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3. A semiotic model of the nonnarrative picturebook

Smiljana Narančić Kovač (1957), Associate professor, Faculty of Teacher Education, University of Zagreb, Croatia. Author of a chapter in The Routledge companion to picturebooks (ed. B. Kümmerling-Meibauer, 2018). Editor-in-chief of Libri & Liberi.

This study starts from two pairs of categories: narrative vs. nonnarrative, and fiction vs. nonfiction. It proceeds to create a semiotic model of the nonnarrative picturebook in analogy with the previously established model of the narrative picturebook founded in the theory of the narrative. Nonnarrative meanings (items of knowledge) are communicated in (both fictional and nonfiction) nonnarrative picturebooks through the verbal-visual relationship of two discourses and their respective voices.

Keywords: knowledge, narrative, nonnarrative picturebook, semiotic model, voice

Both nonfiction and fiction picturebooks may be narrative or nonnarrative, and border cases are always possible. Yet, scholars sometimes tie the nonnarrative with nonfiction, implying that such texts offer fact and truth rather than invented or fanciful content. For example, Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott (2001) distinguish narrative and nonnarrative books so that they, “on the verbal side” (p. 8), detect “either a story or a nonnarrative text (a poem, a dictionary, a nonfiction text), and on the visual side a picture narrative […] or an exhibit book” (p. 12) (nonnarrative and nonsequential text). Jörg Meibauer (2015, p. 152) divides picturebooks into descriptive (nonfiction) and narrative (fiction) texts. However, many examples reveal that this issue is not so simple. In A family guide of house monsters (Marijanović, 1998), the focus is on metaphors of the bad habits of children and adults, with monsters such as Dr. Misplace, Oopsaloo, Instantania, Stupido Blento, and others. Dirty, envious, impatient, the monsters appear one by one in delightful verbal descriptions and explanations and in even funnier visual depictions of their bodies knocked together from incredible components. While fully descriptive, this picturebook is nevertheless fully fictional, even fantastic. As Frank Zipfel (2014) puts it, “[n]ot all fictional worlds are necessarily storyworlds, thus there can be fictional texts without a story” (p. 111).

From a semiotic perspective concerned with the structural and communicative aspects of texts, the focus here is not on fictionality (or nonfictionality), as fictionality depends on meanings of specific texts: “fictionality is not a semantic property of texts, nor a stylistic one, but a pragmatic feature; a feature that tells us what to do with the text” (Ryan, 2010, p. 10). Generally, if a narrative text refers to a storyworld which exists at the same level as the real author and the real reader, it is nonfiction, just like nonnarrative texts which refer to objects, persons, events or other elements of the real world (Narančić Kovač, 2020, p. 70). A large number of nonfiction picturebooks are nonnarrative as well. They include different kinds of concept books, topic books, children’s reference texts, etc. (Mallett, 2004). However, there are also many narrative nonfiction picturebooks, such as historical overviews, biographies, etc.

The meaning potential of nonfiction has been appreciated in recent research. Joe Sutliff Sanders (2018) focuses on those spots in children’s nonfiction “in which texts are more or less open to dialogue with their readers” (p. 18). He underlines that nonfiction is not committed to finished knowledge, but rather “becomes a place where experiments happen” (p. 41). Similarly, Nikola von Merveldt (2018) explains that information(al) books, as she calls them, “go far beyond facts, readily available elsewhere, to awaken curiosity, inspire awe and nurture community” (p. 232). She introduces this term explaining that nonfiction tends to “fall into the trap of the fact/fiction debate” (p. 232). The present study adopts the term nonnarrative picturebooks exactly because it incorporates both fact and fiction, and as it is an appropriate complement of the term narrative picturebooks.

While the semiotic structure of narrative picturebooks and the narrative strategies found in their discourses receive considerable attention (e.g. Nodelman, 1988; Sipe, 1998; Kümmerling-Meibauer, 1999; Nikolajeva & Scott, 2001; Painter, Martin & Unsworth, 2013), nonnarrative picturebooks have rarely been considered from that viewpoint. The semiotic model of the narrative picturebook used here as a starting point is rooted both in classical narratology (Genette, 1980; 1988; Chatman, 1978; 1990) and in the recent findings of transmedial and media-conscious narratology (Herman, 2004; Ryan, 2004; Grishakova & Ryan, 2010; Ryan & Thon, 2014), as well as in picturebook scholarship.

The aim of this study is twofold: first, to establish a semiotic model of the nonnarrative picturebook in analogy with the previously established model of the narrative picturebook (Narančić Kovač, 2015; 2018); and, second, to explore the characteristics of nonnarrative picturebook discourses to establish how they may present nonfictional contents.1

The Semiotic Structure and the Fallacy of the Unneeded Narrator

The following passages explain the circumstances of the construction of the abovementioned narrative picturebook model and set the grounds for the development of a nonnarrative one. The need for a clarification of the semiotic structure of the picturebook was recognised during an investigation of narrative perspectives (Narančić Kovač, 2011). The understanding that picturebooks often embrace different perspectives has been widely accepted among picturebook scholars, but analyses have often led researchers to a dead end, mostly because of the common fallacy of the unneeded narrator.

The duality of the picturebook format was the starting point in most studies in the early years of picturebook scholarship and it was considered crucial for the process of semiosis. Nikolajeva and Scott (2001) assert that the “unique character of picturebooks as an art form is based on the combination of two levels of communication, the visual and the verbal” (p. 1). Lawrence Sipe (1998) explained that “the total effect depends not only on the union of the text and illustrations but also on the perceived interactions or transactions between these two” (pp. 98–99). Yet, except in isolated studies,2 attempts to explain narrative perspectives in picturebooks have regularly failed to yield clear or reassuring results, despite the researchers’ familiarity with the theory of the narrative.

As understanding the notion of narrative perspectives was crucial for the (narrative) model in question, their theoretical relevance is explained below to clarify the process of discovery and to justify the model itself.

Gérard Genette (1980, pp. 189–190) defines perspective as a characteristic of the narrative voice, the narrator (the question “who speaks?”), and introduces the term focalisation (the question “who sees?”) to replace the more traditional term point of view. He distinguishes among three basic types of focalisation depending on whether or not the voice focalises the narration. Zero focalisation appears when the narrator does not restrict narrative information. Restrictions appear when the narrator filters narrative information either through the consciousness of a character (internal focalisation) or from a point placed “within the diegetic universe chosen by the narrator, outside every character” (external focalisation) (p. 75, emphasis in the original). The narrator (the voice) is the central concept, and focalisation (the narrative perspective) appears during narration as its attribute. Genette (1988) also explains that focalisation types rarely apply to entire works “but only to one or another segment, sometimes very brief” (p. 175). As perspective is a feature of the narrator, it follows that the presence of the narrator is a sine qua non of the existence of narrative perspectives in this theoretical approach.

In its beginnings, narratology was fully dedicated to literature, and the notion of narrator was understood as exclusively belonging to the medium of language, which led to the fallacy of the unneeded narrator, the term used here to refer to the widespread misunderstanding that non-linguistic media can and do narrate without a narrator. Even Seymour Chatman considered the possibility of “unnarrated” narratives that “do not give the sense of the narrator’s presence” (1978, p. 34), but he soon corrects himself and introduces the notion of the “cinematic narrator” as an impersonal agent and a composite of several expressive devices of the visual and the verbal “channels” used by the film medium (1990, pp. 135, 138). Thus, Chatman abandons what Genette considers to be “[t]he myth of the narrative without a narrator or of the story that tells itself” (1988, p. 98).

Picturebook scholarship was rather misleading in its approach to the notion of narrator, often seen as exclusive to the verbal discourse. For instance, a discrepancy was noticed “between the narrator’s subjective view of what is happening and our objective understanding of what the pictures show us” (Nodelman, 1988, p. 238), where the subjective perspective is ascribed to the one and only “narrator”, and objectivity to depersonalised pictures. Sometimes the link between the narrator and the focalisation is broken: “we should probably treat the words as primarily conveying the narrative voice, and pictures as primarily conveying the point of view” (Nikolajeva & Scott, 2001, p. 117). The next claim goes a step further, arguing that the voice and the perspective in children’s literature “seldom coincide, since the narrative voice belongs to an adult while the point of view is that of a child” (Nikolajeva, 2003, p. 11).

Nodelman (1991) encountered the problem of explaining different presentations of the character who takes on the role of a first-person narrator in the verbal layer, and is fully visible in the visual layer: “the pictures undercut the autodiegetic quality of the text, and make the words part of a larger narrative that can best be described by Genette’s term ‘heterodiegetic’” (p. 11). He concluded that any picturebook contained at least three stories: “the one told by the words, the one implied by the pictures, and the one that results from the combination of the first two” (Nodelman, 1991, p. 2). Many found two different stories in Rosie’s Walk (Hutchins, 1968): the hen’s story in the words, and the fox’s story in the images (e.g. Schwarcz, 1982, pp. 16–17; Arizpe & Styles, 2003, p. 28; Anstey & Bull, 2004, p. 332). Nikolajeva and Scott (2001) add that these two stories are told “from two different points of view” (p. 18). This finding is revealing, as will be explained below.

The Narrative and the Narrative Picturebook

The problems in interpretations of individual picturebooks caused by the fallacy of the unneeded narrator can be resolved through the application of Chatman’s model of the narrative (Fig. 3.1) on the picturebook format. Chatman shows that all narratives share the same basic structure, i.e. the elements of the storyworld (characters, events, happenings and settings) and that story is told by a narrative discourse.

Figure 3.1

Chatman’s model of the narrative (1978, p. 26).

In individual narratives, elements of the storyworld and the medium of narration are specified and unique: the characters have names and fictional personalities, and the plot is conveyed by means of a system or a combination of systems of signs (combined media, e.g. film, opera, etc.). The narration depends on the expressive possibilities of the specific medium. This implies that any story can be retold in another medium: “[a] storyworld often migrates from medium to medium” (Ryan & Thon, 2014, p. 19). The agent that selects elements of the story and arranges them in a specific order to construct the plot and tell the story is the narrator (voice). The narrator is a component of the discourse, so that a narrative discourse necessarily includes a narrator. Therefore, each of the picturebook discourses incorporates a narrator. These two narrators, the verbal and the visual, tell stories in cooperation. Both select and arrange elements of the same story differently in their respective discourses. The picturebook narrators are independent in their selection and combination of types of focalisation, and of other attributes of the narrating instance (narrator), i.e. person, narrative level, distance, time of narrating (Genette, 1980). The narrative strategies of two picturebook narrators differ because they depend on the narrative potentials of the respective systems of signs. The semiotic model of the narrative picturebook, based on these assumptions, is shown in Figure 3.2. The picturebook is a multimodal form because it depends on different modes of expression. However, this format is special. Unlike the combined discourses of other multimodal narratives, the discourses of the picturebook are separate and work together to tell the story. Besides, picturebook discourses exchange features, and thus both become multimodal; they are tailored to the needs of the picturebook format (Narančić Kovač, 2015, p. 440), which is an intermodal entity: “[a]n intermodal relation is present when one mode has a definable influence on the expression, semantic, and/or stylistic properties of another mode in a specific text” (Siefkes, 2015, p. 115).

Figure 3.2

The semiotic model of the narrative picturebook (Narančić Kovač, 2018, p. 412)3

Our model clearly shows that Rosie’s Walk conveys only one story, not two. It is, indeed, told “from two different points of view”, as quoted above, but different types of focalisation are chosen by two different narrators, not one. Because both discourses share the same elements of the same storyworld, there is only one story. The narrators use different perspectives: the heterodiegetic verbal narrator focalises the telling through Rosie. She does not know that a fox is following her, so the narrator cannot reveal this piece of narrative information without betraying the internal focalisation of the verbal discourse. The heterodiegetic visual narrator does not restrict narrative information, and thus applies zero focalisation. This example of a fictional narrative picturebook supports the validity of the model and the efficacy of its simple structure in explaining semiotic features of the picturebook format. Nodelman’s problem with the homodiegetic verbal narrator simultaneously presented in the “objective” visual discourse is also easily explained now: it is possible and even common to encounter narrators of different kinds in two picturebook discourses, such as the homodiegetic verbal narrator and the heterodiegetic visual narrator. It is not surprising that the verbal narrator/character is shown by the visual narrator.

The Nonnarrative Picturebook

The model of the nonnarrative picturebook (Fig. 3.3) is only slightly different from that of the narrative picturebook because both belong to the same intermodal form. The models differ in the nature of the content and voices. The cooperation of the visual and verbal voices in conveying the meanings is very similar in both models.

Figure 3.3

The model of the nonnarrative picturebook.

Identifying the content common to all nonnarrative picturebooks, equivalent to story, is the main difficulty. As mentioned above, nonnarrativity has often been associated with factuality in children’s literature scholarship, but these two concepts are not interchangeable. While nonnarrative picturebooks do embrace facts, they may also be about beliefs, or fictional entities. Margaret Mallett (2004) states that the main intention of information texts is “to impart knowledge and ideas” (p. 622). However, items of knowledge and ideas do not necessarily refer only to factual reality, but rather include fictional worlds, abstract ideas beyond simple concept books, opinions, interpretations, etc. It appears that knowledge functions well as a common denominator of different kinds of nonnarrative picturebooks, whether fictional or nonfictional. Zins (2007) lists definitions of knowledge by 45 information science scholars. The definition that is closest to the idea of knowledge appropriate for our model is offered by Charles H. Davis:

Knowledge involves both data and the relationships among data elements or their sets. This organization of data based on relationships is what enables one to draw generalizations from the data so organized, and to formulate questions about which one wishes to acquire more data. That is, knowledge begets the quest for knowledge, and it arises from verified or validated ideas. (Zins, 2007, p. 482)

While the story is defined by its elements, knowledge can be represented by items of different kinds (sometimes overlapping): facts, data, information, processes, concepts, ideas, beliefs, skills, principles, instructions, etc. They may be acquired or learned during the reading process.

As shown in Figure 3.3, knowledge is conveyed by means of nonnarrative discourses. The traditional classification of texts embraces four categories: descriptive, argumentative, expository and narrative, combined in specific texts. Depending on different contexts and criteria, various lists can be compiled. Mallet (2004) names several types: “recount, report, explanation, instruction, discussion and persuasion” (p. 623). Narration is the only type of text that is not relevant for the nonnarrative picturebook. While narrators use narrative devices and principles to organise narrative information, nonnarrative voices apply logical or scientific methodological principles to do the same: they compare, classify, describe, explain, etc.

The role of the visual and verbal voices is to select and organise the items of knowledge to inspire the reader and invite a dialogic relationship. The term utterer for both verbal and visual voices is used here in analogy with the term narrator. The two utterers present content simultaneously, in active cooperation.

Examples from nonnarrative ABC picturebooks are analysed below to assess the potential of their discourses to convey complex meanings and engage the reader. ABC books are used for two main reasons. Firstly, this picturebook genre has a long history. According to Patricia Craig (2000), “[f]rom 1750 on, the alphabet was dressed up and decked out, animated, ornamented, narrated, and consumed” (p. 64). The analysed examples are primarily old ABCs, with a few Croatian 20th century items. This selection is representative of the nonnarrative picturebook in general, just as more recent titles would be. Secondly, as Nodelman (2001) shows, ABC books, often considered simple and unchallenging, demand sophisticated skills from young readers:

Understanding what the eye meets in the context of culture and language always requires more than meets the eye. […]. The simple text is accompanied by an unspoken and much more complex shadow – a text not actually there but implied and required in order to make sense of the actual text. (p. 243)

This implies that discourses of nonnarrative ABC books offer an array of strategies to convey meanings. Most are nonfiction, but the line between fictional and nonfictional may be thin. Besides, narrative ABC books are also common, such as Wanda Gág’s The ABC bunny (1933) which combines the alphabet with a story about a bunny’s day. Such picturebooks treat the “alphabet as a plot element” (Craig, 2000, p. 65), but they are not analysed here, except for one borderline case (Greenaway, 1886).

In the picturebook ABC (Kirin, 1951), an image of two realistically presented but sad zebras (one standing, the other lying down, their heads touching affectionately), is accompanied by a red “Z” and a grey “z” in the top left-hand corner of the page and by the widely spaced word “Zebra” at the bottom. The scene is depicted with special care to engage the reader and kindle curiosity (Are these zebras in the zoo? Do they live in groups? Are they related and, if so, how?). The verbal discourse only offers information on the spelling of the word and what its initial letter looks like.

In The young child’s ABC (Anderson, 1806), “Z” is also combined with the word “Zebra” (Fig. 3.4), but, this time, it is a much merrier zebra in motion. The verbal utterer adds the initial and the word, and the reader is invited to ask questions (Where does this animal live? Why is it running?) and explore other items of knowledge offered by two utterers in cooperation on the same page.

Figure 3.4

The young child’s ABC (1806), by Alexander Anderson, Samuel Wood.

In The uncle’s present: A new battledoor (Bewick, [1810?] 1964), the utterers contribute the item for “Z” in a framed cell of a table (Fig. 3.5). The visual utterer offers an image of a man in a hat and coat holding two maps. The capital and small letters are placed left and right of the man’s head, and the text: “Zealand, or England & a Map of the World” at the bottom. There is a strong connection between the visual and the verbal utterances. The reader is invited to decipher the image based on the clues given by the words, but the visual utterer makes it more complicated: the map shows a shape that can be interpreted as the Danish island Zealand (Sjælland), but only very approximately. This item demands engagement from the reader who needs to find maps of territories named by the verbal utterer and resolve the visual puzzle.

Figure 3.5

The uncle’s present: A new battledoor ([1810?] 1964), by Thomas Bewick, Jacob Johnson.

In A apple pie (Greenaway, 1886), “Z” is the last in a row of letters contributed by the verbal utterer, which at first does not seem to be connected with a group of six young girls eating pieces of an apple pie, minutely presented by the visual utterer (Fig. 3.6). A correct reading of the verbal text rewards the reader by the rhyming of the sound of the letter, “zed”, and the last of the hand-printed words: “all had a large slice and went off to bed”. The sophisticated cooperation of the two voices is activated by the reader who reveals that the names of the letters are the girls’ names, or, conversely, that the visual utterance of the girls metaphorically represents letters eating the pie. This picturebook is a true borderline case, a combination of the nursery rhyme with a basic narrative (sequential) structure, and a nonnarrative ABC book. This book is also fictional with a real-world task. It lacks a consistent storyworld, and the sequence of events that happen to a pie turns the rhyme (and the picturebook) into a mnemotechnical text rather than into a fictional story.

Figure 3.6

A apple pie (1886), by Kate Greenaway, George Routledge & Sons.

In Abecedanje [A-B-C-Ding] (Vitez, 1989), each page is dedicated to one letter. While the verbal utterer is almost silent, the visual utterer is rather talkative. Letters are surrounded by numerous objects, and the reader is invited to remember as many words as possible that begin with the letter in question and refer to an object in the visual discourse at the same time. The visual discourse is playful and offers multiple meanings. The reader may refer to some objects around the letter “K” by using words which do not all begin with “k”. The image of the statue of the Croatian 10th-century king on a horse recalls not only the synonymous words “kip” or “spomenik” ‘statue’, but also “jahač” ‘rider’. An informed reader could say “kralj Tomislav” ‘King Tomislav’, etc. Due to the dialogue of the two nonnarrative voices and the addressee, this picturebook is both demanding and rewarding for the reader.

Nonnarrative picturebook discourses are capable of conveying complex ideological meanings and messages, as in An A B C for baby patriots (Ames, 1899). Figure 3.7 presents the doublespread of “K”. The meaning of “naughty kings” is confusing without the visual discourse, and two utterers send strong imperialistic messages together. The same book provides an example of metafiction. The back-cover single image shows a man seated in an armchair with a book open on the “F” page. He is reading the same book the real reader is holding in her hands.

Figure 3.7

An A B C for baby patriots (1899), by Mary Francis Ames, Dean & Son.

Final Remarks

The presented semiotic model of the nonnarrative picturebook confirms that its structure is analogous to that of its narrative pair. The analysis of the discourses of nonnarrative picturebooks has shown that they share important characteristics with the discourses of narrative picturebooks: they are multimodal and establish intermodal relations, convey multiple meanings in cooperation, set the scene for interactivity, exploration and interrogation, and engage the reader to actively participate in a dynamic dialogue. In contrast to narrative picturebook discourses, these do not convey stories or construct storyworlds. Their voices or utterers offer readers structured information and different items of knowledge. Finally, both semiotic models (narrative and nonnarrative) can be applied to either fictional or nonfiction picturebooks.

The presented models can be applied to different genres of nonfiction picturebooks to further test their consistency and reveal possible genre-related varieties.


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1See more on nonfiction picturebook discourses in Narančić Kovač (2020).
2For example, Angela Yannicopoulou’s analysis of narrative perspectives in picturebooks is based on Genette. She detects two narrative voices in a dialogic relationship, but finds written and illustrative “narratives” (2010, p. 66) within a book which is a narrative itself. The lack of a clear semiotic model renders the consistency of such a theoretical approach less convincing.
3This model was first discussed in Narančić Kovač (2011).

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