Meeting Dr Ernie Bond feels like meeting an old friend. He’s super-friendly, down-to-earth, and shares a passionate love of children’s literature.
“Ooo! Ooo!” he says. “This is not referred to in the text at all! This is not in the text!”
Ernie is an expert in visual literacy: the art of reading images, and he’s in Fremantle to speak at the Children’s Literature Centre for SCWBI about teaching kids (and adults) how to better appreciate and understand illustrated texts.
A picture book paints a thousand words
“Ninety-nine percent of what we’re talking about is never written in the book,” says Ernie. “Kids can get a lot of meaning from the images, and a lot of times they get a different meaning from the one adults would get.”
Ernie draws attention to the excess of white space surrounding a black character in a story from the Civil War.
“That’s a pretty powerful metaphor,” he says. “Are kids going to be able to understand that?” He throws his hands up in the air. “Of course they are!”
How to read a picture book
I must admit: the first (and second, and tenth) time I read a picture book, much of the meaning probably passes me by.
But when I take a minute to really look at the pictures, a whole new meaning can emerge…
Allow yourself to wonder….WHY?
Why do illustrators choose to portray each image in the way they have? Why did they make the choices they made?
Ernie shares some beautiful illustrations, from books created all over the world, and he points out things to look for when deconstructing picture books and reading images.
I’ve listed these things below, and added a few more ideas. I hope you find them useful.
12 things to look at when reading images:
1) Use of colour
Where is the colour? How is it used? Where are the warm colours? The cold colours? Where is there less colour? No colour? What emotion do the colours evoke?
Western readers move from left to right on the page. How does direction change the way you view an image? How does something moving from left-to-right create a different feeling from something moving right-to-left? What way is rain falling? How is the wind blowing? Which way are characters moving across the page?
Are the illustration divided into panels? If so, what effect does this have? What size are the different panels and why might this be? How is time passing? How is space delineated?
Is an illustration framed? What effect does this have? Is it isolating? Is it protecting? Are we looking through a window? At a photo? How does delineation add to the meaning of the image?
5) White space
Where is the white space? How much of the page is white space? How are elements of the illustration positioned to interact with white space? What might be the effect of this?
6) Appearance of text on the page
Where is the text? How is it distributed across the page? What fonts are used? What size are the different words? How does the visual presentation of the text add to the meaning of the words?
What is emphasised? Where does your eye naturally fall? What path does your eye follow? Are we looking up at something? Or looking down on something? How might this add to the meaning of the image?
8) Style and media
What style is the illustration? Is it a cartoon? A sketch? What media has been used to create it? Is it water colour? A collage? How do these choices influence the tone and feel of the book? Does genre influence style? What about vice-versa?
9) Implied action
What action is implied in the illustration? What might happen next? How does the implied action extend the narrative? How has the illustrator used technique – like blurry lines, brushstrokes, angles and perspective – to demonstrate tension and action?
Are any parts of the image exaggerated? What effect does this have? Why might the illustrator want to draw attention to particular parts of the image?
Is the story a retelling of another story? How might aspects of one version apply to the other version? What are the two stories really about? What is the relationship between the two stories?
12) End papers
What secrets are held in the illustrations on the inside cover? The jacket flap? How do these illustrations add meaning to the story?
Ernie’s three-step approach to visual literacy
As the session draws to a close, Ernie gives a three-step approach to working on visual literacy.
I really like these questions and can see this working in the classroom, and on our family couch.
Pick one double-page spread and brainstorm:
1) What’s on the page?
2) What might be going on?
3) What do you want to know about this story, now that you’ve looked at this page?
Watch for the wolf…
As a final example, Ernie points to an illustration from a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. At first I can’t see it, but then I look again: the entire landscape resembles the head of a sleeping wolf.
“The teacher who discovers that,” says Ernie, “is going to get kids so much more excited about literature.”
The session runs over, but not for long.
Don’t you have a plane to catch tonight?
“Oh yeah! That’s right!” Ernie grins. Not even the promise of 36 hours on a plane can dampen his enthusiasm.
And me? I can’t wait to read more picture books!