[Discussion Post] Are Picture Books Art?

How do we define “art”? In my opinion, art is a creation that brings out feelings in me, no matter what type of feeling that is. When it comes to Picture Books, I feel really sensitive to their beauty. Being a librarian helped me discover numerous authors and artists, and it also helped me realize how diverse the world of picture books was. Going to many conferences on that topic and studying numerous Picture Books for my master’s thesis might have helped as well, I must admit. As you can tell, these books are a big part of my adult life, and I thought it would be interesting to share my views on them with you. I am fully aware that most people naturally tend to think that picture books are “only for children”, and that is okay. If I can help you question that thought even only a little bit, I would be the happiest librarian on earth. Ready? Let’s go!

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Books designed for children only?

A simple plot, a simple story?

Usually, picture books are first destined to a certain category of children. Thus, the plot suits the needs of that age category and is, more often than not, a simple one. A reproach many people make to children’s literature is that the plots are too simple. However, you can’t reproach a fish not to walk fast enough, right? In the same way, I find a litle bit dishonest to criticize simple plots in picture books. However, the plots are definitely simple, and thus picture books seem to be destined to a children’s audience. Thus, can they be art? Would you offer a child art?

A childish look, a young audience

Pictures, textures and sounds are often part of contemporary children’s books. Thus, they defiinitely look childish and colorful. Actually, many picture books are produced in black and white and cover the most serious topics, but let’s not dive into that consideration right now as we will have plenty of time to discuss it later on. For now, let’s say that, indeed, the look of children’s books may tend to look a little bit childish, and thus not that “artistic”.

Art in picture books

Illustrations as an art

There are museums full of illustrations, so how may we say that a book full of illustrations is not art? I remember visiting the Tomi Ungerer museum in Strasbourg (France), and what is Tomi Ungerer (among other things), if not a chidlren’s books writer? The art of creating the perfect illusrtation, sometimes adding textures and delicate cuts to it is, to me, an astonishingly impressive one. Thus, children’s books, in a pure pictural sense, are art to me.

Provoking strong feelings through soft stories

I referred earlier to the simplicity of the plot in children’s books. However, plots aren’t always that simple (even though there is nothing wrong in simplicity) and the topics covered in children’s literature can get really dark. Bullying, death and incest are, for instance, themes you can read about in picture books. In my library, we do have an entire box with “Question marks books”. We, indeed, organize picture books with different stickers, and the “Question marks” ones refer to the books that cover tough topics. To me, the fact that a picture book can cover such topics is an evidence of the depth of that format and thus, an evidence of an underlying art form.

The two target-readers of a picture book

A children’s literature specialist, Perry Nodelman, wrote a book entitled The Hidden Adult (which I can’t recommend enough to those of you who are interested in the matter). He talks about how adults are a gigantic part of chidlren’s literature as they are the ones who think it, write it, edit it and, more often than not, read it out loud to children. Thus, as adults are the ones who buy chidlren’s books, the latter must please them and not only the children. It is indeed, according to Perry Nodelman, the only type of literature which must target two readers at the same time. Thus, it must be a form of art to be able to have so many different layers of meaning in order to attract several extremely different readers at the same time.

Working with words and images

Sophie Van der Linden, in her book Lire l’album (“Reading picture books” in English), writes that one of the characteristics of picture books is the way they mix images and texts. The text sometimes says more than the illustration, while other times, the contrary occurs. Sometimes, the text is totally separate from the image, when other times, it is part of it, if not an illustration in itself. There is such a play on the relationship between texts and images that gives picture books a depth specific to art. When you know that “mute picture books” do exist and imply the absence of text, you understand how powerful images can be in conveying a clear meassage.

Picture books for adults

Last but not least, I am conducting a research about what I now call “picture books for adults”. Have you ever heard of Antoine Guilloppé? He is, to me, one of the examples of theat very particular category of picture books. He creates books in cut paper, thus creating genuine “flat sculptures” more than actual drawings. When I see books of that kind (and knowing children do not have access to them without an adult at the library), I just can’t how one can doubt that these pieces are art.

As you can tell, I am 100% thinking that picture books are an art form. However, I am also fully ready to read your thoughts on the question. I would love to discuss the topic with you all and to see what you think of that question. Do you often buy Picture Books for the children in your life? And do you do it because “it is just so cute”? Do you even sometimes buy some for yourself, as a little treat?

Once more, I wish you the best of all days,

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