Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Picture book tips and tricks, part 4 of 5: Playing with the form

Part 3.

Many movies and TV shows employ a cold open—a short scene before the opening credits designed to draw you in immediately. I love when a picture book does, too. It adds urgency.

Here’s the cold open from The Enemy, a thoughtful, bold book that looks retro but reads as a product of the present day:

(The three cold open pages are actually halves of spreads, but for this purpose, I scanned only the half with the text.)

In a typical picture book image, each illustration equates to a single incident. However, exceptions exist.

To wit, consider The Luck of the Loch Ness Monster, a book that deftly combines humor, myth, a bit of suspense, a pinch of history (albeit twisted history), and, at its core, an unusual and touching friendship.

Look at this evocative spread:

Thanks to the kind Scott Magoon for voluntarily sending me this continuous image
to replace the shoddy scan-and-weld job I had here previously.

The left-hand page shows the protagonist (in red) and the right-hand page does, too, yet they are the same scene. A person can’t be in two places at once unless she’s a time traveler—or a picture book character. Yet the reader doesn’t feel anything is askew. This tweak to the laws of physics passes muster in a picture book. And, in this case, adds playfulness.

Some books play with form beyond the traditional boundaries of the narrative. The endearing The Curious Garden uses its endpapers to trace the dramatic arc of its story.

The inside front cover:

The inside back cover:

Without reading a word or seeing any other image or even a character, you get a sense of what this story will be about.

Sometimes it's not theme addressed on the "outskirts" of a picture book, but actual plot. The Bravest of Them All, a strong little adventure, pulls off a neat and quiet effect.

Here's the last page (showing it won't give away the details of the central set piece of the story):

This is the first the reader is learning of a "new" horse tank. And since this is the last page, you close the book figuring the fate of the old one won't be shown or explained.

Then you see the back cover:

That's the (obviously old) horse tank that has an important role earlier in the book; as noted above, the author did not explicitly state that it was a casualty of the climactic tornado.

Yet when processing the mention of a "new" horse tank with this final image, the reader makes meaning. (Of course, given that it's clear from the cover that the story is about a tornado, it's not hard to assume that lots of stuff would've been damaged. But still, it's a clever—and haunting—way of conveying information and leaving the reader with a reminder of the scary power of nature.)

Another example of playing with picture book form doesn’t involve the illustrations at all but rather their borders.

Take the real-life adventure The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, a triumph on multiple levels.

This acclaimed 2003 book commemorates the World Trade Center without directly addressing the tragedy of 9/11 (as I write this, the word “tragedy” seems as small to the event as we do to the towers themselves). That alone is a deft feat, yet the book manages to do it by featuring a criminal protagonist! “Criminal” is too strong a word here, of course, but Philippe Petit is not the traditional picture book role model figure. Or is he? His ambush tightrope performance was illegal, yes, but also daring, inspiring, and even unifying.

Back to the borders. Look how the book sets the mood using not just the images but the color of the commonly nondescript edges of the page.

The images themselves convey, respectively, “night” and “day,” and the coloring of the borders accentuates that. An argument can be made that Mordicai Gerstein’s art doesn’t actually end with his hand-drawn frames, but either way, the background of the background matters here.

Not only the color but also the size of borders can make a statement, as demonstrated in the timeless and wordless The Snowman.

The borders around the final panel (SPOILER ALERT!) of art are an emotional device. The boy is discovering his loss dominated by white all around (more snow?).

One’s first instinct might be to present this poignant scene as a full page, to emphasize the intensity of the boy’s sadness. However, I think it is much more powerful this way. The shrunken size of the panel signals that he now feels shrouded in loneliness.

I suspect my next observation has already been addressed in countless dissertations, so I’ll simply state it without analysis. In Where the Wild Things Are, the art starts off in a fairly small box, and the size of each subsequent box increases as the story moves Max closer to his fantastical encounters.

When in the land of the wild things, the art is pushing the boundaries, whether letterboxed or full-bleed.

Then when Max returns home, he is no longer boxed in artistically or spiritually.

(All book text and images shown in this series are copyright their respective creators.)

Part 5.


Matthew Cordell said...

Great post, Marc. I so love how THE ENEMY sets the stage and keep thinking I want to use that device sometime myself! Great examples here, some of which I'll have to track down.

Scott Magoon said...

Marc — you know, it's funny you happened to pick that Loch Ness spread as I worked a bit to convince the editor to retain that device (the multiple appearance of the protagonist) — she thought it could potentially confuse young readers ("Why are there two Katerina's!?"). I saw her point, but felt that for this scene the conceit solved many visual problems (receiving of oatmeal, throwing it out the porthole and swiping a cinnamon bun) all without having multiple scenes — and it suggests the precocity of a young girl. Great post, thanks!

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