The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 9, No 2 (2005)

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Babes in the Wood: Picturing Displaced Children

Kathryn E. Shoemaker


From the earliest told tales to the modern picture book, through fact and fiction, storytellers have searched for meaning in the hardships and calamities that befall children: children disappear; they die; they are kidnapped, victimized by war, family strife, economic hardships, political turmoil and by natural disasters. Until illustration was added to the printed story images of displaced children remained in the filtered imaginations of listeners and readers. Printed illustration particularizes images related to a text, infusing a story with yet another specific point of view. This point of view is related to, though different from, the writer's and the viewer/reader's perspective. This article discusses some visual strategies of viewer distance used in picturing fiction and nonfiction stories about displaced children.

There is a perception that difficult subjects make special demands on the illustrator's knowledge of the subject and the intended audience; however difficult subjects make no more taxing demands on the illustrator than any other subject. As with all subjects, some illustration strategies are better suited to one theme or storyline than others. And as with all subjects, some illustrators are better suited to some themes more than others by virtue of their personal interests, sensitivities and skills. Here I examine the visual depiction of children who have been forced to make meaning out of a painful present, loss, death, and sad memories of the past at a time when they should be making meaning out of a promising present, its changes, family, community and future. It is a subject that concerns children whose daily lives have been catapulted into a world of trauma, adult-sized problems and emotional overload. Intense emotional content and striking plot lines make the subject compelling and one that needs visual strategies that create sufficient distance between the charged content and the viewer/reader to allow time for the viewer to set the terms of emotional engagement.

Many early children's books were written to prepare children for a happy death and joyful entrance to heaven. Randolph Caldecott's illustrations for Babes in the Woods in the 1870s set the bar high for illustrators working on this subject by avoiding sentimentality and using composition to give the viewer a safe distance from the cruel facts of the children's harsh life. This strategy allows the viewer to absorb the overall story without becoming focused only on the children's end. Unlike Hansel and Gretel Caldecott's two babes perish in the cold woods huddled in each other's arms. Robins cover them with autumn leaves.

Both the child and adult viewer/reader may need various kinds of space and filters to stay engaged in difficult material, most especially when the work is intended to enlighten and transform the viewer's understanding of a serious subject. From the nineteenth century to the twenty-first, from Babes in the Woods to Gregory Rogers' Space Travellers and Way Home, Sendak's We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, Allan Say's Home of the Brave and Innocenti's Erika's Story, illustrators have pictured achingly poignant subjects. Successful illustrators have established visual or textual distance or used filters of humour, colour or abstractions to help the viewer "stay with the program", so to speak.

Sometimes writers and illustrators detract from a subject by blurring or filtering it with visual and textual techniques that put text and pictures at cross-purposes. That is not to say that text and pictures can't be set at cross-purposes quite intentionally, and to just the right effect. However, if the story is about real and present displaced children but is visually presented as a fanciful metaphor, the heart of the story can be lost or sadly diminished. Every now and then a new version of a fairy tale set in contemporary time appears. These are often unsatisfying stories because the harsh reality of the present blocks the transition into the metaphor. There are successful methods, though, of illustrating stories of displaced children in less than completely realistic ways.

In a similar way loss occurs when visual fantasy or textual fantasy is used to tell contemporary stories of displacement, as in Margaret Wild's Space Travellers (1992), illustrated by Gregory Rogers. Both the text and illustrations portray the placid romantic fantasy of a single mother and her young son sleeping in the city park's rocket ship. Muted hazy lighting romanticizes the setting. Although a few bird's-eye shots provide a larger picture of the city, most illustrations are within ten feet of the viewer. The space travel fantasy inadvertently makes light of a homeless mentally ill woman's delusional reality. In fact, the hazy lighting lights, brightens and cleans up everyone. Who is this fantasy for? And what age is the intended reader? Real homeless children of any age would marvel at their world portrayed through such soft filters. Non-homeless children under the age of five might find it quite appealing to sleep in the rocket and eat hot dogs for breakfast but older children would likely question the premise.

A few years later Gregory Rogers brilliantly illustrated Libby Hathorn's book, Way Home (1994) in a dramatically more realistic style than his work in SpaceTravellers. Way Home tells the story of a young urban street boy who finds a stray kitten. Visually, from the cover on into the story pages, this is clearly a book for older readers that honestly portrays a daunting urban environment. Language and illustration reinforce each other in a tense drama by using a fierce but slightly abstract realism. Child and cat fight their way through the glaring lights and sounds of the city and into the scary dark shadows of alleyways and hideouts. Both the illustrations and text pull the reader through a chase, into a detour, and finally to a tiny safe space of hope.

Rogers introduces the boy and the back lanes of a seedy inner city in a double spread in which the viewer is at a forty-foot distance. The boy is seen against half a block of buildings with many doorways and passageways, windows and rooftops to visually scramble over and into. The first illustration gives the viewer an immediate and specific visual sense of the physical setting. Text provides the sounds and emotion of the situation. The next page is a close-up view of the boy looking at the stray cat tucked inside his jacket. The viewer is only a foot away from the boy, but the boy and cat are engaged with each other, not with the viewer. This visual nearness establishes the boy's protective relationship with the cat and sets the rest of the story in motion. Later close-ups intensify the warmth of the relationship between cat and boy. In two other situations close-ups are used to intensify the threat of a cruel dog and the danger of being chased through hectic city traffic. All other scenes are rendered from a distance that gives the viewer room to move, room to escape.

The text is reversed out of torn black strips slashed across the scenes so that the white torn edges run across the pages. All text is placed securely on an ample piece of black, allowing the reader/viewer to rest upon the text, to stop a while. If viewers dare to quickly flip through the pages of the book, it looks very dark and scary. However, in the well-conceived visual perspective, viewer distance, pacing and gritty storytelling, a poetic sense of hope survives even in the shadows of a very dark and scary city.

Maurice Sendak's 1993 book, We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, also concerns street kids and some cats and some rats. Illustrated in Sendak's comic style on borderless pages the viewer sits in the first row of the theatre, very up close and personal, which ramps up the emotional charge of the story. Sendak put the viewer nose to nose with the characters. However, since they are more like actors in a play or animated comic in their semi-abstract rendering they are in fact less disturbing than realistically drawn children would be at a nose-to-nose distance. Most of the text is embedded in the scenes, often in speech balloons, integral to the composition, maintaining the performance format.

In his book Home of the Brave (2002), Allen Say uses the textual poetic distance of a dream to travel back in time to a Japanese internment camp. Using borders and long shots he initially establishes substantial distance between the viewer and the main character, who moves into a dreamscape. Moving into the heart of the story, the viewer's position gently moves closer to the pictured subjects until it is right next to the dreamer as he meets two lost children. One of the children stares right into the viewer's eyes, demanding interaction. That action is the literal and textual center of the story. In the next spread the viewer has moved back into a public distance and now views the threesome as they struggle through a haze. During the dream sequence the viewer's public position is then shifted again back into the dreamer's side as he faces a crowd of interned children asking to be taken home. As the dreamer awakens, the viewer is once again standing next to him for a moment of direct interaction with a group of contemporary children. Home of the Brave uses public visual distance to establish the idea of the story and then uses the illustrated demands by the dream children and by the contemporary children to engage the viewer/reader. The main character's face is only visible once as he is swept away into his dream, portrayed as an underground river. In all other illustrations the viewer sees him from a distance or doesn't see him at all because the viewer is standing right next to him. The distance scenes support the idea of the internment camp and the children, so realistically drawn, connect the viewer emotionally to their plight.

Erika's Story (2003) by Ruth Vander Zee and illustrated by Roberto Innocenti is a true story of Jewish baby thrown from the cattle car by its mother. This book begins in the full-colour present and goes back into the past with a gray but finely detailed realistic rendering of a 1944 Jewish transport train. In the first scene soldiers oversee a line of roughly thirty men, women and children boarding a cattle car. The viewer is at a distance of forty to fifty feet, a wide horizontal view. No faces are visible. It is an impersonal, public distance with one large word in capitals, VERBOTEN, written on a wood and barbed wire barrier. In the next scene, a narrow horizontal slice of the railcar on one page shows no faces, only adults from waist to feet. The only whole visible body is the back of a child held close to an adult. The viewer is standing closer to the scene but only has access to a restricted window into it. The opposing page shows the same car and the back of a soldier securing the sliding door. Throughout the book the text is set on lines spaced one inch apart. The spacing of lines of text sets a slow and steady rhythm that continues through the rest of the book. The next four illustrations, set at the same long distance, are single full-page pictures with three-quarter-inch borders and rendered in gray, with the exception of a pink bundle flying out of the train on one page and on the next page a pink bundle resting on a patch of gray grass. The last double spread is in full colour and is clearly of a time past trouble.

Some of the strongest illustrated stories of displaced children appear to thoughtfully employ strategies of visual distance to help the viewer maintain a sense of physical safety while observing painful, heartbreaking episodes. In other successful books the use of a comic illustration style abstracts the story, thus distancing or buffering the viewer/reader from realistic and highly charged emotional images. These illustration strategies help viewer/readers stay longer with difficult stories by giving them room to move around, and room to stand back when the going gets tough so that they may deal with the overall ideas or themes. The pillowing effect of distance and the use of an abstracted or comic style prevent, as Roger Ebert states, "the very fact of that image... [getting] in the way of the meaning of that image." (The Grave of the Fireflies) As he goes on to state in the same interview, "emotion is underneath the art." And so it should be in successful picturebooks about displaced children.

Works Cited

Hathorn, Libby. Way Home. Illustrated by Gregory Rogers. Sidney: Random House Australia, 1994.

Nosaka, Akiyuki. The Grave of the Fireflies. New York: Central Park Media Corporation, 2002 DVD with special features added to 1988 film.

Riordan, James. Babes in the Woods. Illustrated by Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886). A Golden Classics Edition. London: Century Hutchinson Ltd., 1988

Say, Allen. Home of the Brave. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Sendak, Maurice. We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.

Vander Zee, Ruth. Erika's Story. Illustrated by Rober Innnocenti. Mankato: Creative Editions, 2003.

Wild, Margaret. Space Travellers. Illustrated by Gregory Rogers. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1992.

 

Kathryn E. Shoemaker


Volume 9, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, 2 April, 2005

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"Babes in the Woods: Picturing Displaced Children"
© Kathryn E. Shoemaker, 2005.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680