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Reading the pictures

How important are visual images for children as they learn to read? Although I am no specialist in literacy, my extensive experience lecturing Illustration to students in South Africa and the UK, along with the picture book workshops I give to hundreds of children in five different countries, inform my view that visual literacy deserves attention.

For illustrators, illustrations do far more than decorate and illuminate books. Teaching at two South African universities, as well as two in the UK, has made me realise how young people from different backgrounds process images.

In both countries, some frames of reference are impressive and others are limited. And yet, while digital research has levelled the playing field for students who have access to the Internet, it is the books that students read in their childhoods that make the most distinct impression on their visual minds. Those who grew up as readers, and with a variety of picture books, are more able to generate interesting ideas and experimental concepts when they illustrate.

This is because increased exposure to pictures leads to better processing of intricate details, and this in turn supports the reading of books with increased understanding and creativity. For example, as a young child who is aware of the visual language of comic books learns to read, she would know that small frames and speech bubbles indicate a sequence of phrases or sentences. Different forms and genres of picture books become codes that can come in handy when children have to create their own narrative or piece of information.

Spending a week in China as a jury member of an international illustration competition has also confirmed that particular cultural environments have much to do with the way we understand images. For example, jurors from Western Europe appreciated books that were less realistic. They appreciated expressive, even crude drawing and painting techniques. Jurors from China expressed more appreciation for very realistic illustrations with high technical skill, even if the content was mostly information on or confirmation of the written text. They also seemed to value useful and friendly images, like caricatures reminiscent of Quentin Blake’s work, while the jurors from Europe saw such illustrations as derivative and done in a visual language that has been around for four decades.

Ten years ago, I spent time with the research collection of African books at La Joie par le Livres in Paris – the biggest collection of books from Africa.  It became clear to me that Anglophone countries idealised colonial school textbooks as the norm for the picture book. The books, with almost no exception, were illustrated with fairly realistic line drawings in colour washes, or at most, were caricaturised adaptations of reality. Illustrators from Francophone countries experimented much more in terms of medium and technique and often adapted the rich visual reference of the textiles and masks from West and Central Africa. South Africa is largely, but not fully, an exception to this rule.

Where am I going with this? We owe it to our children to let them see many different kinds of picture books from all over the world. Too many publishers and booksellers are reaffirming the patterns they know themselves, or ones they know will generate sales. Too many teachers show children only the limited picture books they themselves understand and too many parents think loud moving images on television screens are pictures enough.

But, exciting things are happening: Death, Duck and a Tulip, challenging as it may be, has been published in South Africa, and in Afrikaans two years ago. And Dale Blankenaar, with his strangely beautiful and eerie illustrations for Rhinoscephants on the Roof, was awarded the number one spot on South Africa’s IBBY honour book list this year. In addition, initiatives like the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign are publishing and distributing illustrated South African stories from across the spectrum of SA society and celebrating all our storytelling styles and illustrations.

I am not advocating esoteric and indulgent book making, but I do insist that we expect much more of children and ourselves, visually. Let’s show them weird and brilliant and strange and wonderful pictures to make them informed and creative readers and bookmakers of the future.

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