Author Interviews
3:22 am
Mon April 23, 2012

The Artistry Of 'Children's Picturebooks' Revealed

Originally published on Mon April 23, 2012 10:15 am

Children's books seem simple, but good ones are deceptively complicated to write and illustrate.

"Traditionally illustrated books are books where the text makes sense on its own. It doesn't necessarily need words," writer Martin Salisbury tells NPR's Renee Montagne, whereas with picture books, neither the text nor the images stand separately — they need each other.

Salisbury is the author of the new book Children's Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling. He says classic picture books, like Babar, may succeed because the simple visual style allows readers to project their own personalities and thoughts onto the character. "I guess it's a combination of the extraordinary writing of Babar, the strange world that's created, and those very simple faces that allow us to use our imagination," he says.

Achieving that simplicity can be a challenge that many people don't appreciate. "It's that issue of condensing something into something very elegant and short, usually 32 pages, which is very, very complex to do," Salisbury says. "And making it look simple and elegant is perhaps the hardest thing to do."

What makes children return over and over again to a beloved book? "I think it's rather like the theater," Salisbury says, "where this is one of the things that the picture book does so well, if the words are saying one thing and the images are saying another." He cites a book called Rosie's Walk, by Pat Hutchins — originally published more than 40 years ago, and still in print.

Rosie the hen is taking a walk through the farmyard — but what the text never mentions is that she's being followed by a fox who meets with one disaster after another in his unsuccessful pursuit of Rosie.

"If you watch children being read to, they're screaming at their parents, 'behind you, behind you, there's a fox, there's a fox!' And that's a book that has remained incredibly popular for that very simple reason, I think, that children still want to go back and tell the chicken that the fox is trying to eat her," Salisbury says.

There are many wonderful picture books out there, but Salisbury says one of his all-time favorites is The Tiger Who Came to Tea, by Judith Kerr. "It is a book in which nothing really happens, there's no great storyline to it," he says. "It's a tiger who knocks on the door of a family house, and he comes in, and he eats them out of house and home, empties the fridge, and eventually goes away again."

"The appeal of the book is just this idea of the mysterious stranger, and it's somehow incredibly compelling," he adds. "It's just got that magic somehow."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This week, we're talking about the magic of picture books for young children, and we're starting with Martin Salisbury. He runs a graduate program for creating children's books in Cambridge, England. And he's written an illustrated history of picture books, a genre which, he says, goes back only to the 1800s. Even though people have been putting pictures in books or centuries, Salisbury says the unique interplay between words and pictures came much later.

MARTIN SALISBURY: Traditionally, illustrated books are books where the text makes perfect sense on its own, it doesn't necessarily need illustration. What we mean by picture books, now, is the very specific kind of book that tells its story primarily through pictures with words. But neither really make sense without the other.

MONTAGNE: One of the earlier examples of a children's picture book, from the 1930s, lives on today. It's very popular today. It's "Babar." He's an elephant, a French elephant, has very little facial expression. Just really...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SALISBURY: Indeed.

MONTAGNE: ...as everyone probably knows, two dots for eyes. Why was that such a hit? Why do that work so well?

SALISBURY: It's often so hard to know. As you say, if you take "Babar" out of context and look at a picture of him, he seems completely expressionless. Some theorists say that the more anonymous a visual description of the face is, the more we're able to project our own personality, our own thoughts on to the character.

I guess it's a combination of the extraordinary writing of "Babar;" this strange world that's created, and those very simple faces that allow us to use our imagination.

MONTAGNE: it does seem that in a way sometimes the illustrations in children's books seem so easy, but they add up.

SALISBURY: Well, it's interesting. I was talking, recently, with somebody - an editor, actually, at a leading publisher in Britain, a children's book editor. And she was saying that when people ask her what she does for a living and she says I'm an editor for picture books, they invariably look a little baffled and say, well, what is there to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SALISBURY: You know, it is seen as something very simple. And she quoted the phrase that, I think, is sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, that: I would've written you a shorter letter if I had more time. It's that issue of condensing something into something very elegant and short, usually 32 pages, which is very, very complex to do. And making it look simple and elegant is perhaps the hardest thing.

MONTAGNE: What do you think it is about any particular picture books that draws children to it, time and time again?

SALISBURY: It's very hard to say. That read-it-again factor that publishers talk about a lot, I think it's rather like the theater where this is one of the things that the picture book does so well, if the words are saying one thing and the images are saying another.

A good example of this, actually, is "Rosie's Walk" by Pat Hutchins, where it's a very simple, linear narrative where a chicken called Rosie is walking through the farmyard. And the words are telling us Rosie is a walking through here, she's walking through there. But what the words never mention is the fox who is following Rosie, constantly trying to eat her. And on each page, the fox encounters some disaster.

And if you watch children being read to, they're screaming at their parents: behind you, behind you, there's a fox, there's a fox. And that's a book that has remained incredibly popular for that very simple reason, I think that children still want to go back and tell the chicken that the fox is trying to eat her.

MONTAGNE: Do you have an all-time favorite children's picture book?

SALISBURY: Ooh, there are so many. One of my great favorites is Judith Kerr's "The Tiger Who Came To Tea."

MONTAGNE: Oh, yes.

SALISBURY: I think it came out in 1960. Judith Kerr was a war refugee. She's still with us, thankfully. I think she's in her 90's now. It is a book in which nothing really happens. There's no great story line to it. It's a tiger who knocks on the door of a family house and he comes in. And he eats them out of house and home, empties the fridge, and eventually goes away again. The family...

MONTAGNE: Although, there is one panel where he's a very big, charming orange tiger - almost like a big orange cat - sitting having tea.

SALISBURY: Yes, the family has to go out and find a restaurant to eat that night. And there's a lovely double page spread where they are out in high street in the evening. And I think, for children in the 1960s, that would have been an incredibly exotic thing to go out to a restaurant to eat in the evening.

But I suppose the appeal of the book is just this idea of the mysterious stranger, and it's somehow incredibly compelling. I don't think if we used it as an example of how to write a picture book, I don't think it would work. It's just got that magic, somehow.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

SALISBURY: It's a great pleasure, thank you.

MONTAGNE: Martin Salisbury, he's the author of "Children's Picture Books: The Art Of Visual Storytelling."

Tomorrow, we'll hear from one of today's most beloved children's storytellers, Moe Willems. Possibly his best-known character was his first, an endearingly cranky pigeon who he introduced in the book "Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus."

MOE WILLEMS: The only rule that I have for my books, is that every character that is the lead character in a book, has to be able to be drawn, reasonably well, by a four-year-old. And so, I spend a lot of time designing my characters to put as little in them as possible. I'm doing the same thing with words.

I want it so that if I took one line out of a drawing, it would just become an abstraction. And I want it if I took one word out of a sentence, the sentence would no longer make sense. I'm really trying to get as close to the edge of putting in as little as possible and still having meaning. And what that does is it allows, A: my audience to insert meaning themselves. But it also means that kids can take my characters and just go out and gleefully infringe on my copyright.

MONTAGNE: Moe Willems' "Pigeon" and the new book "Duckling Gets A Cookie," tomorrow.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Renee, you sound a little shocked about the duckling there.

Here's a reminder that this is World Book Night. It's a bit of a misnomer according to USA Today. It's not celebrated everywhere in the world, but it is celebrated in some countries, including America. People are passing out half a million free paperback books in this country, in locations ranging from a bar in Brooklyn to a bus that will drive around Sitka, Alaska, to an elementary school in North Kansas City, Missouri..

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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