Learning to Be a Connoisseur of Books: Understanding Picture Books as an Art Medium

By Eubanks, Paula | Art Education, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Learning to Be a Connoisseur of Books: Understanding Picture Books as an Art Medium


Eubanks, Paula, Art Education


The idea of the book as an art object, a medium in its own right, is not new. Illustrated manuscripts from the Middle Ages offer impressive precedents. In Asian cultures, scrolls that include both images and writing are held in high regard. During the last 20 years book arts have gained recognition and popularity in the art world as private presses and MFA programs have flourished and increased in number. Luscious offerings such as The White Alphabet by Ronald Kind of Circle Press, with its pop-ups for every letter in the alphabet, inspire awe at the craftsmanship and ingenuity of these book artists. Picture books are a more accessible alternative than expensive private press issues and need not be considered substitutes for books that are works of art, they too are works of art (Marantz, 1977). Picture books, unlike illustrated books, are conceived as a whole unit, an object of art (Marantz, 1994). Picture books also offer examples of the basic principles of the book form. Exploring aspects of the book as a work of art with students can build a foundation for their own exploration of books as an art medium.

Picture books are present in virtually every elementary school classroom because they are valued as a tool for learning to read that involves interpreting both words and pictures (Read & Smith, 1982). Children can become sophisticated readers and connoisseurs, expert judges, of picture books even before they know how to read words (Mackey, 1993). Learning to understand or "read" a visual story is certainly as important as learning to read the words because the images provide scaffolding that enables the reader to enter the story (Goldstone, 1989). Understanding the message of the images, separate from the words, has great value because students need to learn how images communicate social values and be able to identify visual stereotypes (Considine, 1986). Through both text and imagery, picture books express social messages that teachers need to teach and students need to learn.

Picture books provide an excellent way to learn the process of art criticism because it can be complete, played out to the fullest with a judgment phase that includes a relevant class of objects for comparison (Feldman, 1994). Without that relevant class, judgment is limited to personal preference and does not include the kinds of critical thinking skills that are necessary in the act of comparing one thing to another. It could be argued that being a connoisseur of picture books would lead to the same kind of critically informed judgment in other areas, once knowledge of a relevant class of objects in the new area has been acquired.

Critically informed judgment is developed through a familiar pedagogy that children may have used in reading an individual image (Cole & Schaefer, 1990; Feldman, 1994). It begins with description, in which the reader names everything in the image: all objects, colors and other elements of art. In the case of picture books, the reader would name and describe all the parts of the book, describe the book's shape and size, the subject matter and any other pertinent details such as the kind of paper, pop-ups or other variations on the familiar Western codex form in which the reader views one two-page spread at a time. Next, analysis reveals how the artist constructed the book using the principles of design and other considerations of formal analysis that are specific to picture books, which shall be discussed here. Interpretation asks why the artist did it in this manner; what was the artist trying to communicate? What does the artist want us to believe? How do the words and images work together? For example, Eve Bunting's Smokey Night tells the story of how neighbors of different ethnic backgrounds confront their prejudices and form a friendship when they face the common catastrophe of a riot. The illustrator, David Diaz, paints the characters in a Fauvist style as if to say that the color of their skin is irrelevant, echoing the message of the text. …

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