From as young as I can remember, I have always picked up pencils and pens, crayons and felt-tips – anything I could get my hands on, really – and have scribbled on any possible surface. Walls, table tops, and eventually, when my Mum could take it no longer, paper. I would scratch and scribble my way through page after page, marking each blank white sheet with an indecipherable splodge – which, of course, spoke some kind of universal truth in my mind – before discarding the last and moving on to the next, keen to unravel the colours and images I perceived around me, and to, in some way, make sense of it all.
It is in this way that I fondly recall my early relationship with books.
Words? I have no idea what you are talking about. Haven’t seen them. What do they look like?
Pictures? Oh yes, those pretty things, sprawling across the page, like kaleidoscopic adventures, just waiting for me to dive into them and to explore.
Looking through my Mum’s attic, I find large textbooks with large, glossy pages splashed with colour and illustration. Page one, I find my name, scored like graffiti, which served the purpose of diverting any burglars from reading my precious tomes. I turn the page, and find intricate sketches buried beneath tapestry-like mazes of scratches and scribbles. Looking back, I realise that my relationship to these images was much more precious to me than my relationship to the words on the page.
This causes me to wonder, how integral are illustrations to the reading experience?
Of course, we’re all different. What may have captured my imagination may have made you feel indifferent. Whilst I may have poured over one page, you may have raced your way through the prose until the very end, savouring the sound of each word chiming inside your head.
For children, pictures are integral to the world around them. They are still learning with their eyes, and so pictures become as much about learning to perceive the world as they do about enjoyment, or simply making the reader giggle. For adults, we have the privilege of scanning our back-catalogue of experience for references, or simply by a more advanced cognitive ability to conjure up advanced vistas of the imagination.
But words, too, by their very nature are visual. We see them. They are processed by the eye. Reading is a visual experience, illustrations or no. We string each letter together in a sequence.
words become sentences,
and sentences become paragraphs, and so on. In this way, we perceive the worlds as they are depicted in text, in visual and spatial terms. Our mind’s eye is alive with image and form, even auditory fragments. When we read, we dream.
So why was my younger self so dependent on the images to bring the adventures to life? Was I a product of our increasingly visual society, brought about by TV, video and gaming?
Or perhaps it is picture books’ use of more than one medium: text and image. The coming together of two forms of storytelling weaved into one experience. But to what extent do the images become an integral part of the reading experience? Could the text do without them, or do the images complete the meaning?
Reading is, quite often, a personal experience brought about by our imaginations. If this experience is impeded in some way by unnecessary illustrations, to what extent are we, as readers, losing agency? It is in this way that I shift my focus towards the role of the illustration.
Others illustrations are far too literal, displaying in image what our imaginations could do quite easily with text alone.
Enhance the experience
Occasionally, however, there are illustrations that don’t take away from the visual power of text alone. When done correctly, illustration can provide an interesting dialogue between text and image, creating an enhanced experience that pleases more of our sensory faculties than text can do alone.
Take Roald Dahl’s hugely successful children’s stories. As tales, they are wonderfully vivid, and evoke colourful, often ridiculously slapstick scenes in one’s mind. But I don’t think I could bear to think of them without Quentin Blake’s quirky sketches, which saw my favourite character’s hair stand wildly on end, or their eyes bulge out of their sockets. Their smiles would make me smile. In this way, there was a personality embedded in both text and image that created an incredibly effective synergy, which firmly brought the stories into the realm of the visual and which created a powerful experience for the reader.
When I think about silent film, with its exaggerated gesture and slapstick visual comedy, I find it almost impossible to imagine their success without their riotous, melodic soundtracks, guffawing about to the action on-screen, providing the audience with another medial element to enhance the experience. In this way, music becomes an integral part of the action as it unfolds. Without it, we surely would not have enjoyed silent film as much as we do.
Could this be said for illustrated books?
Perhaps we can look to Dahl and Blake for some help. They understood one another. The personality of text and image came together to create two mediums dependent on the other.
Perhaps we can look to silent film for some help, too. Timed correctly, and in synchronisation with the action, the two mediums come together to create crescendos of emotion and tension. The music alone, however, does not give too much away. It provides us with a sense of the action; atmosphere, mood, emotion. Can illustration do this? If so, what does that look like?
For me, it all comes down to the balance of sensory data being emitted from both text and image. If the text can emit enough sensory data to swirl about in your mind, then an image is largely unnecessary. If, within the text, there is room to conjure up a particular atmosphere through colour, expression and form, then by all means, stick it in there! Crucially, however, the image must contain within it enough ambiguity, or leave behind it a trail of unanswered questions, so as to warrant the legitimacy of the text. This characteristic distinguishes literary illustration from art, or at least, literary illustration that works. Tread carefully, for this could be hard to judge.
When it comes to deciding, reader or writer, whether illustration works for you, perhaps it might be useful to take some time to look at the multimedia you surround yourself with: what was it about that film score that really made it effective? How would that piece of art felt without the accompanying explanation? From then on, you might be able to better judge the validity of illustration. Whilst for children’s books, illustrations serve their purpose more readily, their role cannot be overlooked.
In the meantime, I’ll grab my pen, my pencil, or whatever, and I’ll get drawing. Whether for books or not, we need imagery just as much as we need text, and it is my firm belief that the two can, and should, work together.
Take a look at our Pinterest board ‘Scribbles and things‘ for our favourite scribbles!