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A Plea for the Narrative Picturebook*


The main form of the picturebook is the one that is derived from the tradition of drawing in classic English and American picturebooks. This is what is known as the “narrative picturebook”. Edward Ardizzone, Maurice Sendak, Uri Shulevitz, Arnold Lobel, Quentin Blake, the Alhbergs, Helen Oxenbury… these are its most well-known representatives.


The narrative picturebook, which was, in France, fully developed for the first time by Jean de Brunhoff in 1931, today finds itself in competition with picture books of graphic or artistic features, which themselves are the heirs of Bruno Munari.


For, over the past ten years or so, the French editorial landscape has left a large place to these productions of a perfect aesthetic, of pared down forms, and that quite often call upon the playful sense of young readers. After having been somewhat shied away from by the book mediators, these picturebooks now benefit from a growing interest, sometimes a t the risk of eclipsing picturebooks of a more classic craftsmanship.


Yet the francophone narrative picturebook stays radiant, notably because it continues to be developed, carried on by its masters (Claude Ponti, Philippe Corentin, Grégoire Solotareff, etc) and met by a new generation of author-illustrators joining this tradition.


These past years, humor has established itself as a powerful medium of picturebooks “to be read aloud” which have largely won over a widened audience.  For the humorous picturebooks arouse delighted adherence of a readership shared between adults and children. In this way authors offer texts whose orality is elaborated in its expressions, in its comic repetition, its unexpected and charming outcomes, and these texts are generally illustrated in a lively and joyous way, by virtuoso illustrators in this domain.


The qualities of the narrative picturebook are numerous. It involves a fruitful rallying of readering skills. At least a verbal utterance and a visual statement, mutually dependant, are present on the space of the double page. The reading must follow the dynamic interactions between text and images, and the deep sense of the picturebook actually emerges from the two elements working together as a driving force.


Above all, the narrative picturebook stages a story, which is the first form of literature and without a doubt the most structuring for the child. Indeed, the tale brings a linear unfolding of the facts, a chronology, events flowing one out of the other. This narrative thread is extremely founding for the child’s psyche. And these stories stage veritable “life scenarios”, which allow for children to prepare themselves to face the crises they will inevitably meet with in life.


At a time when digital technology and screens occupy an increasingly important place in the everday lives of children, the daily presence of stories read appears even more essential. The cultural pole of childhood needs balance, and to counterbalance agitation with calm, complexity and abundance with clarity and limpidity.


A book is a tangible object; its text, the succession of its pages, is unalterable. It is a promise of permanence, an absolutely essential pole of stability which must, more than ever, continue to be given to children.


* I use here the single word “picturebook” as most of the English speaker specialists of this field do, because my issue concerned books in which words, pictures and medium are inextricably linked. (Note of the author)


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