1. Stylistic strategies in children’s nonfiction books
- Side: 8-21
- DOI: https://doi.org/10.18261/9788215042459-2021-02
- Publisert på Idunn: 2021-02-23
- Publisert: 2021-02-23
- Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
This chapter asks, “what stylistic strategies are mobilized to inform children about a subject?” Two Brazilian and two French books are analysed. The categories ‘direct citation’ and ‘allusion to technique’ explain the influence of scientific illustration, while ‘movements of interaction’ points to the relationship between verbal and visual languages. The results provide possibilities for new levels of reading and the association of scientific education with that of artistic education.Keywords: nonfiction, children’s book, style, scientific illustration, artistic education
Nonfiction books for children have offered a variety of proposals that combine the artistic, the literary and the nonfictional. Thus, the question of what stylistic strategies are mobilized to inform children about certain subjects is intended to help us understand how nonfiction books can unite childhood, information and fiction. The increase in books whose visual composition are influenced by scientific illustration on visual composition, whether by direct citation or allusion to technique, provides a new focus for research on editorial production decisions. Furthermore, the “movement of interaction” between fiction and information on the doublespread, which thus enables the constitution of the off-screen resource, is another valuable aspect.
The prevalence of analysis on the style of illustration in children’s literature (Nodelman, 1988; Nikolajeva & Scott, 2001; Van der Linden, 2006; Hunt, 1991; Belmiro, 2014) is noteworthy. However, there are still only a few studies on the style of illustration in children’s nonfiction books such as Carter (1993, 1997) who states that the style joins the subject, while the structure controls the theme, whereas McClure (2003) and Colman (2007) relate the style of literary fiction to the structure of a nonfictional text.
For this reason, editorial projects were selected that aggregate verbo-visual structures considered innovative in the field of nonfiction. The first of the analysed books is Abecedário de Aves Brasileiras (2009, Brazilian Bird Alphabet), by Geraldo Valério, which reveals typical birds of Brazil. This work is organized in alphabetical order, in which each letter represents a bird. On each doublespread there is a verbal text discussing habits, food, habitat and other characteristics, as well as a visual representation of the described bird. Secondly, Plume (2012), by Isabelle Simler is a compendium of descriptions of more birds, from the familiar, such as the chicken and pigeon, to the exotic, such as the ibis and the common jay, constantly through the watchful eye of Plume, the cat. Oxiseau (2017, Birds) by Francesco Pittau and Bernadette Gervais, presents more sophisticated visual resources with characteristics of different birds, such as body parts, feathers, eggs, and body structure. Finally, Zoo (2012) by Jesús Gabán, shows animals in their different habitats. On each doublespread there is an animal highlighted in the foreground and, around it, others with common characteristics.
Recognizing how illustrators and writers create their own styles or carry out stylistic exchanges with other fields of knowledge, shows the importance of these projects. In this sense, to understand the “ways of expressing” (Kiefer, 1995) both in verbal and visual contexts, that is which stylistic strategies are present, it is necessary to focus on the topic of scientific illustration and picturebooks which will enable more thorough interdisciplinary analysis.
The Influence of Scientific Illustration
In the article “Creér des livres, choisir des images” (Create books, choose pictures) Coblence (1997) develops the notion of documentary illustration; for him, the presence of this type of illustration helps to clarify the subject, and must correspond to some criteria, such as suitability for the reader and the subject addressed by the book. To illustrate his article, the author uses the image of L’art de faire éclore les poulets (The art of hatching chickens) in Encyclopédie, ou dicctionaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et dés méties (1751–1772, Encyclopedia or a Sistematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Craft), in which there is the use of a typically naturalistic illustration.
Throughout the article, the author uses another computerized image entitled “Le nid, L’ouef et L’oiseau” (The nest, the egg and the bird), published in the Gallimard series of nonfiction books, which alludes to the illustration by Diderot et D’Alembert. Although the author does not discuss some points arising from this interpictural play, the first approximation of nonfiction studies with scientific illustration is noted.
This example indicates the possibility of scientific illustration manifesting itself in children’s nonfiction. Included with this is the frequent presence of stylistic references to the technique, either by borrowing style, as in Oxiseau and Plume, or by allusions to the technique, as in Abecedário de Aves Brasileiras and Zoo, all analysed in this chapter.
Thus, it is worth highlighting some points related to the art of “drawing living forms” (Bruzzo, 2004). According to Correia (2011), “creating a scientific design is, above all, an act of reflection” (p. 226). In his perspective, scientific illustration, as a model or representative image, unequivocally exposes inaccessible or hidden natural domains, since this technique permits the observation of contours and models unattainable by the naked eye or by a camera. As Bruzzo (2004) reasserts, many images present in scientific books are in no way similar to the forms visible with the naked eye. “They do not resemble known shapes, and do not maintain any proximity to our ordinary visual experience; they constitute a world that we can only imagine” (Bruzzo, 2004, p. 1361).
Bruzzo emphasizes the power that scientific drawings have in biological description, making it possible to replace pages of text with succinct, vivid, and memorable illustrations of information. Thus, this way of illustrating is the “most effective way of formatting images for the communication of scientific knowledge” (Bruzzo, 2004, p. 1363). However, despite the objectivity of the illustration, Olson (1994) recalls that “To create representations is not merely to record speeches or to construct mnemonics; it is to construct visible artifacts with a degree of autonomy from their author and with special properties for controlling how they will be interpreted” (p. 196). The author warns that the visual representation, despite seeking verisimilitude, collides with its polysemic character, which allows for multiple interpretations, whether of the author or the countless viewers.
It is at this moment that scientific illustration tends to approximate the set of visual arts. Papp (1968) explains that the scientific illustrator has a very restrictive connotation – a scientific illustrator is an artist, but not all artists are scientific illustrators. In the author’s understanding, the term “scientific” restricts the scientific illustrator to draw what he observes, omitting any impression, while the artist is allowed to use his imagination and record his interpretations and impressions of the objects.
Papp’s comment (1968) reveals one of the great challenges of scientific illustrators – namely, the debate between the scientific description of a more artistic nature and others that emphasize the more taxonomic character of the technique. Bruzzo (2004) proposes that by focusing on the images of naturalists “we can perceive some peculiarities in the figures that accompany their accounts and recognize some differences regarding the way of observing the natural world and the ways of structuring knowledge for its dissemination […]” (p. 1363).
The differences regarding the ways of observing the world are perceptible in these two currents, which, despite being markedly present in the 19th century, are still clear in current scientific drawings. Blum (1993) researched zoological illustration in the 19th century, examining the relationship between the work of naturalists and that of artists and identifies the predominance of one or another expression, distinguishing naturalist illustrator and naturalist artist. This distinction explains the tension between the narrative representation and the description based on the taxonomic ideal. The latter, according to Bruzzo (2004), “seeks to isolate the animal from its surroundings […] to present the animal not as an individual organism, but as a representative type of the group of beings of its species” (p. 1367).
Blum’s naturalist illustrator (1993) can be seen in Oxiseau, which suggests some stylistic features of scientific illustration of a taxonomic nature. In general, the animal is presented in the lateral perspective, in the negative scenario, and in many cases it is perched. The illustrated position refers back to taxidermy, so that the visual representation highlights the characteristics of the birds. As Correia (2011) suggests, illustrating a species “implies drawing the ‘ideal’ individual that brings together, in a single image, the maximum taxonomic characteristics which typify it and facilitate its comparative recognition of its intraspecific peers” (p. 231).
The Corneille Noire (Carrion Crow), which illustrates the first doublespread, is an example of accuracy and precision in the design of the general shape of the beak with differences between the jaws (jawbone and mandible), and shading to highlight the different parts of the beak, in addition to the wing feathers and the disposition of the eyes (see Fig. 1.1). Furthermore, the legs have well-defined proportions in relation to the rest of the body structure.
In addition, there is a specific texture when depicting the scaliness of the skin, claws and paws encouraging a particularization in the visual description. The detail of the reflection is also found in the design of the eyes; according to Papp (1968), “after you finish drawing eyes, put ‘life’ on them, adding highlights (reflection)” (p. 51).
It is also worth mentioning the play of light and shadow that builds a visual artifice by which the image approaches the naturalistic way of illustrating. As Nancy Halliday (2003) mentions, “All actual colors (called the local color) must be subordinate to the shape, and the light and shadows that fall on it. Sunlight will whiten the color, shadows will darken as well as intensify them” (p. 419). This visual strategy is found in many of Pittau and Gervais’s birds, as in Manchot Royal (King Penguin), which presents yellow, black and white as local colours, while the light source on the right illuminates black and highlights white and yellow of the bird.
Following Blum’s (1993) classification, the naturalist artist is highlighted in the construction of a passionate prose in the “figuration of animals” (Kemp, 1998; Bruzzo, 2004). Visual representation tends to build more artistic exchanges, uniting scientific concepts with aesthetic choices. This position is endorsed by Zweifel (1988) when commenting that “every effort should be made to produce a picture that is artistically pleasing as well as biological correct. Not everyone will achieve technique of professional quality, but there are many things you can do to produce an attractive illustration” (p. 27).
The union between scientific and artistic nature in the production of an image can be seen in Plume. Simler’s attention to describing the feather’s morphology is significant, as such stylistic strategies definitely bring the visual description of scientific illustration techniques closer together. Two moments of intersection between the artistic and the scientific can be seen: the first is the attempt to clearly represent the structure of the feather. Simler’s successful undertaking of this complex allows the diversity of its chromatic patterns, size, and thickness to be distinguished. In the sequence of pages, there is a gradual increase in visual descriptions, from one to two feathers of the goose and peacock, and ending in the hen and duck with nine examples. The second moment of dialogue is in the front and back endpapers of the book, in which we see the illustrator’s handling dimensions and proportions, an important aspect of scientific illustration considered by Papp (1968).
It should be noted that in Plume the visual representations of the birds do not follow the scientific model, but are illustrated with rounded and non-uniform bodies; visual arts are added, such as the predominance of colder tones of colours, which are associated with the use of the pencil technique. The set of characteristics creates a scenario for a fictitious world – the world of representation – which is different from the description in reality – the represented world. In the image of the guineafowl, there is a rounded body and a head that deviates from the proportion of the shapes of a bird. Furthermore, we do not see the spots on its feathers or crest (see Fig. 1.2). For Nodelman (1988), “we associate certain emotions with certain shapes, the shapes of visual objects as they relate to their background and to the other objects can create tensions and thus imply meaning in themselves” (p. 126).
On the right page, the artistic representation of birds associates them with the field of fictionality. On the left page, the technique used for the respective bird’s feather is similar to the style of scientific illustration, such as the use of splashes of colour, the concern with pencil strokes and the most reliable format of the scientific object. The crossover of styles, markedly, with the artistic and scientific manifestation to express the world, brings together two realities and, above all, allows transcribing in visual form what Romo (2008) affirms: “the truth is not the privilege of science, nor the beauty of Art” (p. 74). In other words, the work associates factual information with poetic devices (Kesler, 2012).
The exchange between artistic expression and the scientific dimension is not explicitly noticeable only in the visual text. In some cases it is possible to find implicit stylistic references to the mode of scientific drawing.
Allusion to technique
Abecedário de Aves Brasileiras and Zoo are examples of allusion to stylistic features of scientific illustration. Both are characterized by being illustrations of high aesthetic content, which distort the scientific representation of living beings. However, allusions to the technique of scientific illustration can be seen, as in the visual composition of Oleiro (2009, Red Ovenbird), by Geraldo Valério (see Fig. 1.3). The text explains the origin of the bird’s name, which corresponds to the shape of the nest, similar to the clay oven, which is a typical Brazilian object. The collage technique was chosen to illustrate the bird and, to create the illusion of movement, the illustrator utilizes the visual resource that Van der Linden (2011) calls “instant movement”, that is, “capturing the essence of an action means giving the bird back this briefest moment, reducing the represented duration to a minimum” (p. 104).
This visual device in the picturebook is similar to the technique used by naturalists to enhance the vividness of visual representation and capture the bird’s behaviour in the environment. This shows an artistic immersion rather than a systematic analysis (Kemp, 1998). In this way, Valério’s scenario suggests a depth necessary for the chick to have half its body out of the nest waiting for food.
In Zoo the use of ink and watercolour constitutes two techniques of scientific illustrators to achieve precision and further detail the drawing. This is the case of the visual representation of the Rhinoceros, with different textures to distinguish the parts of the animal, such as the neck, ears, and above the structure of the legs.
In both cases, Zoo and Abecedário de Aves Brasileiras, the construction of the shading convention (Zweifel, 1988) is observed. This is a common visual resource in naturalistic scientific illustration allowing the viewer to visualize the drawing and interpret it more easily. Its use is seen, for example, in the play of light and shadow in Valério’s bird and Gabán’s Rhinoceros. The light source in Oleiro highlights the nest and the chick, while in the Rhinoceros, the textures are accentuated by the shading.
Some approximations that nonfiction books maintain with scientific illustration, either by direct citation or allusions to technique, were therefore observed. The use of stylistic strategies expands the visual repertoire of the child reader, as it allows the assimilation of a scientific technique, represented in an artistic way, in a semiotic object.
The Movements of Interaction
The dialogue between fiction and nonfiction mainly characterizes the strategies of style used by writers and illustrators, so that it becomes routine to find fictional elements in the contemporary production of nonfiction books for children. The stylistic effect that we call “movement of interaction” incorporates this procedure in the visual and verbal text. Thus, the presence of visual indexes or linguistic devices with a strong fictional intention is observed, with the objective of expanding the construction of information and, above all, the reading experience.
The movements of interaction, therefore, are visual and verbal indications of the presence of one or more characters that move, so that the composition of each doublespread suggests some sign of its presence, mainly by the interaction it establishes with the main object of the scene. The existence of these visual and verbal elements amplifies fictionality in a nonfictional setting and, above all, allows for humorous situations and piques the curiosity of the child reader.
The movements of interaction can present themselves as visual indices in the composition with what Zaparaín (2010) designates as off-screen, which “is a spatial ellipsis which excludes a scenic portion (characters, decoration, sound or atmosphere) that is significant for the story” (p. 160). In other words, the whole unframed reality would be positioned off-screen in relation to the main object of the frame, allowing the construction of a metonymic process of the part for the whole, “since in off-screen the blank space in itself is not used but rather how it relates to what has been selected” (Zaparaín, 2010, p. 165).
The off-screen can also cooperate towards the development of the polysemy of the image, guiding the reader, but without depriving the minimum information necessary for the scene to happen. Absences, by accentuating the reading experience, contribute to the progress of the plot. For Zaparaín (2010), establishing a frame or window
is the founding act through which the representation chooses the significant portions and confronts them with those rejected. It consists of a cut with its subsequent montage, either when creating the page with the frame (internal montage) or when sequencing various pages (external montage). This immediately generates the shot of the selected portion that in turn leaves the rest off-screen. (p. 166)
In this sense, such a device, while initially only spatial and the result of scenic isolation, creates subjective and aesthetic effects. In the case of nonfiction books, the presence of the off-screen brings about changes in the orientation of the information, as the tendency is for the reader to look at the multiple events on the doublespread, thus providing different ways of entering the reading experience.
Zaparaín (2010) indicates six modalities of off-screen in which the relationships between on frame and off frame are observed. They are: external objective off-screen; external omniscient off-screen; external subjective off-screen; internal off-screen; sonorous off-screen (sound in off) and interstitial off-screen. It is noteworthy that the first modalities are established within a frame, and only the last can be performed in a sequence. In this chapter, two modalities of off-screen are employed: the first, external objective off-screen, present in Plume; the second, internal off-screen, in Zoo.
The first modality “is what is not seen of the observed either because the scene does not refer to it, because it is momentarily off-scene or because it leaves one part outside the scene” (Zaparaín 2010, p. 168). Simler employs this visual action in Plume: the cat, who takes part in the scene, is not fully exposed until the end of the work, when he presents himself, “My name is Plume”. The existence of the cat is a visual artifice, produced in a humorous way, which creates expectation in the reader-viewer, encouraging them to look for the signs of his presence on the doublespread: on the cover we see his face, on the frontispiece we see the whiskers and in the first scene we notice his nose.
On the doublespread dedicated to the duck, there are some paw marks, which can be associated with Plume, the cat. This metonymic visual game, full of humour, goes on until the back cover. This artistic solution establishes a particular dynamic in the plot, since the static visual description of the birds contrasts with the movement of the cat when going through the book. Plume is our guide on this tour – he is the ornithologist who shows his favourite species, corroborated by the verbal passage “and … me? I collect feathers”.
The participation of the reader-viewer, based on this movement of interaction, is reinforced by the graphic design, whose absence of frames facilitates the reader to enter the scene. Furthermore, the existence of negative space in the background impacts on visual perception, as the visual details that the illustrator wishes to emphasize in the imagistic text are noted.
The second modality, internal off-screen, “is what is not seen of the shot, a surprising absence because the privileged eye of the observer accepts not seeing beyond the scene however does not expect things to be hidden from him in the scene” (Zaparaín, 2010, p. 171). In Zoo, the boy follows the animals on each page. His existence is not perceived by living things, since they are all in the foreground and looking in the direction of the reader-viewer (see Fig. 1.4). The boy, in contrast, directs his gaze, most of the time, to the animals.
The interplay between the boy’s presence/absence in Zoo takes place from the intersection of eyes, as the viewer sees the boy, but the characters do not. This movement of interaction is structured in the confluence of the visual statements of the scene. According to Zaparaín (2010), the use of internal off-screen allows the hierarchical overlap of elements within a focal pyramid, provided, above all, by the use of depth. The use of this device is seen on the page with nocturnal animals. There is the presence of the lighthouse, the moon with a human face and the owl positioned in the very foreground with its gaze directed towards the reader, as well as other animals, such as lemurs, owls, moths and fireflies, around it. The boy appears in the lower right corner, shrunken and mixed with the colour tones of the animals and the scenery. However, the privileged eye of the reader pursues his existence, above all for his search that he carries out on each corner of the page – thus assuming the character of the hunter (Certeau, 1980).
The question that justifies this study could be answered by analysing a set of works that establish bridges between scientific and artistic representation, and which results in the construction of a varied informational and imagery repertoire on the part of the child. Despite the innumerable benefits for children’s visual and scientific literacy, studies and research on nonfictional books need further study, since the lack of sedimented theoretical constructions seems to emerge from a dichotomous relationship between fiction and nonfiction. In this sense, fiction would boast a plethora of possibilities, since it carries with it the aesthetic contributions of literature. Nonfiction, in contrast, would be predisposed to the rationality of science, given that the concern with the construction of a concept, according to many scholars, goes hand in hand with the writing of nonfiction for children.
In a lot of academic, editorial and educational discourse, there has been a failure to appreciate the role that these works have in the development of the child reader. The arguments are based on the idea that books present didactic and educational content, since they favour disseminating information or a concept. The concept inherent to this idea is that the communication of information between children and adults is reduced only to the school environment, or even to the relationship between teacher and student.
Current nonfiction books overcome this perspective, offering different ways of expanding the informational repertoire that can be approached in different environments, such as in the library, at home, in the park or in other non-school locations. Thus, an information network extends to other mediators, uniting scientific and artistic procedures, fiction and information, and allowing the child to access a wide range of knowledge that would hardly be possible only through materials connected to the content of the school curriculum, such as textbooks.
Nonfiction for children, on the contrary, enables the expansion of world culture, access to free knowledge, and the extension of children’s experiences. Furthermore, and above all, there is the possibility of combining scientific education with the assumptions of artistic education. The benefits associated with other collections (artists’ books, wimmelbooks, concept books, abc books) and environments such as libraries, museums, zoos and art galleries will enable the development of the scientific, aesthetic and artistic spirit, since such works can normalize the exposed world view with lightness and organicity.