Ryan & Landon As Picture Book Illustrators: The Experiment
As I have read children’s books in the past and present, I’ve often asked myself, “How would a child choose to illustrate this?” After all, picture book illustrators are faced with what seems to me, a somewhat daunting task. Not only must the artist enter the mind of the author, but also produce something for children to find delight in. So as I thought about what to write for this Think Piece assignment I decided to devise an experiment to explore how a child would illustrate a picture book, and then, how an adult would illustrate the same story.
I recruited the help of my three-year-old son Landon and my fiancé Ryan who is a graphic design student at Western. First, Landon and I sat down together and wrote the story. Landon decided to call it Sid the Monster in the Mountain and I gave him free reign to illustrate it however he wanted. My only job during the process was to help him harness his ideas and write the actual text on the pages. The reason I let Landon write the story was to keep him interested and engaged in the process of illustrating, being that the attention of a three-year-old can, at times, be arduous to maintain. Once we finished, I used the text to create a blank version of the book, which I then gave to Ryan. Ryan did not see Landon’s version and he received the exact same tools to illustrate the book with the same simple set of instructions: to illustrate it however he wanted. I attached two PDF Files that contain each version of the book.
After the books were complete, I did follow-up interviews with both Ryan and Landon in order to delve deeper into an analysis of the results.
Interview with Ryan Lybeck about Sid the Monster in the Mountain:
Interview with Landon Lybeck-Westby about Sid the Monster in the Mountain:
Because Landon is three years old and his interview was very loose and difficult to perform, I will talk about some key points from my discussion with Landon. First, he had a strong reaction about some of the choices that Ryan made upon seeing Ryan’s version of the book. On the cover, Landon said, “That one is scary. He’s a little bit freaky behind those mountains. Mommy, where is his whole body?” Overall it seemed as though Landon had particular mental thoughts about the story and he didn’t know what to think about Ryan’s depictions of the characters. He seemed especially dissatisfied with Gerald and Mae. Landon said, “I don’t like Gerald. He’s so big he’s supposed to be a little bit little. Mae is supposed to be not an animal. And also that guy is a man I don’t like it.” Landon’s illustrations were derived from how he imagined each character and while he appreciated Ryan’s interpretation, he preferred his own. However, Landon’s reaction wasn’t entirely harsh, he really enjoyed the page where the monsters play cars and the last page.
As I began the experiment, I really had no idea what to expect. But once I was equipped with the data, I discovered many differences, similarities, results that shocked me, and ultimately, a drive to continue this research in the future. Perhaps the most fascinating revelation was being offered a glimpse into the mind of a three-year-old and a deeper understanding of how young children see books, through concrete imagery rather than the abstract I’m accustomed to using as an adult.
On a broad spectrum, Landon’s illustrations are much more literal. He tends to depict the scene just as he describes, whereas Ryan’s illustrations are more abstract and require further interpretation on the part of the reader. For instance, on pages one and two, Landon drew two monsters and a car, represented by three circles, to show Sid playing, whereas Ryan only showed two cars with hands driving them. However it wasn’t purely in Landon’s own drawings that he was limited to the already laborious task of conveying a concrete mental image. Landon also struggled to make sense of some of Ryan’s illustrations.
While looking at the cover of Ryan’s version for the first time, Landon said, “Mommy, where is his whole body?” because Ryan drew Sid behind two mountains. This was not something that I questioned as an adult. In fact, it seemed so obvious to me that Sid was behind the mountains that I hadn’t given it much thought prior to Landon’s question. But for Landon, without any textual support, he struggled to grasp the concept of Sid behind the mountains. This really opened my eyes to the differences in thinking between children and adults. The contrasts extend far beyond different interpretations while illustrating between Ryan and Landon. It shows that developmentally, a three-year-old just sees a book differently than an adult.
Landon’s difficulty with interpreting the abstract is due to the fact that until Kindergarten age, children are only beginning to develop a capacity for complex abstract thought. In her article “Abstract Thinking Skills in Kindergarten”, Ellen Booth Church says that by Kindergarten age, “ . . . children can imagine scenes that are not even in the books and can suggest possible new endings or sequels to the story. It takes a high degree of abstract thought to be able to envision things that are not there.” This information suggests that Landon still has years to go before he will be capable of fully conveying abstract thought and this divergence in mental capacity explains the differences between the two books. But, by panning out of the individual illustrations and viewing the layouts on a more global scale, the books are actually quite similar.
As I turned the pages of the books, I began to realize that placement and layouts of some of the pages are the same. For example, Ryan and Landon both placed the teacher Miss Heidi on the same spot on page six, Gerald and Mae in the same areas on pages eight and nine, as well as Sid on the last page. These similarities coincide with Ryan’s idea from the interview that Landon may be catching on to the general layout of books and their illustrations, and that maybe Landon drew on that knowledge base as he illustrated the book, something I’m unfortunately unable to ask Landon about directly. So I began to think about Landon’s experiences as a reader. On a typical day, Landon reads about ten or fifteen books with me, and at least five on his own. So what is he gaining from these experiences?
After the experiment it became clear that Landon absorbs these pages with more comprehension than I realized. He has constructed an idea about the visual representation of a book. According to Trevor Cairney in an article from his blog titled “Emergent Comprehension in Children Under Five”, a typical three-year-old begins to understand that there is meaning behind text and memorize parts of it, and that the child may “point to the print and attend to text context, images and sound.” Landon’s absorption of a typical picture book layout and its illustrations show the attention he’s paying to books. And as I looked at the two versions, I began to feel that the illustrations and the similarities in layout could mean that Landon’s book might be the early stages of a book that, over time, could evolve into Ryan’s.
This idea of evolution between the books became a key idea in my mind because I’m writing and Ryan is illustrating a children’s picture book called Otis the Great Horned Owl. Understanding a child’s visual perception is crucial and this deeper understanding has aided Ryan in the process of illustrating. This experiment really allowed me to step into the mind of a child to see how an illustrator must think in order to complete a children’s book and reminded me that child perception is not always the same as adult perception. I think that in children’s picture books, the benefit of having an adult illustrator comes from the fact that an adult is more capable of expressing abstract thoughts onto paper, for children to learn from and appreciate.
So for an illustrator, it is about achieving a balance between concrete and abstract, because ultimately it is about entertaining the audience: children. After this experience, I definitely plan on conducting this experiment again and in so doing, I think I will learn more about Landon’s development. I saw a new side of creativity in Landon I hadn’t experienced before that I’d like to tap into. Ultimately, this experiment showed me that all children interpret picture books differently and an awareness and consideration of that should be a critical component for writers and illustrators to consider while creating children’s picture books.
To see the illustrations, watch this short screencast: http://screencast.com/t/VB3fYvWQjuiI
Cairney, Trevor. “Emergent Comprehension in Children Under Five.” Literacy, families
and learning, 2010. Web. 5 May 2012.
Church, Ellen Booth. “Abstract Thinking Skills in Kindergarten.” Scholastic, 2012. Web.
10 May 2012.