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Save the Picture Book

Anushka Ravishankar

The picture book is dying. All over the world, the publishing industry has been seeing a fall in the sales of picture books. Picture books are expensive to produce, and thus cost much more than books without illustration. Add to this the mindset that children need to be weaned away from pictures and towards words as soon as possible, and we have the fate of the dodo staring picture books in the face. In India people have always looked askance at picture books. Parents and teachers want words. ‘So few words! He’ll finish it in two minutes,’ a friend argued, when I tried to persuade her to buy a picture book for her son. Anyone who has read to a child knows that the child’s relationship with a picture book is very different from that of an adult. The child ‘reads’ the pictures as much as she does the words. A favourite book is read over and over, and gazed at and leafed through and slept with, until both the book and the parent are ragged at the edges.   Picture books have many possibilities. They can be used creatively in the classroom instead of the dull text books that are usually inflicted upon children. Besides, we’re surrounded by complex visual information, so a visual vocabulary is as important as a verbal one. There are symbols and patterns that carry meaning through convention—children learn these conventions when they read picture books. They also learn to look closely, to observe actions and their consequences without having them spelt out in words.   The best picture books create stories that are greater than the sum of the words and pictures. They teach children unusual ways of seeing, and help them understand the world from different and complex perspectives. The illustrations in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are express the dangerous exhilaration of being bad better than any words could. Eric Carle’s deceptively simple The Very Hungry Caterpillar can be used to teach many things, from nutrition to days of the week, but it is also a delightful read. Closer home we have Pulak Biswas’s dynamic illustrations in Tiger on a Tree that have defied conventional wisdom on how illustrations for children should look.   Publishing a picture book is not easy. Not only do you need excellent illustrators, you also need writers who have the visual eye ...

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