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Inside Picture Books

reviewed by Barbara Z. Kiefer - 2001

coverTitle: Inside Picture Books
Author(s): Ellen Handler Spitz and Robert Coles
Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven
ISBN: 0300076029, Pages: 256 , Year: 1999
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A picture book is a unique art object, a combination of image and idea in which words and pictures interact over the course of some thirty two pages to provide the reader with a singular aesthetic experience. Unlike the pictures in an illustrated book where images appear every so often to echo the information provided by the written word, the illustrations in a picture books reinforce, extend, and enhance the written text. In the last hundred years or so picture books have primarily been the province of younger children. However, the picture book as we know it has deep roots and can be traced back at least as far as the types of illuminated manuscripts known as Biblia Pauperam and Bible Moralisée. With the advent of the printing press, picture books began to be directed to an audience of children, first through books such as Johann Amos Comenius’ Orbis Pictus, that were meant to educate rather than entertain. In the early 19th century picture books began to be published with the sole purpose of delighting children. In the latter part of the century, as printing techniques were refined, full color reproduction allowed the picture book as we know it to come into its own. Today’s picture books cover a range of genres from fiction to nonfiction and address a range of ages from birth to middle school and beyond.

The modern picture book has been examined from many perspectives and through many lenses. Among other topics, authors have considered its aesthetic qualities, its unique semiotic relationships, and its role in language and literacy development. Ellen Handler Spitzer’s Inside Picture Books provides a very personal investigation of the picture book. Spitzer’s stated purpose is to examine picture books from a primarily psychological perspective with ethical and aesthetic elements considered as well. Following an introductory chapter, Spitzer organizes her discussion of picture books into four topical chapters covering books about bedtime, loss, behavior, and identity. Here her careful analyses of classic titles such as Margaret Wise Brown’s Good Night Moon, Jean de Brunhoff’s The Story of Babar, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and Don Freeman’s Corduroy are sure to resonate with several generations of adult readers. Spitzer provides important evidence for the longevity of these and other classic picture books as she points out the sources, both visual and verbal, that speak to a young child’s developing psyche. These analyses could provide a useful framework for researchers to approach children’s responses to other titles. In some cases Spitzer also poses important questions about gender identity and cultural norms that are raised by images and events depicted in picture books. Though not as thoroughly explored as the psychological connections, these questions suggest that there is much to be gained from further exploration of picture books through other post modern lenses.

Spitzer has grounded her perspective in the parent-child reading relationship, so that the child audience she considers is in the pre-reading preschool age group. This stance is advantageous for the examination of those picture books addressed to this audience, an audience Spitzer knows well from her work at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe and the Peabody Children’s Center in Cambridge. However, this narrow focus can also call into question some of her assumptions about certain books. Her criticism of Judith Viorst’s The Tenth Good Thing About Barney misses the understated theme of this gentle book and at the same time seems to assume that the young audience would have sophisticated background knowledge that includes images of John Tenniel’s Cheshire cat from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Moreover, Spitzer seems to ignore the possibility that older children, whose psychological needs and interests are very different from those of preschoolers, may be reading the books for themselves or hearing them read in a classroom setting. Thus her discussion of books such as Eve Bunting’s The Wall does not take into account the possible responses of older children who are a more likely audience for a book about the aftermath of the Viet Nam War.

Aside from these minor problems and the sometimes annoying side trips that Spitzer is prone to take in the middle of an interesting exposition, Inside Picture Books contributes important understandings to the field of picture books and raises many interesting questions for discussion and future research. It is certainly a title that will speak to our own memories of childhood experiences with books and to the many parents who are curious about their child’s often passionate attachment to certain picture books. Researchers in a variety of child related fields will also find it well worth reading.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 103 Number 1, 2001, p. 28-29
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10574, Date Accessed: 10/25/2021 12:16:00 AM

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About the Author
  • Barbara Kiefer
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    Barbara Z. Kiefer is an Associate Professor of Education in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her scholarly interests include: children's literature, especially the use of picture-book in reading education, reading language arts and literacy education. Selected Publications include: Children's Literature in the Elementary School, 6th Ed. (Brown & Benchmark) and The Potential of Picture-books: From Visual Literacy to Aesthetic Understanding (Prentice Hall).
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