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Picturebook: a language to be deciphered

by Dani Gutfreund


A picturebook is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historical document; and, foremost, an experience for a child.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 tje turning of the page. On  its own terms its possibilities are limitless.


Essentially contemporary, the picturebook breaks the boundaries of literature, art, and design and presents itself as a new language – a hybrid language that requires the reader to learn its grammar and a new way of reading, in which other senses, besides sight, are invoked.

(...) the best picturebooks can and do portray the intangible and the invisible, ideas and concepts such as love, responsibility, a truth beyond the individual, ideas that escape easy definition in images or words. With her lens as historian, Bader sees “a new non-imitative way of working generally, a way of expressing intangibles, communicating emotion, sensation – one which invited the viewer, too, to see things in a new way”. (2).

Shape and content are designed for the construction of meaning, presenting themselves as elements of equal importance. A square book, which evokes the horizon line when opened; a heavy paper, which makes the act of page turning slower and almost requires more effort; the stitching as a crossing; a cliffhanger sentence that encourages the reader to go further; a character who faces them; the blanks as silence, emptiness, possibility.

The contemporary picturebook (3) is thus configured in a specific language that is not limited to verbal or visual skills, but asks for an understanding of all the book aspects: aesthetics (those related to formal elements, from what can be observed and what it arouses in the reader), narrative (how it is told), content (what is being told), emotional (regarding the possibilities of the readers’ reception, the relationship between them – remembering that it is a book intended for a double audience, or crossover – the intimacy of reading) and physical (which refer to the way of holding the book between both hands, the distance or proximity and the different positions that the book suggests, the turning of the pages, the search for evidence, which often ask for a shift that goes beyond what you see).

In Traço e Prosa [“Trace and Prose”], Ângela Lago proposes that, in her work, she liked “to consider the support as a possibility of [artistic] language. The illustration, the text and the third dimension of the book, this object whose pages move and form different angles – I like to take advantage of that” (4). Such aspects are intertwined in the constant exchange and balance between image, word, graphic elements, and the object itself. The picturebook is therefore defined by the combination of image, text – expressed or implicit – and graphic project. Although they retain their specific characteristics, these elements – indissociable and in inseparable dialogue – not only build the narrative and play a fundamental role in the understanding and interpretation of the book, but are the constitutive elements of this language, which in each book is presented according to the rules established by the author and unveiled by the reader.

The picturebook explores the potentialities of the book as a project, as if it were created – and we do not believe that this is the case, as we will see later – in response to what Bruno Munari proposes when talking about his “Unreadable Books” [Libri Illeggibili]:

Usually, when thinking about books, what comes to mind are texts of different genres: literary, philosophical, historical, essayistic, etc., printed on pages. Little interest is given to the paper, the binding, the ink color, and all the elements that constitute the book as an object. Not much importance is given to graphic characters, neither to the white spaces, margins, page numbers, and everything in between. This experiment wants to assess if it is possible to use the material with which the book is made, aside from the text, as a visual language. Therefore, the problem is: can the book as an object, regardless of the printed words, communicate something in visual and tactile terms? If so, what? (5)

It is important to note that the use of graphic elements and the materiality, when taken in isolation, are not sufficient to create a high-quality book. As a literary object, all its constitutive elements interact and converge to generate meaning in a given narrative. There is no point in having a vast vocabulary if you do not know the grammar. The signs and codes must be presented in a well-balanced and appropriate way, otherwise, we will have a flamboyant and alluring graphic design that adds nothing to the discourse or a blathering text that overlaps images and illustrations that do not contribute to the text. These are the most common problems of contemporary productions.

Understanding a language like this requires comprehending how each element of the system works. The picturebook can be considered a language because it presents itself as a system of symbols, signs, and codes working to convey feelings or ideas, with its own laws and rules. This system can also accommodate a wide range of literary genres, which can be defined by their type, content, or classification, apart from the other constituent elements. Based on these considerations, the picturebook does not configure itself

as a genre.

The active reader

Undoubtedly, this type of book reiterates the active participation of the reader, who not only receives the content but generates content on the gaps left by the author, iin the turning of pages (in both directions – discovering the future and returning to the past on the pages already read), raising hypotheses, proving or discarding them, unveiling layers. The suspension of “being between pages” not only gives rhythm to the book but also provides the reader with the necessary time to process what was apprehended until then. As stated by Brightman Sipe, for Barbara Bader, “the page turn represents a moment of anticipation, puzzlement, or confusion, which is then resolved upon turning to the next set of facing pages. There is a break or gap between turning the page from one spread to the next, and this gap often requires a high degree of critical and inferential thinking. This is all up to the reader because the reader supplies something that is literally not there. According to Iser (1978), every text has ‘gaps’ or indeterminacies, which readers must fill in as they read. In a picturebook, page breaks suggest clearly identifiable gaps for all readers to puzzle over and interpret” (6), but they also maintain an intimate relationship with the reader, as time, silence, and suspension.

The picturebook presupposes the construction of a new set of reading rules, in which the reader – who acts as an apprentice, an explorer, and a researcher – is explicitly challenged to read what’s implicit, suggested, indicated, and not just what happened and can be seen. The reader must consider what things could mean in another plane, deciphering. Above all, entering the game requires an understanding of the rules set by the system (and each book is a system) – based on the lights, loopholes, breaks, and absences offered by the author or authors. Cecilia Bajour, in her “Juego con palabras, palabras en juego" [Play with words, words at play], compares reading to guessing games:


Guessing games and hide-and-seek have in common the construction of the unexpected, and surprise is one of the ways of discovery through a search, in which the dialectic between the dark and the light puts to the test those who seek, who eliminate veils and unknowns through conscious strategies of random attempts that make the access to the ephemerally hidden more or less difficult (7).

Considering the double-page, in which words, images, and silences intertwine, it is there, in the enchained sequence of the pages, that the meaning is woven. The picturebook reiterates the notion that a static image, when in contact with another image, is transformed, acquiring new meanings. Such a relationship is guaranteed at the turning of pages, in the composition image/text, in the narrative elements suggested by the graphic project, by the support itself. It is important to remember that the blank – or empty space – is also essential to the construction of meaning. Like the turning of pages, blank means suspension, non-occupation, therefore, possibility: space and emptiness.

The self-drawing of language – a walk through history

Culture is made of surprises, of what was unknown before, and we must be ready to receive it, instead of rejecting it for fear that the castle we built might collapse (8).

Perhaps it is not strange at all that one of the modern precursors of the picturebook was born from questioning the literature intended for children. In the Christmas of 1844, when Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann, tired and annoyed by the children’s books available in the market – “long narratives or ridiculous collected drawings, moralistic stories that began and ended with threatening conventions” (9), in the author’s words – returns home with a blank notebook. The doctor surprises his wife by revealing that he would write and illustrate a book himself, and then turn it into a gift for their son that same year. The biggest surprise came with its publication the following year. In addition to its successful sales, the book containing illustrations in dialogue with the text, revealing irony and promoting reflection, is a milestone in children’s literature. Despite being still loaded with moral teachings, it challenges the pedagogical tendency of the production at the time. Also, the composition already shows a certain concern with the balance between the three languages: text, image, and graphic design. [Figure 1]


Figure 1

The evolution of printing methods at the end of the 19th century allows for great advances in page composition, as well as many experiences. In 1878, Randolph Caldecott releases The House that Jack Built, in London, a work that addresses the complementary relationship between text and image avoiding redundancies and understanding its intrinsic value. There are silent pages (only images); the text makes room for the image to speak; the composition brings fundamental elements of reading, playing with the use of color and framing – which can be a way of dealing with the limitations of the technique and printing of the plates – and with the turning of the pages; the perspective of the reader emerges, now already seen as active while reading. Sophie Van der Linden in her book Álbum[es] states:

Maurice Sendak consecrates Randolph Caldecott as the inventor of the modern picturebook for his ability to bear the weight of narrative alternately in text and image. By using his complementarity, Randolph also shows great intelligence in relation to the support.

The definition of the format is the premise of his productions, which are born from a blind book, that is, the white mock-up. He is the first to propose a conception of the picturebook as a support in which text and image are interactively associated and the enchainment of the pages is given relevance. (10) [Figure 2]

FIGURA 2_caldecott.jpeg

Figure 2

In 1919, France sees the publication of Macao et Cosmage, by Edy-Legrand. In the preface, the author addresses the child directly, its readers, telling what they should pay attention to: colors, the smallest animals, the tiniest objects, everything must be carefully observed, because it is essential to the narrative [Figure 3]. The image is favored, the project giving it predominance in the occupation of space. In a few double pages, the text appears squeezed, as if trying to guarantee a place on the page [Figure 4].

edy legrand 1.jpeg

Figure 3

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Figure 4

In 1939, with the publication of Jean Brunhoff's The Story of Babar, in the words of Sophie Van der Linden:

The picturebook became this object in which text, image and support are articulated. The double-page becomes the central and global unit of expression and is shared by text and image. The absence of framed images and the text, in cursive letters, visually facilitates the fluidity of reading between both complementary elements.

The enchainment of the pages acquires meaning, thanks to the images that extend over the surface of the open book and to the fact that it takes into consideration the weaving of the expression of time, especially since pagination is constantly reformulated to better fit the narrative. (11) [Figure 5]

Figura 5_babar.jpeg

Figure 5

Since the second half of the 1950s, the number of advertising professionals, graphic artists, and designers involved in the production of children’s books increases dramatically. We notice the predominance of stylized and abstract forms, colors, and graphics elements as essential components for the construction of the narrative. This research and experimentation contribute immensely to the new trends as they expand the barriers of literature, as illustrated by Munari:

Basically, each sheet of paper communicates its own quality, and that is already a reason to use it as a communicative element. It is then a matter of relating this knowledge to the results of the experimentation.

Another experiment is conducted based on the formatting of the pages. Pages that look the same produce a monotonous effect, while pages with different formats are more communicative. When organized in an increasing, decreasing, diagonal, or rhythmic way, formatting can produce a visual-rhythmic information, given that the action of turning the pages happens in time, and therefore takes part in the visual-temporal rhythm. Furthermore, if we use pages of two different colors and alternate between a white and a black (or red) page, the rhythmic effect will be accentuated (12).

Odilon Moraes builds upon Munari’s ideas and goes beyond by saying that:

Every support carries within itself qualities that are analog to the type of register it supports. If literature has a close relation to orality since its origins, it is not by chance that our culture has adopted the book as the support of literature. Just like literature, the book, as an object, keeps in its structure the sequence that organizes the narrative. In the books, pages organize the time of reading, while images and letters organize the time within each page. The book’s format has evolved to what it is because of the demands of literature, supported by the exploration of this temporality. The whole physical structure of this object enables the simulation of time.

In the book, time is transformed into space so it can be organized. The order of pages, for example, sets an order to events. (13)

All these possibilities considered and put into practice, authors like Leo Lionni, Paul Rand, Tomi Ungerer, Maurice Sendak, Shell Silverstein, Enzo and Iela Mari, to name a few, consolidate a new way of looking at the book and the reader, understanding readers as intelligent, capable, deep, and serious, with whom they establish a relationship of extreme trust. The understanding and reading of visual components are now recognized as intrinsic to the act of reading and determinants to the project, which, in the interrelationship between word and image, are defined as codes and values that build meanings within the culture of a particular book:

Visual communication supports are the signal, the color, the light, the movement... that are used accordingly to the intended receiver of the message. It will therefore be necessary, in each case and accordingly to the type of information that is to be transmitted, to study the most suitable medium to transmit the message in its most comprehensive mode. (14)

This commitment and investment in finding ways to reach the reader intellectually, poetically, and emotionally without compromising the pleasure of reading, results in exceptional books, which can be considered the first contemporary picturebooks. Among these that transform all the reading experience, Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, stands out for exploring such language in its entirety and with perfection.

Figura 6_flicts capas.jpeg

Left to right: covers of the first edition by publishers Expressão e Cultura and Primor, and of the second edition, by publisher Melhoramentos

It is at this moment, in 1969, that Ziraldo publishes Flicts in Brazil, an exemplary picturebook: double pages used as a narrative unit, sequenced in a perfect rhythm, with a particular disposition of textual elements based on concrete poetry, giving space to the colors and shapes in order to create meaning at the turn of each page; the presence of the blank as a narrative element, the font, filled with meaning, all working together to breathe life into this book, aimed at a double audience. With great editorial boldness and graphic excellence, this book marks the beginning of a new outlook in the Brazilian production. The 10,000 units printed in its first edition, published by Expressão e Cultura, quickly sold out and were only reprinted in 1976 by Primor.


Curiously, the differences introduced in the second edition are, in my opinion, drastic and extremely detrimental to the book, corrupting the language and destroying the original rhythm and composition. Apparently, though, this was not understood by specialists or by the market, as shown by Laura Sandroni's review in her column about children's literature in the O Globo newspaper, on November 21, 1976 – mistaken in what concerned graphical elements and narrative components, moments of silence and the overall composition of the book, and also the language itself, which would have an impact on many other authors who actually understood it:

Sold out years ago, Flicts returns, the great success of Ziraldo in children’s literature. During this interval, it became internationally known, with editions across many European countries. Its story, a prose poem, is about the Flicts color, “very rare and very sad”, which simply finds no place on earth. [...] Graphically it is even more beautiful in this new edition, in reduced size, making it easy to handle; the use of coated paper (15) enhances the excellent print. The hard cover was changed for the better, using another internal page with a more interesting effect than that of the first edition. As for the internal pages, there was a drastic decrease in their number (82 to 44), without losing anything from the original. On the contrary, then condensation only brought benefits to the book, avoiding the too many large blank spaces of the previous edition. (16)

Sequence from 1969's first edition:

Figura 7_flicts seq 1.jpeg
Figura 8_flicts seq 2.jpeg
Figura 9_flicts seq 3.jpeg
Figura 10_flicts seq 4.jpeg

The same sequence in the 1976 edition:

Figura 11_flicts seq 1a(1).jpeg
Figura 12_flicts seq 2a.jpeg
Figura 13_flicts seq 3a.jpeg

In 1977, Melhoramentos starts publishing Flicts, and it goes through many other alterations, perhaps the most impactful one being the British flag being replaced by the Brazilian, as seen below:

Figura 14_flicts bandeira 1.jpeg
Figura 15_flicts bandeira a(1).jpeg

The British flag from 1969’s edition was replaced by the Brazilian flag in Melhoramentos’s edition.

The discussion about Flicts and its changes over the course of different editions calls for another article. This brief history, far from being exhaustive, is only intended to outline the path of consolidation of the contemporary picturebook and, therefore, cites only a few reference works, which are representative of the evolution and development of this language, that is, some of the works that first displayed seminal characteristics of the picturebook. The choice of authors and works was based on their presentation of specific elements that make up such language, in a clear and conscious manner; these are works considered milestones in this particular history. Based on the historical survey of research by Sophie Van der Linden, Martin Salisbury, and Morag Styles, the choice of works corresponds to the construction of an understanding of this language.

There are many artists who belong to the history of the picturebook in one way or another. They changed forms, transformed words, proposed new rhythms, frameworks, durations, new “realities”. This story could be broader and vastly longer. It is the continuation of recognized art histories, from which it would be difficult to subtract it from (17)

Final thoughts – One language: so many worlds

Like in any good reading, the picturebook presupposes several approaches to the text, an unveiling of layers, allowing various interpretations. There is no doubt that literature made for children should be understood as literature first and foremost. After all, children’s literature is worthy readers of all ages, regardless of their background, because of its capacity of bringing human beings closer to themselves and of revealing worlds never imagined before.

In the game of metaphorizing images, words, and the object itself, this book is also a metaphor. Each element is essential in the act of reading: from looking to scrutinizing; from turning pages to the sequencing of double pages; from the text that silences to the image that speaks, or vice-versa; from summoning the reader to break through accessible worlds either through doors or windows, or through the folding of pages.

By making use of various elements to provide understanding and apprehension, the picturebook paves the way for readers of different skills, broadening the access and building on the necessary skills for critical and reflective reading, such as, for example, the ability to elaborate and refute theses, to test hypotheses, to consider different perspectives, to move closer or away from a given object, among many others. It is also relevant to emphasize another characteristic of the picturebook: it is open-ended, which means that it does not conclude, but asks. A book that leaves gaps and requires the reader to look for them in a constant search to build meanings.

Therefore, considering the world it proposes and the pact that it establishes with the reader who’s willing to inhabit in it, the picturebook can be understood as an opening, and one that emerges from the inarticulation of a new thinking, thus providing an inaugural sense. An inaugural sense of the word, of what it names, creating a new world.

(1) BADER, B. American Picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within. New York: Macmillan Publishing and Co., 1976, p. 1. (quotation translated by the author)

(2) MOEBIUS, W. Introduction to picturebook codes in Word & Image, vol. 2, April-June, 1986, p.146. (quotation translated by the author)

(3) I consider picturebooks contemporaries those that were produced and idealized from the second half of the 1950s.

(4) MORAES, O.; Hanning, R. e Paraguassu, M. Traço e prosa: entrevistas com ilustradores de livros infanto-juvenis por Odilon Moraes, Rona Hanning e Maurício Paraguassu. São Paulo: Cosac e Naify, 2012, p. 235.

(5) MUNARI, B. Das coisas nascem as coisas. Trad. José Manuel de Vasconcelos. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1998, pp. 210-11. (quotation translated by the author)

(6) SIPE, B. Young Children’s Interpretation of Page Breaks in Contemporary Picture Storybooks, Journal of Literacy Research. Taylor and Francis Group, online, pp. 41, 68-103, 2009. (quotation translated by the author)

(7) BAJOUR, C. Juego con palabras, palabras en juego. Cuauttémoc: Conaculta, 2015, p. 30. (quotation translated by the author)

(8) MUNARI, B. Das coisas nascem as coisas. Trad. José Manuel de Vasconcelos. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1998, p. 226.

(9) HOFFMANN, H. João Felpudo. Trad. Claudia Cavalcanti. São Paulo: Iluminuras, 2011, p. 30.

(10) VAN DER LINDEN, S. Album[es]. Barcelona: Ekaré, 2015, p. 107 (quotation translated by the author)

(11) VAN DER LINDEN, S. Album[es]. Barcelona: Ekaré, 2015, p. 109 (quotation translated by the author)

(12) MUNARI, B. Das coisas nascem as coisas. Trad. José Manuel de Vasconcelos. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1998, p. 213.

(13) MORAES, O. “O livro como objeto e a literatura infantil” in Derdyk, E. Entre ser um e ser mil. São Paulo, Editora Senac, 2012, pp.160.

(14) MUNARI, B. Design e comunicação visual. Trad. Daniel Santana. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1997, p. 57.

(15) The original edition uses matte couche paper of 150 m/g²; from the 1976 edition on, bright couche is used.

(16) Apud RESENDE, V. M. Ziraldo e o livro para crianças e jovens no Brasil. São Paulo: Paulinas, 2013, p. 51, (emphasis added)

(17) DOUZOU, O. in Van der Linden, S. Album[es]. Barcelona: Ekaré, 2015, p. 143 (quotation translated by the author)

A tradução foi realizada pelos alunos da disciplina Tradução para Língua Inglesa I (2020), como parte das atividades pedagógicas com vistas à formação por meio da tradução de textos autênticos, do curso de bacharelado em Tradução da Universidade Federal de Uberlândia: Annelise Colognesi Bratkowski; Deborah da Silva; Felipe de Souza Persch; Guilherme Marcelino Duarte; Guilherme Vinicius Pereira Ribeiro; Gustavo Matheus Pires; Jarismar Gomes de Lima Júnior; Jonas Vicente dos Santos Júnior; Julia Pinhero Judice Menezes; Laura Arantes Rodrigues; Luana Marques Fidêncio; Marco Antonio Santos Rocha de Sousa; Matheus Ribeiro Camargos; Rodolfo Gabriel Alves; Sheila Aparecida Garcia Leite; Thaís da Silva Freitas; Vitória Barbosa dos Santos; Wângela Jacintho de Souza. 

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