Tuesday, July 10, 2012

One Hundred Pages of Solicitude: Medium for Kids

Sometimes, I look back on the blog posts of the past, and I weep.  Not for the loss of innocence.  Not for the melodramatic ponderings of my past self.  Not even for all the time I could have spent doing something useful with my life.  No, I weep for the features abandoned, the series unfinished.  Whatever happened to the rest of The Bionic Woman?  Where is the Let's Play for Princessmaker 2?  Gone, gone, gone, into mists of time.  Well, not this time.  This time, we fight, fight against the dying of the light.  We strike boldly, to reclaim what is lost.  We gather 'round, and think of times past, and times new.  For this... is an edition of One Hundred Pages of Solicitude.
For those who have forgotten how this works, (what, you don't remember summer 2011?) essentially, I read 100 pages of a semi-scholarly book, and post my thoughts.  Simple, right?  Well, the book de jour here is Perry Nodelman's Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children's Picture Books.

In evoking the characteristic effects of one medium through the use of others, these artists reveal how very much our expectations of media depend on convention. In fact, the medium itself is not the message. The medium is never the message.” (76)

 First, let's talk about what lead me to this book.  I'm doing a brief section in my dissertation on videogame instruction manuals that model themselves on picturebooks.  And of course, research being my number one method of procrastinating from actual writing, that means reading a bunch of books to get enough material for two paragraphs of writing.  As such, I'm going slightly against the spirit of the original One Hundred Pages; those books were chosen more or less without research in mind, but this is a very directed and focused reading.  Nodelman's book is the earliest book-length study on the subject I could find.  I've actually come across Nodelman before; as a kid, I read his novel, The Same Place But Different, a fairly decent story wherein the young protagonist must travel to the land of the fairies to rescue his baby sister.  It's very British folklore-ish.  Imagine my surprise now, decades later, to learn that Nodelman is a former University of Winnepeg English scholar, who built his career on theorizing children's literature.  (Actually, it was pretty minor.  But it's a good line, so...)

In view of Nodelman's scholarship at large, then, his expert area is more children's books than visuals, but that doesn't matter a lot, for my purposes.  As the more or less premiere book in the filed, Words About Pictures spends a lot of time justifying the area of study, and arguing that picturebooks are really much more sophisticated than they seem, and require some rather intense cognitive processes on the child's behalf that we acculturated adults take for granted.  On that level, the book spends some time on cognitive development in children, and what it means to recognize that  the rabbits in Beatrix Potter's books are indeed animals and animals that dress up as people, and that this costuming shouldn't be confused with real rabbits, which the child may or may not have ever seen.  The rest of the first hundred pages, though, are spent on establishing what sort of meanings are conveyed by the pictures, and juxtaposition of pictures and text.  This includes the size of the books, paper quality, cover image, frame, white space, text placement, colors, and lines.  Chapter 3, the last before the break, looks at how artists create meaning through style; essentially, Nodelman argues, they draw on current Western associations of a particular style, rather than its actual history, to create some sort of mood or meaning. Future chapters will continue on the picture vein, with a focus on objects and actions, before returning to subjects such as picture and words relationships, irony, and rhythm. 

I like what I read.  It reminded me a great deal of another book I've just read, Gerard Genette's Paratexts. (And we may be getting a full review of that some day, so stay tuned.)  Both books are trying to establish a new field, and both pay attention to parts of the book that are usually dismissed as uninteresting.  Their methodology is similar as well; since they both recognize they can't really perform a systematic survey (homework for today: evaluate every picturebook.  I'll wait.), they pick and choose a very large number of examples.  And both writers have a bit of flair to them.  It's more pronounced in Genette, as he is Very Big News in narrative theory in general, but Nodelman has his share as well.  I think that comes out in the quotation I selected above, where he declares his distance from one of the basic established truths of media theory.  My personal response would be to ask how one is defining medium.  Nodelman argues that drawing on the effects of one medium through the use of others (what will be called remediation in about a decade's time of this book's publication) shows that our media expectations are conventions, not something determined by materiality.  I'd say that medium is, to a large extent, always a mix between conventional use and expedient use.  I've always thought that McLuhan dismisses content a little too cavalierly; the medium is never the entire message, or we could just hand people a cell phone when we want to talk, and then it'd be over with.  But it does shape things, a bit.

Speaking of shaping things, how does this all relate back to my dissertation focus?  Not great; I was hoping the discussion on style as meaning would help, but it kind of did the opposite.  By arguing that picture books draw on cultural conventions of outside styles to create meaning, Nodelman sort of torpedoes my argument that picturebooks have anything resembling a unified style of their own.  I still think there's a certain visual element that we associate with picture books, or at least, that we're more ready to associate with picture books than other types of pictures.  More relevant was the discussion on text placement. That's a useful thing to apply to instruction manuals. Usually, with instruction manuals, the image is placed in relation with the text, to illustrate the instruction point the text is trying to make. The reverse case usually only happens when the picture is the main point, as in a labelled screenshot, or a diagram labeling a controller.   The child cognition thing is interesting, in terms of reminding me about audience.  Some manuals with a picture book aesthetic are clearly aimed at children, such as the ones for Sesame Street games.  But some are actually addressing adults, and draw on the child-like imagery to instil a sense of innocence and simplicity.

Verdict: It's not exactly what I was looking for, but it's a step in the right direction.
Worth Reading in Full? : I'll probably check out the section on picture and image, and maybe the one on irony.  Those seem to be the most immediately relevant to what I want.

Later Days.

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