Episode 4 - Words and Pictures - TRANSCRIPT


This is The Beginning of Your Life Book Club a podcast celebrating the transformative power of children’s literature and the magic of picture books. I’m your host, Emily Akins.

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Let’s talk for a minute about words, pictures, and … again … magic. You see, my guiding questions on this project have been “How is reading picture books different from reading other kinds of books?” “How is reading together, different from reading alone?” And “Where does the power or magic of picture books come from?” I’ve now come to believe that these are questions that answer each other.

Now, for this episode I should offer you a disclaimer or maybe a spoiler alert. Because here I am going to try to figure out magic. And I know it might be risky to try to pin down magic. But I don’t think I’ll ruin it by investigating just a little bit. In fact, as I have begun to pull back the curtain and to figure out how this picture book magic trick is done, it’s actually amazing. And for me it doesn’t diminish the impact of that trick if we know how it happens. It all makes me appreciate it even more - the truth is, one of the things I have been enjoying so much about this project is realizing how much more deeply books work on us - the way that a seemingly simple children’s picture book can actually be a sophisticated art form that is uniquely remarkable in its ability to bring us along with the story inside. I think you’ll appreciate it too.

Now … when I have asked people these guiding questions of mine, pictures tend to be a pretty big part of the answer. So I thought maybe we’d start out with a picture … but ... a picture in words or … letters, actually. A metaphor shared by the writer Avi. He won the Newbery in 2003 for his book Crispin; The Cross of Lead, which isn’t a picture book. But I love what he says in his acceptance speech.

AVI: Think of it. 96% of the universe is as yet unknown. They call it dark matter. That extraordinary fact reminded me of something I once heard the writer Donald Hall say. He was trying to explain—by way of metaphor—what it is that a writer does, how writing works. It is a concept that, from the moment I heard it, I have cherished. The writer, he said, in his writing, tries to create the letter O. But he does so by writing the letter C. Which is to say there is a gap. Where there is nothing. Dark matter, perhaps. The writer’s words on the page create structure, character, and voice—but there are the gaps, the dark matter, the unknown, and the not written. It is the reader who fills this gap. If the gap is too large, the reader cannot fill it. If the gap is too small, the reader need not fill it. But if the gap is just right, the reader fills it with self and the circle is complete. Thus, writer and reader have joined together to make the writing whole. In other words, by surrounding what is not written by what is written the writer enables readers to see, feel, and experience some dimension of their own lives in the text.

Create the letter O by writing the letter C. I want you to hold that image in your mind as we continue to explore what makes picture books different, what makes reading together different and the source of picture book magic.

Leonard Marcus calls picture books an “art form that is almost never as simple as it seems.” And as we begin to examine the individual components of this art form - words and pictures - we begin to see how the interplay between the two takes on it’s own life. Perry Nodelman, the author of a book called Words About Pictures, writes that placing words and pictures “into relationship with each other inevitably changes the meaning of both,” so that they are more than just a sum of their parts.” He describes the “unique rhythm of pictures and words working together which distinguishes picturebooks from all other forms of both visual and verbal art.”

I spoke to Daniel Miyares, whom I work with at Hallmark where he is an artist and I am an editorial director. Daniel is also a picture book author and an illustrator, most recently of Night Out and Little Fox in the Snow, written by Jonathan London. I asked Daniel about the difference between picture books and other kinds of books.

Daneil: There's a brevity to it. There is, um, you know, your window of opportunity is, you know, is very small, um, but, but at the same time so much can be packed in because you have, you have so much visual detail that you can share as well as written stuff that, that I think that makes it really unique. You know, you have just pound for pound. There's a lot of emotion in there. And a lot to me, not unlike a greeting card and, you know, I think they do a lot of heavy lifting because of it.

I have found a few parallels between greeting cards and picture books. They both depend on a just-right combination of words and pictures. But they also both have an incredible capacity for emotional impact. I think that has a lot to do with the images. Or pictures. Or as Molly Bang might call it ... “shapes arranged on a rectangle.”

Molly Bang is a children’s book author and illustrator; she also wrote and illustrated a book called Picture This, which is, as the back cover of my copy suggests, “a little book that will teach you how to sense the colors, sizes, and shapes in the world around you.” Brian Selznick calls this book “the Strunk and White of visual literacy.” It is a powerful and clear explanation of how imagery works and - more importantly - how it makes us feel.

To demonstrate this, Bang tells the story of Little Red Riding Hood using imagery alone. I will describe it for you but promise me you’ll get a copy of this book, okay? Alright - so … “picture this” (to borrow the title of her book) … picture a simple small red triangle as Little Red Riding Hood. Picture a forest of some simply shaped trees. As we turn the page, Molly Bang moves us into the forest by showing us only the trunks of the trees - just long thick black lines but we read them as tree trunks. Turn the page and there’s Red and as the trunks are the only part of the tree we see - we are in the forest with her. Turn the page again and she is even smaller. Turn the page again and Bang moves Red from the foreground to the background where she is vulnerable. A few more pages and we see a new triangle - the wolf - and our emotions shift as Molly Bang changes the color of the wolf, the point of its snout, the shape of its eye. So on and so forth, the scene growing scarier and scarier with each page turn.

Little by little with only the simplest shapes and with only 4 colors, Molly Bang demonstrates how and why images create an emotional response in us. She gets us to feel for that little triangle. To identify with it. To empathize with it. And she writes “whether or not we are conscious of these forces, we are aware of them.”

Maybe the magic of picture books comes from the way that images impact us subconsciously … and sometimes without any help from the words. I started thinking through some of my favorite wordless picture books - I’m sure you’ve seen some of these, as well - and I realized how powerfully each book is able to work its magic on me. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs? Always makes me tear up on the last page. A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka? When Daisy’s ball deflates, I feel deflated, too! More recently, Matthew Cordell’s Wolf in the Snow and Kerascoët’s I Walk With Vanessa both yank at my heart strings - in those books I feel the isolation and loneliness of Vanessa or of little wolf and of little red coated kid - another little red triangle to empathize with! And in both stories I rejoice at the warmth of the kindness of a stranger.

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Recently Julia and Clara were quibbling and I overheard Clara say she was reading a book - which Julia challenged by saying - “you can’t even read that book yet!” And Clara defended herself saying she was reading the pictures. Julia said “you can’t ‘read pictures.’” I jumped in to clarify and to set Julia straight. It is entirely possible to “read pictures.” In the same way that we have learned to decode and make meaning of the shapes and combinations of letters of our alphabet we have also learned to decode and make meaning of images. Of course, I didn’t use phrases like “decode and make meaning” with Julia and Clara. Though this is precisely what children do and what I did as a 2 year old sitting in my dad’s lap pointing at all the As in the newspaper.

This is also just what Jane Doonan does in her book Looking at Pictures in Picture Books, which celebrates what she calls “the pleasures, challenges and rewards of looking at pictures as part of the total experience of reading a picture book.”

In close readings of a couple of picture books, Doonan explains the impact of the colors, the contrast of the patterns, the way the composition of each page shifts our focus, and then she moves into a more detailed exploration of how each part of an illustration may have personal associations for the beholder. She demonstrates how we apply our own understanding to what we read.

Doonan suggests that - as we look at a picture in a picture book - we consider the following: What we are given, what we perceive, and how we construct our various meanings.

Jane Doonan’s work reminded me a lot of what my friend Lauren told me when I asked her for help on understanding imagery or artwork. Lauren is Outreach Educator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; but we’ve known each other since we were kids. In her job she teaches kids how to experience art. She taught me about something called Visual Thinking Strategies.

Lauren: So the method, um, uses three primary questions, um, and just those three questions. So you start, um, if you have a group of children or adults or whoever, um with a work of art and giving them maybe one or two minutes to actually just look in silence. And then after they've had a minute to look, you just pose a general question to the whole group of what's going on in this picture or what's going on in this painting or sculpture or whatever, if you want to be specific, but you just pose that general question and um, wait for responses and usually you get, you know, it's, it's a good question. And if you've picked the right work of art, then you get a lot of good responses. Um, so once people start sharing, depending on, um, you know, what they offer out, you typically follow what you try to follow up with another question of what do you see that makes you say that? So if someone says, I see a girl and she looks sad, you know, what do you see that makes you say this girl looks sad. And um, and then after you have discussed that, your next question is going to be to the whole group. What more can we find? So it's just kind of opening it back up to the next observation or comment, but the, the initial question, what's going on in this picture? Um, as you know, it's meant to be open ended, you don't, you're not asking just what do you see? So, there's a difference. You know, what do you see? I see a tree, I see a castle, I see a river, but if you say what's going on in this picture, you're trying to get more at, you know, if there's any activity or the bigger story, um, interpretation of what's happening in the picture and not just a listing of things that you can see.

Lauren went on to say that the open ended quality of Visual Thinking Strategies enables a group to recognize that there are different viewpoints within the group. That different responses are okay. And that it’s important to learn how - as a group - we agree with each other on some things and disagree on others and that that’s okay.

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So Jane Doonan asks: what are we given, what do we perceive, and how do we construct our various meanings. Visual Thinking Strategies asks 1) What’s going on in this picture? 2) What makes you say that? 3) What else can we find?

And both of these modes of thinking invite us to put ourselves into the story and to make the story something new simply by bringing in our own experience and interpretation.

This reminds me of the mirrors part of Dr Rudine Sims Bishop’s Mirrors and Windows metaphor. The ability to see yourself reflected in the book … which is to say … the ability to imagine yourself in the story. Or to imagine the story around you.  

I also asked Dr Bishop about picture book magic and I love the way she compares it to poetry.

Dr Bishop: The picture book texts it has to be relatively brief and in some ways. I think it's, it's almost like poetry. You know, it, it condenses its meaning into, into relatively few words. And they, and they have to count. In a good picture book every word counts, you know, um, and they, the pictures are not simply reflections of what the words say, but they also add to the story and it's that combination. I think that make it, what you call magic.

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If we think back to the metaphor of making an O by making a C … the gap or “dark matter” that Avi was talking about was a gap between reader and the writing. But I believe a similar gap exists between words and pictures. And that that space is where the connections are made by the reader. Maybe the reader filling those gaps makes the magic happen. Here’s Daniel again.

Daniel: I talked about the space in between and you know, and I think it really is like a gap that you create and if you, and if it's too large, you know, the reader can't jump over it, they fall in, you know, but if it's just the right size, they can jump over and feel like they accomplished something. Right. It's that exhilaration of making the leap yourself and then landing safely. You know, there has to be that landing too.

Now …  most kids aren’t necessarily doing this kind of high level investigation of picture books as literary, artistic, and social texts - I mean, mostly we’re all simply reading our bedtime stories. And yet, I see my kids put themselves in the story all the time and I suspect you do, too. They are very quick to declare their personal associations with the text. They point at the characters in the book and say “that’s me, Mommy. I’m that one.” Or they say, “Mommy, look at that unicorn reading a book - that one’s you!” (They know me so well.) For that matter, I do it, too. In silly ways - like wanting to be Trixie’s mom in Knufflebunny because Trixie’s mom is always reading a book.

Maybe the power and magic of the picture book comes from being able to enter into the story - to co create - and to create meaning. And to feel like you accomplished something.

Here’s author and illustrator Jessica Love speaking with Matthew Winner in his podcast, The Children’s Book Podcast.

Jessica Love:   The way that the art that I like functions is the artist is throwing throwing a ball into the air into the unknown and the audience, the reader, the viewer somewhere in the distant future or across the country or wherever it is has the opportunity to catch it and the magic happens in that moment when that ball is suspended at the at the peak of its parabola and and you don't know if anyone's going to catch it or not and then they do but that magic doesn't have the oppor- the magic of catching it can't happen unless it's actually been thrown. If someone just stuffs it into your hand you haven't caught anything you've been handed something and that's not the same thing.

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One last thing I read in Jane Doonan’s book that I want to share with you is this idea of a “composite text” which Doonan defines as “work that is made from the union of what the words say and what the pictures show; properly speaking it exists nowhere, but in the reader’s head.” That last bit is my favorite part of that definition. “Properly speaking it exists nowhere, but in the reader’s head.” She writes, “no two readers will make a composite text which is identical. That’s exciting. And creative.”

This means that what happens when we read a picture book is that we insert ourselves into the gap left between the words and pictures - we merge the words and pictures with ourselves - and we make the entire experience our own. We make the story ours.

Which means … the most magical, powerful thing is … not just the pictures. Not just the words. Not even just the words and the pictures creating a new thing together. But the words and the pictures and the readers creating a new thing altogether each and every time that book is read.

Daniel: You know, I think there's something primal about word and image. You know, we created language for a reason, but we also created pictures for a reason. You as, as human beings and you know, if I held up as an actual apple in my hand as a symbol and I said, and then I held up the word poison, you're automatically going to think of something like Snow White. Right? But if I held up an apple and then I held up a computer chip, you're going to think of a billion dollar tech company, right? Yeah. Um, and the same. It's like the same symbol. The symbol didn't change. The visual did not change, but just by connecting the dots between one word and that symbol you create, I mean a flood of emotion, of flood of connotation. I mean, just everything that, that you fill in those gaps, um, you know, our brains are wired to do that.

Stories I think are the reason we're not all dead, you know, I mean, I think we would have been extinct a long time ago if we didn't have stories because I feel like the only way I can make sense of the world on a daily basis is stories, stories that I create, stories other people tell to me. Um small ones, big ones, epic ones, historical ones, you know, whatever it is, you know, storytelling, you know, whether it's true or false, you know, is, is really what keeps us moving around. And so for me, I think the format of a bound story that someone else can then interact with is like dynamite, you know, it's something that there's just a lot of stored energy there, you know, and, and when you unlock it, you know, boom.


The Beginning of Your Life Book Club is written and produced by me, Emily Akins with original music by Sergio Moreno.

This podcast is made possible by the creative division at Hallmark Cards, where we believe that when you care enough, you can change the world.

Audio of Avi’s acceptance speech is used with permission from The Association for Library Service to Children, the American Library Association, and Weston Woods. Audio of Jessica Love is used with permission from Matthew Winner of The Children’s Book Podcast.

Special thanks today to Daniel Miyares, Lauren Vaughan Yockel, and Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop.

And thanks to you, too, for listening.

Follow me on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and on my website - TheBeginningofYourLifeBookClub.com.


Orion: Goblin King.

Emily: Goblin King? Okay I am going to look for that one. What do you like about that book?

Orion: I like about it because they have lots of beans that make them big.

Emily: Beans that make them big? Hmmm now I’m really curious. ‘Cause I guess goblins are small, right? And the beans make them big? Okay, well. Let’s not spoil it. Okay. Do you have a favorite person you like to read with?

Orion: No

Emily: Just anybody?

Orion: Yeah

Jennifer: Who normally reads with you?

Orion: My mom.

Emily: You’re mom must be awesome.

Jennifer: I’m awesome. (laughter)

Orion: My name is Orion and I am 6 years old.


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