Friday, April 11, 2014

Drawing it True

Today’s guest blogger is Cynthia Levinson.

With my first nonfiction picture book under development, I’ve begun to think about—and look hard at—the illustrations in nonfiction books for younger readers. Although it was challenging to ferret out photographs, pamphlets, legal documents, and memorabilia for images in my first nonfiction middle-grade, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, they served at least two purposes. Above all, as primary sources, they informed me about the times and events I was writing about. In addition, placed in the book, they broke the text and provided both visual interest and verisimilitude for readers.

Illustrations, I’m realizing, are very different. They’re not artifacts. They’re the artists’ imagined representations of time, place, events, and mood. Although they can be very precise and accurate, water colors, collages, oils, etc., don’t necessarily show the reader exactly how the spur attached to the boot, say, or that the temperature was 99 degrees. They can be more atmospheric and still be valid—not just valid but also emotionally true.

I’m beginning to think of the artwork in nonfiction picture books as the visual voice of the book. And, just as I struggled to make the textual voice in The Youngest Marcher authentic, even when I wasn’t quoting someone, I’ve been looking at illustrations for authenticity—even if they’re not photographically accurate.

Here’s a range of pictorial styles, in recently published and lauded picture books, from the concrete to the imagistic. (Warning: I am not an artist! These are merely my impressions.)

Brian Floca’s illustrations in Locomotive are as precise and detailed as those in any Richard Scarry word
book. After looking at the end papers’ labeled diagrams, I’d recognize a piston rod, throttle lever, and Johnson Bar anywhere! And the accuracy of those drawings tells me that every other illustration must be right also, even the water-colored elevation map of the Great Basin in the frontispiece and the sketch of a man chasing his horse, who must have been spooked by an approaching train. Floca not only conveys depth of information but he also gives the reader confidence that he knows what he’s writing—and drawing—about.

Similarly, many of Melissa Sweet’s illustrations, such as the medical drawings, in Jen Bryant’s A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams seem to be completely accurate. Other, blurrier ones, however, appear metaphoric, which seems appropriate for a book about a man who was a poet as well as a physician. Sweet’s blocky collages display a conglomeration on each page of neat facts and lyrical tone.
To Dare Mighty Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt, written by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by C. F. Payne, takes the realistic cum impressionistic approach a step further. Clothing is appropriate to the times, of course, as are saddles and ten-dollar bills. Furthermore, Payne might well have drawn the faces of politicians and bystanders by copying them exactly
from contemporary sketchbooks or photographs. Today’s facial recognition software could practically identify them! Yet, snow falling in the Dakota Territory looks like unnaturally soft polka-dots, and Teddy sometimes appears unrealistically eyeless behind his spectacles— appropriate for someone who was hard-of-seeing. And, in a spread of young Teddy’s dream, he seems to float along with a butterfly and a polar bear. As with Sweet’s illustrations, both accuracy and mood prevail.

There are many superlative nonfiction picture books I could focus on. Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keefe Painted What She Pleased, written by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Yuyi Morales, must have been particularly challenging for Morales because it needed to convey both the truth of the paintings by its artist-subject and also the mood of O’Keefe’s lush surroundings.

Possibly at the furthest extreme of dispensing with concrete accuracy while maintaining recognizability might be On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by author Jennifer Berne. Most of illustrator Vladimir Radunsky’s images are sweetly cartoon-like. Yet, Einstein is obvious with his brushy mustache and distracted gaze.

I’d like to round off my exploration of visuals in nonfiction picture books with Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and my friend Bethany Hegedus and illustrated by Evan Turk. Cloth and paint collages of the Mahatma’s posture and emaciated frame make him instantly recognizable, even in crowd scenes. The vivid background coloration sequence from beige to yellow to orange to red and back to beige again conveys not only India’s searing heat but also young Arun’s moods, from awe of his famous grandfather to anger and back, appropriately, to peace with himself and his family. Readers will sense the place, the times, and the moods without the need for photographic detail.

I’m curious to see how Vanessa Brantley-Newton, the wonderful illustrator of The Youngest Marcher, will choose to visualize its voice. Will she portray scenes of, say, jailed civil rights protesters by drawing hundreds of them packed into a cell, just the way they endured those stifling conditions? Or, will she take a more atmospheric approach?

The Youngest Marcher focuses on one of the people highlighted in We’ve Got a Job. While the books address the same topic, the readership is entirely different. Seeing them side-by-side will further inform me about the various ways that text and visuals can enhance each other. Check back in in January 2016 to see how she accounts for the same facts for a different audience.

1 comment:

Cathy Ballou Mealey said...

Outstanding post Cynthia! Will make me think very, very carefully about the photographs, paintings and other images that I collect as I research my projects. I see the value in collecting a variety of styles as well as sources.