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Capa do livro Chapeuzinho Vermelho, de 1875, com ilustrações de Walter Crane, um dos precursores do livro ilustrado.

Lugar de Ler was delighted to bring together two important thinkers and researchers from the world of children’s literature, with the Canadian Perry Nodelman being interviewed by Odilon Moraes from Brazil. More than just a stimulating conversation, the meeting produced a great lecture on picturebooks with many references.

Nodelman was a lecturer at the English department of Winnipeg University, in Canada, for 37 years and has been researching children’s literature since 1975. The scholar has published articles and theoretical works  as well as editing the Children's Literature Association Quarterly  and CCL/LCJ: The Canadian Children’s Literature Journal.

Odilon has been a children’s book illustrator since 1990. He has won Jabuti Awards for his illustrations for A Saga de Sigfried  in 1994, O Matador in 2009 and Teleco, o Coelhinho in 2017. In 2002 he published the first book he had written himself, A princesinha medrosa, now published by Jujuba. He conducts research on picturebooks to better understand the creative process that goes into producing them.

Here, Perry and Odilon bring together their knowledge, discuss concepts and share ideas.

Odilon Moraes:

Before we start our actual conversation, it is important to emphasise the relevance of your intellectual contribution to the debate regarding one of the major innovations in Children’s literature in recent years: the picture book.

It is also necessary to point out that this discussion is still very recent, being therefore poorly disseminated in Brazil. Your Words about Pictures, from 1988, responsible for inaugurating the picture book study field among scholars and in academia is yet to be translated into Portuguese. We were lucky to have access to your ideas through the quotations and excerpts presented in Maria Nikolajeva, Scott, Peter Hunt and other authors that fortunately were published here not long ago


Having said that, I would like to kindly ask you to forgive a didactic tone I tried to apply upon the questions so that those to whom the theme is less familiar can follow the conversation.


​Some critics tend to consider picture books within the territory of art objects whereas others, such as David Lewis, explicitly state they are rather a form of writing, therefore being a literary object. What is your position regarding this territorial delimitation, and which problems may come up in case of picture books being studied within areas of knowledge they do not belong to?

Perry Nodelman: I believe that any and all approaches have the potential to become useful, as long as they’re pursued thoughtfully and with a respect for the complete range of ways these books might be viewed, read, used, shared, collected, celebrated, condemned, etc., etc. Like all books—like all works of art—picture books have the potential to speak to a range of different audiences, to say different things to different people, and to be understood and used in a wide variety of ways. When I began working on my book Words about Pictures over three decades ago, I did so because I couldn’t find much specifically about pictures books that could help me in my quest to develop a better understanding of them. But I did learn huge amounts from art history and other analyses of gallery paintings, theories of semiotics, discussions of visual perception, psychological approaches to children’s drawings, etc., etc. Picture books emerge at the crosswords of visual and verbal art, so picture books studies are inherently cross-disciplinary. Indeed, children’s literature studies tend to be generally cross-disciplinary, focussing not just on literary or artistic analysis but also on matters like how children read, pedagogical practices, etc.  

O.M.: In the opening of Words about Pictures Chapter 1, you pose a rhetoric question: Why should pictures be added to the writing of words if we know that stories can be adequately told without them? Could you then tell us why do you think picture books do exist?

P.N.: Well, as I say in Words about Pictures, “whatever the reasons for their invention, and whatever rationalizations we can imagine for them, picture books need no justification but the fact that they are a successful and interesting way of telling stories—that they can and do give pleasure to viewers and readers, both children and adults” (3). Picture books may have come into existence for educational reasons—in the belief that children could recognize what pictures depict more easily than what words do, so that showing children a picture could help them to understand words accompanying it. But as I argue in Words, that’s not necessarily true; and once the books came into existence, they needed no justification but the pleasure they offer and the rich possibilities they can create for writers, artists, and reader/viewers.  


Every child is a unique individual, so that we can never know how any book might or might not affect any individual child, so there’s no point in trying to make generalizations about how children will respond to books . (Perry Nodelman)


O.M.: Back in the 1980’s, when you started your first drafts on the theory of picture books, who did you discuss with? Were you in touch with picture book authors that had already full consciousness that they were producing something different?


P.N.: To be honest, it never occurred to me that it was illustrators that I should be talking to. My training as a literary scholar back in the early sixties had encouraged me to distrust what authors said about their work and to downplay the significance of the ways in which literature emerged from and could be best interpreted in the light of the history and personalities of its authors (I was trained as what we then called a “new critic.” I was, though, aware of a sizable body of discussions by illustrators of what they did, how they did it, etc. There was, for instance, the annual speeches given by winners of the American Library Association’s Caldecott Medal for the best US picture book each year. But I didn’t find these all that helpful—many illustrators, like many other visual artists, are not necessarily gifted users of language when describing their work. And in any case, my interest wasn’t so much in what illustrators (or authors) thought they were doing as in trying to understand the ways in which the kind of work they were helping to produce communicated to reader-viewers—as the title of an early conference paper I gave about them says, “how picture books work.” And at least back then, most illustrators sort of took how picture books worked for granted and rarely talked about it. And also, like many adults who work in children’s literature, they spent far too much time in talking about their work making enthusiastic generalizations about children and their wonderful imaginations and joyful spontaneity, etc., etc., and how the pictures in their books were speaking to that. There was rarely any awareness that these illustrators, their authors, their editors, etc., were actually (an unconsciously) in the business of sustaining the generalizations about who children were and what they were like by encouraging child reader/viewers to believe that they were only being truly childlike when they were happy and thoughtless—and that, I think, is sad. I’m a firm believer in the idea that there is no such thing as a “children” (as in phrases like “children like x,” or “children under three cannot understand y,” or “you can’t discuss the subject z in a picture book because it will frighten children.” Each and every child is a unique individual, so that we can never know how any book might or might not affect any individual child, so there’s no point in trying to make generalizations about how children will respond to books.


O.M.: Are there substantial differences in the picture nature in a book when they have the role of interpreting a story told by words and when they, ordered in a sequence and accompanied by words, build up another form of narrative?


P.N.: I’m not sure I understand what you mean here. Are you asking if there’s a difference between illustrating a verbal text that existed before the illustrator came along and decided to make illustrations to go with it and illustrating a text that was conceived from the beginning as conveying a story by means of both words and pictures? If so: I think there are inevitably going to be differences between these two kinds of books. For one thing, a text written the idea that there are going to be pictures accompanying it tends to have a different rhythm than one written with the idea that there will be pictures, simply because the presence of pictures creates a break in a reader’s reading of a text, an implied pause while the picture is being looked at, the page is then turned, etc. A good picture-book text writer is aware of and accounts for that even before any pictures exist; someone not planning on pictures being present can’t do so, and so the texts changes as illustrators and editors choose where to break it up and put in pictures, even if the words remain exactly the same. Having said that, I certainly think it’s possible to add pictures to an already existing story and make it work. But it’s inevitably going to be a different experience—a different story than the text on its own. Readers lose the pleasure they have with a verbal text on its own of imagining your own ideas of what things look like, and even what mood or atmosphere the words are creating, because now the illustrations offer more specific information about all that. But then reader/viewers gain the pleasure of looking at the pictures and also, thinking about what the pictures are showing that the words haven’t told and what the words are saying that the pictures don’t illustrate.


O.M:. Isolated still pictures and fragmented sequential ones belong to different aesthetic fields? What do you mean when you say “in good picture books, the pictures are always on the trajectory”?


P.N: Yes, I do think they belong to different aesthetic fields. You don’t look at a still picture in terms of considering how what it shows has changed from an earlier picture before it and maybe an even earlier picture before that. But a picture in a picture book sequence has been made with the knowledge of and with reference to that sequence. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re being invited to think about it and make sense of it in terms of how what it shows varies from and connects to the pictures (and of course the words) that come before and after it. What an illustrator chooses to illustrate and how the illustrator designs the pictures to focus attention on specific objects, create specific moods, etc., are inevitably on the trajectory—help to shape how the story is gradually unfolding and becoming what it is. The real question is whether or not the pictures work successfully to create the best most meaningful, most interesting path or trajectory through the events being described. But there is always going to be a path, a sequence that connects the picture to the words accompanying it, the earlier words and pictures that come before it, and then the words and pictures that come after it. And that obviously can’t happen with a single picture on its own. As a result, pictures in picture books are significantly different from ones intended to be viewed by themselves.

On the other hand, though: as a lover of the picture book experience, I tend to find myself looking at, say, the pictures in an art gallery in terms of how they work as picture-book pictures. I find myself thinking of them as illustrations of the verbal didactic information that accompanies them, of the ways in which curators have arranged them in galleries so that there are connections between them and sometime even a chronological story of the development of a specific artist or group being told, of how the pictures relate to a whole history of art they emerge from and inevitably have connections with. So maybe all art and all images have the potential to become part of a larger story—be considered as parts of something like a picture book? (For more on this, see my recent article here.


O.M.: You cite Barthes when referring to the fragmentation of syntagms on a picture book. Barthes was referring to comics. If it is true that a great part of the theories developed for cartoons fit perfectly to picture books, where do you think these two fields get apart?

Is it only a question of public niche or would it be something more structural, at the level of form? How do you see authors who surpass these limits?


P.N.: I happily acknowledge that I’m no expert when it comes to comic-book theory. I have, though, made a few brief beginning forays into thinking about how picture books and comics are like and not like each other, especially in a piece I wrote a while back exactly about that subject:

“Picture Book Guy Looks at Comics: Structural Differences in Two Kinds of Visual Narrative.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 37.4 (2012): 436–444.

 Among other things, here’s what I said there:

"Comics . . . is a mosaic art, in which lots of separate little pieces that come together through their relationships to each other form a whole, but nevertheless remain apparent as still-separate pieces. While picture books also work by relating sections of text to specific images, they create a different dynamic by stripping that relationship down to the conventional one-image-plus-one-text accompanying it per page or two-page spread. In picture books, indeed, each set of image and text implies a relationship something like that between a painting on a gallery wall and the printed information posted near it about its name and its artist, or like that between an illustration in a magazine or newspaper and its accompanying caption or headline. As a series of such relationships, the sequence of pictures and texts that makes up a whole picture book seems more like a themed exhibition in a gallery than like the mosaic intricacy of comics.

In reading comics, though, the potential and actual relationships of the separate fragments to each other and to all the others—the general arthrology—seems more immediately important than the ways in which fragments of picture and text might happen to illustrate each other. There is something more actively energetic happening—the something that seems to transcend or even undercut illustration: for the proliferation of possible connections makes it unclear which fragments illustrate which others, or else the differing ways in which they do all illustrate one another can easily undercut each of the individual illustrative connections. The effect for me is less significantly a series of purely illustrative moments than an invitation to join in a pulsing and ever-shifting movement into and out of numerous possibilities of illustrative connections which both organize and complicate time."

So I guess my answer to your question is that I think that at least in terms of conventional versions of each of the two forms, they are significantly different in structure (and therefore in how they interact with a reader/viewer’s attention, and what rhythms they create. But that’s not to say that a picture book illustrator is prevented from using comic-book techniques and rhythms, as some in fact do, or that comic book artists do not sometimes create pages and even stories that read more like picture books usually do—presumably, in each case, exactly because that struck them as being the best way to convey the meanings and emotions of the story they wanted to help tell.


So maybe all art and all images have the potential to become part of a larger story—be considered as parts of something like a picture book? (Perry Nodelman)


O.M.: Some researches seem to point out that Maria Nikolajeva might be implying that authors who studied picture books in the 1980’s, such as you, Moebius and Schwarcz did not get to the central point of picture books, which, according to her, is the relationship of words and pictures. Where do you think a picture book stands? A wordless book, i.e. a book that is not structured in a contrapuntual arrangement of mutual correction of words and pictures would be considered a picture book?


P.N.: I’ve not been aware of the idea that Nikolajeva wanted to exclude wordless books from consideration as picture books, but I suppose it’s possible. It does seem like a strange thing to do, though, since what we call “wordless” books are published by, reviewed by, purchased by, and read by the exact same audience as all other picture books? There could be no logical reasons to leave them out but a dogged determination to stick to an obviously limiting definition. Sort of like saying that badminton isn’t a sport because all sports involve the use of ball-shaped objects?

But in any case: if the argument is that something without a text can’t be a picture book, then what we call “wordless” books would still qualify as picture books anyway, because they all have words in them. If nothing else, they all have titles. (It’s intriguing to realize that they have to have titles, publishing info, etc., in order to qualify as “books” and find a place in catalogues, libraries, etc, etc.—it can’t then be a book if it has no words at all? And therefore, it can’t be a picture book?)

But beyond that, so-called wordless texts tend to a verbal text, or at least a narrative, even if there aren’t actually words on the page. The mere fact that there is more than one picture, or even that the pictures appear on what we have been taught to think of as the pages of a book, acts as an invitation to anyone who knows books generally or picture books specifically to begin thinking about how the pictures connect with each other—especially if they depict the same characters .


And as soon as we start looking for that kind of connection, we’re on our way to making up, or being prompted to make up from very specific clues, a story. And then, as we make up the story, we see the pictures in terms of it as we imagine it from our perceptions of the pictures, and so enjoy the contrapuntal movement back and forth as usually happens in picture books, but this time with an awareness of the actual absence of the text we nevertheless imagine? I’d argue, then, that it’s the sequential relationship of images as individual moments along an implied trajectory that is a key factor in defining what a picture book story is, as important as and being present even in the absence of a text.


O.M.: If Caldecott made a “dance” with words and pictures on his books, as Sendak put, what is the importance of rhythm in picture books? Does the sort of rhythm present in a picture book approximate it to poetry?


P.N.: I referred to picture book rhythm (and also comic-book rhythm) above, in answer to question 7. I suspect that any art form that moves forward in time can be seen to have rhythm (or to have an unfortunate lack of it?)—to be understood to create patterns like the ones found in music. For that matter, organizations of colours, shapes, and lines on a picture plan can often have rhythmical relationships with each other when viewed in terms of how they repeat and vary each other, thus inviting viewers to move their eyes over the picture plane in a way that mirrors the rhythms of temporal arts. So yes, pictures on their own have something easily identified with rhythm, and the ways in which the words and pictures of picture books are laid out in order to create relationships between the words and the pictures and between one picture and another one on the next page, etc., means that they have another kind of rhythm. And while they obviously aren’t the only form of art that does so, they do tend to have very specific characteristic rhythms unlike those found in other media (see, again, what I say above in regard to the difference between picture-book and comic-book rhythms). And those other media would include poetry, the rhythms of which are unlike the rhythms of picture books? As you suggest, the rhythm of picture books does tend to be contrapuntal, as poetry usually isn’t—although I suspect that the counterpoint gets complicated by the ways in which, for instance, the figures depicted in one picture are rhythmically echoed or varied by similar figures or shapes in the next one, and so on.


O.M.: Would it be possible to say that in some books the object stops being medium to become part of a hybrid writing form? How to make sense of the physical aspects of the medium within the picture book’s field?


P.N.: I think I’d go a step further in answer to this one, and argue that when it comes to picture books, the existence of the book as a physical object is almost always a matter of significance. I’m taken by Joe Sutliff Sanders’s ideas about chaperoning:


“Who chaperones the words as they do their work? The words, after all, don’t do anything on their own; they require a reader who deciphers them and perceives their guidance in interpreting the image. Who activates those words? Who performs them? Who engages them as they make finite the previously sublime image? In determining who chaperones the words, a reliable and fertile difference emerges between comics and picture books: in general, if the book anticipates a solitary reader who chaperones the words as they go about their work of fixing the meaning of the images, that book is a comic; if the book instead anticipates a reader who chaperones the words as they are communicated to a listening reader, that book is a picture book. (Saunders, Joe Sutcliff (2013). “Chaperoning Words: Meaning-Making in Comics and Picture Books.” Children’s Literature, 41, 57-90.) 


To me, this means that a picture book most centrally invites reading by a person (often an adult, who chaperones the words and a second reader (or viewer), often a child, who is listening. Although, also, I’ve noticed that youngsters reading picture books by themselves tend to speak the texts out loud as if they were imaging someone else present. Also, before my granddaughter could read, she would “read” picture books to me and others by turning the pages and reciting the words she remembered while she looked at each page, and then holding the book up and turning it outwards so that her audience could look at and see the pictures. She did this even when there was no other audience. She’d clearly learned from watching teachers and daycare workers read stories to a group of children that this was the correct way to make use of a picture book.

But also important: for younger child readers, the act of being chaperoned through a picture often involves sitting beside or on the knee of the person doing the reading, often an adult. In other words, it’s a form of entertainment that invites close physical contact with itself and among those involved in reading it. It is often a touching experience as well as a seeing and hearing one. And the book as a physical object is always visible and present while something like this happens. Its physical presence seems always important: Unlike reading longer novels, reading picture books tends not to be a solitary activity, and picture-book readers tend not to get lost in a story away from their immediate surroundings.


O.M.: Picture books can (or should) embrace other public in addition to children?


P.N.: See what I said above about chaperoning. Picture books tend most often to imply and invite a dual audience consisting of a reading adult and a listening and looking child. I would think that every picture book writer and illustrator should be aware of the fact that the books they make will often and even usually need to engage adult readers and viewers as well as child ones. And the ones that will then get shared most will be the ones that don’t infuriate or annoy or bore the adults who will be doing so much of the reading of them. As for me, when my children were young, I refused to read them picture books that I had negative feelings about, or else read them with many comments about how and why I disliked them. And I still feel the same way about reading to my grandchildren. They can read the noxious boring books about the fashion choices of Barbie and the adventures of the Paw Patrol on their own, thank you. And they frequently choose to do so, which is fine by me, just as long as I don’t have to be involved (although I do still tend to make a point of telling the two-year-old and the six-year-old about what I don’t like about these books and challenge them to tell me why I’m wrong; you’re never too young to start having discussions about the merits of books or the lack of them. Not surprisingly, my children and my six-year-old granddaughter happily argue with me about these things and tell me how annoying I’m being. But I figure, as a participant on the reading, I’m as entitled to an opinion as they are.)

O.M:. To finish, I reiterate the importance of your contribution to those who study picture books today in Brazil. We are beginning to delimitate this new territory to better understand it. I would like to ask if you are still thinking and contributing to the discussion within the field or the theme is now old and outdated? How do you see the production and discussion of picture books today?

P.N.: As I answer this question, I am in the middle of my 76th year, I have been retired from teaching for thirteen years, and it’s been over three decades since my book Words about Pictures was first published. During those thirty or so years, I mostly turned my attention away from picture books and onto analysing and trying to understanding other forms of children’s literature, in my books The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, The Hidden Adults: Defining Children’s Literature, and Alternating Narratives in Fiction for Young Readers: Twice Upon a Time. But in recent years, it’s become apparent that the work I did all those years ago on picture books is what has mattered most to others; and I’ve been invited to attend conferences and symposiums and give keynote addresses about, again and again, some aspect of picture books. It amazes me (and pleases me, I can’t deny) that this work I did so long ago still has currency, and that other scholars continue to be interested in it. But it does distress me a little that the academic world of children’s literature studies hasn’t grown and changed enough to make Words About Pictures old-fashioned and irrelevant: I’ve always believed that the whole point of doing academic research is to take part in an ongoing dialogue, invites responses that vary from and move past what you once said, so that the best work succeeds best by becoming out of date.

But there are strong signs of movement forward. If I were to write more about picture books now, it would be about three things especially:

First, exploring the “taken for granted” aspects of picture book art and picture book stories. For instance, why so many books about animals? What might the children who are the protagonists in many picture-book stories have in common, or the settings, the houses they live in and the fantasy lands they visit? Are there ways of laying out pictures or pacing the events of stories in picture book art that repeat in apparently different books? And if so, what are their implications? Are there picture-book ur-stories that underline a lot of apparently different books? What other conventions or clichés can we try to make ourselves more aware of and consider the implications of? What is so ideologically “obvious” to makers and purchasers of picture books that we aren’t even aware of it and its implications?

Second, as a sort of corollary to what I’ve just said: it amazes me how often books published in different countries around the world manage to win international awards or otherwise find an international audience—which suggests that there’s something about picture book techniques and conventions than transcends national and cultural differences. Is this even possible? Do books that achieve international success erase national or cultural difference and present a homogenized view of international childhood? Or, maybe and improbably, is there an international childhood that transcends national borders? (I’m wondering here if Words about Pictures offers a guide to picture-book semiotics that works in all cultures, all countries, all languages, or if in fact I’ve just incorrectly assumed that how picture books communicate in North America and other English-speaking countries is the way all picture books work in all cultural contexts. Do picture books produced in, e.g., Brazil in Portuguese make sense when understood in terms of Words about Pictures? Or is something different going on? And if so, then why do Portuguese language books have success in the international market where books produced originally in English tend to hold sway? Is an international market for picture books and other children’s books a form of mperialistic activity by countries with a long history of colonizing others?

And third, as I suggest in answer to number 10 above, I’d like to see more attention paid to books as physical objects and the kind of interactions with them as objects that they invite from readers. Can we better understand the picture book as an art form involving physical objects, encouragements to touch and be touched by other people, etc.? Can we explore the semiotics of the picture book as a physical object, but also how it functions as an object and how that function affects the kinds of words and pictures it contains, their rhythms, etc., etc., as well as how readers and viewers respond to them?


Perry Nodelman Perry Nodelman is Professor Emeritus at the University of Winnipeg, Canada. A renowned researcher of children’s literature, he was president of the Children’s Literature Association of Canada. As well as Words About Pictures: the Narrative Art of Children's Picture Books, he has written three other books about children’s literature: The Pleasures of Children’s Literature (3rd edition with Mavis Reimer), The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature and Alternating Narratives in Fiction for Young Readers: Twice Upon a Time. He has also written around 150 essays and chapters in books about children’s literature and a series of children’s novels. Now retired, he is a very dedicated grandfather, a teacher and volunteer guide at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax.


Odilon Moraes Odilon Moraes has a degree in architecture from FAU-USP. He has written a number of books for children, including A princesinha medrosa, Pedro e Lua and Rosa, which won the Children’s Book of the Year Award from the National Foundation for Children’s and Young Adults’ Books (FNLIJ) in 2004, 2017 and 2010 respectively. His book Traço e Prosa won the FNLIJ’s Technical Book of the Year award. Several of his books have the White Raven label from the International Youth Library in Munich. In 2014 his book A fome do lobo was included in the Honour List of the International Book Board for Youth (IBBY). Since 2005 he has given talks and workshops at the Tomie Ohtake Institute, the Lasar Segall Foundation, the European Institute of Design and SESC. He teaches post-graduate courses at Casa Tombada and the Vera Cruz Institute.

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