Monday, 10 November 2008

When we were very young

I watched the excellent BBC4 programme about British picture books on i-Player last night. It was the first in a series called When We Were Very Young. Martin Salisbury was talking head and a very articulate one he was.

I have never done a picture book. It seems odd really. I was taught illustration by Tony Ross who has done more picture books than seems humanly possible and I am both a writer and an illustrator. But so far they have always eluded me. I have had a couple of goes at trying to get something published, but I just don't seem to have hit the right buttons.

I am fascinated by them though. Not just because of the opportunity they provide as an illustrator, but because though I accept that literature can be all manner of things to people, among them simply another form of entertainment, I think that it can (and maybe should) also - picture books included - help to shape us as human beings and change the way we look at the world.

This may at first glance seem rather an outlandish claim for picture books, but I don't think it is. In fact they have an even greater impact because it is through them that we learn how a book works and it has the added component of teaching us how the living, moving world can be transcribed into a two dimensional shorthand. We learn about literature and about painting all in one go.

John Burningham was featured in the programme. His books are strange and dream-like and have a kind of magic about them, both in the texts and in the images. I once told Burningham how much my son and I had enjoyed his books and he looked genuinely moved as if no one had ever said that before (though I'm sure they had).
John and Janet Ahlberg's Each Peach Pear Plum is, as Michael Rosen pointed out, possibly the perfect picture book. It is faultlessly illustrated by Janet Ahlberg, full of witty, sophisticated images. The text is very, very clever and, like all of John Ahlberg's work, incredibly satisfying to read (which makes a big difference when you have a child who wants to hear it again and again, night after night). This is a proper children's book - neither talking down to, nor over the heads of, its target audience. Both of the books above were special favourites of my son and rightly so.Brian Wildsmith was also featured. He is a bit of a genius I think. Here the introduction is to art and to visual creativity rather than to words. Not all children or adults will like his loose paintwork - though I do - but a Brian Wildsmith book is like a parrot flying into the room. The colour leaps from the page. Painterliness in illustrators can often be nothing more than 'style' and it can grow a little tedious after a while. Not so with Wildsmith. That exuberance is not contrived. He just loves chucking paint about and he is an antidote to the prissy, safe and twee artwork that is too often the lazy default for picture book illustration. He should be carried shoulder high by everyone who cares about children caring about art and by everyone who treasures the illustrated book.

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