Friday, February 25, 2011

The role of illustrations in children's books: Caribbean examples

In my last post I looked at a book, Cricket is My Game, by Jason Cole (Barbados), where the illustrations and text complemented each other; the illustrations were in bright colours and had a lot of movement, and where the personalities of the characters were captured in the illustrations. The best of all worlds!

However not all books for children have this balance, nor do they all need it. It depends on the target audience, and sometimes, unfortunately, costs.

Books fall into different categories. The breakdown I find most useful is: Picture Books, Picture Story Books, Chapter Books, Young Adult Novels. Books do not always fall neatly into these categories; sometimes there is overlap.

Picture books are for children from ages 0-6, nursery school (early childhood) into primary. These books have mainly illustrative matter (including photographs) with little text. Some are made of board so as to survive the handling of toddlers. Amongst these are alphabet books, rhyming books, nursery rhymes, books used for pre-reading (no words at all), and so on. Interestingly enough, although full colour is the rule for this group, there have been some modern ones in two or three colours. The Caribbean does not produce many books which fall into this category. This could be because there are so many of them that we really can’t begin to compete, and often the content does not need to be culture-specific at this stage, or perhaps this is where we share a common international culture: Shapes, A-B-C, nursery rhymes, counting books. We are more likely to see Caribbean alphabet books, and counting books because this is where we can meaningfully introduce cultural aspects. One Smiling Grandma, by Anne Marie Linden, illustrated by Lynne Russell (Heinemann Young Books - UK) is a colourful example.

Picture story books. These have illustrations in full colour, on every page, (Wonderful!) on every other page, or perhaps less frequently. This is where it would seem most Caribbean children’s books are to be found. The story is the vehicle, but the illustrations are important. That is, the children cannot enjoy the story without the illustrations, and a skilled book designer will do justice to the text. Double spreads can create a sense of setting like the one in Cordelia Finds Fame and Fortune by Diane Browne. These books are suitable for nursery school through primary/preparatory to about age 8; are read to children or read by the children themselves when they become independent readers. Some are in rhyme, some not. Even though full colour is expensive these books are short, usually no more than 32 pages, so there is no gain in trying to do fewer illustrations, except of course for the illustrator’s costs. Pity! And this is where cost can be a challenge to Caribbean publishers. Other examples are the Little Lion Series, by Kellie Magnus, (Jackmandora – Jamaica), Shaggy Parrot and the Reggae Band, by Jana Bent et al,( Reggae Pickney – Jamaica), where there is an interesting mix of photos and traditional illustrations, Boy Boy and the Magic Drum, by Machel Montano, (Trinidad), A Season For Mangoes, by Regina Hanson, (set in Jamaica -Clarion Books, USA).

In spite of the need for illustrations to be in full colour, it’s interesting to mention the American Dr. Seuss books. The quirky illustrations are in three colours, and the text is powerful. Does it even need the illustrations? Yes, but not as much as other books. The text carries you along on a wave of words.

Chapter books are for the independent reader, upper primary to lower secondary, ages 9-12. This category has seen some of the most recent consistent activity with Carlong Publishers’ (Jamaica) Sand Pebbles Series. At this level we move into more text than illustrations. Illustrations do not carry the story; rather, they illustrate some scenes within the story. So in A Tumbling World… A Time of Fire, by Diane Browne, (Arawak Publishers - Jamaica) the historical aspects, tramcar and carriage, appear in some illustrations, giving us a sense of time. Illustrations are usually in black and white; the number varies with the extent of the book and the reading level. For the child, these books prove that he/she is growing up. In fact, children can be put off by full colour illustrations, and too large a font size - a 'baby book'. Some books even manage without much illustration. My friend and fellow writer, Hazel Campbell, likes to point out that the Harry Potter books only have small illustrations at the beginning of each chapter.
Although children need books at all ages, this is where we lose them if we do not continue their exposure to books, and to our own books. Some examples of books in this category are Little Island, Big Adventures, by Maria Roberts Squires (set in the Grenadines - Carlong), Jenny and the General, by Jean D'Costa - Jamaica - Carlong) Every Little Thing Will Be All Right, Diane Browne (Jamaica - Carlong), Ramgoat Dashalong, Hazel D. Campbell (Jamaica - LMH). These two last titles have collections of stories instead of chapters. Bernie and the Captain’s Ghost by Hazel D. Campbell ( Jamaica - Carlong), and here one can see how the black and white illustrations complement the excitement and tension in the story.

Young adult novels. There are no illustrations. We are in the big leagues now. Perhaps you can remember from your younger days, turning to the cover of this type of book every now and then while reading, to capture images of the protagonist, the setting. This category can extend from upper primary to upper secondary. In the Caribbean these books seem to fall into two groups: those which have a child protagonist, but are really about adult writers revisiting their colonial childhood/ making sense of it, and those which have been written specifically for children. In the latter category are books like Harriet’s Daughter, by Marlene Nourbese Philip (set in Canada – the migrant experience which is so much a part of us - Heinemann), and more recently, Delroy in the Marog Kingdom, by Billy Elm (set in Jamaica - Macmillan Caribbean), and The Legend of the Swan Children, by Maureen Marks-Mendonca (set in the rainforests of South America – the author was born in Guyana - Macmillan Caribbean). An interesting one is Inner City Girl, by Colleen Smith-Dennis, (LMH – Jamaica), which although it is for the young adult readers, has been entered by the publisher in the adult category of a national competition. But that sometimes is how it is. Good books can be enjoyed at many levels.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A picture is worth a thousand words... in a children's book

'A picture is worth a thousand words,' and other such truisms, like 'the camera never lies' ...

Well the first one is still true... The second is unbelievably untrue. Pictures can now do anything, or rather, you can do anything with pictures. Recently, I saw an ad on TV where a mother had achieved (by cutting and pasting), just the right smile on each member of the family for a family picture. Truly scary! Truth disappears into technology...

So far, technology has only enabled the role and place of illustrations in children's books. Technology has not endangered the truth because the truth, as conveyed by illustrations, has always been in the eye of the beholder, created by a combination of the mind of the writer, the eye and skill of the artist, and the ability of the editor to bring together all of these variables.

I have had in mind to discuss the role of illustrations in children's books for some time. However what made me look at it now is that someone commented on one of my blogs, saying that too often illustrations in our children's books seem to be designed to 'break up the text rather than convey the story'. She stated that pictures are as important as the text and that they don't have to be totally true to life either; they can 'evoke or suggest'. This place of illustrations in children's books will be discussed further because one has to consider the type of story, the age level of the target audience, and so on, to fully identify the role of illustrations in a particular type of book, and I suspect that some people may not understand the varying roles. However the person writing is correct about the importance of illustrations in books for young children.

So as we look at this topic, we can start by saying that it is a given that illustrations should be bright and colourful, (unless the desire is to create the dark atmosphere of a dark episode in a scary tale, and young children do not like dark and scary). Bright and colourful carries a message. We will look again at the significance of 'bright' versus 'dark' illustrations.

The next point is that given the importance of illustrations to children's books, it is most unfortunate that we do not appear to have as many artists as we would like who are able to create the movement which is needed in children's illustrations. Because the truth is that children are never still. They seldom just stand about as some illustrators would have them do.

Therefore, I want to share with you some books from our region in which I think the illustrations create their own excitement, where they do play their rightful role in books for young children.

This one is from Barbados. It's Cricket is My Game, written and illustrated by Jason Cole, 2006.

Look at the little girl on the cover. Her expression invites you into a story which you know is going to be full of fun. The artist has captured her personality. The illustrations inside this book are all movement and hilarity. The writer/artist has been able to create a story where illustrations and text go hand in hand to tell a story about spirited children having fun with cricket.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Who has the right to write ...?

Can anybody write about anything for children? No. We know that certain topics are not appropriate for children and that persons who write for children should have skill in writing for a particular age group. I've been meaning to write a blog on that and will get to it eventually. Perhaps soon.

However, here is my topic of interest/concern.

I'm visiting an island I love for itself, a combination of sea and wind and land, and little changes of scenery, almost every few yards it seems, and for the first time I seem to be here at the time of year when the Woman's Tongue Trees are bare of leaves, their brown pods covering the tree like stiff brown foliage. My last post talked about those trees in Jamaica and mentioned my book, Gammon and the Woman's Tongue Trees.

And it came to me that perhaps I would like to write a children's story set here. Note the 'perhaps'.

Aha! How do I feel when writers who are not Jamaican or who have not lived on the island long enough to 'know us', write a story about us, set in the island? Not happy. Not happy at all. And I wondered, do I have the right to write about another island?

It is an interesting coincidence, therefore, that as I'm thinking about this, my attention has been drawn to a report on a Hardy Boys book which was set in Jamaica and has inaccuracies which would be hilarious if they weren't so annoying. (Read Summer Edward's blog and Hazel Campbell's comments, as well as mine, when it is posted).

Of course, we do not know how many children's books we have read which were inaccurate in relation to time and place. We do not even know how many are being written right now.

We know that the Library has a definition of what can be considered Caribbean literature. Can we have a stipulation as to who can write about any of our territories? Of course not. However, surely if we write about a territory other than our own, we should at the very least have the manuscript read by someone from that country. Is this a topic of interest? Comments guys?

Will I write a book set here then? At this point in time, perhaps not. It was just love thinking out loud. ( And I've felt that before about other territories I've visited) And if ever so, only if the character had some links with Jamaica, and therefore there could be a rationale for seeing it through 'Jamaican eyes', and I'd still use a reader. Comments, guys?

I did have an idea once for a series that in some way linked the various territories, but those I suggested it to, weren't interested. Are any of you?