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  • Writing the Empty Cup:Rhythm and Sound as Content
  • George Shannon (bio)

No one questions that the picture book, like film, is a blending of word and image, yet most discussions of the genre approach the picture book as if it were a silent movie—virtually wordless and without any sound. A typical perspective is that expressed by Mary Agnes Taylor in Horn Book: "Although an aural experience usually accompanies the picture book, the fact remains that the young child must depend more on what he sees than on what he reads or hears if he is to comprehend the full meaning of a picture story" (634). In thus disengaging the visual from the aural, Taylor divests the text of its crucial role in the process of creating a picture book—a process that is experienced anew with each reader and reading. She also completely ignores the text's sounds and rhythms, which contribute to the reader's comprehension as surely as do the book's pictures.

Ongoing improvements in printing have brought the picture book to the same level of technical expertise, appreciation, and imbalance that writer-director David Mamet sees in film. Writing of current trends, Mamet discusses the frequent dialogue: "Q. 'How'd you like the movie?' A. 'Fantastic cinematography.' Yeah [states Mamet], but so what? Hitler had fantastic cinematography. The question we have ceased to ask is, 'What was the fantastic cinematography in aid of?'" (16). Was there any story, any substance, any breath behind the beautiful images? How do the images relate to one another and to the viewer?

Even if one believes that the text serves as little more than a series of road signs through the scenery or visual story, the removal of the words from most picture books changes the journey and, in turn, a reader's comprehension of it. Without Arthur Yorinks's words in Louis the Fish (Farrar, 1980) Richard Egielski's images tell not the story of a man becoming a fish, via flashbacks, but the story of a man becoming a fish becoming a child becoming a man becoming a [End Page 138] fish. If, that is, the young reader's mind even connects the man and fish and child as being the same character. Remove Munro Leaf's words from Robert Lawson's illustrations in The Story of Ferdinand (Viking, 1938) and the conflict—the heart of the story—is completely lost. Alone, Lawson's images tell a quiet and all-but-plotless story of idyllic growth rather than a story of individualism versus expected behavior. Without words the reader has no comprehension of Ferdinand's differences, of his mother's concern over those differences, or of the absurdity of his being selected to fight in the ring.

Good texts, however, are far more than just road signs. As texts move from transactional to expressive to poetic, the sounds of words and the rhythm of their linking become as expressive as their definitions and what they describe. Perry Nodelman has pointed out that the manner in which a picture shares information changes the information: "The style changes the substance enough to become the substance" (21). The same is true of the writer's contribution through the sounds, rhythm, and shape of a text. "As soon as we start talking about alternative possibilities of form," writes Robert Hass, "we find ourselves talking about alternative contents. . . . The search for meaning in the content and shape in the rhythm are simultaneous, equivalent" (126).

Characters, setting, and plot are vital elements of the narrative text, but it is the writer's use of sound and image that makes the difference between sharing information and sharing the emotional experience—the art—of the story. The writer evokes the experiential world of his characters through image and sound. Just as the rhythm, pace, volume, and pitch of unidentified footsteps evoke a particular experience within the listener, the same elements in a text evoke the particular emotional experience of that story.

In novels, short stories, and narrative poetry the images and sounds which bring the work to life within the reader's mind are under the writer's individual control. In picture books, however...


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pp. 138-147
Launched on MUSE
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