Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling

“The genius behind simplicity” (from the San Diego Union Tribune)

Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling
by Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles
Laurence King Publishing; 192 pages; $35

Just before a 1982 event at the San Diego Museum of Art where the two of them were to speak, Maurice Sendak looked in the direction of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and told me, “There’s more there than meets the eye.” He meant that Geisel was a genius too often taken for a whimsical lightweight. But in saying “There’s more there than meets the eye,” Sendak could just as easily have been talking about the picturebook, that unique kind of art object the two of them are famous for.

Because they are given to the very young and serve as a stepping stone to reading, few notice that picturebooks hide a complexity behind their hard wrought and apparent simplicity. We have now a wonderful study that assesses this complexity: “Children’s Picturebooks” by two British academics, Martin Salisbury (an artist and illustrator) and Morag Styles (a scholar of children’s literature).

Fabian Negrin, “Las Huellas Secretas” by Julia Alvarez

This is the world of Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat” and Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” Jean DeBrunhoff’s “The Story of Babar” and Ludwig Bemelmans’ “Madeline,” Wanda Gag’s “Millions of Cats” and Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” Ezra Jack Keats’ “The Snowy Day” and Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” and many more. To be sure, British and American artists are favored in this lavishly illustrated volume, but works from Scandinavia, Western Europe and Asia appear as well. Here is a chance to revisit old favorites and note others you will wish to explore further: in my case, the work of the Italian artist Fabian Negrin and the curious 1950’s travel books of Miroslav Sasek (available at the San Diego Museum of Art).

Miroslav Sasek, “This is Greece”

Workbook-like, “Children’s Picturebooks” is a kind of catalog of short essays on varied topics, 300 color illustrations, and “case studies” (mini-interviews with professionals and would-be artists). Here is a history of the genre from the classics to rule-breaking contemporary offerings, as well as mention of the widening audience for visual literature as teens devour graphic novels and adults honor wordless masterpieces like “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan. Here, too, are intellectual discussions of picturebook techniques (largely borrowed from La Jolla-based critic Carole Scott): how, for example, pictures or words can be used to fill gaps the other leaves and how they can duel with each other.

Shaun Tan, “The Arrival”

If there is one section that may make a reader wince, it is the one meant for professionals which suggests the image of an educator with a clipboard monitoring the body language of youngsters as they peruse a book and interviewing them afterwards for “affective responses”; my own image is of a grown-up on the couch sharing a favorite volume with someone much younger. On the other hand, a very useful chapter provides an overview of publishing processes, explaining such topics as three-color printing and lithography, as well as detailing the changes Photoshop has wrought and commenting on the arrival of e-books and iPad offerings. Equally valuable is a concluding chapter that provides how-to information for every would-be picturebook artist who would like to see their work accepted by a publisher.

In that regard, it seems nearly everyone thinks they can be a children’s book writer, as evidenced by the many works now on offer from movie stars and politicians’ wives. Indeed, not more than three weeks ago on a beach in the Yucatan, I was accosted by a lawyer from Portland who, learning what I did, asked if he might send me his writings for kids. On such occasions, I wish to warn, “It’s a lot harder than it looks.” Kathleen Rushall, a San Diego literary agent specializing in juvenile literature, offers more useful advice: “Get involved with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.”

In the meantime, for enthusiasts (would-be writers or no), there is this book. There is also the spectacular Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. With only a little education on the subject, it will soon become clear that what appears simple requires real genius.


A version of this essay originally appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune (April 28, 2012). Martin Salibury’s new offering, “100 Great Children’s Books,” has been garnering considerable praise.

For a related essay, see:

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