Or, Art is Like a Singing Bird

Before we look at the words and art in picturebook poetry, let’s lay a foundation. When we think of illustrations in children’s literature, you can have a few different types. There are the ones which represent exactly what’s happening in the text – a picture of a knight battling a dragon for example, when the text says the brave knight fights the dragon. Ones which give a bit more information – the words might say a child fell off their bike, and the picture shows the child crying adding more information. Sometimes the art show conflicting information to the words, and the story wouldn’t work without both together. For example, This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen would be two different narratives if separated. Then there are ‘wordless’ or ‘silent’ books where just images tell the story.

This is all pretty basic, but it’s just groundwork. One big difference between books for a primarily child audience and an adult one, is illustration. This is obvious in poetry books. An illustration accompanying a poem can complement it nicely. Representing a key image, or feeling, that resonated with the illustrator. Sometimes it can add something to a poem that you hadn’t thought of. Other times, an image can be superfluous and actually takes away from the poem.

I think art and illustrations work brilliantly with funny poems. One may take you by surprise or exceed what was in your own head and, ultimately, make you laugh. Mini Grey’s hilarious illustrations to A.F. Harrold’s poems in The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice do just this. Mini’s parrot shouting ‘bum’ will always make me grin, especially on its second appearance.

Does a poem need an illustration or art at all? Don’t the words give enough of a picture in our heads? Aren’t illustrations telling us what to think? But this isn’t what I want to explore in this post. A conversation for another time…

What interests me are images that are able to depict the whole poem itself. Or, ones which are vital to the meaning of the poem. In the same way some picture books work. It’s no coincidence that the examples I’ve been looking at are all picturebooks. The size of this format is the perfect vehicle for emphasising the importance of the art.

Pictures can be just as much part of the poetry as the words themselves. And likewise, a picture can be just as much a poem in its own right. Hopefully, this will become clearer as I write about various examples. And make you think about how we can discuss this element of poetry with children. It might be subtle, but words and art in picturebook poetry are more fascinating the more you delve into it.

The collection Marshmallow Clouds, by Ted Kooser and Connie Wanek, is illustrated by Richard Jones. It gives some fine examples where of accompanying art being a representation of the poem itself.

Recommended Picture Book Poetry

When I read this book, it does something to me. The words are beautiful and evoke so much emotion, thought and imagination. But, it’s the art which brings me the closest to the physical feelings. The first line of ‘Sleep’ is “Each hour of sleep is an hour of healing.” Lovely. But, the two arctic foxes nestled in the long grass under a bright moon and vast landscape, is both calming and shows vulnerability, which the poem also alludes to.

If you’re looking for words and art in picturebook poetry, plenty of examples are here. Richard Jones studied illustration and graphic design, but there’s a poet in there too. The art doesn’t take away from the reader’s imagination, I think their job is to give the reader the physical feelings and emotions. The poetry isn’t about the reader using their imagination; they show how the imagination can be used, how nature can inspire lots of different things.

Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem is another text from the States. This time by Amanda Gorman and Loren Long. Where Marshmallow Clouds is a collection of poems, Change Sings is just one with the illustrations forming a narrative. Loren’s illustrations give more information, and, like Marshmallow Clouds, they intensify and heighten the reader’s emotions. With the added benefit of amplifying the poet’s voice all the way to eleven.

The poem is about bringing about change by coming together as one. In this case, children. A poem calling for change would be more powerful read by the poet, electrifying a crowd before them. The illustrations seem to do this in a similar way for readers. “I scream with the skies/of red and blue streamers./I dream with the cries of tried-and-true dreamers.” The double-spread, which accompanies these lines, really puts meaning to the words. Two children are looking up at a huge building; street art of bright colours covers the whole wall. It depicts a giant Martin Luther King Jr amid his most famous speech, the words ‘dream’ and ‘dreamers’ having much more impact.

The graffiti foreshadows the children’s own mural at the end. And, as the poet’s performance would end in cheers, applause, and raised fists, this book injects the same positivity and optimism that will make you believe anything is possible. Kwame Alexandra’s The Undefeated and Unspoken, illustrated by Kadir Nelson and Dare Coulter respectively, do something similar.

This is a Poem That Heals Fish was originally published in France in 2005. Like Change Sings, it’s one poem. The art in this one, though is perhaps more ‘poetic’. By that, I mean more abstract. When Arthur notices his fish, Leon, about to die, his mother tells him to “give him a poem!” Before leaving for her tuba lesson. An unexpected response and I suppose tuba lessons are, too. The picture of tuba players with oversized instruments, playing outside, sheet music in the breeze and a fish coming out of mum’s tuba lets you know there’s something else to think about here… but what?

As Arthur hunts for an elusive poem, he asks members of the community what a poem is. Lolo, who runs the bicycle shop, “laughs all the time, and is always in love”. He tells Arthur a poem “is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth.” Arthur’s response is how I believe most young readers would react, “Oh…? Okay.” Confused, but not wanting to admit it. Luckily, the reader has the image of Lolo riding a bicycle, with his partner holding on to him, in a blue sky with clouds, birds, and bicycle wheels.

In fact, this is Arthur’s response to everyone he meets when they give their definition of a poem. The art helping to explain their metaphorical conundrums. By the end of the book, he’s still none the wiser but tells Leon what he found out nonetheless. Lo and behold, Leon awakes. 

Yet another text from the U.S. Life Doesn’t Frighten Me is a poem by Maya Angelou paired with paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat was an artist from New York; his paintings “imbued with poetic meaning, expressed a range of emotions, from humour to anger.” The paintings make you feel uncomfortable, or at least feel the artist’s discomfort in the world or themselves. The poem, however, is full of fight and determination. Now, in this book, the poem gives more meaning to the images than the other way round. The paintings weren’t painted in response to the poem, they were paired by editor Sara Jane Boyers. It’s another way we can bring mediums, and minds, together for greater impact and understanding.

There are no rules when it comes to words and art in picturebook poetry. Or any poetry. Only interpretations and many, many discussions when we think of visual art. Text is visual too, but I will leave that for another time. I’m hoping though, this exploration has opened another avenue in poetry chat. The art in these books don’t complement the poems, they complete them. They don’t tell the reader what to think about the poem, they teach them to think about poetry.

(The Christina Rossetti poem ‘A Birthday’ inspired the subheading to this post. She declares in the first line, “My heart is like a singing bird”.)