ILLUSTRATION FEATURE The Lure of Children's Books in the time of Coronavirus

Alison Padley-Woods takes a look at how the world of children's books is stepping up to the challenge of the current situation.

‘Strange times!’ Two words on everyone’s lips. Two words that conjure up images of overstretched hospitals, quiet streets, empty classrooms, nurses, doctors and rainbows. During the pandemic, words and pictures entwine at every turn; telling tales of bravery, resilience, self-sacrifice and determination. Such attributes we readily assign to heroes and heroines in books, but this we know isn’t fiction.

Children’s authors and illustrators are however doing their bit to help find a way through. And at a time when schools are closed, when children are at home and parents are feeling the combined pressure of home-schooling and working from home, it’s no wonder illustrated books and picture books for kids are topping the Amazon best-sellers list.

Titles such as Slime by David Walliams, illustrated by Tony Ross; The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy; and a variety of Easy Learners published by Collins are jumping to the rescue. They offer support, guidance and escapism, and tell us that this is still a world full of humour, learning and hope.

David Walliams, Slime,
 illustrated by Tony Ross (HarperCollins)

So, what is the attraction and why does the combination of words and pictures work so well? Firstly, with such a focus on shared learning, picture books offer parents an invaluable opportunity to focus on the visual as well at the verbal literacy skills children need. Children absorb information visually, and for a concept to sink in, many children need to see it, or visualise it.

In light of this, picture books about COVID-19 are springing up. Axel Scheffler, illustrator of The Gruffalo, has just produced Coronavirus – A Book for Children, teaming up with consultant Professor Graham Medley, two head teachers and a psychologist to answer questions about quarantine, how you catch the virus and what happens if you get ill.

Axel Scheffler,
Coronavirus, (Nosy Crow)

The book is free to download using this link. Publishers Nosy Crow have asked for donations in lieu of payment to go to our amazing health workers:

Picture books get to the heart of concepts and ideas, but it’s important to remember that even challenging subjects should remain fun and hopeful in order to unlock the imagination and lure the reader in. The subtle relationship between words and pictures ensures this. Authors often aim to tell the story in as few words as possible, whilst the images tell the part of the story the words don't. They enlarge its reference, sometimes provoking ideas the author never expected. Perhaps this is because children linger over illustrations, spot clues and details that adults often take for granted. Through pictures of mice, animals and monsters, they see what emotions look like; emotions such as fear, anger and love as in Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are
(Harper Collins)

But it’s not just emotions that are visualised. In Tony Ross’s book I Don’t Want to Wash My Hands, germs we’re told are ‘scarier than crocodiles’. The picture creates a springboard for the imagination, and with hand-washing so important right now, it’s no surprise to discover the book, first published in 2001, is having a second life. According to the Guardian, sales of the book soared by 2000% in February and March – so quickly that Andersen Press are doing a speedy reprint.

Tony Ross, I Don't Want to Wash My Hands,
 (Andersen Press)

Parents tackling home-schooling for the first time will be relieved to discover live streaming events that open up a virtual world of storytelling. Oliver Jeffers – perhaps the picture book world’s answer to Joe Wicks – is  performing his stories live on Instagram on weekday evenings and fans can check out his next reading at:

Jeffers’ scarcity of language and charming crayon and watercolour pictures, characterised by stick leg characters, appeal to readers of all ages. And now you can watch Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth, a short film based on Jeffers’ book of the same name, released this April on Apple TV+ to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day.

Apple TV+,
Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth (2020)

Sharing stories, in whatever form with children offers parents the chance to read again as a child – to revisit the realms of discovery and reel back the years to when the world was big and mysterious with everything to learn. Children’s illustrated books can open up new perspectives for adults, because many children’s books operate on two levels with the story and plot on one hand and then what the story is really about – the emotional journey – on the other. Perhaps this is why many books we read as children remain special to us in adulthood. After all, picture books are often the first artwork we see and can be a first step towards appreciating art and the stories which pictures can encompass. They form an intricate part of the puzzle of who we become as adults, helping us to imagine possibilities and places.

Of course, the special magic that trips so easily through the pages of story books is no coincidence. Small children may not think of characters or settings as being invented, nor see the creative process, yet behind apparently spontaneous images lie deep thought and hard labour. Decisions about colour, layout and where the text falls are just a few of the considerations when it comes to how illustrators want readers to react, and how they achieve that through their drawing. You can read more about how planning images and layout play a part in John Shelley’s article, Picture Books Basics, found at the following link:

In whichever way stories are shared, words and pictures entwine to cast a combined spell over children and adults alike. Right now, when coronavirus is changing everything, when parents and children are learning together more than ever before, we should take positives and remember that ultimately, picture books speak of hope, optimism and of coming through this together.

Axel Scheffler, Coronavirus, (Nosy Crow)

Header image: The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy, 
published by Ebury Press

Alison Padley-Woods is Words & Pictures' Deputy Illustration Features Editor. Alison used to work for Condé Nast’s Brides magazine. She now writes middle grade fiction and picture books and has been shortlisted and longlisted for several prizes including The Times/Chicken House Competition, Bath Children’s Novel Award and Writing Magazine’s Picture Book Prize.

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