“I don’t want to read this book, it has no pictures,” my preschooler said. Oh no, he’ll never learn to read a real book, I thought. A couple of years later and said child is still loving books with pictures. I’ve learnt, though, that the idiom ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’ rings true. And I’m really happy that he’s still into reading. So these days, I’m the one who brings the picture books home for the kid.
Indeed, the battle between words and images is a common one for us parents. We think that our children should graduate from picture books to chapter books and other ‘wordy’ books. But increasingly, research is showing that a diet of books with pictures can be beneficial for kids too. Calef Brown, an American illustrator, writer, and educator who has written and illustrated a dozen award-winning picture books (including Polkabats and Octopus Slacks, Hallowilloween, and Flamingos on the Roof, a #1 New York Times best-seller) agrees.
Illustrations Draw Readers into the World of the Book
“Illustrations can pull the reader into the narrative, make them curious and want to connect the pictures with the whole story,” the dad to two children aged four and seven says. As a child, Calef was avid reader, moving from Dr. Seuss books (“His vivid and strange universe – so consistently odd and charming, fascinated me. I wanted to live in that world so badly”) to art books, old New Yorker cartoons, Charles Addams’ drawings, and picture books from earlier eras. These helped him while away the hours during summers at his grandparents’ house.
“I had lots of favorites, and those books are why I became a writer and illustrator. If I had to pick one I would say Alice in Wonderland. It captured my imagination so strongly – the story, characters, and John Tenniel’s drawings (see below). I clearly remember entering into the world of that book and sharing the disorientation and discovery of its places and people right along with Alice. A little scary when I first read it, but just the right amount, and equally fascinating. It had wonderful nonsense verse embedded in it (which I memorised, along with passages of dialogue and other excerpts). I spent hours and hours copying the illustrations, which seemed entirely from another time, and somehow familiar to me.”
Illustrations Enhance the Reading Experience
Illustrations and images can even help enhance a seasoned reader’s experience. Good illustrations make the book more satisfying and memorable by expanding the world of the written word and helping to put the reader in the story to experience the places, the people, and the events.
Illustrations get Sensitive Issues across to Children
Illustrated books are also excellent vehicles to portray sensitive issues to younger children, especially if you, the parent, can’t find the right words to use. As children are very sensitive to facial expression and body language, illustrators must be acutely aware of these aspects when creating their images.
“Approaching serious subjects requires a special sensitivity to, and respect for, a child’s intelligence. One has to balance communicating honestly and not talking down to the reader, with creating imagery that is appropriate and that allows the child to understand what is being communicated,” Calef says.
One book that does this beautifully is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Calef explains: “In a book that deals with anger, Sendak’s illustrations for Where the Wild Things Are is masterful in terms of understanding how children feel, and depicts anger being honestly expressed within the safety of a loving family.”
On the other hand, poorly realised illustrations for good writing can bring the whole experience down, Calef cautions. There are also instances where no imagery is the best option, he adds. “I was glad that the editions that I first read of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings had no illustrations because the epic scale, vividness and descriptive detail allowed me to create the characters and places in my mind.”
How to choose picture books for your preschooler? Look for bold and colourful illustrations with strongly silhouetted shapes and interesting line qualities, and vivid characters and well rendered expressive faces, Calef suggests. See his recommendations below for illustrated books that all children should read at least once in their lives.
5 Illustrated Books that Every Child should Read at least Once:
James and The Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, with illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert
An adventurous tale with memorable characters for older kids. The soft, detailed pencil illustrations are just right, and capture the strangeness and whimsy perfectly.
The Sleep Book by Dr. Seuss
My personal favorite Seuss when I was little. Surreal and silly. It may have been intended to be read at bedtime but it fired up my imagination instead of making me drowsy.
The Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel
Beautifully illustrated and written short episodic stories that are perfect for early readers. The two characters epitomise a loving relationship between an older, protective sibling and his younger, impetuous charge. These books will never go out of style. Timeless.
May I Bring a Friend? by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, with illustrations by Beni Montresor
More obscure than the books above (although it did win the Caldecott Medal in 1965) but I love the off-beat rhythmic text and the scratchy pen and ink illustrations, and so do my kids.
But what if, at the end of it all, the illustrations do their job so well that a child only looks at the pictures and ignore the words? Think positive. As Calef says: “Those kids may become great artists!”
Calef Brown will be speaking at The Writers & Illustrators Conference during The Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC). He will also be conducting a masterclass for visual artists, illustrators, and designers. Get more details and tickets here.