Our first reading of a story is visual. We start when we are babies and toddlers with board books, bold colourful pictures, maybe the word to match the image or the images to communicate on their own. A lot of time is spent in early years and primary education developing visual literacy, until a child finds, as they get older those images recede and the focus is on the words of stories. Illustrators can tell a story in visual language, from the children’s picture book to the graphic novel for adults, as compelling and rewarding as any written novel.
Start with the very young and the 1969 picture book Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins. The child following the story will not only follow the plot by hearing the words read aloud, but will follow the pictures which provide humour and irony, as the fox is thwarted in his attempts to get Rosie the hen who is apparently unaware of the fox. Humour in children’s books is so important and if you ‘get the joke’ then you understand that language works on different levels.
Then you have picture books that help children deal with emotion and fill the space that sometimes words cannot fill, but are better expressed visually. One excellent example of this is Michael Rosen’s The Sad Book illustrated by Quentin Blake. The words are simple and effective and Rosen skilfully communicates how it feels to be sad like when “Sometimes sad is very big. It’s everywhere. All over me” and especially the immense and overwhelming sadness when he thinks about his son Eddie who died. What Quentin Blake does in his illustration of the book is bring an immediacy to the feelings that the words are describing with his unique style which may appear simplistic, but is actually a stroke and a shade exactly as he needs it.
Modern Illustrators can help bring a classic to a new generation of readers, like the recent 2010 edition of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, written in 1945, this publication has been illustrated by Lauren Child. Child’s quirky, slightly wonky and playful illustrations suit Lindgren’s text perfectly as Pippi is fun, freckled and fearless. What a great way to get a new generation into a wonderfully written book for middle years readers.
Shaun Tan is one outstanding illustrator who creates a visual narrative with The Arrival that will fascinate a teenage reader. The Arrival follows a man and his family who leave their home to escape a terror, which is unspecific, just a visual hint at what they are fleeing. They arrive in a new country and the illustrations follow the man and his family in setting up a new life in what is a strange land. The images he creates in The Arrival are imagined but bear resemblance to things that the reader will connect with. He does not need to use words at all.
There are so many great graphic novels out there for older teenagers and adults providing escapism and also ones that deal very much with reality. There are a few graphic novels that tell about experiences of war, like Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Satrapi illustrates using a bold black and white comic strip and well placed humour in recalling her childhood experiences growing up in Iran, revolution, Austria in the 80’s and student life in a changed Iran on her return. Considering the range of stories graphic novels and picture books can tell, these books can only enrich our reading experiences. Have a look in your local comic book store, the sellers are usually very knowledgeable, see what they have, there may be a wonderful array of DC comics and there will also be a lot more on the shelves to suit a wide range of tastes.