We all know the saying: picture is worth a thousand words. But do we really need to pit them against each other? Art and language have long been partners in the literary world, and can supplement, illuminate, and elevate each other. Traditionally, picture books are catalogued by the author, and the illustrator’s name is the secondary credit. But make no mistake, the art is just as important as the text.
The terms picture book and children’s book are often used interchangeably. While there are books for children with no pictures (thanks, B. J. Novak!), and books with pictures that aren’t meant for children, both of these common names will generally refer to those big, fun, image-filled stories for kids.
The Purpose of Pictures
Let’s imagine No, David without pictures:
David’s mom always said…
No, David, No!
No! No! No!David Shannon, No, David!
The text doesn’t have much nuance. In fact, the whole book is just David getting scolded. So why do we read it? Why is this 1998 picture book still a favorite in schools and libraries, over twenty years later? Clearly, we’re not getting the whole picture here. (Pun intended.)
The magic of this book isn’t in the manuscript, it’s in the illustrations! Vibrantly painted in Shannon’s eye-catching style, David’s shenanigans are hilarious and relatable. Who hasn’t played a little too rough, made a big mess, or snuck an extra cookie to their grown-ups’ chagrin? Despite his misbehavior, the rascally David is painted in a sympathetic light. (Pun intended. Again.) No, David! showcases the power of a good illustration.
To Portray, To Expand, To Subvert
Illustration’s most basic function is to, well, illustrate. It is to visually represent the meaning of the text. (See below for example: “the cat was happy.”) Most illustrations go a step further and fill in details that are not specifically mentioned in writing, which is a great way to build up the surroundings without bogging down the text. In the second image below, we can guess that the cat is happy because it has fish. Finally, illustrations can actually contradict the text, which adds a hidden layer of humor or sarcasm for the sharp-eyed reader. Is that cat in the third panel… really happy?
Some picture books don’t use text at all! Wordless children’s books allow “readers” to practice visual literacy. Images provide context and details that, when taken in as a whole, form a narrative. Instead of finishing a sentence and turning the page, a wordless book invites readers to spend more time soaking up the story. Often, books like these can have a strong emotional impact that transcends written language.
Medium Well Done
The material used to make an illustration—the medium—affects the story as well. Pens, pastels, paints, crayons, clay, and computers (plus countless others!) each carry their own inherent characteristics which contribute to the tone of the book. In recent years, publishers have been listing the illustrative medium in the fine print under the copyright information. It’s a great way to practice recognizing different art techniques.
Art has evolved along with technology. Some artists create illustrations digitally, start-to-finish. But even traditional artists sometimes use the computer to make small adjustment and touch-ups, while other artists create base images by hand and then assemble them digitally. Everyone’s creative process is different.
Explore an Illustration Today!
The next time you read a picture book, spend some extra time with the illustrations. Consider the artist’s chosen medium, appreciate the layout, and look for hidden details. Even outside of the children’s section, illustrations are everywhere. Chapter books, magazines, product packaging, advertisements, and countless other items in day-to-day life all use illustrative images. How were they made? What are they communicating? Always remember: there’s more to the story!