PICTURING STORIES – A Summary and Presentation of the Thesis

“This research brings an original and much needed perspective to the role of visual storytelling in children’s picturebooks. She [Stella East] challenges orthodoxies that pervade the field and bases her challenge and grounds it confidently and substantively in theory, research, and professional experience. The oral examination provided rich discussion that we all agree changes the way in which we view picturebooks. The committee encourages the candidate to publish from this research.”

The Examining Committee’s statement for Stella East’s Oral Examination, August 22, 2008
Chair: Professor Yvonne Singer, York University, Ca.
Dean’s Representative: Professor Esther Fine, York University, Ca.
Supervisor: Professor Sharon Murphy, York University, Ca.
External Examiner: Professor Peggy Albers, Georgia State University, USA.

This summary includes citations from the examination committee, the thesis abstract, and the first sub-chapters of four chapters.

Picturing Stories:
The Integrity and Marginalization of Visual Storytelling in Children’s Picturebooks

          This thesis examines how illustrations in children’s picturebooks can be considered a picturing of the story, rather than a picturing of the words. My interest in the integrity of the picturebook has developed within my work as a picturebook illustrator where I consider my role as that of a visual storyteller rather than as a mere decorator of an author’s textual narrative. My interdisciplinary approach to this thesis investigates picturebook illustration as visual language, and as an art form, within a visual storytelling tradition. These properties are demonstrated by discussing thirteen narrative works including picturebooks. The integrity of these works is then contrasted with biases practiced in the publishing and cultural community, which lead away from the appreciation and development of the picturebook’s visual story. The importance of the picturebook image is manifested in its role as a child reader’s introduction to visual literacy, visual art, and the visual narrative.

Chapter 2: Visual Language

          In this chapter I will argue for a semiotic system, which I choose to call “visual language.” To do this I will deploy common conceptualizations from verbal language such as vocabulary, syntax, grammar and the parts of speech such as nouns and verbs and their modifiers and discuss how these can be applied to visual language. Furthermore I will draw upon the descriptors that participate in Ferdinand De Saussure’s definition of “the linguistic sign,” such as the arbitrary and discursive nature of words, the word as sound-image and concept, words as distinct signs corresponding to distinct ideas, langue and parole, and the position of language in time among a community of speakers. I then further demonstrate parallel characteristics and principles within a definition of the pictorial sign. In addition to this I will discuss theories of Charles S. Peirce, W.J.T. Mitchell, Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen among others. I thereby demonstrate how visual language may require additional descriptors besides those of verbal language. By using this comparison I will shed light on how the roles of these sign systems of visual and verbal language articulate and modify meaning by being situated within the same picturebook, creating a “third voice.”

Chapter 3: Visual Storytelling

            In this chapter I will provide theoretical and illustrative argumentation for the visual expression of stories in static pictures, which I choose to call “visual storytelling.” By drawing upon common conceptualizations from narratology, such as “focalization,” and “the passing of time,” I will identify these conceptualizations and demonstrate how they function within a pictorial context. Though my focus within this thesis is the picturebook picture, I will provide argumentation for how narratives are represented within single pictures and across multiple pictures, and the traditional development of such image making. I will thereby situate the picturebook image, its creator, and its audience within this field. By juxtaposing visual storytelling in picturebooks with conventional practices within the visual arts, I will demonstrate the similarities and differences within these fields including their relationships to reproduction and to the written word.

Chapter 4: The Integrity of the Visual Narrative

           In the previous chapters I have discussed the principles of visual language, the structures of visual storytelling, and the history of the visual story. In this chapter I will use the ideas from these chapters to discuss a group of four narrative works: Fergus Hall’s Groundsel (1982), (Fig. 2): Frida Kahlo’s “The Little Deer” (1946), (Fig. 17): Jindra Capek’s Tales of a Long Afternoon (1988), (Fig. 6): and David Blackwood’s “Fire Down on the Labrador” (1980), (Fig. 16).

The Thesis pictures in colour: figures 1 -18.

Conventional opinion might separate these works simply into two categories: illustrations and art, on the grounds that the pictures in the picturebooks only tell a story already told, whereas those pictures considered art have been created with the integrity of the artist. I propose to demonstrate that the images presented in this chapter, picture stories with the integrity of the storyteller, whether considered illustration or whether considered art, or both. Each of these images has a relationship to words and previously told stories each in its own way. The picturebook Groundsel, for example, is told both in words and images by the same author, and is interwoven with previously told stories such as “Father Time.” “Fire Down on the Labrador” is based on oral storytelling about fishing trips to Labrador combined with Blackwood’s own experiences. “The Little Deer” is based on stories and motifs from Mexico and Europe, re-worked and woven together with Kahlo’s own life. Capek’s Aesop’s Fables in Tales of a Long Afternoon is a visual re-telling and re-working of traditional tales that have been re-told numerous of times by others in various mediums. The verbal storyteller and the visual storyteller are therefore, in this case, in the same position, re-telling and re-working visual or verbal motifs and concepts of previously told stories, abiding with particular conventions, grammar, and content of the story’s own storytelling traditions. Furthermore, all four of these works circulate within a community of readers, chronologically arranged in picturebooks, on websites, and in art books.

The differences among these images, whether created for presentation in a picturebook, a gallery, a postcard, or a poster, are not those of a relationship to words or reproduction techniques, or whether they are defined as illustrations or fine art. The differences among these images lie rather within the integrity of each image as an independent articulation with aesthetic and narrative signification. By identifying the diverse storytelling properties present in these four static works, I will position the picturebook’s visual story within a larger field of visual narrative. With the use of narrative concepts such as the passing of time, focalization and so forth, I will describe how colours and forms, the pictorial syntax, as well as previously told stories and visual motifs articulate these concepts. By comparing the content and narrative structures of these modern images with earlier narrative images, I will place these works within a visual storytelling tradition.

Chapter 5: The Visual Story in Children’s Picturebooks:
Mere Decoration for a Written Text?

            The children’s picturebook can be a haven for the contemplation and appreciation of the static narrative image, allowing the possibility for a story and an experience to be shared between an adult and a child. The picturebook is also a unique arena for the development of pictorial language and visual storytelling. The visual story in picturebooks, however, is often undermined and marginalized by biased assumptions that influence crucial decision-making. These biases then have profound consequences for the potential of each picturebook and the reader’s possibility of a numinous experience.

In this chapter I will draw upon examples from my own experiences as a picturebook illustrator, as well as examples from the publishing industry, the fine art industry, the cultural community, as well as written texts to demonstrate practices detrimental to the picturebook’s development and integrity. I will identify claims and practices, no matter how subtle, which I believe, indirectly or directly, undermine the role and importance of visual storytelling in picturebooks and the consequences this undermining has for the illustrator, the picturebook audience, and the picturebook itself. These claims and practices include: misleading reviews in the media, or the lack of reviews altogether; the absence of the illustrator’s name in cataloguing and marketing; narrow-minded marketing interests; badly prioritized financing; biased support programmes for the arts; misunderstood pictorial editing practices; an attitude of indifference during the printing process; flawed literary criticism: misguided assumptions about visual authorship, visual literacy, storytelling and art; as well as everyday terminology that includes vaguely defined words such as “fine art” and “commercial art”

“Picturing Stories” was begun in 2004 with supervisors, Professor Sharon Murphy, Professor Peter E. Cumming, and Professor Don Dippo, in the Graduate Programme in Interdisciplinary Studies, York University, Toronto, Canada. The oral examination, was held in 2008 and where “Picturing Stories” was nominated for a prize.

In her rapport for “Picturing Stories”, External Examiner, Professor Peggy Albers writes:

Stella East’s thesis represents one of the best pieces of scholarship I have seen in a Master’s thesis. Her work and thinking is grounded both theoretically and practically in the work of illustrators as well as herself.

This thesis was such a pleasure to read; I learned a great deal about the illustrator and the role of visual language in picturebooks, confirmed what I had already understood about analysis in image is more complex than merely illustrating the word, and that visual imagery in picturebooks have stand alone stories in and of themselves.

Ms. East presents a strong, carefully argued and logical presentation of theory and applies it to picturebooks and draws conclusions evidenced by the material presented. She addresses an area in children’s literature as original and innovative, and strongly considers interdisciplinary fields of literacy, art, history, sociology, geography, as well as others.

Ms. East clearly demonstrates strong scholarship, writes in a strong confident voice and presents a breadth of knowledge about the fields about which she writes. She integrates a range of scholars including semioticians, picturebook illustrators and writers, art critics, historians and scholars. Further, she brings both practical and theoretical knowledge about the construction of picturebooks from her own position as an illustrator. Her semiotic standpoint strongly supports the analyses of picturebooks related in the second half of the thesis, and brings credence to these arguments Throughout the manuscript, Ms. East presents a number of pictorial analyses of pictures and artworks. One excellent example is her analysis of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son, a careful viewing and reading of this text theoretically informed. Her voice is confident, especially as she discusses the Egyptian cartoon in The New Yorker and Nodelman’s assumptions about illustrators. It is at this point that Ms. East makes clear that illustrators (as well as her own work as an illustrator) must not be viewed as “parasitic,” but as essential and significant storytellers, and need of more visibility in the field of children’s literature. Such articulation of this argument clearly demonstrates Ms. East’s scholarship, ability to speak to as well as against scholarly voices in the field, and future as a scholar herself in several interdisciplinary fields. Further, her work offers her a position of authority, especially as it relates to the reading of image in picturebooks.

A second strong point about this thesis is Ms. East’s clear and concise summary and explanation of semiotics, a theory, informed by a number of disciplines, that is highly complex, and extraordinarily challenging. The discussion on semiotics, although largely structural, is one of the most thorough and well-explained that I have read. Across the thesis, Ms. East integrates this strong theoretical standpoint to argue her points about the role of visual language in picturebooks and is a passion that merits publication as part of this thesis’s future. One strong example of her ability to argue her point is Wolf’s statement that storytelling or narratives are reserved for the written/oral word on pg 86. Ms. East takes on three of this scholars assumptions and reasons how his statements about narrativity is flawed, especially fro an artist’s perspective. Ms. East writes, “By using a singular picture to represent the visual arts, Wolf is not discussing the limits of narrative in the visual arts, but the limit of narrative within one kind of visual art, confirming the second assumption that a visual artwork is a singular picture.” (86)

Good scholarship is good teaching. Throughout the manuscript, I often paused to think about Ms. East’s arguments, her presentation of theory to support her arguments, and her presentation of the significance of visual language. Such reflection encouraged me to consider my own work with visual texts and pictorial semiotics. That I continue to think about my own thinking suggests the power and importance of this manuscript to teach educators, publishers, scholars and others to pay more attention to the role of visual language and the analysis of image, not as parasitic but significant in it potential to tell a larger story.

Report by External Examiner: Professor Peggy Albers, Georgia State University, USA.


Picturing Stories: Summary as PDF

Picturing Stories: The complete thesis as a PDF

Interdisciplinary Programme
York University, Toronto Canada.


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