This week we wrapped up our consideration of picture books in the Children’s Literature course I’m teaching, and we began class with a rousing game of PicWits! Do you know PicWits!? It’s a party game, much like Apples to Apples, that has players matching cards in their hand to a single phrase, with individuals taking turns choosing which card best represents the phrase in question. What’s unique about PicWits! is that the phrase is a “caption” and the cards in people’s hands are all photographs. You earn points when the chooser chooses the picture you matched to the caption. So, the game’s central point is the visual interpretation of the text. See where I’m going with this?
To begin with, the game is lots of fun. The images themselves represent a huge variety of theme and execution, and are often bizarre, leading to plentiful opportunities for provocative, sometimes outrageous pairings. But beyond the hilarity, our experience gave rise to some really interesting and illuminating thoughts about how picture books function, and what we can and should make of the symbiotic relationships between words and text. Here are some of our ideas:
Possibilities are endless. No matter how clearly you see and understand a phrase, others will see and understand it differently. Even given the limitations of having only a few cards to match from at any given time, there’s still remarkable variety in the relationships established between the single caption and the many visual interpretations offered. Indeed, no matter what picture you match with a phrase, there will be some relationship, even if it is one of tension or discord. Picture book illustrations can take advantage of that same infinite possibility, affecting just as many different responses.
Know your audience. We learned pretty rapidly that different people respond differently to different images. Martina* likes pictures of cute kids. Lynne* hates squirrels (HATES). before too long one learns to play to the chooser, making the match accordingly. We saw a direct parallel between that sort of play, and an illustrator’s attention to audience/age range.
Some pictures are just cute. Some pictures are just cute, and will be chosen, regardless of their interpretation of the caption in question. It’s the way of the world. Similarly, some picture books will find a broad audience due to their visual appeal, irrespective of how well they do (or do not) interpret the text in question or deliver any other literary element. That’s OK. It doesn’t make those bad books. But it is something to remember as we examine large numbers of picture books and parse their success.
The pairing that works is the pairing that works. It can be difficult to predict which pairing is going to capture someone’s attention. Literal is not necessarily best, but neither is ironic. So much depends upon the context, and the players. In terms of connections to picture book evaluation, this reminded us that the only thing we have to judge is the picture book in front of us, and that gives us plenty to talk about!
*names have been changed to protect the innocent.