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.

1 comment:

  1. Congrats on a very successful launch yesterday of 'Island Princess in Brooklyn'. Your message of 'honouring' books was most effectively communicated by all presenters. Especially intrigued by inspiring presentation of guest speaker who shared ideas of cultural school lunchtime activities, story and poetry readings, drumming etc. for social and cultural awareness and enhancing positive self-concepts. Patsy