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Word- Play, Image-Play

Posted By Alison D. Brumwell, 29 September 2019

We’re delighted to feature a guest blog by Ziggy Hanaor of independent publisher Cicada Books, which offers a personal insight into the topic of art and design in children’s books.

Visual literacy is a hot topic. It’s vital that we teach children how to read images and interpret them. In this crazy age of information, we are under constant visual bombardment, and if we aren’t equipped with the right tools, what chance do we stand of navigating our way through?

However, as an editor and publisher, my interest in visual literacy is less on the consumer level and more on the creator level. How can we create books that contain images that work with the text to enrich it? How can we make sure that the visual signifiers are all pointing clearly in the right direction? And then, how can we make those images add up to more than the sum of their parts, to create a story that can set children’s imaginations alight. 

I started my career as an editor of art and design books, only really moving into children’s publishing in the last two years. I pride myself on my understanding of visual communication. In the art and design world there are very strict rules that govern the ways in which typography, space, image and colour are used to create an impactful composition. A good designer (and indeed editor) will understand those rules so inherently that they can break them effortlessly but with clear purpose, subverting and challenging the way in which the design is read. The design that I love most is playful. The ads and posters that are imprinted on my mind are the ones like those of Bob Gill, in which words and images are combined in unexpected ways that delight and surprise. 

When I started working in children’s books I was slightly shocked to find a vast divide between the world of illustration and the world of design. A lot of the illustrators I work with operate in a completely instinctive way that can be extremely emotive and impactful, but completely anarchic.

My role as an editor then is to create a structure around the anarchy. I think of the text as ground plans for a building. I explain to the illustrator the size and shape of the building, where the doors and windows need to go and who is going to be the end user. I then wait to see what comes back. You want a slide going from the bedroom to the kitchen? Sure. You want to paint the walls purple? Sure! You want a glass floor in the bathroom? Hmm… maybe let’s rein that one back a bit.

The area of visual literacy that most interests me, is after you’ve taught your child the basic skills of how to read a picture (the emotional motivations, the plot points, the symbols and signifiers etc), how do you maintain their interest? How do you keep them coming back for more, even after they’re fluent readers? For me the answer is the playfulness that happens in the gaps between text and image. Where the thing that’s left unsaid is like a private joke between the writer, the image-maker and the reader, creating that marvellous intimacy that only ever really happens in children’s books and occasionally in a really good ad. I suppose, the thing I’m always aiming for is to create those Bob Gill moments of delight and surprise when the thing that you were expecting isn’t where it was supposed to be. 


Tags:  Illustration  Kate Greenaway  visual literacy 

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