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Defining picturebooks: Some scholarly views

How can we define picturebooks? An overview of some attempts by scholars.
Circus scene from a vintage picturebook
© University of York

Defining ‘picturebooks’ is tricky.

There’s overlap with comics, with illustrated novels, and even with illuminated manuscripts… Theorists don’t even necessarily use the same spelling – you see ‘picture book’ quite often. We’ve chosen here to write ‘picturebook’, which is the most-often encountered spelling in academic discourse, and expresses visually and verbally the fact that word and pictures are closely interlinked in picturebooks.

Within the category ‘picturebook’, we also have board books, baby books, bath books, books of maps, pop-up books, tiny books and mahoosive books…

Below is what some major theorists have said about picturebooks. As you’ll see, picturebook theory is dominated by the idea that picturebooks rely on complex interactions between visual and verbal information.

  • ‘A picturebook is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historic document; and foremost, an experience for a child. As an art form it hinges on the interdependence of pictures and words, on the simultaneous display of two facing pages, and on the drama of the turning page.’

(Bader, Barbara. 1976. American picturebooks from Noah’s ark to the beast within. Macmillan. 1)

  • ‘The unique character of picturebooks as an art form is based on a combination of two levels of communication, the visual and the verbal.’

(Nikolajeva, Maria & Scott, Carole. 2001. How Picturebooks Work. New York: Garland. 1)

  • ‘Most of these theoretical constructs seem to have in common the idea that there is a way in which the totality of the picturebook, including words and pictures as well as peritextual elements, is much greater than the sum of its parts.’

(Sipe, Lawrence R. 2012. Revisiting the Relationship Between Text and Pictures. Children’s Literature in Education 43: 4-21. 11).

  • ‘Picturebooks also imply a viewer who is innocent, unsophisticated – childlike. … It is part of the charm of many of the most interesting picture books that they so strangely combine the childlike and the sophisticated – that the viewer they imply is both very learned and very ingenuous’ (21)

  • ‘Many picture books – indeed, possibly all of the best ones – do not just reveal that pictures show us more than words can say; they achieve what Barthes called “unity on a higher level” by making the difference between words and pictures a significant source of pleasure’ (209)

(Nodelman, Perry. 1988. Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picturebooks. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.)

What do you think of those definitions?

© University of York
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