a very hard topic to get your head around if you’re not an astrophysicist, so I’ll leave you with the podcast, a conversation between Ezra Klein and Sean Carroll. They talk about this difference at about the 26 minute mark.

EPIDEMIC

Scientists generally use the term “epidemic” to refer to a disease that occurs suddenly in a discrete population, an outbreak. An epidemic is not declared on the basis of high numbers but on the speed or rate that new cases pop up. In the nineteenth century, the word was used almost exclusively to describe a wave of infectious disease. In the typical graph of an epidemic, the number of cases is plotted against a measurement of time, such as days or weeks, to show how quickly the disease is spreading.

With the notable exception of AIDS, in modern times we’ve had less experience than previous generations with fast-moving infectious diseases, like polio or smallpox, that can affect entire populations. As a result, the time component of the definition of an epidemic has become less crucial. As one consequence, the definition of ‘epidemic’ has broadened. Now, we use the word with little reference to the speed at which new cases are occurring, which puts us one step away from the original usage. And when we talk about epidemics of conditions that are not contagious — such as skin cancer, autism, anorexia nervosa, and teen pregnancy — or conditions and situations that are not even real diseases — like alien abduction, or satanic child abuse — we’re two steps away.

Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism by Roy Richard Grinker

ELIMINATION VS ERADICATION

In everyday English we tend to think of these words synonymously but Covid-19 has put paid to that. New Zealand was one of the first countries saying that they had ‘eliminated’ the virus, which had some people scratching their heads because the virus was clearly still around. There were still a few people in hospital with it, and a few others isolating at home.

Here in Australia, with about the same number of proportional cases, people began to wonder if New Zealand was maybe tooting their own horn by saying the virus had been ‘eliminated’. It was subsequently explained that when virologists say ‘eliminated’ they are saying something specific: Eradication refers to the reduction to zero (or a very low defined target rate) of new cases in a defined geographical area. New Zealand was correct to announce that they had eradicated Covid-19, while also telling New Zealanders that they also weren’t in a position to fully reopen the country and return to normal life.

Elimination is much more difficult. We’ll be able to say Covid-19 has been ‘eliminated’ after the complete and permanent worldwide reduction to zero new cases after deliberate efforts.

HERITABILITY

You could argue that ‘heritability’ isn’t exactly an everyday English word, but any English speaker would hear it and know it relates to the word ‘heredity’.

A Question of Upbringing, Cover drawing by Osbert Lancaster. First published in Penguin in 1962 nature nurture
A Question of Upbringing, Cover drawing by Osbert Lancaster. First published in Penguin in 1962

Generalists still tend to focus on a binary of ‘nature vs nurture’, a concept that should be retired. Geneticists are now very clear that nature and nurture are constantly interacting with each other. Therefore, the meaning of heritability is more specific than the generalist might assume.

Many features of humans have been shaped by culture, so things like the way tools and fire have shaped our hands and our intestines and our digestive systems. And then I think a lot of our big brains expanded as a response of having to learn lots of cultural information about how to make tools and shelters and arrow poisons and things like that, so this complex body of knowledge that transmits non-genetically. In many ways, I think our brains have evolved to be good at acquiring all that information. … we have to get beyond this kind of dualistic way of thinking, where there’s genetic things that we think of as biological and then there’s cultural learned things which seem to be almost ethereal. When we learn culture, that wires things into our brains … whether we’re learning a language or we’re learning to juggle, if we’re learning the complexity of streets in London, we know that this alters, for example, our hippocampus. And so you get physical changes in the sub-structure, which means that cultural evolution is a kind of biological evolution. It’s just not a kind of genetic evolution.

Joe Henrich

Heritability is a ‘descriptive statistic’. Like all descriptive statistics, it can change in populations over time. This heritability statistic describes the extent to which differences that we observe in a trait (e.g. propensity to alcoholism) are due to inherited DNA differences between people, in a certain population at a certain time.

Generalists mistakenly confuse what is with what could be. Heritability describes the extent to which people differ in propensity to alcoholism, and to what extent that is due to availability to alcohol etc. vs inherited DNA differences.

Another caveat about heritability: Geneticists can only work within the range that they are able to study. This typically covers about 95% of a population but doesn’t include the extremes e.g. single gene mutations, nor does it include the environmental extremes e.g. abuse/neglect.

In short, the descriptive statistic of heritability is not fate.

CHRISTIANITY

There’s a tendency to casually conflate ‘Christianity’ with ‘Western’. In the modern world, 90% of Christians are cultural descendants of this Western European tradition, but that leaves 10% who have a non-Western European background.

the branch of Christianity that eventually evolved into the Roman Catholic church was just one branch among many:

  • Syrian Christians
  • Armenian Christians
  • Ethiopian Christians
  • Chaldean Christians
  • etc.

The branch connected to the Catholic church exploded in size, so this dominates much of our thinking around Christianity today. This Roman Catholic branch of Christianity changed many aspects of family:

  • Banned marriage between cousins (and other family members)
  • Preferred neolocal residence (a type of post-marital residence in which a newly married couple resides separately from both the husband’s natal household and the wife’s natal household).
  • Tried to end arranged marriages

All this had the unintended consequence of creating monogamous nuclear families. (Unintended because the church was simply enforcing what it believed God wanted; small families weren’t the aim.) This is what we tend to associate with Christian morality today.

RELATED LINKS

What scientists say in research papers vs. What they actually mean, from io9

This blog is all about narrative theory, storytelling and literature. A few words used differently by specialists in this area, compared to how they are understood by ‘the man on the street’: surrealism and melodrama.

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » science

Picturebook Study: Colour Analysis

Colour is a language. Take the illustrations below, both of Venice. The first is a more typical depiction of Venice by Georges Dorival. Dorival was creating a travel poster, so of course he wanted Venice to look welcoming.

Georges Dorival (1879 - 1968) 1921 travel poster illustration for Venice
Georges Dorival (1879 – 1968) 1921 travel poster illustration for Venice

The second illustration is by John Piper for Death In Venice 2. This is a fare less typical choice of colour for depicting Venice, and the atmosphere is now completely different.

John Piper - Death in Venice II from 1973 for the novel by Thomas Mann
John Piper – Death in Venice II from 1973 for the novel by Thomas Mann

This third example is difference again.

Guido Borelli is an Italian artist from an artistic family ‘Venice at Dusk'
Guido Borelli is an Italian artist from an artistic family ‘Venice at Dusk’

Naturally, in picture books too, colour has a language of its own.

THE IDEATIONAL ROLE OF COLOUR

In its most basic role, colour is used by illustrators to represent the hue of things as we think they most often appear in the world. Despite the link to veridical reality, there is still a reliance upon archetypes. Not all cows are black and white, not by a long shot. Yet the cow as illustrated on your milk carton is probably black and white, because this is how we think of cows.

THE TEXTUAL ROLE OF COLOUR

  • The same colour might be used over and over to create a meaningful imagistic pattern, like the colour red in the film Sixth Sense (a ‘colour motif‘).
  • Colour may be used contrastively to highlight or foreground some element within a composition to make it especially salient to the viewer. Anthony Browne might use a square of light coming through a doorway to segregate one character from another, for example segregating daughter from father in Gorilla.

THE INTERPERSONAL ROLE OF COLOUR

This is about the emotional effect colour has on the viewer and refers to the visceral response we have, independent of the actual story being told. Other useful words are: ambience, mood, atmosphere.

A picture book filled with bright, light colours might feel childlike and joyous.

A picture book rendered in monochrome might make us feel melancholy or reflective or sombre.

Sepia tones put us in mind of an historicised story.

Colour and texture can be either infused or defused (I’ve also heard the term ‘diffused’ or we might say ‘drained’.)

Lighting effects can make a picture seem either dramatised (e.g. arte noir) or flat (by removing any aerial perspective).

by-Theodore-G.-Haupt-1902-1990-1931
by Theodore G. Haupt (1902-1990) 1931

We can speak in terms of vibrancy, which is another term for saturation (lots of colour, or tending more towards monochrome). Vibrancy creates excitement whereas muted colours create gentle, restrained feelings, or perhaps flat feelings. Note that ‘muted’ can refer to either light or dark images. Rosie’s Walk is muted but light, whereas Wolves In The Walls is muted but dark.

Vibrancy/saturation is tied directly to the variable of ‘value’ — the lights and darks — imagine the illustration blocked out in grey scale. That’s its value. (Illustrators often do a values sketch first, and digital illustrators often work by setting down the values and only adding colour on separate layers after all the value details have been finalised. This allows hue and vibrancy to be changed easily at any stage of the publishing process.)

We can speak in terms of warmth, according to how yellow/blue a picture is.

Warm colours and cool colours can signal the temperature of the environment but also the emotion of the characters, or both.

Garth Williams

And here’s something not seen in digital art software: we can also speak in terms of ‘familiarity‘. Familiar illustrations will have more colour differentiation whereas ‘removed’ illustrations will have less. A ‘familiar’ ambience is made up of lots of ‘colour differentiation’. (Lots of different colours.) The reason it’s called ‘familiar’ is because the real world is also made up of lots of different colours, and we are familiar with the real world.

Carlos Marchiori Illustrations for Edith Fowke - Sally Go Round The Sun 300 Songs, Rhymes and Games of Canadian Children (1969) drinking driving
Carlos Marchiori Illustrations for Edith Fowke – Sally Go Round The Sun 300 Songs, Rhymes and Games of Canadian Children (1969)

When illustrators make use of a reduced palette they are making the conscious decision to move readers away from the familiar and into the strange. There will be a reason for wanting to move us away from reality and it’s just a matter of working out what that reason is when analysing an illustration.

This removal from reality needn’t be in the literal sense — it might be figurative.

Vibrancy, warmth and familiarity are all simultaneously active — they don’t cancel each other out.

An opposite of the ‘familiar’ colour scheme might be described as ‘saudade‘, from Portuguese. Saudade describes a feeling of longing, melancholy or nostalgia. (Saudade Pinterest Boards)

A mixture of familiar and saudade colour palettes in the same book can show the difference between, say, characters who are enjoying life and a part of their environment and those who are removed. (As an example see Anthony Browne’s Piggyback — the father is depicted in vibrant colours while the mother is removed. Another is Cooke and Oxenbury’s So Much.)

In picture books you often see a foreground without background setting — a part of the scene has been pulled out and placed upon a blank (often white) background. This is done to draw the reader’s attention to the emotion in the picture rather than to encourage a focus on the ambience.

Splashes of colour within generally dark pictures usually mean something in the story, too. For example, a bright splash of colour that runs through a book might foreshadow a happy ending.

Another kind of colour contrast used in picture books: A coloured frame or margin that carries the ambience. Try dividing the picture into parts according to light and dark, in shadow or in light, warm or cool, and see how the composition looks now.

White margins don’t mean much in picture books because they’re neutral but black margins do have an effect. We’re less inclined to react emotionally to a picture when framed in black. (Art students are told to avoid black straight out of the tube altogether, presumably for this reason.)

When a children’s picture book is entirely black and white the decision has been made to forego the opportunity for ambience, or at least downplay it. Even in black and white pictures you still get the full continuum between simple black and white line drawings with no ambience to drawings that include shading, hatching and dotting to create texture and then there are those that emphasise lighting effects to create a greater sense of atmosphere. (These last kind have infused ambience rather than ‘defused’. Another word for ‘defused’ is ‘flat’.)

Notes are from Reading Visual Narratives (2013) by Painter, Martin and Unsworth

FURTHER READING

  • Here’s a very nice resource for anyone who would like to know about the History and Science of Colour Temperature, at a website called Filmmaker IQ.
  • Film School Rejects shared a program which averages the colour of films and comes out with a single hue. It would be interesting to apply this to picture books. Meantime, there are plans to use it on Disney films.
  • The colours of hospital codes make for interesting insight into universal colour symbolism

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » science