It must be the sense of anonymity that compels people to share secrets with strangers. I was having a conversation with a woman in a bookshop when she decided to tell me something I could tell was troubling her about her nine-year-old son. “The thing is,” she said (she had a twitch in her lower lip), “he’s a bright boy, but… he still likes books with pictures in.” As a children’s bookseller, I hear things like this all the time. Proud parents like to tell me that their children no longer ‘need’ pictures in their books, as though they had just collected their children from a clinic specialising in the treatment of visual withdrawal. Sometimes it’s the children themselves that need reminding: “You don’t need books with pictures in- remember?” In either case, the message seems clear: pictures are mere training wheels for text, and the sooner we’re done with them, the better.
This idea often goes hand-in-hand with the view that children’s literature is merely a simplified version of adult literature, the literary equivalent of a Playmobil fire engine. On the contrary, I think picture books in particular have their own grammar and perspective that you simply don’t find in such abundance elsewhere. In fact, I would argue that if picture books have a torchbearer anywhere in the creative arts, it’s not to be found in literature all. For that, you would need to look to video games.
In the heyday of printed games magazines, we ate with our eyes. In the absence of video, we studied still images and tried to animate them in our minds. It’s hard to imagine now but seeing a game in motion for the first time really was just as big a revelation as how it played. In the years since, video games have made art critics of us all. We even learnt a new vocabulary to talk about them: references to pixel density, shading, style and perspective made themselves at home in even casual conversation, and how could they not? Try explaining these four images without them: