Tuesday, 15 April 2014

There Are Two Types of Picture Book - by Jonathan Allen




It's something that I realised a long time ago but never tried to define. That for me at any rate, children's books, and especially illustrated children's books fall broadly into two camps with two different functions - Funny, and what I shall call, for want of a better word, (though I'm sure one exists and I will think of it the second after I press 'publish') 'Transporting' books. Funny books are made with the purpose of generating laughs, obviously, and 'Transporting' ones are made with the idea of taking you into another place or world for a brief time.

The illustrations have a huge role to play in this of course, and the way the Funny v 'Transporting' thing works in the visual field.

Funny deals in simple 'reduced to the essence' line drawings, in character and stance, details aren't important, as immersion in a created world is not in it's remit. Funny deals with the already familiar. Not necessarily familiar surroundings but familiar situations. Surroundings only ever need to be suggested.

'Transporting' deals in complexity and detail. Detail is important for believability, the more detail (up to a point) the more the possibility of successful immersion in the world created. I put books where the creation of a certain mood is important into this category. Funny doesn't really deal in mood creation.

The interesting thing about this split, to me, is the attitude of the public towards each camp. There is some of the time honoured (and unexamined) respect shown to work that betrays obvious evidence of hard work and 'skill'. But that is to be expected, unfortunately. Putting that aside, it does seem that work that speaks to perhaps a deeper place in their hearts and minds lingers longer in the public imagination than work which 'merely' amuses.



I have always thought that this was a bit sad, as a lifelong fan of Tom and Jerry, and The Beano, and books by people like James Marshall, I feel that they, and other work in the same vein will always be under rated in as far as bestowed 'greatness' goes. Probably because it deals with small, familiar situations and with humour, which is never considered all that 'important', or particularly hard to do. A bit like Picture Books ;-)


The other thing I realised at about the same time was that illustrated children's books that get onto any list of all time greats in the field will be largely from the 'transporting' camp.
'Where The Wild Things Are', 'Winnie The Pooh', 'Peter Rabbit', 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea' 'The Snowman'. 'Tim All Alone' etc.




The interesting thing is that I can't as readily name a list of great funny picture books. I tend to think in terms of illustrators rather than in terms of actual titles. Artists such as Quentin Blake, James Marshall, Jon Klaasen, Tony Ross, Colin West, though much loved, would never top any 'best of all time' lists though they may come close. I think this is because once something is laughed at or with, it is perceived as being of lesser value than something 'serious', even if that perception is entirely unconscious.

Dr Suess may be the exception, but head to head with Sendak? There's a contest! ;-)


10 comments:

  1. Interesting points, Jonathan. I enjoy funny picture books, but agree that the greatest and most memorable books (whatever genre and for whatever age) fall into your transporting category. The story is so much stronger in those books, too. Some pic books manage transporting and funny - like Julia Donaldson's The Gruffalo.

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  2. Thanks, Jonathan.That's a great thought-provoker. Trying to think of an example of both, I could only think of Elmer. Perhaps humour in an everyday situation doesn't always travel the world well, whereas if we zoom off into 'another world' perhaps we can all identify with the story more strongly, wherever we live.

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  3. It occurred to me that Farmer Duck does both. It's realistic and detailed illustrations are in themselves witty and wonderfully observed, but because the situation described is so surreal and comical, the effect is funny. Such a great book ;-)

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    1. I too am a fan of Farmer Duck, Jonathan, although when I brought it along to one of the adult education classes I tutor, I was amazed there were several students who didn't like it. Maybe they don't approve of socialism ;-)
      By the way, it's interesting to hear you talk about the different styles of illustration for different books.

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  4. I enjoyed your thoughtful comments about children's books. I'm not sure I would break them up into just two categories. I think of books that are perhaps touching or comforting, such as Goodnight Moon and other bedtime or every day stories. I suppose they could be considered transporting, but not in the same way as Where the Wild Things is, as they are more familiar and of the child's world.

    I do agree that humor doesn't seem to garner the same respect as the more "transporting" or serious books do, which is a pity. The same holds true in film. And, sadly, many writers or film makers who are natural humorists sometimes long to create the "important" book or film, instead of just being themselves.

    I was cured of that longing by Sullivan's Travels, a marvelous, humorous and touching film about a creator of comedies who had an idea to make something serious he called O Brother Where Art Thou (the Coens used that for a title of their famous film). He walks through the bleak areas of town, trying to garner ideas, gets involved in an altercation, and is falsely accused of a crime and sent down to work on the chain gang, losing contact with his Hollywood friends who are frantically searching for him. One night the prisoners are invited to watch a film in an African American church, and Mickey Mouse appears on screen. Suddenly those down and out, miserable guys are all laughing, their sorrows at least temporarily forgotten, and in that moment our hero realizes how important the gift of laughter is to the world.

    From then on I was content to be a humorist, whether or not my work gets the same respect as the more serious stuff out there.

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    1. Thanks Diane,
      Yes, I too am content to be funny (arguably!) By now, at my age it is the way I relate to the world, how i judge events and people etc etc. It's my 'thing' I suppose ;-)
      There's nothing more serious than humour. if nobody has said that already i'll claim it. The constant sideways/questioning view of the world at it's root is a way of reminding us all that life and the world is not what we think it is, but a surprisingly flimsy construct that needs shaking every now and then.
      Jonathan

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    2. Hear, hear, Jonathan. We need more sideways, upside-down, wonky views - and less stifling cliche!

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  5. I wish there was a share button, I would love to show this to my children's book writer's and illustratiors group.

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    1. Thanks Pam,
      You could tweet the address or something? Feel free to print it out if you want,
      Jonathan

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  6. I had very felt the interest for your blog.nature

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