Absorbing Pictures and What They Say

“It’s language that’s intellectual,” notes Michael Hazanavicius, director of the 2012 Academy Award-winning silent film The Artist. “Images are about feelings.”

Different images, different feelings. Distinct images, distinct feelings.

A closed door is a mystery. What’s inside? Who will come out?

One house sits prettily in a garden, set apart — vines curving up in a smile, window-eyes cast demurely down. Or are the vines reaching up to embrace the house? Either way, the picture is alive without a creature in sight.

The other house stands straight and tall along a city sidewalk. In front is a city tree, fenced in and curved round — with bauble-leaves in the branches, as if a clever child drew it. Together with the pink door, the pilasters and pediments, the tree brings the house to life.

In the old house in Paris covered with vines, live — memorably — “twelve little girls in two straight lines.” Under the watchful eye of Miss Clavel, life is as orderly and proper as Ludwig Bemelmans’s drawing, by contrast, is loose and lighthearted. There’s a hint of deviltry, indeed, in the very hairbows on those twelve young heads.

But it’s the smallest of the little girls, Madeline, who’s the liveliest, the boldest, the least inclined to stay in line. “She was not afraid of mice-…To the tiger in the zoo / Madeline just said, ‘Pooh-Pooh.’”

In the intrepid, insouciant Madeline, Bemelmans’s imagination and his imagery coalesce. She’s the admiration of the other girls, the secret rebel in every watching child…

The house on East 88th Street, meanwhile, is empty. It won’t be for long, though — the Primms are moving in.

In emphatic, often comical line and a mass of eye-catching detail, Bernard Waber presents an image of cheerful disorder to be sorted out. See the faces in the upstairs windows, see the fish and bird on the sidewalk. And what to make of the four characters at a loss on the facing page?

But wait! Strange sounds are coming from upstairs. Mrs. Primm takes a peek…starts…and summons Mr. P.…

A crocodile in the bathtub of a Manhattan brownstone is outlandish — and in Waber’s astute, offhand rendering, in his element. Filling the tub and then some, just as the jungly-papered bathroom fills the page and then some, Lyle with his friendly grin is more at home than the hapless Mr. Primm.

A brief performance of his stage tricks, to the delight of the two young Primms, and Lyle is established as a member of the household. What kids wouldn’t want an amiable, accomplished crocodile as a companion?

*   *   *

To open a picture book, any picture book, is to enter a new world where seeing is believing, if the artist makes it so. Suppose, for instance, snow is in the picture. Does it mean  outdoor fun? Is a big, scary storm coming? Or will you be happily watching the snowflakes fall?

In Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day, a classic in collage, the expressive elements are silhouette, texture, and pattern. And color, of course. Singing color that is not naturalistic, and not abstract either, but out of a life envisioned by a child — from Peter’s very red snowsuit to the blocky buildings that background the snow to the spectacular pinkish-purple tub Peter soaks in after his day’s adventures. (Yes, bathtubs figure large in picture books.)

Color animates the pattern, too, and gives texture — sparkle, shadings — to the snow. It partners with silhouette, the other crucial element.

A silhouette, Jim McMullan has said, “can convey a particular vitality better than the details themselves.” At first opening, we see Peter’s pert profile against the snow outside his window — an indelible image set off by the jaunty silhouette of his black iron bedstead. And then it’s the elfin Peter in his red snowsuit that beguiles us — smacking snow off a silhouetted tree or simply making icy-blue tracks across the white, white snow.

Without dialogue or plot line or distinguishing detail, The Snowy Day makes an individual of Peter and an absorbing experience of his every footprint in the snow.

William Steig’s Brave Irene has dialogue and plot and detail in abundance, without sacrificing primal emotion.

Irene’s mother, Mrs. Bobbin, has finished a beautiful gown for the duchess to wear at tonight’s ball, but now she’s too sick to deliver it — so Irene insists on going instead. It’s very cold out, it’s already snowing, the wind is fierce…and for page after page, Irene struggles against the storm.

At the last, when all seems lost, something remarkable — not quite a miracle — occurs. The duchess’s lost-and-found gown is duly delivered and Irene, too, dances at the ball, radiant "in her ordinary dress.”

At once utterly fanciful and totally down to earth, Brave Irene is a story that only a cartoonist with Steig’s aplomb could pull off. The drama comes not from the flying snowflakes or bending branches or any other scenic effects but from Irene’s body language and spoken language, and the assortment of looks on her face. We feel for her.

Peter wakes to a blanket of snow, Irene confronts a blizzard. The mittened and mufflered tyke of Uri Shulevitz’s Snow, in turn, gladly sees a storm coming…

In a quaint Old World city, a single snowflake falls: a white speck in the gray sky over the huddled gray buildings. A boy with a dog sees it, and celebrates: “It’s snowing.” His elders scoff; radio and television say no snow. But snowflakes keep falling and falling and falling — coating the scoffers with snow, silencing radio and television, even enticing Mother Goose and her flock to quit the bookstore and join boy-and-dog for a romp in the snow.

Their panoramic gambols stretch across the double-page spreads as snowflakes fill the sky and blanket streets, roofs, housefronts. At the last, boy and dog have the whole white city to themselves.

Shulevitz, a past master at visionary landscapes, gives the scene a ghostly frosting. In the boy who foresees the snowfall, and in the doubters he encounters, there’s something roguish, out of the realm of folklore. To look at, Snow is a weather event with an enveloping, timeless aura.

*   *   *

Looking at pictures, our sympathies expand. Machines old and new capture our imagination too, with their likeness to us, our likeness to them.

Mike Mulligan and his faithful steam shovel Mary Anne are ageless. When the book was published in 1939, “steam shovels were being sold for junk,” as Virginia Lee Burton wrote. But Mike believed in Mary Anne: “she could still dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week; at least he thought she could.”

Up to this point, the pictures illustrate the text — crisply, amusingly, with a natural-born storyteller’s imagination. It’s a Child’s History of Heavy Construction.

But once Mike resolves that he and Mary Anne will be the ones to dig the cellar for the new Popperville town hall, the pictures stretch into friezes and the action rolls rhythmically across the two wide pages, drawing the eye back and forth from the grim city the duo are leaving behind to the trim, cheery little town where young and old excitedly await them.

With typography that mimics the illustration, we reach a roaring, clamoring, quivering climax: will they finish the job before the sun goes down?

Even in that tumultuous picture, we can see what’s on Mary Anne’s mind by the expression on her…face? Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is an unabashed hero story. For all the sweeping, whirling momentum and perky anecdotal detail that together distinguish Burton’s illustrations and make them worth revisiting, time and again, we also cherish the book because we’re aware in every picture of how Mary Anne feels.

You don’t have to be consigned to the scrap heap to have feelings. You don’t even have to have a name. Thanks to the magic of illustration, you can be a powerful earth-digging machine cleaning up scrap like the backhoe loader in Kate and Jim McMullan’s I’m Dirty!

He is not voiceless or faceless, that’s the trick, and his jaunty, talky, running account of the day’s work is right there in the pictures with him; on the page, he speaks.

From the look and sound of him, he exults. What kid wouldn’t also revel in the clean-up countdown as Backhoe Loader swings his steel arm and flexes his loader bucket and scoops up “10 torn-up truck tires, 9 fractured fans” all destined for the dumpster. We hardly need to see his face, indeed, so expressive are his movements.

This is virtuoso drawing: ten variations on the theme of a backhoe loader picking up scrap — not a dancer, not a nodding daisy — that might inspire anyone with a pencil and a sketch pad.

The climax is, properly, a mud bath — Backhoe Loader’s reward for doing “the dirty part of the job,” digging up a stump. The key gesture this time is the steel arm showering him. His own arm, is it? You better believe.

Sixty-odd years earlier, Mike Mulligan’s Mary Anne dug up a storm, and stayed clean. But who cares? Each picture book is a world, and an experience, unto itself. Waiting.


Art credits

Images from Madeline © 1939 by Ludwig Bemelmans, used with permission of Viking Children's Books.

Images from The House on East 88th Street by Bernard Waber. Copyright © 1962 by Bernard Waber, renewed 1990. Used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Images from The Snowy Day © 1962 by Ezra Jack Keats, used with permission of Viking Children's Books.

Images from Brave Irene © 1986 by William Steig. Used with permission of Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers.

Images from Snow © 1998 by Uri Shulevitz. Used with permission of Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers.

Images from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton. Copyright © 1939 by Virginia Lee Burton, renewed 1967 by Aristides Burton Demetrios and Michael Burton Demetrios. Used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Images from I'm Dirty! © 2006 by Jim McMullan. Used with permission of HarperCollins Publishers.


This article is part of our Picture Book Month 2012 coverage.

Barbara Bader
Barbara Bader is a longtime contributor to The Horn Book. Most recently, she has written a dual portrait of the editors Elisabeth Hamilton and Margaret McElderry, and taken a Second Look at Virginia Hamilton’s The Planet of Junior Brown.
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Picture Book Month coverage round up — The Horn Book

[...] web-only articles: - Barbara Bader on “Absorbing Pictures and What They Say” - 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Illustrator Award winner Peter Sís pays tribute to [...]

Posted : Nov 30, 2012 05:57

Picture book month continues — The Horn Book

[...] hope you all caught Barbara Bader’s picture essay last Thursday, “Absorbing Pictures and What They Say.” It’s not to be [...]

Posted : Nov 05, 2012 08:02

Wendy B

Wonderful post. I, too, love Keats' "A Snowy Day", which also made it into Flavorwire's '20 Most Beautiful...' http://www.flavorwire.com/306958/the-20-most-beautiful-childrens-books-of-all-time?all=1

Posted : Nov 02, 2012 04:03


A beautiful way to start Picture Book Month. Thank you for the inspiration. Ezra Jack Keats' 'A Snowy Day' still lifts my spirits whenever I read it.

Posted : Nov 01, 2012 03:30


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