Marvellous Imaginations: Reflections on the makers and readers of picture books

The 23rd annual IBBY/NCRCL MA Conference took place on 5 November 2016 at the University of Roehampton. This year’s theme was ‘Marvellous Imaginations – Extending thinking through picture books’. This week on the NCRCL blog, alumni and current NCRCL students will be reporting on various aspects of the conference, including the speakers, panellists and parallel sessions.

Marvellous Imaginations: Reflections on the makers and readers of picture books

By Lesley Smith

Martin Salisbury: “The New Picturebook-Makers: Visual Thinker as Author”

Martin Salisbury is Professor of Illustration at Anglia Ruskin University and leads the MA Children’s Book Illustration programme.

Picture books are usually 32 pages, which gives you 12 spreads between the end papers and titles. People think picture books are easy to write but pictures are a language in themselves, not just an extra to the words. Drawing is another way of thinking, a way of reasoning on paper and many people are visual thinkers, working out their ideas through drawing – “I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster and leaves less room for lies” (Le Corbusier).

In picture books for children, it the image used to merely reflected the words, but the authorial side of illustration has come to the fore in recent years and there is often more meaning in the pictures than there is in the text (e.g. There’s a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins). Publishers are, however, still a little nervous about wordless books where all the writing is in the pictures.

In France, picture books are more sophisticated. In China, interest in picturebooks is increasing as entertainment is becoming as important as overt didactism. In Germany, the Wimmelbuch (literally teeming book, like Martin Handford’s Where’s Wally?) is on the rise.

Vivienne Smith: “Playing at Reading? Why picturebooks really matter in the teaching of reading”

Vivienne Smith is a lecturer in Primary Education at the University of Strathclyde. She is particularly interested in reading as a creative and social practice.

We have long understood the importance of play in the cognitive development of the child. Reading is like play in that it puts aside ordinary life. It is equally intense and absorbing. Sadly, most research (and most teaching in school) focuses on the mechanics of reading rather than on reading as a playful/experiential activity. We often locate the playing in the text rather than in the reader. In school, reading is seen as work and reading schemes present nonsense activities in meaningless books. This is about equity. Middle class kids might see plenty of worthwhile and fun books at home, while poor kids won’t.

Maybe the problem with underachievers is that they’ve never learned to play with a text. Good books enable the child to think like a reader, to remember, predict, imagine. They offer a risk-free exploration of experience and emotions through play. Reading that makes you question/challenge, encourages empathy with other people. When an author teases or foils the expectations of the reader, this is important, too.

The element of play in picture books is multi-layered and varied. A playful reading allows a text to become significant and useful to the reader. It gives it an afterlife.

Panel: Harriet Goodman from Philosophy for Children; Miranda McKearney from Empathy Lab; Nicky Parker from Amnesty International

This was a panel discussion on the usefulness of picture books in these projects, stressing the power of illustrated stories to develop empathy and literacy, potentially leading to social activism. Amnesty have recently teamed up with CILIP to present an annual award for a picture book (and a children’s novel) which promotes and/or celebrates an aspect of human rights. There’s a Bear on My Chair, which won this year, promotes values which appeal to even the youngest of children. It encourages debate about such things as fairness and encourages a progression from knowing to feeling. Picture books are empowering because the child can own the story and talk about the ideas and feelings. Human rights issues can often be presented more subtly and effectively through pictures than through words.


Image from There’s a Bear on My Chair, via Ross Collins.

Something that could change: in animal stories, only 7.5% of the characters are female! Even if the gender is not defined, the reader is led to assume that the character is male. Thus, we have the subliminal message that men are the heroes. This is worth thinking about in the context of the continuing problem of gender-based violence.

Parallel Session 4: Pat Pinsent: “Picture Books and Dementia: A Case Study”

Pat Pinsent is a senior research fellow at Roehampton University and has published 15 books, mostly in the field of children’s literature.

Her paper explained how she uses picture books with her husband Henry who is so severely affected with Alzheimer’s disease that he no longer recognises his wife of 58 years. He was diagnosed officially in 2010. Pat used to read to him, often using children’s books like Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners, set in the war, but eventually he lost the ability to follow a story – he could no longer remember or predict. He was always interested in art, so she turned to picture books, gradually reading simpler and simpler ones, and he enjoys them. Some (e.g. football stories and So Many Henrys) he enjoys because they are directly relevant to him; others he enjoys as he is interested in discussing the detail even though he does not grasp the meaning of the story as a whole. He can still read, so will read the text on a page after she has read it first. He enjoys rhyme but doesn’t understand humour.

Research shows that such activities as singing, dance and art can improve the quality of life for Alzheimer’s sufferers and reading picture books can have a similar effect. This is because the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with the emotional aspect of memory, seems often to decay less rapidly than the hippocampus, which is associated with logical thought and cognitive faculties.


Image via Anthony Browne

Pat has found that Quentin Blake’s books do not work with Henry, neither does something like Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins, because he cannot predict/ anticipate. The most successful books have been Willy the Wizard by Anthony Browne, War Boy by Michael Foreman, and Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion. Also The Gruffalo and Where the Wild Things Are, as he enjoys the monsters and describes the pictures at length. Other fantasy books do not work. Overall, storytelling can be a valuable activity to work with the abilities a person still has for enjoyment, providing quality of life.


Lesley Smith is a second-year distance learning student on the MA in Children’s Literature at the University of Roehampton.


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