Visual Literacy

Article by Dr Pam Macintyre.  Pam teaches undergraduate and post-graduate courses in language and literacy, children’s and young adult literature in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne. She is the editor of the quarterly review journal Viewpoint: on books for young adults.

Whether it is to the plight of the stranded cat in Come Down, Cat!, the yearning of the ghost in The Ghost of Miss Annabel Spoon, the dreamy landscapes of The Carousel or the intricacies of the imagined worlds in TheJewel Fish of Karnak, our first responses to picture books are affective and aesthetic, as are the responses of our students. So it is both a pleasure and challenge to confirm and explore these responses with young readers to assist them to understand better why they react to what they read and view in particular ways. We know that students bring their varied repertoires to reading, which makes for rich sharing of diverse opinions. We also know that authors and illustrators deliberately construct their texts to present a point of view; and not only authors and illustrators but advertisers, magazine editors, television producers and filmmakers. The increasing pervasiveness of images in society, and the influence of widely consumed (especially by young people) highly visual media and electronic texts are abundantly evident. Our students are used to reading and interpreting such visual texts, so we might assume that they have developed analytical and critical abilities through these experiences. However, visual literacy skills need to be explicitly taught, and there is no better place to begin than with the highly constructed form of the picture book. This need for explicit analysis is evident in the language and focus of the Australian Curriculum: English which speaks about the importance of selection of the ‘materials for students to listen to, read, view, write and create and the kinds of purposeful activities that can be organised around these materials’ (ACARA, 2011).

With picture books, readers learn to appreciate the artistic skill, engagement and challenge in the texts and want to repeat the experience of working with puzzles, surprises, disruption of expectations, and the magical in the everyday. There is also the opportunity to appreciate the conjunction between language and image displayed in the technical skill of composition, or of the imaginative play with the meanings opened up by the author/artist. Such explorations need to start with close looking, as the discussion of some of the images from the following books reveals.

Come Down, Cat! is a delightful domestic story of a frightened cat and a brave boy intent on saving it, and the importance of their relationship to both. The small scale of the story is given tension and drama through the design of illustrations and the facial expressions of the central characters. The cover illustration provides an intriguing invitation into the story. How do we read the relationship between boy and cat? The diagonal of the roof line creates tension as does the darkening sky. The angles on the next spread unsettle the calm suggested by the cool greens and blues and underscore the enormity of the cat’s plight. Students can be invited to notice the changes in colour and design as the story progresses and how they affect the mood of the story.

Looking closely at the cover of The Ghost of Miss Annabel Spoon with its muted colours, Annabel’s angular positioning, the stormy sea beneath her and her facial expression, suggests that this might not be a conventional ghost story. And this is what we discover through the rhyming text, but also through the ‘still’ pictures. In their beautiful design and execution – shape, framing, size – ­we discover a darkly humorous story about collective fright and prejudice, a tone maintained until the happier resolution, whose tonal shift to a happier mood is marked by a change in palette. Some readers might also find resonances with Munch’s ‘Scream’.

The Carousel projects a different mood altogether with its warm hues and the loving connection between child and animal on the cover, the texture of the illustrations suggesting the depths of its story. Colour is again important to the unfolding of events: the intensification of the pinks and mauves to dark purples and reds reflects the intensity of feeling of the protagonist and the shift from the everyday to the magical. The charming motionless cover image is gradually transformed to one of  urgent movement, signifying the power of freedom for the animals. The static carousel horses become figures of power and beauty as they gallop across the pages to the heightened rhythm of the text.

Fans of Graeme Base’s work will come to the reading of The Jewel Fish of Karnak, ready to notice the details and clues they will need for the active reading required to take up the challenges of solving the expected puzzle or problem. This time, the setting is Ancient Egypt, backgrounded in muted desert colours, which contrast with the intense visual characterisation of Jackal, Ibis, Crocodile Prince and Cat Emperor. Unless readers can find the jewel fish, the two cunning jewel thieves, Jackal and Ibis will be in perpetual punishment limbo. Readers can follow the story and find the clues in  two levels of the story: the one told in image and word, and the one told in image and symbols carried in the hieroglyphic panels.

If we want our students to be visually literate, then we first need them to really look at what they are seeing. A perfect strategy for young readers and older ones (teachers included) is to describe what can be seen in an image, be it the cover or one from inside the book. Often with students we jump straight to interpretation and significance, when starting with a detailed close-looking can be revelatory. Try it and you’ll see how much is noticed about colour, dominance, angle, framing, perspective, medium, line, gesture, facial expression, space, etc. In doing so you will also notice how readers are prompted to think about the next level of examination – what we are bringing to our viewing and reading – and connections with things already seen and known. This skill learned through enjoying and engaging with picture books can be transferred effectively to different visual and multimodal texts, creating powerful readers and viewers.

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