Feature Articles

POWERFUL PICTURE-BOOKS by Valerie Coghlan

(Poetry Ireland News, September/October 2004)

Booksellers and librarians frequently comment that picture-books are hard to shift off the shelves unless they are for very young children or are the work of well-known Erika's Storyillustrators. This means that books by new or more challenging artists are often overlooked, especially so when a book is for an older reader. Yet outstanding books which are not for the pre-literate age group are published and do find an audience, albeit frequently a smaller audience than they deserve. Picture-books for this age group often provide opportunities to introduce topics which might be considered difficult or indeed inappropriate, as the pictures can absorb some of the emotional intensity which would otherwise need to be expressed more forcefully in text. The following picture-books for younger and older readers all provide something to think and talk about while not being didactic in the least.

Anyone with a sense of humour from age four upwards must enjoy The Best Bottom, and those with a competitive streak and a sense of fairness will especially relish a tale in which ingenuity and a sporting attitude win out. A competition engenders a spate of squabbling and rivalry among the farmyard inhabitants as they vie to see who has the most attractive bottom. Bold black lines and flat applications of paint give all the creatures solidity and depth, increasing the mounting drama as they prepare for the judging which is to be done by the cows, deemed the wisest animals on the farm. The landscape format provides room for all the preening and parading as everyone gets ready. Pig’s big, round back-view is presented as he washes his bottom in the pond while other animals pull grass, fluff and fleas from their tails. And it is in the attractiveness of their tails that the competitors feel their opportunities lie, so what is poor tail-less frog to do? Well frog, the fairest and politest of all the creatures, has a plan which brings her deserved success. This is a highly engaging book, with a nice gentle moral tucked into a hilarious story.

Vote For Duck, for slightly older readers, also has a moral, once more one which is wrapped around by humour and clever artwork. Again, the scene is a farmyard: one in which the inhabitants all have to perform chores listed by Farmer Brown. Duck resents this and calls an election for a new farm boss. Of course the duck wins but finds that being the boss means even harder work, so he sets off on a campaign for election as Governor. But Governor Duck ends up as exhausted as Farmer Duck so what can he do but run for President, and yes, you’ve guessed it, that’s an even more wearying job. Lewin’s flowing lines, seemingly artless but giving character and fluidity of movement to all the activists, blend with Cronin’s relaxed text. They compel readers to turn the page to see where Duck’s hardworking efforts to give himself an easier life will lead him to next, in a very clever and very funny reflection on democracy.

Through the engagement of the visual with the verbal the two previous books can say much that would otherwise be unpalatable for younger readers. Runaway Jack, which is aimed at readers of approximately seven upwards, can in a similar fashion, deal with a very troubled and brutal period in the history of North America. The story of Jack, a slave boy who flees from the brutality of his master on a plantation in Kentucky, it is framed by a short modern narrative in which an old man tells his grandson about the boy’s great-great-great-grandfather, Jack, who was once a slave. Soft watercolours convey life on a southern plantation, darkening as the story intensifies when Jack and his family are split up. In keeping with the age of its younger readers, the story is softened by a happy ending, and an endnote gives a brief history of slavery in the 1800s.

Definitely not for younger readers, Erika’s Story is signalled by the cut-out star on the cover behind which a plain yellow page shows through. It is an account of a woman whose parents were taken in 1944 from the ghetto where they lived, during the Nazi occupation, and sent in the now notorious cattle trains to almost certain death. Erika, a baby, is thrown from the train and reared by a woman to whom she was brought by her finders. The story is narrated in Erika’s voice in simple unadorned words. Innocenti’s super-realistic paintings are in muted, almost sepia tones when depicting the rounding up of many people and their incarceration in trucks during a journey to a building which is recognisable to anyone who has seen images of Nazi death camps. There is an awful poignancy in the image of the empty baby’s pram at the edge of the station platform as the train steams away. The opening illustration and the closing double-page spread showing Erika as an older child are in brighter tones. But these are still muted showing there is nothing jolly in this tale. This is a story with nothing to soften it except the fact that Erika did survive and that there was enough decency in a frightened and vicious world to ensure that she grew to a happy adulthood.

Arguments may be made that this is no material for a picture-book, but a stronger argument says that a picture-book like this one, and Runaway Jack too, will introduce children to a world that is not always benign, and that it allows readers to take what is appropriate from the pages. Books like these show the versatility of the picture-book and its capacity to show but not tell readers how they may interpret what they see before them.

Brigitte Minne and Marjolein Pottie, The Best Bottom (Macmillan), £9.99 (hbk)
Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin, Vote for Duck (Pocket Books), £4.99 (pbk)
Stewart Lees, Runaway Jack (Frances Lincoln), £10.99 (hbk)
Ruth Vander Zee and Roberto Innocenti, Erika’s Story (Jonathan Cape), £10.99 (hbk)

Valerie Coghlan co-edits Inis, the Children’s Books Ireland magazine, and is the librarian at the Church of Ireland College of Education, Dublin.

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