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  • A Picture Equals How Many Words?:Narrative Theory and Picture Books for Children
  • Stephen Roxburgh

Narrative is the most vital element in literature for children, not only in the novel, but also in the modern picture book. Yet critical theory dealing with the narrative function of illustrations, as distinct from narrative elements in the text, is sadly lacking. It needs to be expanded if we, as adult readers of literature for children, want to understand the semantic structure of picture books. This paper will demonstrate the application of narrative theory to a seminal book in the genre, Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak.1

Plot can be defined as the dynamic, sequential element in narrative literature. Insofar as character, or any other element in narrative, becomes dynamic, it is a part of the plot. Spatial art, which presents its materials simultaneously, or in a random order, has no plot; but a succession of similar pictures which can be arranged in a meaningful order (like Hogarth's "Rake's Progress") begins to have a plot because it begins to have a dynamic sequential existence. The images on a strip of motion-picture film are an extreme development of this plot-potential in spatial form.

This definition, by Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, from The Nature of Narrative,2 is useful because it suggests a way to discuss the narrative function of illustrations: just as the images on a strip of motion-picture film have a "dynamic sequential existence," so do the images in a picture book.

There is much to be seen in Outside Over There if one looks at it through naive eyes, comparing it only to itself, in effect holding one image—or frame—in the sequence up to another. Consider, for example, the first and last images in the book. Except for the jacket, illustration 1 is the first picture; it is from the half-title page. A little girl is walking a baby; there is a fence behind them and some sunflowers; a figure is hunched at the end of the fence. For the moment, ignore the robed figure, and imagine the girl and baby's next step; that is, imagine what the next frame in the sequence would be. It turns out to be the last image in the book, illustration 2. How long did it take for the little girl and the baby to take that step? However long, in that moment the entire story has been told. Think of this in terms of Scholes and Kellogg's notion of "plot-potential [End Page 20] in spatial form." Sendak deliberately framed his narrative with almost identical images that comprise a sequence depicting an action, in fact, a baby's step. Discussing the book with Jonathan Cott, Sendak said, "We are really looking at only a minute's worth of life."3 Throughout Outside Over There there are similar sequences of images depicting actions that seem to take place in fractions of a minute, and they inevitably have narrative implications. By juxtaposing those images—regardless of their sequence in the book—Sendak asks us to infer their significance.


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Illustration 1.

half-title page

From Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak. © 1981 by Maurice Sendak. Used by permission of Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.

Narrative depends on character and action. Who are the characters in Outside Over There? Sendak says, "There are two distinct cases and two defined histories and experiences being explored here" (Cott, p. 77). The two he is referring to are Ida, the little girl, and the baby, her sister. We see them throughout the front matter of the book: on the half-title page, the title page, and on the dedication page. Three images precede the first [End Page 21] page of text. They comprise a dynamic sequence, the beginning of a plot, and a potential narrative. It is crucial when discussing picture books, that our notion of the "text" be expanded to include all sequences of images, whether or not there are also words. Narrative begins with character and action in whatever form and wherever they first appear.


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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6563
Print ISSN
0147-2593
Pages
pp. 20-33
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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