Children’s Picture Books: an evolution of British culture or childish commodities?

That was the title of my thesis I wrote in 2012. I wanted to write about something that interested me, something I would enjoy researching. At this point in my Graphic Design studies I was strongly interested in illustration, but I was aware that there was not enough theory surrounding the topic to use as a foundation of an essay, particularly one that needed to be based around an argument. So, I turned to picture books.

Reading has been a great joy for me – I usually get through over 100 books a year. Like most children I began learning through picture books, where the story was told through images rather than words. It felt natural to combine my love of reading and illustration together to result in the topic of children’s picture books.

However, I could not only write about books; I needed an argument. So, insert another of my passions: history, in particular British history. I decided to look at the evolution of the picture book in regards to the changes in British culture. Were children’s books moving in sync with the changing times, or were they purely a commodity, a way of making money?

Now that I had these elements in place it was easy to find relevant research and build up my argument. I was commended on my choice of question; I was told it was unique and very interesting. I enjoyed writing it – something other students found hard to believe.

For obvious reasons I cannot post my dissertation online, but I would like to share with you, three of the books I gathered for my research that I found extremely interesting and informative. If you are interested in this subject matter I highly recommend you seek these out.

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Puffin By Design: 70 Years of Imagination 1940-2000 
by Phil Baines

I admit that this book was not about picture books, but about children’s books in general. Therefore it was the least informative for my essay. Nonetheless, I would have bought this book regardless as book design is another area that I am greatly interested in.

Puffin By Design is essentially a visual timeline of book covers produced for Puffin (an imprint of Penguin Books) from the date of its formation until the publication of this book in 2010. Although mostly full of imagery, Phil Baines provides an insight into the development of Puffin and the changes in illustration and typography over the seven decades. Readers are shown the changing appearance of the books in order to appeal to youngsters of the era, to encourage them to read (or arguably buy).

Due to the lack of written word, and the fact that Puffin By Design mostly focuses on reading books rather than picture books, this book was the least cited in my thesis. However I could spend hours flicking through this book. It shows what has been successful in the past and thus is full of inspiration for upcoming designers wanting to work in the world of book publishing.

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Children Reading Pictures: Interpreting Visual Texts
by Evelyn Arizpe and Morag Styles

Children Reading Pictures is the result of a two year study, in which the authors interviewed a selection of primary school aged children to discover their understanding and interpretation of the illustrations within picture books.

Whilst not necessarily the most stimulating book to read, it is actually full of really interesting findings. Children are a lot more insightful than the average adult gives them credit for. Some of the interviewees were from migrant families, who had not yet got a grasp on the English language. These children were able to understand the stories to a certain extent purely by analysing the illustrations. When questioned, many were able to relate the images to events in their own lives. What some people may disregard as childish nonsense is actually extremely educational – children can learn as much from pictures as they can from words (and thus, as I argued, are easy targets for consumerism).

One of the more helpful chapters in Children Reading Pictures, in regards to my essay, was the interview and analysis of books by Anthony Browne, who, alongside Lauren Child, was one of the authors I heavily focused on in my writing. As students of English Literature will know, author’s works get ripped apart by teachers and lecturers in order to find meaning that was possibly not intended in the first place. In this case that was not a problem. Browne was able to provide an insight to his intentions when writing and drawing his books, and thus this can be viewed as a reliable source.

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Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling
by Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles

This was my favourite book that I bought for my thesis research. I could sit and read this for hours and hours. It was perfect for what I needed. Like with Puffin by DesignChildren’s Picturebooks is a visual timeline from the very first recorded book for children up until the present day (2012). However, this was a book about the INSIDE of the books, the actually stories, rather than the front covers.

Yet Children’s Picturebooks was so much more than a mere timeline. Salisbury looked into the key stages that make a picture book successful: the illustration, the typography, the story lines etc. With examples of famous illustrators, Salisbury demonstrates how artists and authors have kept children interested and managed to keep this dynamic sector of the publishing industry going.

This was perhaps the most cited book in my thesis (I admit I was warned about using it too much). There were chapters about controversial topics and the arguments as to whether children should be subjected to these or not. Could pictures influence the way children think or behave? – a perfect opinion to challenge in my essay!

 

If you are interested in book design, children’s books or illustration, I urge you to take a look at these books. You will not be disappointed.

For those looking for ideas for their own dissertation, I advise you to pick something you are interested in. This will make research less of a chore and much more enjoyable. You may be thinking that there is not enough content to write an essay on your passion, however combined with other elements you are bound to develop a question with a great amount of theory to back you up. Good luck and happy writing!

 

 

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