This post is part two of a three part series in which Perry Nodelman discusses the Chinese translation of his seminal text Words about Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children's Picture Books. For part one, please click here.
So far, I’ve been talking only about the abundance of illustrations from picture books in the Chinese version of Words. Taking a closer look at them brings up other issues related to the picture books these illustrations represent.
They are all, of course, books I discussed in the original Words—i.e., books published before 1988. My first browse through the Chinese Words was a profound exercise in nostalgia, an act of remembering books I was once fond of, many of which I haven’t looked it for decades. Hence the next issue they raise for me: if I were writing Words now, I’m fairly certain that I would often choose quite different and less ancient examples of the aspects of picture books I discuss. I’d understand that the relevance of my arguments relates to the currency of the examples I use to support it and look for more current examples of similar effects. Might the new Chinese edition already be out of date by virtue of the old texts that, as a translation of an older book, it inevitably focuses on?
As I worked, back in the eighties, on outlining a variety of ways in which pictures suggest meanings, I was already aware of the cold deadening hand of permission fees. According to the “Preface” to Words, “it would . . . be impossible to reproduce all the hundreds of pictures I discuss in the pages that follow; for that reason, I refer to well-known and easily available picture books whenever I can” (xii). Thirty years later, though, I have to wonder if the books I chose are still, more than three decades later, as “well-known and easily available” as they once were. If readers now have to take my words about how the pictures in these books become meaningful without actually being able to hold and look at the books, there’s a real question about how useful the book still is. And even if readers might be willing to accept my interpretations of books they might not have seen, there’s another question about how relevant my interpretations of these old books in making a case about how picture books work now. Even assuming I was right in 1988 about how the visual aspects of these particular books help to convey the meanings of the stories they help to tell, are the conclusions I reached back then still applicable to picture books produced since then? For if they aren’t, then why would anyone bother to read my book now for anything other than historical reasons, as a report on how picture books once were?
Well, though, maybe picture books are still the same as they used to be, and maybe reading about those old books might provide useful ways to approach newer ones. If you’d asked me back in 1988 if the generalizations I was making might still be applicable three decades later, I would have said, yes, of course, no question about it.
I would have said yes because I was working with a variety of theoretical approaches to how pictures convey meanings all of which implied, in one way or the other, that the traits they were discussing always operate in the same way. For psychologists of pictorial dynamics, then, the centres of pictures always attract more attention than the edges, regular patterns are always more expressive of calming than a variety of random lines, and so on. For Freudians and Jungians, archetypes are indeed archetypal, continually expressing the same meanings in different times and places. And while semioticians attribute the meanings of signs to specific cultural contexts, they also often tend to assume that some signs operate more generally across different times and different cultures. For instance, a red light on a highway means you should stop your car in a lot of different places—including, Wikipedia tells me, in China.
On the other hand, though: since red is viewed as an auspicious colour that wards off evil, Chinese brides traditionally wear red gowns. In my own country of Canada, a bride in red would have completely different connotations, and not necessarily flattering ones. Not all semiotic codes are universal.
But as I look now at this new Chinese version of my old book, I realize that I once simply took it for granted that what I was discussing in terms of specific books in a specific language produced in a few specific places in a specific time might legitimately stand as examples of picture books more generally, and therefore offer useful information that could be applied to a wide range of other books—possibly even ones published in China. Was it ever a safe assumption to make?
A closer look at the individual illustrations in the Chinese Words makes this question even more worth asking. Consider, for instance, these ones from Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House. They look quite different from the pages of the book Burton published in 1941. The pictures are the same, but the words are not. Like the words in this new version of Words about Pictures, the words in this picture book I discuss in Words are in a language I cannot understand. These appear, then, to be images from a Chinese translation of The Little House (quite possibly an illegal one, and therefore, perhaps, representative of yet another level of piracy.)
But what is unsettling about these Chinese texts is not just that I can’t read them. It is also that they look quite different from the English words. They remind me that words as well as pictures form part of what we see with our eyes when we look at picture books—and that the appearance of words, the size and shape of the letters, and the shapes that groups of words make on a page are part of what influences readers visually—and what, then, contributes visually to the meaning of the story the words help to tell. In being different shapes than the English words of the original, these Chinese words seem to me unsettlingly but intriguingly foreign—and to imply a different atmosphere and therefore a different meaning for the pictures they accompany—a meaning I don’t really get. This is, quite simply, not The Little House I know.
Burton, Virginias Lee. The Little House. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942.
Nodelman, Perry. Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books. U of Georgia P, 1988.
In addition to Words About Pictures: the Narrative Art of Children's Picture Books, Perry Nodelman is the author of three other books about children's literature: The Pleasures of Children Literature (3d edition in collaboration with Mavis Reimer), The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature, and Alternating Narratives in Fiction for Young Readers: Twice Upon a Time, as well as about 150 essays and chapters in books about children's literature and a number of novels for young people. A Professor Emeritus at the University of Winnipeg, he occupies his time in retirement as a doting grandfather and volunteer guide and docent at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, Canada.