We’ve been enjoying the summer so far; both of us have recently had the chance to get away from our computer screens and explore some of the UK. Polly went to Newcastle last week and visited The National Centre for Children’s Books, Seven Stories. The museum aims to “collect, champion and celebrate” children’s literature, and to “make a real difference to the children and families living nearby [because] early experience of books and stories is vital to childhood development and raising aspiration”. As well as story time sessions, areas for playing, exploring and, of course, reading books, there are also exhibitions featuring manuscripts and illustrations that form part of the museum’s collection.
Until May 2020 one of Seven Stories’ exhibitions is Elmer and Friends: The Colourful World of David McKee. It celebrates the stories and illustrations of David McKee, who you might know as the author of Elmer, Not Now, Bernard and Two Can Toucan, amongst others. Not Now, Bernard is one of our particular favourites. If you haven’t read it, do. It’s been described as “a tragic contemporary tale in which nobody lives happily ever after” by Taransaud (2016, p.70), who draws parallels between the way Bernard is ignored by his parents to Tronick’s (2007) ‘Still Face’ experiment. For a book that The Book Trust recommend for children aged three and above, the messages are rather deep, which is an especially remarkable feat as (as the exhibition states) it contains just 115 words and 25 illustrations. The powerful illustrations are what make the book so superb; they visually narrate Bernard’s desperation for his parents’ attention, which Taransaud (2016, p.71) suggests “lies at the heart of every picture”.
The power of the picture is the focus of one of the museum’s other current exhibitions, Drawing Worlds. The exhibition focuses on ten contemporary illustrators and is curated by Lauren Child. She states at the start of the exhibition that “as infants we have an amazing ability to decipher the visual world, to recognise expressions, body language, and interpret symbols, signs and images. However, we seem to quickly overlook the wonder of this universal language, neglecting the importance of visual literacy and the power it represents. Illustrated books are similarly regarded as something to grow out of as if a ‘picture’ amid the text is inherently childish.” We are reminded of Loris Malguzzi’s The Hundred Languages of Children poem, which stresses how children have a multitude of ways of expressing themselves but these are suppressed by “school and culture” who “tell the children to discover the world already there.” Child tells us how children’s ability to “read” picture books is stripped of them by adults, who view them as babyish rather than, she suggests, like poetry in the way “a piece that can be looked at over and over and interpreted differently each time.”
If you have the opportunity to head to Newcastle to visit Seven Stories then we’d highly recommend it. If not, you might find that some of the museum’s exhibitions are touring closer to you. And whether you are able to visit the exhibitions or not, we’d still encourage you to reflect upon how you see children’s picture books – are they something to “grow out of” as children’s literacy develops? If not, what can we do to ensure they aren’t simply seen as childish?
We are going to have another break from our computer screens over the summer and grab a chance to recuperate and relax (and finish writing our next book!) before the next academic year starts. We’ll be back in September and will share what we’ve been up to over the next few weeks then. We hope you have a chance to have some rest and relaxation of your own.
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