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Thursday, 13 June 2013

Book Reviews: Revisiting Picture Books

I’ve been thinking a lot about pictures. It has been one of those few weeks when everything seems to be related to something that’s been in the back of your mind for ages. First George declared that all books should have pictures and went on to binge-buy about ten Atlases, then two hours before it was due to start I saw that the Norwich and Norfolk Festival included a discussion session on picture books, and finally, on Monday, I had the opportunity to visit the magical Story Museum in Oxford.
One of my good friends is an illustrator and animator and it is since meeting her that I’ve been trying to figure out my relationship with pictures. Her work often makes me feel in a way that I rarely do with this kind of art, feel in a way I can hardly explain – something like: inspired by its beauty and weirdness, and also deeply sad; perhaps because soon I won’t be looking anymore. This indescribable feeling of simultaneous warmth, and awe, and sadness, though, is something I’ve always recognised in myself when listening to music or watching a film or visiting the theatre. I wonder if it’s because picture books are one of the few art forms that I can’t really remember consuming that I am unsure of what my relationship with them is. I remember the first album I got obsessed with (Aquarium by Aqua – don’t laugh, I was seven…); I remember the first ballet I went to see (The Nutcracker); I remember the first time I was really disappointed by a film (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) - but my love for picture books started and stopped before my memory had finished developing. The first books I remember really loving, at around six or seven, were in the Faraway Tree collection by Enid Blyton. My edition was definitely more words than pictures, and after that my reading material only became wordier and wordier and wordier.
Part of me wonders if a sad by-product of my almost inhaling stories is that I barely even glanced at the pictures that did appear in my books, but another part thinks there may be more to it than that. I remember reading somewhere that the human brain is unable to create faces out of nowhere, that the people we dream about look like our friends or people we’ve seen in passing – and whilst I have no idea if this is true, it fits the way I read. When I imagine a character, I can’t imagine them as a whole. I can remember that a character has – say – red hair, freckles, and a long nose, but I can’t put them together to make a real-looking face. It’s why I find film-adaptations of books I love so difficult to cope with. I wonder, then, if I ignored pictures as a child because, whilst the characters I read about were just a combination of body parts and personality traits, I found it easier to relate to them. I wonder if pictures bothered me (especially those annoying illustrations that seemed to completely ignore the author’s descriptions) because a cold hard image of a character, for me, took away the freedom of imagination. They meant that I couldn’t even a-little-bit pretend that characters looked like me. Now though, I’m starting to feel like, by flicking past the pictures, I’ve missed out on a whole world of other stories and so, over the last couple of years, I’ve been revisiting and really looking at picture books. One day soon, I think I will be brave enough to try reading my first graphic novel.
My series of vaguely-picture-book-related thoughts started when I came across this blog post on Rhino Reads. You will know from my previous posts that I’m big on inclusion in children’s books, but I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t thought about how animal characters in picture books played into it all. Not directly anyway. I always knew that my Tooth Mouse world would be an equal society genderwise, and that it would have its own set of flaws and inequalities – but I had words to back up these ideas. In a picture book about animals, I realised as I read, it is especially important to be aware of what messages you are promoting. The gender of an animal isn’t immediately obvious and yet we always seem to assume that timid creatures like mice are girls, whereas crocodiles or dinosaurs are boys. I’ll let the article speak for itself, but suffice to say I was suddenly aware that picture books were doing much more than I gave them credit for.
A week or so later I saw that, as part of the Norwich and Norfolk Festival, B.J. Epstein (whose name I recognised from my UEA days) was running a session on reading picture books as adults. This is the kind of thing I’d normally chicken out of attending – because what if everyone there was really smart and thought my ideas were pants – but I bit the bullet and went along. Once again, I couldn’t believe how much the picture books we were looking at were doing. I must have read Where the Wild Things Are a thousand times, but never before had I noticed that the white space around the pictures shrunk the further away from home Max went. When the wild rumpus begins, we are treated to three double pages of pictures with no white framing at all. The group discussed how the colour takes over the space as Max imagines more and more, and how the white space perhaps represented the safety of home and the real word. For me however (though I was too shy to say), the blankness of the frame was scary and the safeness, the sanctuary, was in the imagined world of colour. The Wild Things were scary, but Max could tame them. Mum was scarier. 
I then looked at Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, which immediately made it onto my list of favourite books ever. Despite the title, I picked up the book with We’re Going on a Bear Hunt in mind. I saw Quentin Blake’s signature style on the front cover and imagined the empowered children and silly made-up words of Roald Dahl. I could not have been more wrong. Actually – I ended up crying in front of a group of strangers. In his Sad Book Michael Rosen speaks frankly about the sadness he feels. His words aren’t in rhyme, but are true and relatable in a way that books dealing with grief so rarely are. Quentin Blake’s use of colour and shadow is mesmerising, his pictues are heartbreaking. In a way it is a book about empowered children – I imagined reading it as a child, a sad child, and thought about how it might be feel to be told that, actually, I was allowed to be sad. I thought about what it might feel like to recognise the name Michael Rosen, or see pictures that are similar to those in the other books I was reading, and realise that perhaps I wasn’t alone in what I was feeling. I bought myself a copy during all the crazy that happened last week and allowed myself to get lost in the words and the pictures. I have never looked at illustrations harder. My mum stole the book when I was done.
Just when I had started to think I would take my time to come to terms with what had happened before getting back to writing, and started planning my next few weeks around Super Mario and reading and TV, I was given the opportunity to visit the Story Museum in Oxford. I have rarely been in a space that looks so similar to what I’m sure the inside of my head is like. The building is dilapidated and full of history: there are old safes that can’t be opened (Dr Who much?), counters and stovetops from when it served as a canteen for Post Office workers, and cardboard cut-outs of Alice (in her varying sizes) dotted all over the place. Oh and did I mention that I visited Michael Rosen, himself’s, office? It’s hard to be somewhere like that and not want to write immediately. The museum itself will open in 2015 and will be a celebration of stories, but what I like most is that it promotes an idea that I truly believe in: that stories are for everyone. Furthermore, the experience reinforced for me that stories can come in all shapes and sizes, that picture book or fairy tales are no less worthy than novels. My lovely team of tour guides showed me every nook and cranny of the place, but what they seemed most excited about was the plans for a walkway on the roof. Oxford, you see, is known for its picturesque skyline of spires, but most of the places you can get a panoramic view from are at the top of narrow and rickety staircases. My guides explained to me that one day they were hoping to build a rooftop walkway with elevator access so that anyone who wanted to could experience the skyline that Oxford is so famous for - because sometimes, as I've learned, seeing it really is better than just picturing it.
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