American adage, origin debatable
Picture books are for everybody at any age, not books to be left behind as we grow older. The best ones leave a tantalising gap between the pictures and the words, a gap that is filled by the reader’s imagination, adding so much to the excitement of reading a book. ~ Anthony Browne
Who doesn’t love a good picture book, right? When my kids were little, I loved reading to them, and some of my favorites were the ones that consisted mainly of pictures. I don’t mean the little board books, like the ones with a picture of, say, a fish, captioned with a short description such as, “Fish swim in the water.”
From The Arrival by Shaun Tan.
According to the Boston Globe, “It’s one of those rare books that speak on different levels to readers ages 9 to 90.”
Picture Books for Adults
Not that there’s anything wrong with those; they’re great for helping toddlers to learn about the world. What I’m talking about are the books filled with gorgeously captivating illustrations, accompanied by a few beautifully poetic words (or even by no words at all). These are the kind that appeal to adults as much as children, full of life’s wordless truths that we learn over and over in ever-deepening ways as we grow older.
The genre of ‘beautiful-picture-books-for-kids-that-are-really-kind-of-for-adults’ is a very, very tiny genre indeed. In fact, I had trouble getting google to understand what I was looking for. I found the easiest thing to do was to find one on amazon that I was already familiar with, like Chris Van Allsburg’s Jumanji, and then peruse the “similar items” section underneath.
Illustration from Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg
I’ve always been a fan of the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Not that I believe it’s literally true; it’s hard to tell a story with pictures alone. But a visual image can often be vital in conveying meaning as well as emotion. Perhaps it’s my childhood addiction to illustrated fairy tales that draws me to books that rely heavily on pictures for the narration. Much of my own art has narrative qualities; you can read about it here.
The River by Alessandro Sanna and Michael Reynolds is a book in which the story of life along the waterway is told almost completely by richly evocative watercolors. The tale of a year as it moves through the seasons pulls you in and surrounds you, making you feel a part of it in a way that words alone could not. This is visual storytelling at its best.
From The River by Alessandro Sanna and Michael Reynolds
OK, so where am I going with this? Well, some years ago, I had an idea for one of these picture books. I started writing the story, and even did a few illustrations for it.
The basic premise is about duality, and how we need both parts to make a balanced whole. For instance, darkness can’t exist without light, or day without night, etc. I attempted to express this idea through the overlapping and positive/negative mixing of the black crow and white heron, who are the main mythical characters in the story.
But after I got to a certain point, I began to question if there was even a potential audience for this kind of visual storytelling. I was afraid the concept was too esoteric for children, or too boring for adults. Probably both, I figured. So I stopped. And there it still is, today.
Crow Creates the Night
In the Beginning, Heron and Crow Were There
The Separation of Heron and Crow
“As Raven spread his inky wings to fly, darkness spilled out from beneath them, filling the emptiness with all the pieces of the mysterious Night. The beautiful Moon sailed through the sky, and the darkness was dotted with countless swirling stars. The Moon’s glowing face spun slowly out of hiding until her full roundness was revealed, and then back again.” (exerpt from The Separation of Heron and Crow)
Too many words, maybe?
“…I suspect that much art in any medium is produced without a primary concern for how it will be received, or by whom. It often doesn’t set out to appeal to a predefined audience but rather build one for itself. The artists’ responsibility lies first and foremost with the work itself, trusting that it will invite the attention of others by the force of its conviction.” ~ Shaun Tan
Who is it For?
Apparently I’m not the only one pondering this dilemma. Shaun Tan has a whole (rather long) page of his website devoted to this question, from which the quote above is an exerpt.
He articulates here a very important and often forgotten point about not just picture books, but about art in general: It is not only very difficult, but also destructive to the artistic process, to create art based on what you think or imagine or anticipate a particular audience will like. Certainly you can do that, but at the cost, I believe, of your authentic artistic voice, as well as the most unique and inspired art you might make.
“The Lost Thing… works on a number of levels by appealing to the reader’s critical imagination, by asking many more open questions, regardless of whether that imagination belongs to a child or adult. It is both simple and complex – depending upon how the reader chooses to understand it (as with any interesting tale, including those of life in general).”
One of the illustrations I did was an alternate version of The Separation of Heron and Crow. Looking at it again a few weeks ago, I decided that it was in need of improvement, just as a piece of art. So I re-worked it, and it will now be available for purchase in the Suchness Gallery.
The Separation of Heron and Crow II, monotype with mixed media, 8.75 x 9.75 inches
An illustration from Lauren Redniss’s wonderful picture book for adults, “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout.
I don’t know if I’ll pursue my story or not, or if it will ever be finished. I feel I’m being pulled in so many directions right now, and it’s been pushed to the back burner for a long time. But I’ve wanted to be an illustrator for virtually my whole life, so maybe I’ll give it another try. In the meantime, don’t forget to look for The Separation of Heron and Crow II in the gallery and in my print shop soon!