Essay by Robin Morrow

When a full account of the rise and fall of the printed book is written, the year 2010 will be seen as a turning point. It had become clear to even a mildly interested observer that the book as physical object was under siege. To read long-text books and journal or news articles, many people were turning to tablets and e-books; even I had begun to read Dickens novels on an iPad. But the picture book was mounting a powerful defensive skirmish. Lane Smith’s It’s a Book! appeared in the US, with cartoon animals asking ‘Do you scroll down? Does it need a password? No, it’s a book!’, a reminder that, as Adam Gopnik wrote about it,’what books do depends on the totality of what they are’. In Australia, where picture books have for decades been both innovative and respected, books without words were among leaders of the charge. The Picture Book of the Year award in 2010 went to Gregory Rogers’ wordless The Hero of Little Street; three years earlier the winner had been Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, an album of 128 pages, with nary a word except for some signs in an invented language.

Picture books were not to be easily gobbled up by new technologies. As far back as the seventies, Barbara Bader had forged a definition of this unique art form, which was to become my favourite:

A picturebook is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historical document; and foremost an experience for a child. As an art form it hinges on the interdependence of pictures and words, on the simultaneous display of two facing pages, and on the drama of the turning page. (p. 1)

Australian artist Jeannie Baker had been in the forefront of demonstrating the possibilities of this art form with her emphasis on ‘total design’, on a book’s constructedness as an ‘item of manufacture’. Bader’s definition fitted her books admirably, and seemed slightly out-of-date only as Baker came to omit words entirely. And her 2010 book, Mirror, was to throw a special spotlight on ‘the simultaneous display of two facing pages’.

Most children in Australian schools, and many adults, recognise Baker’s books because of her trademark collage constructions. A popular early book, Where the Forest Meets the Sea,depicts a pristine beach and the hollow trees and lush vines of the Daintree area in Queensland; the artist had collected sand, twigs and leaves from the region, then in her studio built miniature landscapes which, when photographed, provide scenes of intricate detail and 3D realism. A brief text tells of a father and son enjoying the peaceful forest, while ghostly figures call to mind their predecessors, the Aboriginal inhabitants; and then a shadowy future is depicted, of what may lie in store if developers are allowed to do their work. An endnote sets out facts about the Daintree and the need for conservation.

By the time she produced Window in 1991, Baker had done away with words altogether. The three hallmarks of a Baker book had now become the 3D collage art, a serious engagement with a major theme of environmental concern, and wordlessness. Window tells the story of a young man’s growth from babyhood to becoming a parent himself, and the simultaneous changes in the environment around his home, as bushland changes to built-up cityscape. Baker had devised skilful ways to tell a story without words; her readers, too, had developed the ability to read pictures. Belonging, sequel to Window, published a surprising 13 years later, is a more optimistic book, showing the renewal of urban space both by greening and by community-building. The author’s note states: ‘People are discovering the need to nurture and be nurtured by the unique character of the place where they live’.

Baker’s oeuvre developed in parallel with the growth of graphic novels and manga, as teenagers especially became used to reading wordless texts. It is rare these days to hear the querulous remarks I would overhear in my bookshop about earlier wordless books, such as ‘What are we supposed to do with this book?’ I now teach postgraduate courses in Australian youth literature, and include Jeannie Baker works on the booklist; one student commented that she really loved reading these books, as it is like people-watching: the book does not tell you what the people are thinking, you as reader must infer it from their actions. Books such as these have trained us all, as readers, to undertake what UK picture book critic Jane Doonan calls close looking in context – poring over the illustrations to spot tiny details of colour and texture, inferring, as the US student said, whole life-stories from pictures on the page: these are the challenges and rewards of spending time with a Jeannie Baker book.

Secrecy surrounded the release of Mirror in 2010. Nobody was supposed to know where it was set, nor anything about its format. When it did appear, the book was first perceived as unusual – even eccentric – in shape: the reader was straightaway conscious of it as an ‘item of manufacture’, and needed to work out how to approach it. To pick up a copy of Mirror was to experience something quite at odds with the whole tendency of books to enter the e-world, the virtual and slippery place where textbooks and novels cluster, waiting for the click of a button to whisk them into existence. Those experienced in handling picture books instinctively opened the cover to full width, to reveal two equivalent scenes, each one showing a boy looking out at the night sky from an upstairs window. One scene is of a building with lacy decoration, against a pink and green landscape of cultivated farmland; the other shows an urban skyline, with tall buildings many Australian readers would recognise as those of Sydney. The title, Mirror, appearing in both English and Arabic, on two ‘front’ covers is the first of a number of unsettling experiences, certainly to those who assume there is a correct, left-to-right way to start the reading process. The right-to-left text of Arabic script versus the left-to-right of English serves as a literal marker of two different regions, as well as a metaphor for reading the world in Paulo Freire’s term. Readers not accustomed to right-to-left tracking of images may be forced to recognise that Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen were right, when they pointed out that marking of progress by movement towards the right-hand edge of the page is cultural, not universal.

Then, when the book was opened, it was found to be shaped like some kind of very large butterfly, with as wings two sets of pages that open wide and require an ample desk or floor space to display the whole spread. Soon readers discovered, by trial and error or by following the instructions at the start (‘The Western and Moroccan stories in this book are designed to be read side by side’), that Mirror should be read in symmetry. Reading it this way allows the pairs of spreads to disclose the parallel stories of a day in the life of each of the two boys shown on the cover – one boy who lives in the Valley of the Roses in Morocco, and another in urban Australia. The first young reader with whom I shared the book, spent a few minutes turning pages and peering at the early spreads, then, as though solving a puzzle said ‘Oh, I get it’, and methodically set to read his way through the pairs of facing pages. And reading it is: this book has all the elements dear to an English teacher’s heart, such as setting, characters and plot; it just happens that they are delivered without a verbal text . . .

And I must confess it made my old bookseller’s heart sing, knowing that to introduce Mirrorto a class would require the handling of physical books (multiple copies!), and opening them up on desks and lecterns, letting the readers’ individual senses get to work on the business of reading.

Picture books have a special relationship with the passing of time, a vital element in any story but challenging, of course, for the creator of a wordless book. In Window, Baker had planted clues, such as birthday cards on the windowsill, to help the observant reader to follow the growth of the main character. In Mirror the reader tracks the time of day through the two boys’ stories, which begin with waking up and having breakfast, and continue with a father-and-son journey to the market or shopping centre, their return with something traded in the marketplace, and on to evening meal-time and engagement with the newly acquired possessions. The Moroccan family enjoys their first home computer, and the Australian family has bought a colourful handwoven carpet (maybe a magic carpet) about which the reader has built up special knowledge.

The hinge to this story – and a hinged mirror seems to me a perfectly suitable image, recalling the mirrors on my grandmother’s dressing table –is an item of craft, the beautiful handmade carpet of colourful patterns, that glows against any background. Examining the carpet as a woven object sends the reader back to close looking at the collage constructions of the whole book. Baker has depicted the two contrasting landscapes within which the boys and their families live and move, by combining natural and artificial materials from which she built her collages – as she states in her endnote to the book, from ‘sand, earth, clay, paints, vegetation, paper, wool, tin and plastic’. Like the Moroccan mother in her story, she has lovingly constructed an artifact for others to examine and enjoy.

Within the pages of Mirror are many rich themes to ponder. To what extent can people from opposite ends of the earth be connected? Are there core human values that each of the two families reveals? Is their daily life mostly a matter of trading (as my more cynical students would claim)? Mirror has much to offer as a text to study, and issues to debate.

But turning from these larger questions, I decided to go back to the book and practise close looking, trying to look with fresh eyes at the familiar scenes, to see which elements of Mirrorwould claim attention this time round. I was struck anew by the depth of blue in the Moroccan night sky. And what time and care the Moroccan family needed in order to prepare even a simple meal, one shared by the extended family, unlike the Australian family with their takeaways for just four people. I found myself drawn again to a favourite image, that of the spice-seller’s stall in the market, with its colours so rich that the reader seems able to inhale the diversity of spices. I noticed again the mother in Morocco starting the day on her prayer mat, and the secular character of the Australian family’s daily life. And marvelled that, even among the modern amenities of Australian life, the urban family seemed to spend just as much energy in lugging and heaving awkward-shaped parcels through traffic. And just as the central boy characters were different in many ways, their red clothes were a marker of similarity; and the ending of the book highlighted each boy’s eagerness to learn new things and share this knowledge with his family. All these assorted impressions served to confirm the book’s role as ‘a social, cultural, historical document’, in Bader’s phrase.

And then I found myself being forced to admit that, even in a wordless book, the creator has gently nudged the reader in certain directions. Baker provides forewords and endnotes that give factual information about where the two families live, and about the materials and processes used for the collages; but she also guides the reader towards the underlying ideology of her work – in this case stating that ‘outward appearances may be very different but the inner person of a “stranger” may not be a stranger at all’. It would be hard to resist this message of community and goodwill.

Returning to Bader’s definition, I note that there is one phrase which really does need updating: the statement that a picture book is ‘foremost an experience for a child’. Mirror is a fine example of the picture book as an experience for a reader of any age, child or adult, to learn from, ponder and discuss, savour and enjoy.


Referenced works

Bader, B. American Picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within. New York: Macmillan, 1976.

Baker, J. Where the Forest Meets the Sea. Sydney: Julia MacRae, 1987.
—. Window. Sydney: Julia MacRae, 1991.
—. Belonging. London: Walker Books, 2004.

Doonan, J. Looking at Pictures in Picture Books. Stroud: The Thimble Press, 1993.

Gopnik, A. It’s a Book review. The New York Times. 17 October 2010: p. BR16.

Freire, P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder, 1970.

Kress, G.,  van Leeuwen, T. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. London: Routledge, 1996.

Rogers, G. The Hero of Little Street. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2009.

Smith, L. It’s a Book! New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2010.

Tan, S. The Arrival. Lothian Books 2006.

© Copyright Robin Morrow 2014