The Picturebook as Art: Responding to Picturebooks, Responding to Art: Janet Evans Explores the Ways in Which Responding to Picturebooks Can Develop Skills of Art Appreciation as Well as Literacy

By Evans, Janet | English Drama Media, February 2012 | Go to article overview

The Picturebook as Art: Responding to Picturebooks, Responding to Art: Janet Evans Explores the Ways in Which Responding to Picturebooks Can Develop Skills of Art Appreciation as Well as Literacy


Evans, Janet, English Drama Media


Picturebooks as works of art

... literally from cover to cover--the picture book is an art object, an aesthetic whole; that is, every one of its parts contributes to the total effect, and therefore every part is worthy of study and interpretation. (Sipe, 2005)

... one of the strengths of the contemporary picture book is ... its power to delight, challenge, even mystify its readers. (Stephens and Watkins, 2003)

... picturebooks--not books with illustrations, but books in which the story depends on the interaction between written text and image and where both have been created with a conscious aesthetic intention. (Arizpe and Styles, 2003)

For centuries books have been celebrated as works of art. In museums throughout the world, one can see books displayed as treasured art works. Hand-made books such as The Book of Kells, old precious versions of The Koran, and other religious tomes written and illustrated by monks and religious scribes have covers encrusted with precious and semi-precious jewels, pages written with real gold, and illustrations of such beauty and intricacy that they almost defy belief. The artists might spend many months and even years on just one book. Every page was an individual work of art, and so was the book as a whole. It was not just what the book was about that was important but how it was presented; these books were revered. Ownership of such books confirmed the owners as high status individuals who could afford and appreciate them. Even during these early times it was recognized that 'the book unifies art and language, for both forms exist one inside the other. One sees the art through the writing and the writing through the art' (Johnson 1990, p.8).

In our contemporary society, scholars are once again considering books as art forms. Marantz (1977) considered the picturebook as an art object, and it was soon recognized that the fusion of art and text results in more than the two separate parts--rather in one cohesive, often beautifully crafted, whole. In 1987, Paul Johnson started The Book Art Project, funded by the Crafts Council of Great Britain and the Gulbenkian Foundation, a project which aimed to encourage and advance writing and visual communication skills through the book arts. Johnson (1993, 1997) promoted the teaching of literacy through bookmaking and his work with children clearly makes links between art and literacy. More recently Wasserman (2007) curated the exhibition The Book as Art--and her book accompanying the exhibition, itself a work of art, provokes unexpected and surprising conclusions about what actually constitutes a book.

In this article, I aim to explore the potential of art education--and in particular of this special fusion of text and image in picturebooks--to bring together the development of students' visual and verbal literacy, and to develop their appreciation of fine art.

Creativity, art education and literacy

Art is for all--and yet, increasingly, it is being squeezed out of the curriculum. Despite research projects which have produced detailed and significant reports arguing for the inclusion of the arts and creativity for all children--such as All Our Futures (NACCCE, 1999), Creativity: Find it, Promote it (QCA 2005) and Creativity and Literacy: Many Routes to Meaning (Safford & Barrs 2005)--art education is still not seen as an important area of the curriculum. As teachers of English, we need to recognise the dangers here, especially given the vital links that can be made between art and literacy.

The National Art Education Association of America (2007) poses the questions 'Why Art Education? What does art education do for the individual and society?' One of their responses to these questions is that 'art means language':

Art is a language of visual images that everyone must learn to read ... the individual who cannot understand or read images is incompletely educated. …

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