Why We Stopped Reading Picture Books

By Lara Forsythe

“What is the use of a book without pictures?” Alice asks before tumbling into Wonderland with a pocketwatch-carrying rabbit so familiar to generations of readers. As Hillsdale approaches term paper season and we begin seeing more students toting around stacks of literary criticism (among biochemistry textbooks and backbreaking volumes of the Summa), many of us may find ourselves sympathizing with Alice’s lament. Perhaps Lewis Carroll was seeking justification for the time it took him to complete the thirty-seven illustrations that accompanied the original manuscript but never made it to publication. Or perhaps he was simply calling attention to the richness of Sir John Tenniel’s wood engravings, which replaced Carroll’s own drawings when the book reached print. Either way, Alice’s remark brings to light a compelling question often overlooked in modern literary discourse: what is the merit of illustrations in serious literature? Furthermore, does the virtual disappearance of illustrations from modern literature and the confinement of illustrations to children’s literature serve as a sign of maturity, or a loss of imagination?

Growing up, most of us were fed on picture books. We can remember our parents reading aloud The Wind and the Willows, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the stories of Roald Dahl, always turning the book around so that we could peer at the ink drawings of Rat and Mole picnicking on the riverbank, Lucy and Mr. Tumnus strolling through the snowy wood under an umbrella, and James standing aboard his giant peach. Even in reading that last sentence, you most likely pictured the drawings I am describing, for they have remained with us long after reading these books -so much so that it is hard to recall these stories without their conjuring up these images in our minds. These illustrations did not only entertain, giving us something to gaze at in wonder, but they brought out details we might not otherwise have caught, or perhaps could not quite picture in our minds (Oh, that’s what a half-goat, half-man looks like!). To put it plainly, they illustrated particulars in the story. When we asked our parents to “show us the picture,” we were asking for the inky tangibility the illustrations offered us, a fleshing out of the characters and events we had already begun to form in our minds. We were asking to participate in the story at a deeper level, that which is granted by the visual. Rather than doing the work of our imaginations for us, the illustrations gave our imaginations a boost and assisted our artistic vision as growing boys and girls.

But now we are older, and no longer read picture books. As we grew up, we were weaned off of illustrations, encouraged to read the stuff with smaller print and more obscure titles-and, much to our dismay, no pictures. We stopped seeking the aid of the drawings and sketches that once dazzled us.

Since the development of the modernist movement, it seems the literary world has also grown up. Illustrations used to be normal components of serious literature. Many, if not most, of the pre-modern books we now consider to be classics included dozens of drawings or block prints upon original publication. Indeed, there are few things so delightful as opening up an old edition of your favorite classic (perhaps after perusing the titles in the Heritage Room) and discovering the array of illustrations furnishing the pages, providing visual respites from the streams of text. Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, William Blake, Mark Twain, and J.R.R. Tolkien all saw illustrations as significant components of their literature, and many illustrated their own works (indeed, one cannot separate the poems of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience from the vivid hand-drawn illustrations that accompany them, produced by the poet himself, who was an engraver by trade). Their pictures were a way to further show readers the author’s artistic vision, serving as visual cues that provided direction while still remaining subtle enough to leave readers the freedom to form their own visual interpretations. Since the two World Wars, however, we have seen illustrations slowly disappear, both from modern books and from modern editions of pre-modern classics. Now it comes as a surprise if we happen to come across any illustrations in a contemporary novel. Has our culture so matured that we no longer need to rely on illustrations to give our imaginations a boost? Have we so liberated the artistry of the written word that picture books are now mere child’s play?

Perhaps the absence of illustrations in modern literature is less an indicator of cultural maturity than it is a sign of cultural hauteur. From the disillusionment of the 20th century emerged a cultural cynicism that caused the literary world to turn its nose up at embellishment in literature. Books became more bare-boned as more writers began viewing illustrations as frivolous. With realism at the forefront of the literary world, stirring the reader’s imagination was no longer the writer’s object. What we read was what we got. In rejecting imagination, we rejected the picture book.

This phenomenon has not been without consequences. In the time spent away from illustrations, it seems we have un-learned how to look at and understand pictures. We no longer see illustrations as windows into the literature, but as window dressings to be quickly glossed over. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry depicts this loss of visual imagination in his beloved children’s book The Little Prince (which, of course, Saint-Exupéry also illustrated). In it, the narrator tells how, after reading about boa constrictors in a book as a child, he drew a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. When he showed it to “the grown-ups,” however, they observed the shape of the boa constrictor and saw only a hat. “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves,” he laments, “and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.” Having grown up, we modern readers now face similar challenges. No longer visually literate, we have allowed illustrations and the literary imagination they nurture to become obsolete.

This loss of imagination makes now as good a time as any to bring back the illustrated book. Rather than rejecting illustrations in the name of literary purism, more writers should embrace them as the writers of the past once did: as further invitations into the creative mind of the author. For, whether we realize it or not, illustrations have long shaped our understandings of the books they furnish. Who among us can think of Les Miserablés without envisioning the sketch of young Cosette holding a broom twice her size outside the Thénardiers’ inn, her wind-blown hair escaping from under her cap? How do we picture the Shire if not through the great round door of Bag-End? By providing us with both visual direction and the ability to engage with stories at a deeper level, illustrations marry visual art to the written word in such a way that we gain a more nuanced understanding of the characters and events they depict. It is a mistake to reserve picture books for children’s stories, for the imagination of the modern adult needs prodding just as much as (if not more than) that of the child.  Perhaps at first we may not be able to see the elephant in the boa constrictor, but, with patient prodding, authors and illustrators alike may help us regain some literary imagination.

Lara Forsythe is a sophomore studying economics.

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