Emerging Voices

Fear and Foliage: The Role of the Forest in the Picture Books of Molly Bang

Pamela Fairfield

Pamela Fairfield is currently in her final year of the Master of Library and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, completing in June 2009. She holds degrees in English from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and in Theatrical Costume Studies from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. In 2005, stemming from a three-year period as the Curator of the Interurban Gallery in Vancouver, Pamela published the title essay for Anvil Press’s Painted Lives & Shifting Landscapes: Paintings, Prints and Murals of Richard Tetrault. She believes the library, like the gallery, is a place for everyone to engage in the communal environment of learning.

The picture books of Molly Bang are complex constructions, where the negotiation between image and text contains an appropriate ellipsis that does not distance the pictorial narrative from the textual story but creates room for the reader to explore the impact the images produce within an emotional space. Molly Bang creates a complete visual experience, likened to that of a viewing a visual work of art, but complicated and pushed forward by the embellishment of text.  Our understanding of the birth of a book often begins with the author’s creation of the narrative text. To this the illustrator adds pictures, enhancing the story’s meaning with visual expression.  But in Bang’s picture books, the classic understanding of illustration as embellishment is upturned; she begins with a picture from which her story unfolds. Her picture books -The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, Goose, Old Mother Bear  and When Sophie Gets Angry— Really, Really Angry… - provide a sampling of unconventional representations of picture-text relations where the role of the forest becomes a place of accommodation for the conveyance of emotional suspense within the narratives. In this selection of four major works illustrated by Molly Bang, the relationship between text and image does not disintegrate meaning in one entity or the other but each enhances the other’s presence within a unified whole, achieving communality within the experience of storytelling.

Authors and illustrators create in the picture book a parallel world where the experience of word and text can be enjoyed and remembered by audiences of both children and adults. Children run to the shelves of libraries and bookstores, exclaiming with joy, “I read this in school! Look! There is Prunella, the pink frog who can fly!!” The emotional satisfaction a child experiences in recognizing a text he or she remembers and understands is immeasurable. It can be attributed to the successful production of a book, whose words and pictures impact one another with layers of meaning that, in doing so, extend narrative meaning far beyond the confines of the facility of each component. A child’s excitement surrounding the memory of a story lies not in the separate entities of a word or a picture but in the combined experience where the two intermingle. In this example, the name “Prunella” is associated with the image of “ a pink frog” and the pleasurable anticipation of the plot– a frog who engages in the process of learning to fly and who experiences her world from an aerial perspective. The mingling of text and image enriches a child’s narrative experience by stimulating the recollection of one entity that signifies the other.

Perry Nodelman writes about exactly the opposite experience: the pessimistic relationship between picture and text, where one limits the other, thereby creating “irony” as a by-product of their coexistence (qtd. in Sipe 98). In his essay “How Picture Books Work,” Nodelman writes, “In fact pictures by themselves convey very little;” and further,  “in some instances, pictures may actually hinder communication” (2). He describes an incident in a nursery, where a student conducted an experiment to demonstrate the importance of the picture to a young child’s understanding of the story. The children were divided into two groups where the first were read a story, only in words, and the second received the same story with the accompanying images. The surprising results showed that the children who were told the story with pictures drifted around during the storytelling, remembering very little later (2). Nodelman attributes this effect, in part, to the fragmentary way in which we receive images, compared to the linear arrangement of a textual narrative that promotes concentration. He concludes that images in picture books do not convey a story as readily as words but are important in the way that they give us “exact knowledge of appearances,” especially in the case of young readers, who may not have the life experience and accompanying linguistic attachment (3). But, perhaps pictures provide another level of stimulation that remains undiscovered within emergent literacy research. Do pictures provide a sense of thrill that transmutes into a full body experience, causing physical movement that takes young children to the center of the storytelling circle, where the narrative can be received through the communal experience of meeting and engaging with other children through physical response? Without in depth information about the storytelling study, including specifics regarding the story that was read, further conclusions can not be made. An interesting question arises when transferring Nodelman’s conclusions to the picture books of Molly Bang: what would he say about The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, where no words exist and illustration is the only element used throughout the entire book to convey the narrative meaning?

Molly Bang’s illustrative ability far exceeds that of many artists who attempt picture books. Clearly, her work falls much more appropriately into the optimistic view of picture-text relations that David Lewis represents, where picture books are “genuinely composite: a single fabric woven from two different materials” (4). Molly Bang moves beyond the conventional structure of the picture book where words represent linguistic signs that move the narrative forward and pictures are a pictorial representation of the present that slows the pace of reading (Nikolajeva and Scott 1, 117). She excites the parameters of the traditional picture book and enters into the world of play where “the capacity to constantly reshape the format” is an exhilarating possibility for both the “picturebook maker” and the reader (Lewis xv).  The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher is a fine example of such continual metamorphosis of the format, taking it to the edge of one extreme, where Bang creates the wordless picture book. If critics were to apply Nodelman’s theory to this book, it would fall into a chasm of misunderstanding, where only a vague meaning could be drawn from even the most striking images. Without the signage of linguistic presence, The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcherwould remain lost in the forest of entanglement, circling among grey tree trunks in search of ever-evasive meanings. But, this is not the case at all! Bang illustrates the story with deliberate detail, making it impossible for the reader to miss the meaning or be caught outside of the narrative flow. In images at onset of the narrative, the Grey Lady appears in close proximity to a series of frames, those of doors or windows, helping the reader to signify that she is the central figure of the story. The grey cloak at the beginning of the story causes her to stand out against the opulent and colorful backdrop of the house she visits, while bearing her gift of strawberries. This sets her up as an obvious victim for the Strawberry Snatcher, who wears a garish green robe with a scarlet lining. The Strawberry Snatcher’s costume leaves his long boney hands exposed. With the embellishment of red tips, his fingers become the linking element for the eventual objects of his thievery—the strawberries. The cloak is a critical feature of the Grey Lady’s existence, considering that she is a woman of color. Ironically, the garment of non-color, with its potential to completely envelope, assists her disappearance into the surface of certain backdrops—the community’s paved roads and the grey tree trunks of the forest—in her attempts to escape from her opponent. The visual appearance of the two main characters constantly refers to the story’s title so that, with the consistency of their appearance (or disappearance, as the case may be!), the reader does not lose sight of the plot or its meaning.

In The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, Molly Bang employs the important narrative device of the forest to create a space in which the plot can play out and where readers can explore the set of emotions that accompanies the condition of being chased. With its symbolism established within the fairytale tradition, the forest within the storybook becomes a transformative space, existing outside the realm of commonplace living (Zipes 2). Illustrators and authors frequently present the forest as a dark landscape from where danger, enchantment and mythic-like creatures emerge to provide not only complexity to the plot but an alternative location in which fantastical world’s outside the tangible can be created and explored. In The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, Molly Bang uses the forest as a site where a representative of the utopian domestic world—the Grey Lady—meets a character from the dystopian underworld—the Strawberry Snatcher—in order to find resolution between the conflicting states of existence that emanate from two diverse realms. The forest, in this story, is not an enchanted place, but rather an extension of the everyday world that allows for the emotion of fear surrounding the psychological condition of being hunted to emerge. It also permits for the surfacing of the complex notion of visibility and invisibility with regards to race. Within the first third of the story, in an image that depicts the house’s hallways, a tree trunk appears in the foreground, signifying the start of the chase but also connecting the tree to the corporeal world the reader occupies. In another picture, the placement of a copse in a cul-de-sac, just before the edge of the forest, symbolizes the transitional space where the story leads from one location to another, yet still maintains inter-relation. In this way, the Grey Lady’s journey into the forest does not require a high degree of suspension of disbelief but inspires mystery and intrigue that pushes the narrative plot. Her return to the safety of the domestic realm, where she can share the fruits of her travels with loved ones, is realistic. The transformation that overtakes the Strawberry Snatcher does not happen with enchantments present in a fantastical land, but relies on accident and coincidence, elements that are much more closely related to the temporal world. The cloak of the Grey Lady’s Cape finally provides her with the refuge of invisibility, as she disappears into the sudden and consuming grey space of the story’s backdrop. The Strawberry Snatcher chases her into this ambiguous space and, in doing so, discovers the green leaves of blackberry brambles and the abundant fruit they bare. The resolution of the story occurs here, as he happily gorges and fills his emaciated body. The silent author’s final illusion is the transformation that takes place in the mind of picture-reader as we realize that the reason for the snatcher’s thievery is hunger. Suddenly, his emaciated body, juxtaposed with the body of the plump lady he pursued, adds a political dimension that comments on the economic status of the characters and causes the reader to rethink the multiple meanings that this non-text presents.  Molly Bang successfully presents the intricacy of this innovation without one word. The “un-text” picture book, then, creates an unwritten site, where multiple meanings that exist behind a narrative can surface, intermingle and form new profundity.

Like the picture-less story, the “non-textual” story provides a place for the reader to interpret and create their own version of the narrative with the visual cues they recognize and understand that relate to learned linguistic cues. In fact, this innovative form of the picture book is not necessarily wordless but provides room for the development of the imagined text! It becomes a valuable instructional tool for parents who can ask questions that promote their child to gain an understanding of narrative creation. This is not at all beyond the capability of young readers; for their capacity to accept and understand the narrative form is at a surprisingly high level of sophistication at a very early age.

Mark Turner, Professor at University of Maryland, presents another facet of the importance of storytelling in relation to early childhood development inThe LiteraryMind: “The way we structure story preceeds, neurologically, the development of language in the human mind....the sense of story may be with a child at birth; our brains may come 'programmed' to connect events into meaningful stories" (qtd. in Dresang 64-5). This new literacy paradigm suggests that learning occurs in real-life settings where "literacy has real functions" and social interaction is learned through role models (Ross, Mckecknie and Rothbauer 73). What might seem like a simple natural mothering instinct—the very act of reading—has proven to be a crucial activity, aiding in the advancement of children’s language ability and literacy learning, as they develop into young readers and approach the world of instructional learning.

Molly Bang considers The The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, published in 1980, to be her “first real book” (Bang). It provides an important canvas where the symbolism of the forest emerges and is represented in a non-traditional way, repeating itself throughout the next two decades of her book production. The tree at the center of the forest takes on a mystical presence, particularly within the picture book, When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry…, a story about a little girl who can not contain the rage she feels within the confines of her home. She runs out into the external natural world of the forest that is a cooler, darker place in contrast to the hotly-colored chaotic internal location of her home, where playtime with her sister no longer feels safe. The utopian arrangement we first see in The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, is upturned in Sophie’s story. Sophie’s entry into the natural world is accompanied by winds that whip the dark branches of the trees, which are grey at their center but possess foliage outlined with a crimson hue. Their leaves bear the mark of Sophie’s rage, pictured earlier in the scarlet lettering of— EXPLODE—that erupts in all its flaming glory from the center of a volcano, bursting through the floor boards of the playroom. In a book where the text so closely complements the pictures without any disruption of meaning, it is apt that words take on a pictorial presence.

In classic Bang style, the forest at first appears dark and disconcerting, as a very small version of Sophie runs into a tilted landscape of diagonal shapes, where the precarious placement of tree trunks emits a sense of chaos and danger, appearing as if they could fall upon her at any moment (Picture This 22). But within one turn of a page, the forest provides a haven where Sophie’s rage can turn to tears. The trees become silent and still, as she walks among their comforting trunks and begins to take in her natural surroundings—a fern, a song of a bird. The darkness of the forest transforms rapidly from a place of potential danger to one where the round grey silhouettes of its floor provide a sense of nurturing that recalls the shape of the womb. Soon, Sophie sees an old grey beech tree and crawls into its arms which offer a front row seat to a spectacular ocean view from where the “wide world comforts her” (When Sophie Gets Angry).  Molly Bang’s illustration of the tree grows with each page until its form fills the entire canvas. It becomes the central stabilizing force, acquiring a mystical presence, against which the resolution of Sophie’s anger can occur. A remarkably similar tree inhabits the pages of the Grey Lady’s narrative, published almost twenty years earlier, and becomes a physical representation of the point at which the denouement of her story can occur. Like the tree in Sophie’s story, the maternal branches change the emotional direction of the narrative, allowing for the story’s end to take place in a restored utopian location that is domestic.

The representation of the forest as a domestic location, where safety connects to the presence of the maternal, continues on with strong symbolism in Molly Bang’s illustrations for Victoria Miles’ Old Mother Bear. Molly Bang uses rounded images to produce a nurturing and protective presence in the female grizzly, who at the beginning of the narrative digs a den in the mountain side, where she can bear her cubs. Her roundness softens the potential fear a grizzly can make a child feel. Old Mother Bear’s body after the birth magnificently occupies the full canvas of the book’s double page with her dark presence, returning readers to the prenatal site of the womb. Bang enlarges Mother Bear’s image again by one hundred percent in a beautiful illustration of the four young cubs sleeping in the shadow of their mother’s belly, with only her paws eloquently placed to signify her presence.

The forest fosters an environment of nourishment for the bear family in early spring, offering up swamp lanterns for the hungry cubs to eat and a half frozen deer carcass for the mother. During the summer, berries emerge in the foliage of the hills and valleys. In a vivid rendering of a tapestry of leaves, a smaller frame encapsulates the family of bears grazing, suggesting an ephemeral safety; while at the same time an ominous feeling takes hold, as readers realize the family is inside the site lines of a dangerous gaze. The claws of a hungry male grizzly enter the edge of the larger leaf tapestry, inducing a sense of fear. The forest becomes a refuge for Mother Bear during the chase, as she returns to the safety of its canopy, temporarily losing her male opponent. The domestic symbolism of the forest is reinforced, as the mother rests among the stumps, which also provide a play area for her cubs and a feast of grubs for their ravenous appetites. The forest expands from a place of refuge to a landscape that also offers the friendly contours of home. Once again, the forest is not a fantastical scene of enchantment but a natural location, where stories of animal realism can play out. In a collaboration between artist and author where text-picture relations are quite different, words are not mere embellishments to pictures; rather each element contains its own conveyance of the story, creating a dynamic tapestry of dramatic tension where the two intertwine, ending with a vivid story-telling experience that lives in the minds of the readers long after the close of the text.

In Goose, a story about identity and difference, readers witness yet another transmutation of the forest. It stands quietly as a scenic backdrop to the narrative of Goose, who, at the beginning of the story, hatches within the den of wood chucks. The forest is ever-present but benign during her unconventional rearing, signifying a domestic attendance that reinforces the idea that fostering can be a natural family experience. The forest begins to come alive, however, when Goose recognizes she is different from her sibling woodchucks. The stark white framing of birch tree trunks, set against the lush green background of her domestic confines, symbolizes her alienation. As she leaves her woodland setting that has transformed from a protective familial place to one of emotional captivity, her psychological state manifests itself in the positioning of the white birch trunks. They symbolize bars that become the edges of frames in the next scene, where Goose encounters fear and entrapment in a new way. Unlike the fairytale tradition, Goose’s transformation will take place beyond the forest walls with the accidental discovery of her ability to fly. The resolution of her story happens in the mystical setting of the sky, where an aerial perspective of her life allows her to resolve her woodland upbringing. Goose returns to her family, where she can participate with a renewed sense of identity.

Goose is the perfect example of Molly Bang’s use of the framing technique that finds its roots in the graphic novel tradition, where picture-text relations follow the principles of counterpoint. The most outstanding characteristic of the graphic novel is its ability as an illustrated book to employ cinematic techniques in its intermingling of image and word for the purpose of presenting its final narrative in a unique, non-static form (Barker 7). The gaps or ellipses within the narrative develop into one of the most important elements within the graphic novel, becoming points of entry for the illustration to fill and spring forth with a deeper representation of the story, often allowing for the decoding of hidden meanings. Important to the decoding process is the element of time, which in graphic novels can often rely on “actions not yet completed” and “depends on prior knowledge” gained in previous reading or actual experience (Nikolajeva and Scott 140).  Molly Bang’s understanding of the use of ellipses and what occurs to the reader during their presence is highly sophisticated and offers further dimension to her picture books. Counterpoint is a complex dance between language and image often present in her work. The distance readers experience between word and image produces a space in which the emotions of the protagonist find the relief of release, enabling the resolution of conflict to occur. Adorned with the powers of a chameleon throughout the production of her meaningful picture books, the forest becomes a facilitator to the narrative flow by opening up enough psychological space for the final denouement to occur.

The symbolism of the forest in the picture books of Molly Bang defies its historic conventions that originate within the fairytale tradition, where darkness, danger, wizardry and enchantment haunt its shadowy existence. Instead, Molly Bang turns the act of transformation onto the forest itself, allowing for the metamorphosis of its diverse selves to provide a place of accommodation for the conveyance of emotional suspense that is alternate yet connected to the world of the “real.” Through transmutation, the forest upturns utopian domesticity but supports its restoration at the end of the narrative, often giving a closed ending that implies safety and protection for a young child reader. The ellipsis readers experience between text and image does not distance one element from another but provides room for multiple interpretations, where alternate meanings can be read. Words and pictures extend beyond their original roles of linguistic signs and pictorial symbols, collaborating as two integral parts of a larger work of art where one enhances and produces meaning within the other. The vibrant picture books of Molly Bang are like cinematic experiences in their ability to offer sequential visual representation that feels as vivid as a lived occurrence, rendering each story a compelling site to return to by both child and adult readers.


Works Cited

Bang, Molly. The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher. New York: Four Winds Press, 1980.

Bang, Molly. The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher. New York, 1980.

Molly Bang. 26  April 2008  <http://www.mollybang.com/strawberries.html>.

Bang, Molly. Goose. New York: The Blue Sky Press, 1996.

Bang, Molly. Picture This: How Pictures Work.San Francisco: SeaStar Books, 2000.

Bang, Molly. When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry…. New York: The Blue Sky Press, 1999.

Barker, Keith. Graphic Account: The Selection and Promotion of Graphic Novels in Libraries for Young People. London: The Library Association Youth Libraries Group, 1993.

Dresang, Eliza T. Radical Change: Books for Youth in a Digital Age. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1999.

Lewis, D. Reading Contemporary Picture Books: Picturing Text. London: Routledge Falmer, 2001.

Miles,Victoria. Old Mother Bear. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2007.

Nikolajeva, Maria and Carole Scott. How Picture Books Work. New York: Garland, 2001.

Nodelman, Perry. “How Picture Books Work.” Only Connect: Readings on Children’s Literature. Ed. Sheila A. Egoff, et al. Ontario: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick, Lynne E.F. McKecknie, and Paulette M. Rothbauer. Reading matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries and Community. Westport, CT & London: Libraries Unlimited, 2006.

Sipe, Lawrence R. “How Picture Books Work: A Semiotically Framed Theory of Text-Picture Relationships.” Children’s Literature in Education. 29.2 (1998): 50-64.

Turner, Mark. The Literary Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Zipes, Jack David. Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children and the Culture of Industry. New York: Routledge, 1997.



Pamela Fairfield

Volume 13, Issue 1 The Looking Glass, Jan/Feb, 2009

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