Reviews 2010

What do you see? International Perspectives on Children’s Book Illustration

What do you see? International Perspectives on Children’s Book Illustration. Edited by Jennifer Harding and Pat Pinsent. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008. 258 pages. £49.99 (hardback); £25.99 (paperback).

From Sweden to South Africa, from Australia to Cyprus – the range of countries covered in this collection of 22 essays on picture books is astonishing. Based on the fourteenth annual conference held by the British division of IBBY in conjunction with Roehampton University, this volume boasts authors no less heterogeneous than the countries they report on: researchers in children’s literature, but also illustrators, teachers and librarians of children’s books. Moreover, these authors employ a diversity of approaches which range across methodologies utilized for art history and literary studies, qualitative research into visual literacy and interviews with artists. The articles are classified into the following four sections: “Europe”, “Further Afield”, “Remembering the Child Audience” and “Conclusion”. The classification of the first two chapters awkwardly situates the reader Eurocentrically since “Further Afield” implies ‘further afield from the European point of view’. This section includes subjects from Japan, Mexico, the US and Pakistan, but its classification overlooks the globalized nature of picturebooks: an article on the ethnically Japanese, artist Kitamura is classified “Further Afield”, although he lives and publishes in Britain; another essay describes a picture book on Pakistan designed for the British and American market; the last article in this section even has its main focus on British pop culture. The essays and the introductions to all parts of the book, however, are more convincing and more sensitive to intercultural issues than the organisational framework of the collection.

In her introduction to the “Europe” section Pat Pinsent pleads for picture books as a means for intercultural understanding and deplores the scarcity of continental children’s books translated into English. Her introduction is followed by an interview with the Polish illustrator Jan Pieńkowski. brought to life by high-quality colour prints; similarly, most chapters are lavishly illustrated.

Penni Cotton outlines European programmes for the distribution of picture books fostering intercultural understanding; Petros Panau focuses on three books concerning diversity. “Vojtěch Kubašta and His Influence on the Resurgent Pop-up Book Market” by Lisa Boggis Boyce describes Kubašta’s work and the history of pop-up books. In an especially brilliant and amusing article by Magdalena Sikorska, Sven Nordqvist is portrayed as a postmodern artist because of his blend of tradition and innovation. His use of parody and irony and his depictions of the characters’ moods through the objects surrounding them are discussed in depth.

Finally, Stefania Tondo presents Italian picture books retelling “Alice in Wonderland”, whereas Nikki Gamble and Ann Lazim interpret a contemporary version of “Little Red Riding Hood”.

The section entitled “Further Afield” starts off with the summary of an interview of the Britain-based, Japanese artist Satoshi Kitamura and his publisher by John Dunne. Then Prodeepta Das briefly writes about her experience as a photographer for a children’s book on Pakistan: She was not permitted to take pictures of women in rural areas (only a small girl chould be shown), although she was allowed to photograph two women wearing hijabs in Karachi. Unfortunately, Das’s article is very short: only a page in length. A lengthier, more detailed discussion on the consequences of these restrictions on the visual images that children get would have been worthwhile. Jean Webb undertakes a thorough analysis of Native American picture books in the vein of post-colonial theory in “Aesthetic Hegemony: Western Scholars and Native American Culture” whereas Evelyn Arizpe celebrates “25 years of Illustration for Children in Mexico.” Dianne Hofmeyer presents a heterogeneous picture book market in “Beyond Borders: South African Illustration as a Visual Feast”. One of the books, “An African Christmas cloth” by Reviva Schermbrucker, is particularly striking in its fusion of cultures: the European tradition of the traditional Advent calendar is taken up but transformed into a stitched and photographed “Christmas cloth” with African manger animals.

Furthermore, Mieke K.T. Desmet convincingly presents a post-modern “story box” based on the Peking Opera and a version of a classical Chinese tale. The chapter is completed by Peter Cook’s article on the image of children in the Sixties; even though the subject is not primarily about children’s book illustration, it is intriguing to read how pop music was influenced by children’s literature. One critical remark, however, is that Cook argues that the “looking-glass ties” mentioned in the famous lyrics of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” comes “directly from Lewis Carroll and the Alice books” (142), but does not provide a specific reference, The mere mention of a looking glass as a direct connection to Carroll seems rather unconvincing.

In the third section, “Remembering the Child Audience”, most studies are empirical. Kate Noble defines “visual literacy” based on video footage of children; Sandra Williams describes enthusiastic reactions of eight-to-nine year old children deemed “under achieving readers” to Jeannie Baker’s Where the Forest Meets the Sea. Vasiliki Labitski, teacher and illustrator, writes about a storybook project at school. Then the delicate issue of picture books for children in foster care is approached by Stella Thebridge. Rebeka Butler searches for the implied audience in children’s books on the Holocaust. Finally, the Cypriot artist Dora Oronti focuses on her own work and on that of her pupils.

The section entitled “Conclusion” showcases young talents affectionately presented by Martin Salisbury, and two Flemish illustrators, Sabien Clement and Tom Scham, presented by Jennifer Harding. The structure of the collection might have been more conclusive if all the interviews and portraits of artists had been grouped into one chapter, thereby avoiding the Eurocentric names of the first chapters. Apart from that, What Do You See? provides a fascinating and multi-faceted insight into picture books worldwide.

Evamaria Zettl
Univeristy of Education Thurgau, Switzerland