Lecture by Leonard S. Marcus, ‘What makes a picture book great?’

Leonard S. Marcus is a great analyst of children’s picture books, a true expert, and he came to speak to the Hong Kong branch of the SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). His website is http://www.leonardmarcus.com/

It was a wonderful lecture, opening new trails of thought.

He has written a book entitled ‘Randolph Caldecott: The Man Who Could Not Stop Drawing’ and I’ll read it sometime. I’ve never looked carefully at Caldecott’s illustrations, but they were ground breaking. Design in the 1840s was limited in terms of variety and ingenuity, but with the fervour for new industrialisation came artistic depictions of wind and speed (think Turner), energy. So too visual story telling developed, became animated.

Here’s Caldecott’s ‘The Dish Ran away with the Spoon.’ (Not one of Leonard Marcus’ examples at the lecture, but Caldecott’s illustrations for nursery rhymes are certainly lively).


In Europe there was also the influence of nineteenth century Japanese woodcut prints – scenes of ordinary life, cropped and ordered with careful spacial sensitivity. (See my blog relating to an exhibition of these in Tokyo on 1/5/14).

Leonard Marcus highlighted several things which he thinks make a picture book especially memorable – all, good & true. While he was talking I thought too of what ‘works’ in a picture book for both the child and the adult.

The child needs to identify with the hero. Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit,  eg. is really vulnerable. (Beatrix Potter’s work was somewhat maligned years ago in UK – American’s seemed to love it though. I wonder how it is viewed in UK today). Crockett John depicts the high hopes of a child growing a carrot with great charm:


John Updike said that it is valuable if the relationship between an author and (child) reader is ‘conspiratorial in nature’. They are in league, often a mischievous league. Max in Sendak’s ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ has very firm intentions. Hence the hammer.

Nothing cute here… Too many children’s picture book illustrations are cute nowadays. The Chinese, the Japanese like things cute certainly – Hello Kitty. I’ve often wondered why so often so tame? Wanting something non threatening, gentle, soft?

Leonard Marcus recalled that some people were worried that when ‘Harold and the Purple Crayon’ was first published, small children would scribble over walls.


This story, by Crockett Johnson, is actually very sophisticated. Though Leonard Marcus didn’t mention it, I remembered reading that it just might have been an allegory of Vergil’s Aeneid. I wonder if that’s so. (It’s also a long time ago that I learned Latin!)

I sometimes think that the attraction of mischief in these stories may often have an attraction for an adult too, for the adult who doesn’t (or didn’t) quite want to conform. And if there is to be both scientific and cultural advancement, some such experimentation is vital…

Leonard Marcus mentioned the importance of the author / illustrator trusting the child. Right back in the drawings of Lear that trust is apparent. I think because the child often remains within the adult, so the adult relates to the child’s emotions & trust ensues.

Leonard Marcus also spoke about the importance of the shape & size of a book. So Beatrix Potter made ‘little books for little hands’. Whereas ‘Babar’ was big, as is appropriate for an elephant. Margaret Wise Brown created a furry book, ‘Little Fur Family’. Indeed children learn through their senses. And adults too… or visual advertising would fail miserably!

The shape and size of a print picture books will become ever more important too I think – so as to be distinguished from digital media.

The child finds out where power may lie. So must an adult, and an adult relating to the child can therefore understand the child’s emotions. How far can you go with a tantrum…? Leonard Marcus alluded again to ‘Where the Wild Things Are’  with its clever design which becomes ever more eccentric as the book continues. A book I like is ‘Angry Arthur’ by Hiawyn Oram, which it’s angular illustrations by Satoshi Kitamura – I used to read that often to my own children.

Leonard Marcus also showed again the degree to which distillation in design helps create a strong impact upon a reader. In ‘Goodnight Moon’ the hero, a rabbit, was deliberately omitted from the cover:


I was curious to know how abstract Leonard Marcus thought a picture book could become, and yet still be meaningful for a child. Pictures which are quite abstract and for small children are often displayed at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair (& judged by panels of children). These are often way more abstract than the pictures educational publishers use for children beyond kindergarten or reception years – so why? Why do so many educational illustrations for children beyond a perceived picture book age, usually consist of cartoon like black outlines that are ‘coloured in’? Is it that as a child gets older – even from about age 5, s/he looses the desire to go a little beyond the surface to consider what might be, on first inspection, a little abstract?

Do children naturally just want things that are quick to comprehend as they get older – or is it because this is the way they are taught, encouraged to expect things to be? What’s desirable?

I’d like to think there’s real value in learning to take a little time to perceive or to understand things. Generally. So similarly it’s desirable for children to learn to enjoy classical music – to learn to listen. The value of allowing the senses gradually to unfold all sorts.

Anyway, Leonard Marcus told me about ‘The Girl with the Brown Crayon’ by Vivian Paley in which her kindergarten children enter into dialogue with the characters in Leo Lionni’s stories – and the dialogue is deep. I must read it. Lionni wrote stories for kindergarten children with bold, clear pictures.

Here’s an except from Leo Lionni’s wonderful ‘Little Blue and little Yellow’ published long ago in 1959, & which apparently he started to write while on a train when he needed to amuse his small grandchildren when they were playing up.



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One Response to Lecture by Leonard S. Marcus, ‘What makes a picture book great?’

  1. Ruth Grant says:

    There were a lot of questions and opinion put in this blog. Of course, being Theadora’s sister..there will always be a bond between us-she was a very big part of my early life! BUT…also as a sister, you’d expect no more than some disagreement. I’m not sure about specifically introducing classical music to children, if that’s what you meant-maybe its like coffee, you have to grow into it (though is coffee also bad for you, I’m not sure?!)
    I think books need less pictures as the narrative (its a book after all!) takes over. I don’t think a picture should require much narrative at all.
    I know I’m straying into worlds I know little about-my world of import checks for threatening evaders to our pollinators…..’ahh…bees.’