A Brief History of Children's Picture Books and the Art of Visual Storytelling

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From cave paintings to Maurice Sendak, a look at the masters of the form

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Back in the fifteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci made the following remark about visual storytelling:

"And you who wish to represent by words the form of man and all the aspects of his membrification, relinquish that idea. For the more minutely you describe the more you will confine the mind of the reader, and the more you will keep him from the knowledge of the thing described. And so it is necessary to draw and to describe."

kids1_edited-1.jpg Finished artwork for Ajubel's Robinson Crusoe.

From very early on, we both intuit and learn the language of pictorial representation, and most modern adults, the picturebook was our first dictionary of this visual vocabulary. Yet the picturebook -- defined by its narrative framework of sequential imagery and minimalist text to convey meaning or tell a story, and different from the illustrated book in which pictures play a secondary narrative part, enhancing and decorating the narrative -- is a surprisingly nascent medium.

In Children's Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, illustrator Martin Salisbury and children's literature scholar Morag Styles trace the fascinating evolution of the picturebook as a storytelling medium and a cultural agent, and peer into the future to see where the medium might be going next, with case studies of seminal works, a survey of artistic techniques, and peeks inside the sketchbooks and creative process of prominent illustrators adding dimension to this thoughtful and visually engrossing journey.

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Though pictorial storytelling dates back to the earliest cave wall paintings, the true picturebook harks back to a mere 130 years ago, when artist and illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886) first began to elevate the image into a storytelling vehicle rather than mere decoration for text. Maurice Sendak, widely regarded as the greatest author of visual literature (though he refuses to identify as a "children's author"), once wrote of Caldecott's "rhythmic syncopation" and its legacy:

"Caldecott's work heralds the beginning of the modern picture book. He devised an ingenious juxtaposition of picture and word, a counter pint that never happened before. Words are left out -- but the picture says it. Pictures are left out -- but the words say it. In short, it is the invention of the picture book."

Even early on, tensions between the creative vision and marketability of picturebooks captured the same friction between artist-storyteller and publisher that continues to plague children's -- if not all -- publishing. Walter Crane (1845-1915), another Victorian-era picturebook innovator, famously grumbled about printer-publisher Edmund Evans' approach to publishing:

"...but it was not without protest from the publishers who thought the raw, coarse colours and vulgar designs usually current appealed to a larger public, and therefore paid better..."

(Evans, per Crane's remark, seemed to have taken on the role of a "circulation manager" of books, and with that came the same perception of compromised editorial integrity we've previously seen in the context of newspapers.)


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Lewis Carroll's The Mouse's Tale is an early example of text taking the visual form of that which it describes or alludes to.

But the picturebook didn't fully blossom until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when new developments in printing technology, changing attitudes towards childhood, and a new class of exceptional artists catapulted it into a golden age. The first three decades of the twentieth century germinated such timeless classics as Curious George and the Babar stories. But as war consumed Europe, resources dwindled and the paper shortages of the post-war era placed new demands for keeping publishing costs low. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the austerity of the time, there was a profound longing for color as escapism, which reined in the neo-romantic movement.

Then, in the 1950s, a peculiar cultural shift began to take place -- the line between artist and author started to blur, and a crop of famous graphic designers set out to write and illustrate picturebooks as a way of exploring visual thinking. (Just this week, one of the most celebrated such gems, the only children's book by the great Saul Bass, resurfaced to everyone's delight.) Among the highlights of this new frontier was a series of children's picturebooks by legendary graphic designer -- and, paradoxically, notorious curmudgeon -- Paul Rand.

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He and his then-wife, Ann, produced Sparkle and Spin (1957), Little 1 (1962), and Listen! Listen! (1970), all an exercise in demonstrating "a playful but sophisticated understanding of the relationship between words and pictures, shapes, sounds, and thoughts." (It was in the same period that Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco introduced young readers to semiotics, the study of signs and symbols.)

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André François's Crocodile Tears (Universe Books NY, 1956) uses an extreme landscape format to reflect and emphasize the subject matter. It was François's first picturebook as author-artist.

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In Um Dia Na Praia, flat color without line is used with careful attention to the placement of every element in order to develop a wordless text. The very simple shapes need to carry the entire weight of a subtle pictorial narrative.

But many of these pioneering picturebook storytellers, just like Sendak does to this day, had an aversion to identifying as "children's book" authors. Salisbury and Styles write:

"Of course, many of the best picturebook artists would not describe themselves exclusively as such. André François was born in Hungary, in an area that became part of Romania after World War I. But it was as a French citizen that he spent his working life as a graphic artist, spanning visual satire, advertising and poster design, theater set design, sculpture, and book illustration. François's work exhibited a childlike awkwardness that belied a highly sophisticated, biting eye."

(Sound familiar?)

In the 1960s, as a generation of British artists emerged from art school, picturebooks entered a new era of vibrant paint and color, with many artists combining book illustration and painting to make a living. (Including, as we've seen, Andy Warhol.) It was in that era that some of the most influential picturebooks were born, including Maurice Sendak's most beloved work and Miroslav Šašek's timeless This Is... series.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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