Depending on the speaker (children’s author, literary critic, art historian, advertising designer, painter) and the venue (bookstore, literature conference, gallery, marketing meeting), the term “image” implies an array of connotations, purposes, and audiences (Mitchell 1986). In the hybrid contexts of the twenty-first century—where visual culture, visual studies, and visual literacy are related but contested terms—“image” crosses disciplinary boundaries and characterizes multimodal activities in classrooms and communication. For children’s literature, an interdisciplinary field drawing upon many scholarly discourses, pedagogical approaches, and modes of creative expression, “image” is a complex and provisional term, always at play and in flux.
Appropriately, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) variously defines “image” in terms of the likeness and the statue, the “mental representation due to any of the senses,” and the phantom and the apparition, indicating an irreconcilable tension between concrete and abstract. While the earliest meaning of the word, according to Raymond Williams (1976), was “a physical figure or likeness,” a secondary meaning developed around sets of ideas or “mental conceptions, including… seeing what does not exist as well as what is not plainly visible.” These concepts were given physical form in art, writing, and other media, abstractions meant to instill or reinforce images. Williams further relates “image” to fiction, idealism, and realism. Building on these bases, the term connects to ideas of truth, trust, and faith; shifting artistic and literary conventions; consciousness, perception, and dreams; “objects of religious veneration” (OED); and the mythic. Williams notes image’s “unfavourable connotations overlapping with idol,” which resonates with W. J. T. Mitchell’s example of the biblical golden calf. This graven image was worshiped as a false god before its original was destroyed, yet the icon lived on in cautionary tales and representational artifacts; the “image” of the golden calf persists in collective memory. “Image,” writes Mitchell (2008), is “a highly abstract and rather minimal entity that can be evoked with a single word. It is enough to name an image to bring it to mind.”
Thus, to use the term “childhood” or produce a likeness of “the child” is to activate and test a mutable image. Any figure of the child or childhood will contradict or coincide with a national imaginary or a commonly held conceit among the members of an organization or system of belief. For example, considering “image” in terms of veneration and idolatry, the image of childhood is held sacred by some and deemed secular by others. Lauren Berlant, in The Queen of America Goes to Washington City (1997), indicts the American fascination with the material and symbolic fetus—a symbol of vulnerability, innocence, and pregnant women’s options—as a potent political image. James Kincaid, in his controversial Child-Loving (1992), notes a pedophilic component in the fascination with actual children and eroticized images of childhood, inviting accusations of obscenity and even blasphemy for activating such a troubling image. William Blake’s Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) and William Wordsworth’s “Prelude” (1805) establish a foundation for the nineteenth-century Romantic child, while Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) presents one of our most indelible images of exploited twentieth-century childhood. All these artists and critics call upon audience recognition of cherished, or disturbing, notions of childhood that feed the construction of an ideal or troubling image.
An image, then, is not strictly a picture, although terms such as “picture,” “illustration,” and “image” tend to be used interchangeably. As James Elkins (1999) explains, terms like “word-image” are inaccurate due to “mixtures of reading and seeing…. [T]here is ‘reading’ in every image and ‘looking’ in every text.” In order to theorize the image, critics must perform “not only a semiotic, formal analysis, but also a historical and ideological contextualizing” (Mitchell 2008). The ability to grasp the image in a given text is both a formal and a cultural exercise, “a matter of an almost anthropological knowledge” (Barthes 1977); a picture is not “worth a thousand words,” but instead serves as a complement to words in an intimate chain of signification (Miller 1992). A lone picture cannot narrate without context (Sontag 1977). Instead, a word-and-picture combination, a captioned illustration, or a graphic sequence—presented to the reader via some physical medium, whether a book, a canvas, or a living body—helps the active reader generate the image. “[T]he transformation of a medium into an image continues to call for our own participation” (Belting 2005).
Istvan Banyai’s picture book Zoom (1995) serves as an example of how images arise from textual form and content. The book’s title implies the workings of a zoom lens, and its pages offer a series of illustrations-within-illustrations that mime snapshots. There is no written narrative, just an ever-expanding frame that pulls back or zooms from the tiny scale of a toy to the scale of outer space. Zoom is not simply a related series of pictures. Readers attempting to narrate this wordless book find themselves considering the camera apparatus, the human eye, and their place in an infinite universe—in other words, exploring the connotative image beyond the denotative word and picture. Gilles Deleuze (1983/1986, 1985/1989), who theorized the movement image and time image in cinema, conceived of a multifaceted crystal image, alternately transparent and reflective on its surfaces. Zoom operates on such multiple levels.
More so than an isolated illustration, an image functions as a changing collective conceit, determined by culture and situated in time and place. For example, Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo (1899) once was deemed an appropriate, humorous story for young audiences, and its words and pictures laid the foundation for an insulting image of colonial Indian subjects and people of African heritage alike. In an effort to interrogate the book’s clownish image of blackness, recent scholars have debated the ethno-racial basis of the story, and children’s author-illustrators have revised it. Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney’s Sam and the Tigers (1996) interprets the tale as African American folklore and nonsensically names all its characters “Sam,” while illustrator Fred Marcellino’s The Story of Little Babaji (1996) gives Bannerman authorial credit while renaming Sambo’s trickster hero and providing affirmative depictions of India. Such countertexts, which tactically alter the words and pictures of a problematic original, have the potential to establish new ideological images.
Many critics of literature, art, and cinema examine “image” through Ferdinand de Saussure’s sign/signifier/signified triad and Charles’s Peirce’s formalist semiotics (which revisit Saussure’s tripartite structure of signification). For his part, Jacques Derrida (1967) sharply distinguishes between sign and image in his account of the codification of written language. For Derrida, reading and vocalizing alphabetical writing depends upon a prior understanding of the images conveyed by the writing, since written communication necessarily has become concise and abstract over generations and across the distances between agricultural and industrial communities. Although his examples come from pictographs, hieroglyphics, and alphabet systems, Derrida might well have considered the commonplace abstractions in ABCs for young readers. The “A” in Crockett Johnson’s Harold’s ABC (1963) stands for “Attic” and takes the shape of the attic itself; the “C,” a typographical character originally colored tan, “turns green” with seasickness as ocean waves get rough in Michael Chesworth’s Alphaboat (2002). Examples like these exploit the slippage between writing, pictures, and the images conjured by literate readers.
Further, it is precisely this slippage that authors and illustrators seek to exploit as they create a text for young readers. Roland Barthes (1977) locates “a linguistic message, a coded iconic message, and a non-coded iconic message” in a commonplace advertisement or comic book, and off-handedly remarks that children learn to negotiate this complex verbal-visual information at an early age. He acknowledges the urge to stabilize interpretation “in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs.” The word-picture text’s creator attempts to manage the formal arrangement and cultural reception of the constructed image, and the spectator is eager to make sense of it too. Therefore, picture books with puzzling imagery (e.g., Maurice Sendak’s goblin-infested Outside over There, 1981) or lack of closure (e.g., Dr. Seuss’s ambiguous The Butter Battle Book, 1984) defy the stability some readers expect from the literature of childhood and the ideal image of the child.
Like Barthes, picture-book critics such as Perry Nodelman (1988), William Moebius (1986), and Joseph Schwarcz (1982) note the sophistication of young readers and the interpellative codes that operate in the most elementary picture books. A board book labels cartoon animals, and a typical counting book provides a 1-2-3 order and a set of quantifiable items. Yet the process of signification in these texts, in a picture book’s sequential narrative, or in the paratext (cover, frontispiece, etc.) of a chapter book, is as complex as any commercial sequence or brand logo. The transmission of an image depends upon a level of clarity for the implied young audience. This is not to say that children’s textual imagery is unmediated or automatically perceived. As children learn to read multimedia sequences of words and pictures, they develop and begin to reproduce the images particular to their cultures. We might say that the iconic peaked-roof house, front lawn, sunshine, and stick-figure family associated with children’s crayon drawings acknowledge a collective Western image of home (and, further, challenge what idealistic thinkers have called the “innocent eye” by suggesting how our subjectivities are interpellated at a young age). Mental images, thought but not necessarily articulated in words or an artistic medium, shape and are shaped by material artifacts, including literary and visual images.
Central images of childhood persist despite changes in sensibility and technology, and despite significant changes in the construction of childhood itself. Nostalgia is a potent force in determining cultural ideals, especially when it comes to infancy and childhood, and anachronistic images can “resurface in new media…. Images resemble nomads in that they take residence in one medium after another” (Belting 2005). As a result, critics of children’s literature may operate as iconoclasts or as supporters of favorite collective notions. Jacqueline Rose, in The Case of Peter Pan (1984), argues that the image of childhood is a slippery notion and children’s literature “impossible” as a mode, due to the instability of childhood itself as a collectively held ideal. Anne Higonnet, in Pictures of Innocence (1998), attends to the consumption and construction of childhood through sentimental images from Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, to John Everett Millais’s A Child’s World (which became a Pears soap advertisement, Bubbles), to Ann Geddes’s photographs of plump babies as flowers. Scholars and mainstream pundits alike lament the marketing of toys, stories, and other commodities for and about children, which helps stabilize a capitalist, corrupted image of childhood on a global level.
Children’s literature itself deploys competing and provocative images of childhood. The visceral image of adventurous childhood posited by Sendak in iconic picture books like In the Night Kitchen (1970, with its famously naked Mickey) and We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993, with its allusions to homelessness and genocide) differs substantially from the image of privileged but solitary Manhattan childhood purveyed by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight’s “Eloise” books (1955–59, 1999–2001) or the inventive, indulged child of Ian Falconer’s “Olivia” series (2000–present). The Romantic, Anglo-American image of childhood represented in appealing work by Randolph Caldecott, Kate Greenaway, and A. A. Milne is at odds with the pragmatic, equally lively image of racially and ethnically diverse childhood. Texts such as Langston Hughes’s astute The Dream Keeper (1932b) exemplify authors’ attempts to interrogate and provide a corrective to a dominant, oppressive child image. Hughes’s legacy in challenging what Nancy Larrick (1965) called “the all-white world of children’s books”—and its attendant ideal image of a flaxen-haired, blue-eyed, English-speaking child—resonates in the more recent picture books of Allen Say, Faith Ringgold, Christopher Myers, Julius Lester, Ana Juan, and Chris Raschka, as well as in bilingual and international texts.
Of course, the image need not be conjured by a commodity or a political movement. A powerful image of childhood is perpetuated by the professional elementary school teacher, working with young people on a daily basis and concerned with the quality of their education. This image competes with that held by the stay-at-home parent, primarily focused on raising his or her own children. The teacher and parent, in turn, will have differences with the scholar of children’s literature and culture, whose focus is on the critical concept of childhood as well as the sociopolitical status of children at some particular historical period and geographical location. All of the aforementioned share a deep concern for actual children and for the quality of childhood, yet their distinct images of childhood influence their behavior and motivate the opinions they express in their everyday endeavors. Their ideologies around factors like race, ethnicity, class, gender, nationality, and age—influenced by their lifelong encounters with loaded images of childhood and real children alike—are brought to bear upon their praxis, which in turn contributes to popular images of the child, childhood, and children’s literature.