On a blustery fall day, members of the children’s book community gathered for BookFest at Bank Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The annual event, which featured panel discussions between illustrators, authors, educators, and critics, was held on October 22 at the Bank Street Center for Children’s Literature.
The first panel of the day was titled “Reading with Pictures: Visual Literacy Yesterday and Today.” Speakers were Lindsey Wyckoff, archivist, Bank Street College of Education; Rudy Gutierrez, illustrator; Francoise Mouly, publisher, Toon Books and art editor, the New Yorker; and author-illustrator Raúl Colón. Children’s literature historian Leonard S. Marcus kicked off the discussion by reflecting on how, as adults, individuals often seem to lose the ability to really see “the visual world as an expressive medium,” instead, exhibiting discomfort when it comes to ‘looking at pictures in a meaningful way.” In speaking briefly about the history of Bank Street and the recent exhibition he curated, The Picture Book Reimagined (for which Wyckoff worked as an archivist), Marcus reflected on the early days of Bank Street, when it was very much a community of illustrators and writers as well as educators. One question that the Bank Street community wrestled with was whether “characters in books for very young children should have faces,” because it was reasoned that faceless characters would allow children to more easily envision themselves in the books. Marcus asked the panelists to comment on the matter of “faces” in children’s books and how children are represented and seen in picture books today.
“As a child, I identified with everything,” Colón said, noting that children do not always need concrete representations or images that reflect their own lives, because through their imaginations, they are able to relate to forge connections. Mouly agreed that picture books need not necessarily show readers mirror images of themselves or their realities; in fact, “children can see characters in very abstract shapes.” She added that gatekeepers can benefit by “being trusting of what an artist can provide... let the artists tell the story,” she said.
Gutierrez (Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey) believes that children’s books can work to overcome “borders, labels, and categories,” and that child readers are the prime audience for such nonrestrictive ideas and representations. “We underestimate kids,” he said. He referenced a particular school visit, when a child asked him the rather unconventional question, “Do you paint auras?” While young readers have the imaginative capacity to embrace all sorts of representations of the world, abstract or concrete, “it’s up to parents to buy these books that break down borders,” he said.
In terms of their own childhoods, Marcus asked the panelists to comment on the first images they recall making a lasting impact on them. Colón was more drawn toward his older sister’s books than to his own. One image that especially stands out in his memory is that of the headless horseman in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. “It’s hard to forget,” Marcus commented.
For Gutierrez, an image that is burned into his mind from a young age was one he saw while walking down the street in his neighborhood in the South Bronx: “the drawing of a body,” which he later learned was a police drawing demarcating where a victim had been. Despite the sobering connotations of the drawing, it helped Gutierrez to first realize that, from graffiti to hieroglyphics, “drawing is communication,” and that “we remember visualizations.”
Mouly remembers that, in school, she “worked hard to get the prizes” awarded to students. One such prize was an illustrated book of fairy tales with images that stand out to her as being particularly formative. Lindsey Wyckoff, meanwhile, counts Crockett Johnson's "large, orange carrot" that appears in Ruth Krauss’s The Carrot Seed, as one of the first images that had an impact on her. For Marcus, some of the images that he recalls from childhood are those of the political cartoons that he used to cut out once his parents threw them away. As is the case with comics, the key to their power is perhaps as much about content as it is about what is left out. Turning back to the panelists, Marcus asked them to discuss “what gets left out in pictures?”
In Colón’s wordless picture book, Draw!, the pictures tell the story by offering “clues that lead from one visual to another.” He believes that “children provide the in-between” content that falls between the words and the pictures. For school visits, he has even had children write their own words for the book. So, in a sense, what is left out of pictures is that component of the experience that is provided through a readers’ individual interpretation.
Mouly commented that she believes there is a misconception that in an image, the meaning is “spelled out for you – but it’s not true.” An image requires viewers to “actively decipher” its content. In some early readers, words are meant to reinforce and echo what appears in the pictures. To her, this “is a waste of effort.” In creating and designing books for very young readers, her belief is that “you make sure that readers want to read the words” because they are so intrigued by what they see in the images, that they want to learn more. Comics in particular offer “layers of communication” for readers through symbols, ciphers, and other tools, Mouly said.
Gutierrez commented, “I love the idea of an in-between” that is the domain of the reader and viewer to interpret. He added that he believes there is also an “underneath,” and suggested that, as an illustrator, one of his most important roles is in “opening windows and doors” so that readers can discover for themselves. In closing out the conversation, Mouly added that “we think children want fantasy” from stories, but what they really get from books is a sense of structure, or “architecture upon which they can build.”
Beyond Words: Storytelling Through Pictures
Furthering the conversation about visual literacy were author and illustrators Hervé Tullet, Angela Dominguez, Laurent Linn, Jason Chin, Brian Pinkney, and Christopher Myers. Susannah Richards, associate professor of education at Eastern Connecticut State University, moderated. Richards asked the panelists to reflect on the types of images that held an early influence on them. For Linn, the TV and film he watched as a child and teenager greatly informed the work he does today. As a result of these influences, he believes that he often thinks in a “very cinematic way,” and in terms of framing, scenes, and “peak moments.” Dominguez was very interested in fine art and art history growing up, though she also cut out pictures from a lot of popular magazines.
For Pinkney, “the first images I saw were of myself,” he said. He was referring, of course, to how his father, Jerry Pinkney, often used him as a model for his picture books. This experience of literally seeing himself as characters stuck with him, and as a result, he still has an instinct to embody the characters that he himself creates. “My dad didn’t love me like that,” kidded Myers.
On a more serious note, Myers shared how his work has been “influenced by other visualities” beyond drawing and painting, to include art forms like quilt-making. He spoke about how the realities of artists’ early life can continue to play a role in their work, and that artists “borrow” from many different visual sources. He shared his experiences working with refugee children in Germany. While the children didn’t have a lot of familiarity or experience with traditional modes of art-making, one thing that the kids knew a lot about were maps, which were instrumental in their own experiences of immigrating from their home countries to Germany. So he had the children all create their own, personal maps.
Chin reported that he was heavily influenced by film as a kid and was especially captivated by Star Wars. He also remembered thinking that art museums were boring, until he encountered an image that changed his mind – Howard Pyle’s painting “Marooned.” The panelists next discussed some of the more challenging aspects of doing the work that they do and whether collaborating with authors who have their own visions is ever an obstacle.
On the topic of overcoming difficulties in art-making, for Pinkney, sometimes certain projects just take a while to find themselves. He had originally intended for his picture book On the Ball to be a graphic novel, and created over 1500 images for the story. He then tried to shape the story into a wordless chapter book. But neither of those formats was right for the story; eventually, he whittled down the illustrations to work as a standard-length picture book.
For his book Water Is Water, Chin had difficulties determining what story the book was trying to tell and also struggled with images that he felt, intuitively, weren’t working. He credits his editor, Neal Porter, with “talking me off the ledge” when he was in crisis over the book. For Domiguez, she spoke about the difficulties she had in channeling and conveying nuanced, complicated emotions into the illustrations for Medina’s Mango, Abuela, and Me.
Linn’s novel Draw the Line involves a hate crime, and he said he struggled with creating the book’s “scenes of brutality.” Though Linn recognizes that “teens can handle a lot” and he intended the book to serve as a “dark tunnel into light,” it was still, as he describes “exceedingly difficult.”
On the topic of creating images that depict violence, overwhelming emotions, or other difficult content, Myers observed that illustrations can serve a very powerful role for children. “There is a lot that is unspeakable” or that lies “beyond words” in their lives. Particularly for children experiencing trauma, illustrations provide a tremendous service to them by enabling them to “think the unspeakable without necessarily having to say it.” He added that “visuality can bridge that unspeakable gap.”
Tullet added that there are many different ways of speaking within picture books that also lie beyond words and are universal – “we forget sounds,” he said. “There are so many ways with books to speak,” he said. He added that, when he presents his books to groups of children, his “translators are disappointed,” because he doesn’t need them.
The panelists also spoke about the characteristics that define and set picture books apart from other art forms. Chin sees picture books as being a process of “stringing images together.... I do a single image and it doesn’t work for me.” Linn agreed, saying that, while artists are traditionally taught to create portraits or still lifes, picture book art is different: “picture books are more like film” in the way they unfold, while Dominguez believes that successful picture books work in service of creating “a good page turn.” For Myers, the picture book is unique in that it functions as both a “serial and an object.... I’m interested in anything that can straddle these two forms,” while Tullet sees readers’ experiences of his “dots and scribbles” as a critical piece of the book itself.
Finally, the authors spoke about the timely matter of appropriation in children’s literature, with Myers saying that “I’m religious about the idea that I don’t want anybody to tell me what to write.” However, speaking of religion, he noted that children’s books are the only “communal literature besides holy books” and are “ritual objects.” As such, it’s critical that those who create children’s books take their roles on with care and integrity taking “the time to do it right.” Linn piped in, saying “if every character in my book was me, it would be called ‘therapy.” But though writers and artists can and should have the freedom to tell the stories they feel personally driven to tell, “we need creators of books from every walk of life,” he said.
Thinking About “The Whole Book”
Taking the stage as a solo presenter was Megan Dowd Lambert, author of Reading Picture Books with Children: How to Shake up Storytime and Get Kids Talking about What They See. She spoke about her pioneering approach to reading to children, which she calls “The Whole Book Approach.” She described the approach as taking into account “the in-between and the underneath” that the previous panelists had discussed as existing within the world of a picture book. The approach also focuses on the book itself as a physical object.
Lambert frequently reads to groups of children – including at the Eric Carle Museum – and puts to use the Whole Book Approach. At its core, the approach to reading stories purports that “we learn better when we construct our own knowledge.” Using a variety of images from books by many of the featured panelists, including spreads from Firebird, illustrated by Christopher Myers; Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer, illustrated by Raúl Colón; and Redwoods; and Coral Reefs, illustrated by Jason Chin, she demonstrated how trim size, frames, and layouts work in tandem with an image’s content – for instance, picture book biographies often use portrait layout, while books about “journeys” often use landscape layout. A square layout can conjure feelings of either “safety and security” or “claustrophobia and tension.”
Lambert demonstrated to the audience how a reading session might go, using the jacket cover image for Wings, illustrated by Christopher Myers. She invited attendees to share their impressions of the image – of an African-American boy with wings flying over an urban landscape – or, in other words, to “read a picture.” Lambert’s presentations also include looking at a book’s front matter and end-papers. When presenting to readers, she even encourages them to use such book terminology as “gutter” when describing elements of a book. As far as she’s concerned, if a child can identify every dinosaur in a book, why not learn a little vocabulary relating to the book itself?
In terms of “reading the pictures” in a story, Lambert believes that “kids, like all of us, are trying to make meaning.” Looking at features of design like typography, speech balloons, knock-out type, and frames, she believes, gets “kids thinking about process” and problem-solving. “Design is expressive, something to read as surely as words,” she said.
She related an anecdote about how looking closely at elements of a picture can help readers to see the story in whole new ways. During one story session, a little girl announced that she had already heard Where the Wild Things Are millions of times. To enliven and refresh her experience of the book, Lambert asked her to just “watch the frames,” which change throughout the story as Max’s bedroom transforms. After the reading, the little girl turned to her with an expression of awe on her face: “My book at home doesn’t do that,” she said.
Graphic novelists then spoke on a panel called “Capturing the Action: Graphic Novels and Visual Literacy.” The speakers were authors and illustrators Jorge Aguirre, Deb Lucke, Raúl Gonzalez III, and George O’Connor. Jesse Karp, a professor at Pratt Institute, moderated. He kicked off the discussion by describing how graphic novels hold “a vital and unique position in the landscape,” and calling them “the perfect engines of visual storytelling.”
The panelists spoke about how their artistic processes, how they go about embarking on new graphic novel projects, what they see as the characteristics of a successful graphic novel, and the experience of collaborating with authors or illustrators.
For Aguirre, much of his process is really the “process of rewriting.” In order for a project to work for Aguirre, he sees the critical components being a clear emotional journey for characters, characters that “kick butt,” and a central idea that he likes enough to see through to its fruition. Gonzalez spoke about how he works in collaboration with Cathy Camper for the Lowriders in Space series. When he receives Cathy’s text, he focuses on “making her script work very well visually,” and on “conceptually thinking about the artistry in the book.” As Lowriders in Space features a cast of Latino characters and includes words in Spanish, Gonzalez was able to reference his own childhood growing up in Mexico when thinking about costuming and the characters’ environment.
O’Connor, who both writes and illustrates his graphic novels, spoke about the separation between the two mediums. For him, “I can’t really write a script and then illustrate.” Instead, he engages in a “back and forth” process, creating key images and snippets of text. Images and words work in direct communication with one another, even throughout the process of creation. There are certain advantages to both writing and illustrating a book, in terms of having that cohesiveness of vision. “It’s clear when a writer and artist don’t have the same vision,” he said.
For Lucke, who also writes and illustrates, she sees graphic novels as being akin to movies, and the act of creating them being more like crafting a screenplay. In terms of her roles as writer and illustrator, as the characters become more and more clear to her, “I switch hats based on what I know. Whenever I get stuck, I’ll draw,” she said. Some of the devices that Lucke uses in her work include utilizing weather to convey emotional states, a device that “can be trite in words, but works well visually,” and showing characters as they react to other characters. In the case of her Lunch Witch, she conveys the character’s emotions in a novel way – with the bats that fly around her head.
Karp asked the panelists how they go about effectively conveying emotion in their graphic novels and what elements add up to a successful comic book. For O’Connor, facial features, body language, use of color, and “pulling back on a shot” – for example, to show that a character is alone – can all help to generate emotions. In terms of the overall impact of a comic book and what elements contribute to its success, O’Connor typically has a visceral reaction to the artwork, saying that if the art doesn’t invite him in right away, he’s unlikely to read it. Ideally, “the art and story complement each other to where I’m not aware I’m looking at art.” He added that the best comic book reading experience is one in which the reader is “subsumed in it.”
The panelists also talked about the differences between creating picture books and graphic novels, with O’Connor describing what he feels is the tremendous challenge inherent in working in a format that is so succinct. Saying that “a 32-page picture book can be such a perfect gem,” he added that the difficulty lies in that “you can’t have any fat in a picture book,” he said.
The speakers also addressed the question of superheroes in the comics and graphic novels of today. “This is the industry that Superman built,” said Karp. “What did superheroes give us?”
O’Connor believes that “we have in large part moved away from superheroes.” However, the Greek Gods in his Olympians series owe a clear debt to the legacy of superheroes. “I’m a bit of an outlier because of the clear superhero influence,” he said. Gonzalez credits superhero comics with playing a significant role in his own artistic development; he recalled, as a child, visiting the “wonderful museum” that happened to be right in his neighborhood –the local 7-11 with its spinner rack of comics. Lucke said she “came to comics through fine art.The only superhero I could really relate to was underdog.” Partially lamenting what he sees as comic book superheroes fading from interest, Aguirre recalled that “comics were huge for me.... My sons are not interested in super heroes.” He noted that part of the reason behind the lessoning popularity of comic book superheroes may be that they have become much more expensive than they once were.
Finally, the panelists shared some of the pivotal works or individuals that have most influenced their own careers. Gonzalez credits the librarians in Mexico who exposed him to so many books and encouraged his own development as a reader and illustrator, while O’Connor sees Bill Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes as one of his primary influences. Coming across the work of Italian artist Lorenzo Mottotti was eye-opening for LuckeWHO?, and for Aguirre, one of the most profound influences on his development came from the encouragement of his fifth grade teacher. “I blame her!” he said. Turning to the audience, which was comprised of many educators and librarians, Karp noted how, when asked to name the forces that contributed most to their success, “they say you!”
Keynote speaker Pam Muñoz Ryan closed out the day’s events with a moving and lyrical speech about her career as an author and the significant role of children’s literature in her life both professionally and personally. She described her upbringing in a blue-collar family in Bakersfield, Calif. Early on, her half-Mexican heritage awakened in her a love for ghost stories and mystery, while Catholicism taught her to believe in the saints. Born on Christmas Day, she believed that she could talk to both spirits and animals. Stories held tremendous sway over her as a child: “I suspended disbelief... I was the character. I believed the story was about me,” she said.
Her early exposure to books, however, came about through a desire to eat the candy she acquired from Green Frog Market in Bakersfield, without having to share it with her siblings. The library was the perfect place to hide out and eat sweets after school; a side benefit is that these visits led her to become a voracious reader. Muñoz Ryan spoke about her early career as a teacher; about motherhood; and how the inescapable urge to write overtook her when she least expected it to. As a young mother and teacher, “I felt that there was something yet to be discovered about myself,” she explained. Writing gave her the license to “be something, somebody I’d never been before,” she said. She listened to her instincts, and went on to create books that include Esperanza Rising, When Marian Sang, the Tony Baloney books, and Echo.
Her books have been loved and embraced, as well as challenged. She noted how a watchdog group tried to ban Esperanza Rising, calling both her book and Rita Williams Garcia’s One Crazy Summer “contentious, unacceptable, and dangerous,” and about how there is “a part of me that wants to be a little bit dangerous.” She discussed how she has listened to her instincts when it comes to certain books, even if it meant taking chances. For example, for her book The Dreamer, about Pablo Neruda, she pushed to have the book written in green ink – as Neruda used to write his own poetry. She also talked about “failure... all the times I start over,” and how “in our hyped world of instant gratification,” that “fame and success isn’t instantaneous,” but truly comes down to hard work.
Speaking directly to the readers, writers, illustrators, and educators in the audience, she asked them where they might be “if you hadn’t been fortunate enough to fail and start over?” And in closing, she gave encouraging words to the audience, urging them to go forward with conviction, enterprise, and wide-eyed anticipation: “What is left to discover about you?” she said.