Book Reviews

Challenging and Controversial Picturebooks: Creative and Critical Responses to Visual Texts

The Lion and the Unicorn Volume 39, Number 3, September 2015 David Lewis

In Challenging and Controversial Picturebooks, Janet Evans has brought together a fascinating introduction to the wilder shores of picturebook publishing. She has recruited a multinational band of contributors—British, North American, Italian, Portuguese, German, and Norwegian—who offer discussions and analyses of books, many of which I suspect are little known in North America and Britain. As a result there is much to ponder here, as much to disagree as to agree with, and – as I rapidly discovered – much to learn. Evans has done the study of this aspect of children’s literature a great favor, not least in supplying an extensive bibliography and ensuring that the collection is generously illustrated.

From the outset, this reader was struck by just how insular is the world of Anglo-American picturebook publishing. There are no translations of many of the books gathered here, and the books are frequently hard to obtain in their original languages as well. This is a great shame, for the products of the Scandinavian and continental European publishing industries appear at times to be quite extraordinary. Under the circumstances, one might expect the contributors to the book to have differing views of their subject, but the pervading tone of the book is one of uniform, calm analysis (entirely appropriate, of course, from the scholarly point of view). It made me wonder, however, why there was so little expression of astonishment, excitement, or even puzzlement on the part of some of the authors. I also wondered why there was no sign of any critical objection, either. Such a thing is allowed, after all—more on this later.

After her first broad sweep of the terrain, Evans eases readers in gently with a contribution from Perry Nodelman, who looks for signs of the controversial in popular, apparently non-controversial old favorites (whose old favorites? one might ask). “Controversy is in the eye of the beholder . . . . all books are at least potentially controversial,” Nodelman writes, acknowledging that books like “Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever and Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny [are] perennial bestsellers that have also been perennially controversial” (36). (In a sense this is an argument already won and a position already established, as Andersen Press publisher Klaus Flugge makes plain in the illuminating interview that ends the book; Flugge notes that David McKee’s Not Now, Bernard, first published by Andersen Press in 1980, was once considered by many to be well beyond the pale. It now stands as a classic of its kind.) In unearthing the shock within the familiar, Nodelman has a point well worth making. Controversy and challenge are always in and of their time.

As we read on, it becomes clear that it is amongst adult readers that controversies, rather than mere disagreements, arise. Elizabeth Marshall’s work with trainee teachers makes this explicit. Marshall finds her students more concerned about the lurid content of Aaron Frisch and illustrator Roberto Innocenti’s “Little Red Riding Hood” retelling, The Girl in Red, than the children interviewed about the book and referenced in her chapter’s endnote. The same point is readily inferred from the chapters written by Sandy Mourao, Kerenza Ghosh, Sylvia Pantaleo, and Marnie Campagnaro. All include transcriptions of children discussing books including Antoine Guillope’s potentially ambiguous Loup Noir, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s haunting The Wolves in the Walls, John Kelly and Cathy Tincknell’s wolf-mafia comedy Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner, Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree,andFabian Negrin’s retelling of Charles Dickens’ Bluebeard story, Capitan Omicidio. The transcripts give no sense that the children find these picture books at all horrifying, in the way adults seem likely to do. The young readers disagree about interpretation from time to time, but nothing more.

If the controversies tend to be outside the classroom (“How dare you publish a book like that!” fulminated one librarian about Not Now, Bernard), the challenges are too. It is strange, therefore, that this state of affairs is barely acknowledged in these chapters involving children and young teachers. Indeed, at times this lack of interest leads to something like contradiction. In Chapter 3, for example, Sandra L. Beckett concludes with Maurice Sendak that serious picturebook makers try to “tell [children] about life” (68). Yet if children mostly ignore the serious messages and simply enjoy the engrossing illustrations or only as much of the story they can take in, then how do they absorb this introduction to life that the author or illustrator has prepared for them? The answer perhaps lies in the fact that Sendak was a genius at handling the darker side of life in such a way as to provoke shivers rather than shock. Nonetheless, despite my doubts about these issues, Evans’s book does contain a number of excellent case studies that will set readers thinking. They sometimes raise more questions than they provide answers, but I find that a genuine plus. Future studies need new starting points, and this collection supplies them in quantity.

So, what of the truly controversial books? The ones that are really likely to offend? These include Valérie Dayre and Wolf Erlbruch’s Die Menschenfresserin (The Female Cannibal), about an ogress who devours her own child; Ana Juan’s version of Snowhite, in which the heroine is raped; and De skæve Smil (The Crooked Smile), by Oscar K. and Dorte Karrebæk, which tells of aborted fetuses who go off in search of God on the back of “the world’s ugliest [blind] dog” (77)? Åse Marie Ommundsen argues that in the end we should see books such as De skæve Smil as possessing a dual address, and it is not hard to see how the quirky pictures could have immense appeal for the young, even as they leave adults dismayed. (Don’t even think about how one might illustrate aborted fetuses!) Reassuringly there also comes a moment in Ommundsen’s chapter where she invokes Peter Hollindale’s “signs of childness” as guarantor of a book’s ultimate addressee. On the other hand, if we take that advice seriously, it becomes hard to see how a realistic pictorial depiction of rape, for example, could possibly be addressed first and foremost to children.

Interestingly, the old fashioned discipline of “literary criticism” rears its head at the end of the book. Klaus Flugge is in no doubt as to which books he is prepared to add to Andersen Press’s list: they have to have recognizable literary worth. If we follow his sage advice we might be tempted to think of The Red Tree as over-complicated and certainly not one where the ending tells children any truth about life; after a numbing sequence of alienating situations, a young person comes home to a room where a glorious red tree glows and seemingly sustains hope. Shaun Tan’s metaphorical depiction of how depression might be cured or ameliorated is simply trite. Similarly, I think Innocenti’s busy, teeming urban spreads in The Girl in Red divert attention from the fact that Frisch’s written text is truly terrible: explicit where it should be silent, tin-eared with respect to rhythm and euphony and, at the end, disrespectful to its child audience. I hope for controversy.

It should be clear by now that I found much to exercise the critical muscles in Challenging and Controversial Picturebooks. I discovered both sensitive interpretations of children’s booktalk alongside discussions that I felt missed important points. No doubt many readers will disagree with me, but that is as it should be. Something that is glaringly obvious, however, is that so long as English language publishers remain uninterested in translating some of these fascinating books, essential cross-cultural studies of children reading challenging and controversial picturebooks will remain stalled.

David Lewis is the author of Reading Contemporary Picturebooks: Picturing Text and a number of articles for Signal, Children’s Literature in Education, and one or two other publications. He retired from teaching at Exeter University, in the UK, just in time to celebrate the turn of the millennium, and he gradually withdrew from his involvement in Children’s Literature in Education, finally resigning his role on the editorial committee in 2005. He now writes and researches aspects of Renaissance history.


Literacy, UKLA Volume 50, Number 1, January 2016 Margaret Mackey

This collection of essays achieves a number of significant contributions to the field of picturebook studies. It is lavishly illustrated with many black and white samples of picturebook illustrations and no fewer than 32 colour reproductions in a tipped-in central section. It provides a platform for a wide variety of voices; child readers are extensively represented, and  so also are a smaller  number of adults  who  describe  themselves  as parents and teachers, in addition to the usual run of academics. Its international range is broad; I counted contributions from six different countries. Importantly, the European and Scandinavian scholars discuss books that have not been translated  into English  – probably because of the squeamishness of the Englishspeaking market. As a consequence, the book raises questions new to many English-language scholars – such as, just who might comprise the perceived and the potential audience for a picturebook featuring aborted foetuses as major characters (De Skœve Smil – The Crooked Smiles by Danish author Oskar K, discussed in this book by Åse Marie Ommundsen).

‘Challenging’ and ‘controversial’ are adjectives with a broad range of meanings, and they do not always arrive at ‘sensational’ as an end result; to that extent, my example of the aborted foetuses is misleading, although it is one important meaning, and the questions these unlikely  characters raise are very real ones. In very many  of these chapters, the issues of being challenging and controversial often arrive at the question of address; to whom are these picturebooks speaking? In some  cases  a crossover effect is undeniably in operation; in other cases, illustrators and authors simply expect children to rise to the call; and some cultures clearly do not close off the idea of picturebook as adult format. By taking on this broad range of topics, editor Janet Evans  and  the  assorted contributors broaden the zone of discussion in highly productive ways.

Thirteen  chapters are supplemented with an introduction by Evelyn Arizpe, and  two  very  interesting preliminary sections  in  which  first  children  and then adults discuss their own ideas of what makes a book controversial or challenging. Evans herself provides four chapters: a general  introduction to the idea of controversy and challenge in picturebooks, an interview with publisher Klaus Flugge of Andersen Press, a chapter on fusion books (which reflects Evans’ work published in 2013, cited by another contributor to this book) and a hard-hitting chapter on migrant children and their picturebooks. “There are those who chase their dreams and those who are chased,” says the opening sentence of this chapter (Evans, 2015, 243). Evans presents a conversation among a group of nine-year-olds that raises its own challenges and controversies, only some of which she addresses head-on. Many of these children have fully imbibed the British discourse of hostility to immigrants  who ‘take jobs’ away  from the locals.  More  explicit  consideration  of the ways in which John Marsden’s Home and Away disrupts and/or is defeated by this well-worn migrant-phobia would be interesting. Nevertheless, Evans serves us well with this display of children’s voices raised in discussion of contemporary politics.

The remaining nine contributions cover a wide range of topics. Perry Nodelman provides an exploration of bestselling picturebooks as a point of contrast to the outliers that the remainder of the book deals with. He grounds this study in an assertion: “Children’s literature as a whole is a category built on restrictions; special books for children would not exist if adults did not believe that children want or need to know less about the world than there actually is” (2015, 33). The remainder of this book challenges his generalization about adults offering  children  less than  the truth on principle. Sandra Beckett offers a look at how many  controversial picturebooks arise from  nursery rhymes and  fairy  tales. Citing  Oskar  K and  Maurice  Sendak, she points  out that  there  are picture-books that respect children’s capacity to consider  cruel  realities.  Åse  Marie Ommundsen takes  a serious  look  at questions of audience, particularly in Scandinavia, where social attitudes are more  liberal  than  in  many  English-speaking countries, especially the United States. In addition to the Danish book about  the foetuses  and  their  sad  and lonely mothers, she also discusses Krigen

(The War) by Gro Dahle and Kaia Dale Nyhus. The war featured in this book is an angry  and  disruptive divorce,  and its appalling effects on Inga. It is difficult to look at Fig. 4.9 in this chapter, an image of Inga with a large hole in the middle of her body, and think that picturebooks necessarily exclude the harshest side of existence.

Marnie Campagnaro investigates how  exposure to literal and  symbolic visual narratives educates children’s aesthetic  tastes.  A book  that  disrupts and challenges a child’s customary expectations “pushes the reader  towards an aesthetic  attentiveness” (2015, 123). The study is enhanced by a ‘leisurely’ methodology that involved read-alouds, group discussions and  month-long home  reading sessions  of  the  same books. Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer and Jörg Meibauer, in their discussion of  Fox by  Margaret  Wild  and  Ron Brooks, also explore children’s learning, in this case how children acquire an emotional lexicon (2015, 153).

Three chapters address fairy tale retellings, with a (perhaps unsurprising) emphasis on wolves. Elizabeth Marshall offers a feminist  analysis  of The Girl in Red by Roberto Innocenti and Aaron Frisch. Sandie  Mourao, looking  at wordless picturebooks, provides an investigation of the responses of Portuguese eightand nine-year-olds to the French title, Loup Noir by Antoine Guilloppé. Kerenza Ghosh grounds a general  discussion of wolves  in children’s literature in a report on the responses of a group of tenand elevenyear-olds to Wolves by Emily Gravett and Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner? By John Kelly and Cathy Tincknell.

Addressing a different kind of challenge, Sylvia Pantaleo investigates how nine-year-olds actively set about making sense of Shaun Tan’s book about childhood depression, The Red Tree. This brief overview of the range of emotional, intellectual and social challenges and controversies manifested in an illuminating range of exemplars gives some sense of the value of this book but cannot possibly do justice to its complex and  delicate  exploration of many  rich and demanding topics. It is a worthy addition to the shelves of picturebook studies.

Margaret Mackey
School of Library and Information Studies,
University of Alberta, Canada


Children’s Literature in English Language Education (CLELE), Volume 3, Issue 2, 2015 Penni Cotton

Even before I started to read Part I of Challenging and Controversial Picturebooks, I was hooked! Janet Evans has very cleverly not only chosen eminent picturebook theorists from around the world to contribute to this exciting and very readable book, she has also designed it in such a way that one is plunged into the world of children’s acceptance of complex narratives as a precursor to more theoretical input. These young readers’ mature comments are incredibly perceptive and, as one 11-year-old acknowledges, his class can only discuss controversial and challenging picturebooks because they have been working with them for several years. The adults’ observations that follow reinforce the importance of knowing how to ‘read’ these books and suggest that they draw on our knowledge of all that makes us human and invite us to perceive new realities (p. xiv).

It is hard to believe that as recently as 30 years ago, picturebooks weren’t really considered an academically acceptable genre. Since then, we have come a long way; picturebook analysis is now highly respected and seems to be going from strength to strength. Challenging and Controversial Picturebooks is the proof of this, as it examines unconventional, non-conformist picturebooks and considers what they are, their audience and their purpose. It is a publication which moves on and complements much previous research. In bringing together a highly knowledgeable group of international academics, Evans has produced a fascinating, informative and thought-provoking book from which we can all learn. Evelyn Arizpe’s forward suggests this when she emphasises, with reference to ‘I am Charlie’, the important impact of visual texts today. She believes that the meaning of an image will always be contingent on a given context and moment in time and hence has the potential to be regarded as controversial. Her words very aptly introduce the subsequent  essays  which,  she  considers,  are  ‘timely  and  important’  because  they ‘exemplify the kind of discussion - informed, revealing and enquiring - that can be held around images and their companion words’ (p. xvii).

In Part I, through reference to the illustrations and content of carefully selected visual texts, Evans questions what is meant by challenging and controversial picturebooks, what they are and for whom they are created. She considers some of the issues surrounding them such as: how we respond to them; does challenging mean the same for all readers; are they equally available in all countries and, perhaps most importantly, whether it is the words or the pictures, or a combination of both, that create such potentially disturbing narratives. As she does this, she introduces many of the book’s contributors to support her argument and focuses on artists who are renowned for their complex, polysemic texts and come from cultures where discussing less cosy aspects of life is more common than others. Perry Nodelman opens the debate by discussing ‘the scandal of the commonplace’, and puts forward the notion that children’s literature is generally defined by ‘what it leaves out’ and different adults have different ideas about what this should be. As a result, ‘any book is likely to seem challenging or unsettling’ by somebody and what is ‘controversial is in the eye of the beholder’(p. 33). Sandra Beckett then investigates whether we really do need to be fearful of these so-called controversial visual texts and she focuses on those that are directly inspired by traditional fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Her chapter suggests that these book artists ‘respect children’s ability to deal with controversial subjects that often alarm adult mediators’ (p. 49). Totally in agreement, Åse Marie Ommundsen concludes Part I by asking whether challenging and controversial picturebooks are actually created for children or adults. She believes, as does Beckett, that this can be quite different depending  on  the  cultural  audience  and  points  out  that  even  within  Scandinavia, acceptance of certain themes varies considerably. Focusing on two books from Denmark and Norway, she expertly explains the reason for this; concluding with her belief that it is not actually ‘the book’s content that decides whether a child reader is addressed or not, but rather the ways of writing’ (p. 91).

Evans, always with the young reader in mind, introduces Part II by looking at what she calls ‘fusion texts’ and includes children’s reactions to them. She compares these texts with comics, graphic novels and picturebooks, exemplifying their qualities by focusing on Dave McKean’s work. His narratives, in which the nature of word-image interaction plus switching from one mode of interpretation to another make them a ‘challenging, thoughtful and sometimes controversial’ read, because they use a variety of ‘material in creative, artistic forms’ (p. 107). Marnie Campagnaro continues this theme by examining how visual explorations shape the young readers’ taste. She looks at children’s responses to a selection of picturebooks which use two different types of illustrative styles, and her research investigates how these visual narratives ‘create a shared space which affords the possibility of discussion’ and develops ‘aesthetic literacy’ (p. 122). She concludes that children are certainly able to share a variety of challenging and controversial picturebooks, but it is questionable whether teachers and educators are capable of doing the same! (p.142) Changing focus slightly, Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer and Jörg Meibauer then look closely at the challenging content of one specific picturebook, Fox by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks, from the perspective of the adult reader. They show how picturebook theory can benefit from this in-depth analysis (p. 144) of artwork and content which challenge common expectations. Their belief is that the rewards of reading this book, for both children and adults, relate to learning about complex emotions which don’t necessarily develop at an early age. Elizabeth Marshall also focuses on one picturebook as she concludes this section. Her feminist approach to Roberto Innocenti’s The Girl in Red, however, is much more concerned with gender, sexuality and violence, but her visual analysis is equally rigorous. Her practical approach, supported by academic theory, allows her to share this book with her students, one of whom comments that she ‘saw this book as an incredible counter narrative that allows the reader to critically analyse deeper issues’ (p.174).

How to discuss challenging and controversial picturebooks is at the heart of Part III. Sandie Mourão, well known for her innovative approach to teaching languages through picturebooks, begins by discussing wordless picturebooks and how they play with the mind. She takes one book, Loup Noir by Antoine Guilloppé, to exemplify how demanding these books can be because they play with the readers’ subconscious and the cultural frames that surround wolves. Following her academic rationale, Mourão presents details of a project she planned in a Portuguese primary school which certainly challenged the reasoning  of  three  small  groups  of  children  and  produced  some  thought-provoking discussions. Wolves seem prevalent in many of the visual narratives mentioned in this volume, and Kerenza Ghosh asks why they appear so much in children’s stories. As well as presenting a brief history of the wolf in children’s literature and considering how the portrayal of wolves in contemporary picturebooks is often unconventional and thought- provoking (p. 201), she analyses children’s responses to the portrayal of wolves in Emily Gravett’s Wolves and Tincknell and Kelly’s Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner?. Her insightful conclusions suggest that since ‘our relationship with the wolf is steeped in history and culture’, diverse, unexpected and controversial representations will ‘continue to challenge children to read at abstract levels of understanding’ (p. 222). Sylvia Pantaleo adds another dimension to Ghosh’s thinking when she suggests that in reading Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree, young readers/viewers are positioned as co-authors and need to actively fill in both the verbal and visual gaps. Preceded by theoretical rationale, her Canadian classroom-based research (with children from a variety of ethnic backgrounds) expertly describes her project and, in her opinion, reveals how children’s comprehension, analysis and interpretation of picturebooks can be informed when they develop their ability to ‘see’ (p. 240). Evans draws this child-centred section to a close when she asks ‘Could this happen to us?’ and explores children’s responses to migration when asked to consider what it would be like to be a refugee in a strange land away from those they love. The reader-response results are fascinating and demonstrate the important role that challenging and controversial picturebooks can have in developing empathy and understanding.

What a wonderful idea to conclude with dear Klaus Flugge, Managing Director of Andersen Press, who has helped us all in one way or another over the years. His insights into how picturebooks work, plus his knowledge of the best authors and illustrators to commission,  are  immeasurable.  He  has  taken  chances  where  others  would  not  and published a large number of challenging and controversial picturebooks, many in translation, for which we thank him wholeheartedly. Evans has captured the essence of his work in her interview with him and it is a very fitting conclusion to a significant book. Although not directly focused on second language learning, it bridges the gap between children’s literature and language education and reinforces the idea that enlightening discussions can develop, in whatever language, if the right questions are asked!


Gravett, E. (2005). Wolves. London: Macmillan. Guilloppé, A. (2004). Loup Noir. Paris: Casterman.
Innocenti, R. (2012). The Girl in Red. Mankato, MN: Creative Editions.
Tincknell, C. & Kelly, J. (2004). Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner? Dorking: Templar Publishing.
Tan, S. (2001). The Red Tree. Melbourne: Lothian.
Wild, M. R. Brooks (Illus.). (2000). Fox. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Dr Penni Cotton is Senior Research Fellow at NCRCL, University of Roehampton, UK, where she is responsible for European research projects. She is Director of the European Picture Book Collection and the European School Education Training course, and has worked on numerous other European children's literature projects. She has published extensively  and  her  first  book,  Picture  Books  Sans  Frontières  (2000),  explains  the rationale for her work.


Talking Beyond the Page: Reading and Responding to Picturebooks

IBBYLink, Vol 28, Wars and Conflicts Bridget Carrington

It is more than 10 years since Janet Evans’ What’s in the Picture was published, and the Senior Lecturer in Education at Liverpool Hope University has now edited a new book on the subject, in which she explores the educational value, to children of all ages, of different kinds of picture book, analyses how the children react, and highlights developments in teaching, talking and thinking about picture books. The papers offer work from internationally acclaimed academic experts, from the UK, Canada, the USA and Australia. The concluding chapter is an interview between Evans and the much-acclaimed children’s picture-book author Anthony Browne – winner of many international awards including the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen illustration award, and who is also the current Children’s Laureate.

This is an enormously accessible book, and Evans clearly is aware of the time constraints and workload which currently dominate primary teaching, leaving minimal time to research beyond the immediate and essential. She organises the papers into three sections. In her introduction to the first of these she emphasises the importance of talking about picture books with young readers, and briefly indicates the focus of each section. This first section, titled ‘What to Respond To? Attending to Aspects of Picturebooks’, commences with ‘Understanding Visual Images in Picturebooks’ (Frank Serafini), which examines the work of Anthony Browne in the light of theories of semiotics and visual grammar. The following chapters discuss ‘Developing New Literacies: Responding to Picturebooks in Multiliterate Ways’ (Michèle Anstey and Geoff Bull), ‘Exploring Children’s Responses to the Postmodern Picturebook: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book?’ (Sylvia Pantaleo), ‘Picturebook Endpapers: Resources for Literary and Aesthetic Interpretation’ (Lawrence Sipe and Caroline E. McGuire) and ‘Making and Breaking Frames: Crossing the Borders of Expectation in Picturebooks’ (Vivienne Smith). Each of these chapters examines responses to aspects beyond the immediate text or image.

In the second section, ‘Different Texts, Different Responses’, Evans again prefaces her contributors’ papers with reflections of her own, this time on ‘Reading The Visual: Creative and Aesthetic Responses to Picturebooks and Fine Art’, indicating that the multiplicity of the reactions displayed by children, linked with experience, can help them deal with complex issues in their lives. Three papers follow: ‘Thinking in Action: Analysing Children’s Multimodal Responses to Multimodal Picturebooks’ (Morag Styles and Kate Noble), ‘Sharing Visual Experiences of a New Culture: Immigrant Children’s Responses to Picturebooks and Other Visual Texts’ (Evelyn Arizpe) and ‘Developing Understanding of Narrative, Empathy and Inference through Picturebooks’ (Prue Goodwin). Each chapter here again is prefaced by a brief abstract of its argument.
In the final section, ‘Thoughts from an Author Illustrator’, Evans interview with Browne is contained in the only chapter in this section: ‘A Master in his Time’. Browne shares thoughts about his work and the unique way children think about and respond to visual images and other aspects of picture books. This makes an interesting chapter to compare with an earlier interview that Evans had included in What’s in the Picture (1998), and allows readers to gauge the development of Browne’s thoughts during the intervening years.

A worthy successor to that text, Talking Beyond the Page is richly illustrated (which, regrettably, cannot always be taken for granted in academic discussions of images), and meticulously referenced and indexed. As a champion of reader response, Evans has also ensured that a substantial proportion of the text comprises the opinions (and images) of the readers themselves, again an area often overlooked in scholarly discussions of children’s literature!

Bridget Carrington


Journal of Early Childhood Literacy Volume 10, Number 231, 2010 Jane Payler 

In this book, the richness and complexity of picturebooks to which David Lewis refers in his foreword is best illustrated by the children who were asked to draw and talk about their responses to such books. Talented artist, Matthew, aged 11 years (p. xxii), deftly shows us just how effectively ‘the millions of tales and stories’ feed the imagination and enrich the minds of children – and adults. I spent some considerable time studying this illustration. Evans’ book, academic and research based as it is, provoked a strongly emotive response in me. It blends depth of feeling and depth of intellectual ideas in a light-handed manner that makes it irresistible, much like the best quality picturebooks about which it writes. The book brings together chapters written by researchers and consultants from Australia, Scotland, England, USA and Canada. In addition, author/illustrator Anthony Browne, twice winner of the Kate Greenaway medal and first British illustrator to receive the coveted international Hans Christian Anderson Medal, shares insights about his work in an interview with Janet Evans.

The book is divided into three parts, together with the foreword by David Lewis and introduction by Janet Evans. Part 1 looks at what can be focused on to enable the reader to explore, interpret and make sense of the text. Part 2 aims to take a closer look at different responses to texts, including the responses of children from different backgrounds to visual texts. The third part is a sequel to a first interview, given over 10 years ago, by Browne. Here, he discusses how he sees his work having developed during the last 10 years.

In the foreword, Lewis sets out the focus of the book: the exploration of the ‘twin-barrelled texts’ that the combination of pictures and words provide. ‘Back and forth you must go, wielding two kinds of looking that you must learn to fuse into understanding. How does the alchemy work?’ (p. xii). Evans’ introduction provides an overview of useful references to research relating to children responding to and understanding texts, including responses in a variety of modes – writing, drawing, role-play, gestural, touch, and gaze. It highlights the importance of talking about books, of sharing and discussing responses to story, and reminds us to avoid confusing ‘talking about’ with ‘a mere question and answer session’ (p. 5) when inducting young children into this valuable cultural practice. She quotes Shirley Brice-Heath in pointing out that for young children who do not have such opportunities for discussion about written material, ‘cognitive and interpretive skills which are basic to being literate do not develop’ (p. 5). To provide a taster of the book, I now select and outline three of the 10 chapters.

Serafina’s chapter (Chapter 1) combines the theoretical with the practical. Adopting an analytic framework derived from Kress and van Leeuwen, Serafina guides the reader through a set of tools to make sense of the visual text at a deeper level. He uses concepts from semiotics and visual grammars – actors, vectors, demands and offers; visual symbolism; salience, positioning and framing – in a very accessible manner by applying them to a selection of Anthony Browne’s picturebooks. The reader is shown how to use these tools to afford a more detailed understanding of the meanings conveyed by the author and how these tools can enhance the sharing of books with children, opening new ways of looking and interpreting. ‘Knowing even the basics of these techniques can help teachers and readers of picturebooks appreciate the richness of these visual components and understand how they are used to convey meaning’ (p. 24).

Anstey and Bull (Chapter 2) link wider societal changes, fast-paced and technological, to the demands on and affordances for literacy. They define literacy as a fluid, responsive process able to use and blend both traditional and new communication technologies. They critique the way in which historically we have refined and developed knowledge about language, teaching children to interpret print texts, but largely ignored (until recently) knowledge of other semiotic systems. They suggest that this is surprising, given that the first children’s book printed, Fables of Aesop, was available in 1484 and incorporated illustrations. Anstey and Bull suggest that for children (indeed, people generally) to operate effectively in the world today, they need to be knowledgeable of the five semiotic systems: linguistic, visual, gestural, audio and spatial. They propose that there needs to be a wider focus on ‘producing’ and ‘consuming’ multimodal texts, rather than prioritizing reading and writing of linguistic texts.

Anstey and Bull go on to trace the impact of technological change on picturebooks and lead into a description of how technological and social change has resulted in the postmodern picturebook. Postmodern picturebooks, Anstey and Bull suggest, provide good vehicles to support the teaching and learning of the new literacies, e.g. indeterminacy, pastiche of illustrative styles and intertextuality. Further, they suggest that the ways in which we ask children to respond to such texts should reflect the skills required for the new literacies – using storyboards, use of colorscripts to investigate mood, modelling and sculpting as forms of character development, and using photography. Practical activities for each are outlined, providing a useful resource for educators and their trainers. Anstey and Bull then go on to outline research with children as a means of illustrating how children’s attention to aspects of the new literacies is afforded through exploring a postmodern picturebook.

In Styles and Noble’s chapter (Chapter 7), several aspects of the theoretical and analytic underpinning included in Chapters 1 and 2 are illustrated through the reporting of empirical research they have conducted together. They show through examples from their research how children aged five and nine years responded to three different versions of The Frog Prince. This chapter convincingly confirms that children interpret and co-construct meanings from multimodal texts at quite sophisticated levels, discernible when the research design enables this to be captured and analyzed. The children were interviewed in video-recorded semi-structured talk and draw discussions, methods that revealed how they used gesture, pointing, posture and facial expression in addition to their drawings to explain their interpretations of the texts. ‘When describing non-verbal interaction such as facial expression and body language, it is not surprising that mime provided the most direct way of communicating what the children saw’ (p. 127). Styles and Noble’s research also shows how the children demonstrated strong emotional antennae in reading the visual clues of the characters in the illustrations. ‘Five year old Timothy identified boredom and unhappiness in the eyes of the prince, a sophisticated reading for a child of his age in light of theories of the egocentricity of young children’ (p. 127), perhaps aptly highlighting the shortcomings of such theories. Styles and Noble conclude that young children respond to picturebooks ‘physically, intellectually and emotionally’ (p. 131) and draw upon ‘their rich and multi layered visual-textual worlds’ (p. 131). The research provides a window into their multimodal thinking in action.

The following overview of other chapters in the book demonstrates the range of issues tackled. Chapter 3 by Pantaleo shares the way in which 8–10-year-old children respond to Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book? (Child), described by Pantaleo as having several postmodern characteristics. She concludes that exploration of such texts prompts children’s visual literacy competence, literary understanding and aesthetic appreciation of literature. Sipe and McGuire in Chapter 4 focus on what can be ‘read’ from the front and back endpapers of books, helping children to orientate themselves to the book and predict what might happen in it. Another aspect of the format of picturebooks is attended to in Chapter 5 where Smith examines the role of framing in conveying sophisticated meanings. She raises the question of how pedagogy might be developed to assist children in meeting the challenge of interpreting such meanings. Evans (Chapter 6) describes reader-response work with 10-year-old children and leads us from the oral, written and illustrative responses of the children to one picturebook and to their in-depth responses to fine art. Reader-response is considered further in Chapter 8 by Arizpe. She reports on the findings of research with immigrant children in Glasgow, Scotland, and shows how building on their visual experiences with picturebooks helps them to understand more fully new cultural images. The power of picturebooks to enrich and develop the affective domain is one of the topics covered in Chapter 9 by Goodwin. She demonstrates the depth of learning that can take place in reading and discussing picturebooks with regard to empathy, inference of deeper-level meanings and understanding of complex narratives with plots and subplots.

Evans’ book is an interesting, heart-warming resource for teachers, early years professionals, their trainers and researchers looking for a fresh stimulus to mine the rich seam of experiences available from sharing picturebooks. From the opening with the 11-year-old children’s ideas to the end chapter with Anthony Browne’s moving but light-touch description of the stories underlying his books, this book is a delight. In the words of Matthew, ‘only now can I really appreciate picturebooks’ existence. The most complex and touching things can be portrayed in a simple-seeming way’ (p. xxv).

Jane Payler
University of Winchester, UK


Literacy Volume 44 Number 3 November 2010 Colin Mills

Edited collections can lack deep cohesion. Sometimes they are linked by being papers presented at a conference, or because the contributors are the editors’ colleagues or friends. This one is different. Compiled by a perceptive teacher and critic, whose track record in working with children, picture books, teachers and artists is as good as anyone’s, there is a true coherence in the crafting of the ideas. The links are subtle and challenging, serving well the artistic products of which the commentators talk and write.

The editor has been well served by her contributors, not least by David Lewis, who writes a sensitive introduction outlining the different levels of complexity that underpin the reading of picture books, both ours and children’s. The first level, he claims, arises simply from the texts being “shared between two different forms of communication – words and pictures”. The second involves “issues of modality, or lifelikeness . . . whether images are framed, and how they are framed where they are”. The third level is linked to readers’ understanding of irony. Here Lewis is at his most percipient, identifying ideas that underpin many of the themes that follow:

“A third order level of sophistication arises when the pictures and words, however they are formed, begin to drift apart from one another, sometimes to the point where they seem to be referring to entirely different events or circumstances . . . You have to work a bit harder to get the point, to see where the author and illustrator are leading you” (p. xiii).

These levels are well illustrated in Janet Evans’ examples of children’s own readings. In her chapter on “Children’s thoughts about picture books” she provides superb models of patient questioning and insights into what children do with their reading experience.

In the introduction to Part One, unambiguously called “It isn’t enough to just read a book, one must talk about it as well”, Evans sets out her stall with a powerful argument: “talk is crucial”. This central thesis, that children’s experience needs to be mediated by sensitive talk with more experienced readers, is developed throughout Part One. The editor’s accounts of her own first-hand work and analyses provide working models of how to skilfully help lookers and talkers become thinkers and writers. The other chapters in Part One develop and extend these main ideas. Frank Serafini draws on Kress’ and others’ understandings of “visual systems of meaning”, to provide sharp and clear readings of Anthony Browne’s illustrations, an artist whose work is one of the coherent threads in this collection. Michele Anstey and Geoff Ball make significant links between picture books and ‘new’ (still so new?) literacies. Critical literacy scholars such as Freebody and Luke get their citations in this chapter, but I would have valued more socio-cultural critique and more developed links between new literacies and old concerns about literacy because these are issues that many in a UK context need to wrestle with – a point to which I will return.

There is important work from Sylvia Pantaleo on children’s responses to the postmodern, and from Lawrence Sipe and Caroline McGuire, on endpapers, topics often overlooked in considerations of home-grown picture books and, again, perceptively linked by the editor to her general themes. Vivienne Smith writes with characteristic clarity, dash and intellect on how young readers make and break the frames of picture books. She reminds us of Margaret Meek’s key questions when thinking about helping children read pictures: “who sees?”, “how do I see?” and “what do I see?”

Part Two of the book captures some of the diversity within ‘different texts’ and ‘different responses’. The editor shares her knowledge, and her knack for interpreting children’s readings. Morag Styles and Kate Noble make the best pitch I have read on how reading in multimodal ways can be linked with children’s development as thinkers. Evelyn Arizpe’s chapter provides real insight into the multicultural understandings that picture books can lead the young reader towards. Prue Goodwin shows her flair for bringing theory to life, suggesting things that teachers can actually do to engage children’s empathy, and to develop powers of inference in ways that could achieve more than many of England’s National Strategy units of work. The very best in the book comes last, with the editor’s probing and illuminating interview with Anthony Browne. I applaud her tenacity and courage at letting the artist have the last word.

This is that too-rare kind of a book: one that has scholarship and depth, whilst offering a wealth of practical ideas that teachers, student teachers and teacher educators can, and will, draw on. My students will all read the editor’s work, and Vivienne Smith’s, as models of clarity in academic writing and thinking about what happens, if they are lucky, in classrooms.

Because I value this book, I want to pose some challenging questions that arose from my reading of it: what is the nature of the continuity and growth in children’s development as readers that is particular to picture books? How can we explain that particularity to less enthusiastic colleagues, to parents and to head teachers who hold the (newly tightened) purse strings? How can many of the imaginative texts talked about so well in this collection link with other aspects of children’s thinking and feeling (in science? In a thematic curriculum?)? How could the insights from an Australian perspective on ‘multiliteracy’, offered by Anstey and Ball, help teachers in the United Kingdom clarify what literacy in general, and school literacy in particular, looks like, especially in England post-National Strategy? I applaud the knowledge and resourcefulness of the editor, and the wisdom of the contributors to this book, but want them to go on thinking about those awkward questions.

Colin Mills
University of Manchester