Picturing Rural America: An Analysis of the Representation of Contemporary Rural America in Picture Books for Children

Article excerpt

A quiet but persistent dialog about the importance of place is happening in educational research. This study contributes to that conversation by offering a critical analysis of how picture books show a "placed, " rural America. To increase understanding of the social constructions ofrurality, 24 picture booL· were analyzed using qualitative content analysis to determine how contemporary rural life is represented in picture books for children. Results indicated images falling into six categories: Rural people are self-reliant; rural people are connected; rural people are satisfied and happy; rural people are diverse; rural areas are expendable and, rural people are 'Other'.

Key words: Picture books; children's literature; representation; semiotics; contemporary rural life.

Children's literature portrays particular aspects of reality and the human condition (Serafini, 2004), offering children insights into worlds like and unlike their own. Picture books that portray rural America represent a tiny fraction of picture books published each year, yet 30 percent of school-aged children live in rural America (The Rural School and Community Trust, 2009, n.p.). At the very least, this statistic points to a disconnect between the imagined authence for picture books and the actual context in which a significant percentage of their readers live. A report by The Rural School and Community Trust (2009) indicates that although the children of rural America are "widely dispersed, and richly diverse in many ways, these students are largely invisible, ignored in educational research, overlooked in state and national policies, and sometimes caricatured as backward or worse" (n.p.). Rural representation in picture books is a decidedly smaller domain than policy or educational research, but one that is perhaps equally relevant in the everyday life of a child. Countering a general preoccupation with all things urban (Johnson & Strange, 2005), this qualitative visual content analysis of contemporary rural America in picture books adds to understanding about the social construction ofrurality. The choice of the picture book geme is important because the texts contribute to children's understandings of place and what it might mean to be rural.

The Genre of Picture Books

Nodelman (1998), in Words About Pictures, the seminal text about the picture book genre, defines picture books as "books intended for young children which communicate information or tell stories through a series of many pictures combined with relatively slight texts or no texts at all" (p. vii). They are written for children and thus are short texts compared to novels or juvenile literature. The text is often, but not always, succinct and undetailed (Nodelman, 1988). Picture books ranked in the top ten on Publisher's Weekly most recent list of alltime bestselling children's books include The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Green Eggs and Ham, and Pat the Bunny (Roback, Brittan & Hochman-Turvey, 2001). The illustrations in such picture books function differently than pictures hanging on a gallery wall. Print and pictures are combined, working together to tell the story (Nodelman, 1988), and often the pictures assume more than a supporting role in the narrative. The illustrations confirm and make more specific both the print and the other pictures in the book; they explain and clarify words, and not only take up most of the space in a picture book, but also bear the burden of conveying most of the meaning (Nodelman, 1988). The picture book's reliance on visual information makes the genre somewhat of a literary anomaly. The setting of a picture book, included in what Nodelman calls "the way things look" (p. 202) is most often portrayed visually, rather than in the prose. The setting also establishes what Nikolajeva and Scott (2000) describe as a "pervasive affective climate" (p. 61), such as a sense of nostalgia that orients readers' emotional responses. The amount of visual support offered in books for children is directly proportional to the age of the intended authence. …