Seeing stories

We leave the words to one side and ask, what can illustrations say that words can't?

By: Wyl,   2 minutes

Mr Popper's Penguins

This is a Feed for people who do words. People who tend to glance at the illustrations on way to their destination (the words being where the real meaning is, obviously). People who, encountering an illustration painstakingly crafted over weeks and months, think to themselves ‘oh, that’s nice’, and carry on reading.

I’m one of those people. If there are illustrations in the book I’m reading, for sure I’ll appreciate them, but I definitely tend to value the words more highly. And I certainly don’t read the illustrations in the same detail and with the same amount of care with which I read the words on the page.

I found my approach seriously challenged at the Campaign for Literacy in Primary Education’s Seeing Stories conference, when I spent the day in the company on some of the best children’s illustrators in the business. The likes of Dave McKean (illustrator of many of David Almond, Neil Gaiman and SF Said’s books), Ed Vere (Mr Big and The Getaway) and David McKee (Elmer and Not Now Bernard), opened my eyes to whole world of meaning we miss out on when we don’t give full attention to the illustrations.

Illustration can give new meaning, and the possibility of new readings, to written texts. And the implications for the reader are huge.

Essentially, what we explored as the day unfolded is the illustrator’s ability to express the ineffable, to take the reader to places words simply can’t access. In the best examples, illustration extends the text, tells its own story alongside the text, and interacts with the text – in other words, it is integral, rather than bolted on.

Illustration can give new meaning, and the possibility of new readings, to written texts. And the implications for the reader are huge. Visual literacy is far more than being able to say what’s in the picture, it’s about being able to gain meaning and understanding from those pictures, about the symbiotic relationship between text and image, about the meaning that can only be added by illustration. And it occurred to me, as advanced as my ability to read and understand the written word is, what am I missing out on by not being able to read the illustration as effectively?

Seeing Stories challenged me to re-evaluate my relationship with illustration, to go back and explore some of the visual texts I’ve got on my shelves and my children’s shelves, and to rethink the way I read them, appreciate them, and talk about them. The author SF Said gave me pause for thought when he suggested all writers should engage with the visual as well as the written. Part of SF’s daily practice is taking a Polaroid photograph to capture images which tell a story, and he suggested more writers should take the time to try to tell stories with just one image, as being useful for developing their own writing.

Maybe there’s something to be gained by leaving the words to one side for a while and concentrating on what an image can do that a sentence or a paragraph can’t. I sense a theme for my Feed coming on…

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