Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Words and Pictures

A blog post from Bridget Carrington

When my children were small, picturebooks (so now you know which I prefer), were just emerging from their thick, yellowish paper with smudgy, stark, limited colours, into the glorious products we know today. Because they’re picturebooks, I think we often regard that element more highly than the words, but three picturebooks I’ve just read show how both parts of the book should interrelate and enhance the other.

I thought the days of overtly moralistic writing had long vanished, until I picked up Diana Mather, Avril Lethbridge and Mary-Ann Mackenzie’s Please Bear’s Birthday (Maverick ISBN 9781848860674). According to the blurb, ‘the series teaches children the importance of good manners through nice and naughty bears’. Oh dear, these adjectives don’t inspire enthusiasm – even KS1 readers would recognise their weak and non-pc nature I think – and neither does the book, despite this being the Daily Mail ‘You Magazine’ Book of the Week. The lengthy rhyming text lumbers along with all the grace and effortless ease of William MacGonagall, while the illustrations do nothing to help, unexciting, humourless and truly reminiscent of picturebooks of the past.

Compare this with two other Maverick publication, Julie Fulton’s Mrs MacCready was ever so Greedy (ISBN 9781848860650), with pictures by Jona Jung, and Giles Paley-Phillips The Fearsome Beastie ISBN9781848860667), illustrated by Gabriele Antonini, and you see what twenty-first century rhyming picturebooks can and really should do.

Fulton’s text is more accomplished than Paley-Phillips’ which falls into the all too common trap of over-inverting and contorting word order so that it scans (and in fact it doesn’t always) and so that the rhyming word ends up at the end of the line. Generally Mrs Macready’s story has a far smoother, natural rhythm and rhyme, and the cautionary tale which emerges – exercise as well as eat, or else the consequences will be dire – is handled in a humorous, non-moralistic way so totally absent from Please Bear. The illustrations are big, bright and funny, and the whole book fits together seamlessly, promising to become a favourite with young readers who like to join in as the text is read to them. In contrast, although clearly a twenty-first century text, Antonini’s style of illustration in The Fearsome Beastie reminds me of a 1950s American cartoon, with children, houses and streets which are more US then UK. The author acknowledges Roald Dahl as an influence, and certainly the poetic style reminds me of Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, while the illustrator was clearly a fan of Sendak as well as Hanna Barbera.

Sharon Rentta’s A Day with the Animal Doctors (Scholastic ISBN 9781407116440) certainly lives up to its advertising, ‘a hilarious trot round the wards’ it certainly is, as Dr Terence the baby tapir goes to work with his mum. Unlike Please Bear, every page is buzzing with activity, with lots for children (and adults) to find in the pictures, as well as a text which offers information on clipboards drawn onto the pages, and a thoughtful, funny look at why we end up in hospital. This makes a lovely book for bedtime reading, as it invites additional questions from young readers, and can also be ‘read’ without any of the words. How nice that Mum’s the doctor and that the nurses are male and female, and that the elderly animals are being cared for so thoughtfully. My favourite pages are the animal babies in their cots, and the children’s ward, where the patients ‘often need to do a lot of Bouncing’!

Altogether an interesting collection, inviting reflection (can’t stop myself rhyming now, though clearly I’ve not got the hang of scansion either!) on what makes a successful picturebook. It’s not just the pictures, nor yet just the text… there needs to be that special something which knits it all into one highly entertaining whole.

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