Children’s Picturebooks: actors of spatialities, generator of spaces


 This presentation has been read at the Cambridge Homerton Research and Teaching Center for Children’s Literature on November 23rd in a symposium organized by Clementine Beauvais between Cambridge Homerton College and AFRELOCE[1].

      To start with, I would like to quote the philosopher and art critic Walter Benjamin who, between 1918 and 1921, wondered about the beauty of certain colored pictures. He wrote:

“Children’s books are not used to introduce their readers directly to the world of objects, animals and human beings, in what we call Life. Rather, if something like the Platonist anamnesis exists, it takes place in the children themselves, whose book of concretized pictures is Paradise.”[2]

     So, I could say that picture books are much more than vectors of imagination. For one part, they would be some places of transfer which, in a second part, would generate spaces and contribute to the construction of readers’ modus habitandi. These two hypotheses constitute the two main axes of a research I began two years ago in Geography with Michel Lussault and Cecile Boulaire.

     In this short presentation, I have chosen to focus on the initial results of my research which are based upon examples taken from a corpus of 165 picturebooks.

1. Introducing my corpus

     As I wanted to study the diverse processes that enabled picturebooks to transmit spatialities and to test them in several classes, I selected 155 books printed in France from a list of 43,029 provided by a data base called ‘Electre’. This data base is commonly used by booksellers and librarians. I determined three levels of criteria.

Fig.2 : constitution of a corpus

Fig.2 : constitution of a corpus

     Firstly, my corpus comprises only “iconotextuel” picture books, in accordance with a distinction expressed by Isabelle Nières-Chevrel, and corresponding more or less to a definition proffered earlier by Barbara Bader in 1976:

“A picture book is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historical document; and, foremost, an experience for a child.

As an art form it hinges on the interdependence of pictures and words, on the simultaneous display of two facing pages, and on the drama of the turning of the page.”[3]

     Why would cultural geography, which is at the heart of my research, be interested by this kind of medium? Because it is a cognitive medium; the “signing of knowledge”, as the French author for Children, Elzbieta, said, is facilitated by the “iconotextuel picture book” through the interplay between the reader, the medium, the author and sometimes by the second reader who accompanies the child in his reading. The Picturebook follows the same rules as the game described by Donald W. Winnicott: identification is essential to it; the child can recognize himself through the hero who, thus, realizes the self through an adventure. Pictures in the book, thanks to the numerous combinations they present, invite to be read it as an enigma and so make it necessary for the reader to decipher it using their faculties of reasoning. According to Janine Despinette, “the dynamism involved in the act of looking is bound to the dynamism involved in a creative act”[4].

     Secondly, among these “iconotextuel picturebooks”, I then made a second selection. I was interested in books containing a narrative wherein the action takes place within particular spaces (rural, urban, mountain, littoral, domestic spaces) and spatial dynamics (routes, movements and travels).

      Finally, pictures from this second selection of picturebooks had to contain some maps, cross-sections, seen from above, or landscapes. These representations have belonged to the discipline of Geography since its origin, constituting both its objects and figures of study. I also wanted to compare and associate these specific pictures to what some writers call “mind-maps” or “heuristic maps”. This kind of map tries to place on a sheet of paper different elements that compose or evoke a space. Let’s take an example with a book by Peter Sis entitled The Wall: Growing up behind the Iron Curtain. On pages 12-13, the designer represents different characters that he judges very representative of Eastern Europe. This is a map in so far as it figures a space (that is Eastern Europe). Yet, more than symbolized, the message of this map is idealized. Indeed, there, Peter Sis generates a virtual space which is gone now but that still exists in his own mind.

2. Generating spaces

     By their form and the interdependence between pictures and narrative, picturebooks generate spaces. These spaces are actually created by the course accomplished by the main characters and shared with the readers. As Michel de Certeau said, a narrative produces de facto « geographies in action » :

“Narratives […] cross and […] organize places; they select them and link them together; they make sentences and routes with them. These are space courses. […] Every narrative is a narrative of a travel, a practice of space.”[5]

     I think that the iconotextuel narrative goes beyond a very simple dualism between “dream space” and ”real space”. Narratives build spaces fed by different perceptions and actions. As the geographer Michel Lussault wrote, “Every spatial action can be studied as a narrative structure”.

     To illustrate my point, I am going to take an example which I find rather representative. The cover of Plus tard by Gaëtan Dorémus[6] shows a map of the town where Gustave, the hero, lives. The city is represented like a big knot tied by different communication channels: road, railway, and canal. The town is incomprehensible. The reader is unable to read its organization. But, turning pages, the city awakes, as Gustave does. The knot is slowly untied. And, while we follow Gustave on his way to school, we discover the city and its inhabitants. Thus, gradually, the town becomes comprehensible and, at the end of the story, it has become possible to easily draw its map.

     Besides, some pictures of this picturebook contain some representations of the city that many people could call “clichés”. The city is crowded, noisy and there is a lot of traffic… But I personally don’t think that this perception is a “cliché”. I regard it more like an archetype, a collective representation. We can compare this representation to what the anthropologist Yves Winkin calls Enchantment. As a mediators of spatialities, Picturebooks need to capture readers by presenting some reassuring pictures mixed to a space in action, in movement. This is the process of Enchantment and it may very well be the aim of the Picturebook.  As Gaston Bachelard put it in 1957:

“In this field, all is done by simple and delicate touches. The soul is so susceptible to these simple pictures that, in a harmonic reading, it hears all the resonances.”[7]

3. Transmitting spatialities

     On the one hand, I decided to define transfer as all the possibilities that Picturebook offers to transmit perceptions of a particular space. Transfer is based on the specific cognitive qualities of the Picturebook. For Virginia Lee Burton, there is no doubt that the Picturebook is an efficient medium to prepare children for their future life:

“[…] it seems to me that books for children are among the most powerful influences in shaping their lives and tastes. In this sense these books are important means of advancing to a better world; […] Books created primarily for entertainment can do much to form the norms of futures thought and action.”[8]

     According to her, the picture is primary; it is then served by a narrative and it is spaced on a double-page that constitutes a cognitive mean:

“Remember, that children are taught reading by seeing, that is, by associating a picture with a word. If the picture is well drawn and finely designed they learn more than definition. […] Primitive man thought in pictures, not in words, and this visual conception of the outside world is much more natural and far more fundamental than its sophisticated translation into verbal modes of thought.”[9]

     So my first task was to analyze the different perceptions of different spaces, to classify them and to understand how these perceptions can change. What perceptions of the city, for example, are transmitted by Picturebooks? How have they changed over the last forty or fifty years? And what about rural space? Mountain space? House space?

      Aleksandra and Daniel Mizilienski’s Mamoko[10] could be an example of transfer. This polish picturebook was translated into french in 2011 with the title: Mamoko, 50 histoires dans la ville (Mamoko, 50 stories in the city). Without any text, the picturebook consists of seven doublepages. Each of them represents a district of Mamoko, a utopian vision of Warsaw, the town where the authors live. In these districts, a lot of characters live, meet themselves, talk to each other. Readers can follow them from pages to pages. The Mizielinskis give, in this book, a very modern perception of the city. Each district constitutes a centre itself. Thus, Mamoko, as a huge metropolis, is a city with several centres where different communication channels cross together: river system, pedestrian network, railroad network, road network, underground network. This kind of intermodality gives the impression that modern cities are built on movement and mobility.

     On the other hand, I defined transaction the process that enables the Picturebook to transform readers’ perceptions of a space. In terms of communication, we could say that the Picturebook is performative. More than a simple transfer, the transaction is the reader’s answer to a message sent by an author via the Picturebook. In 1926, Walter Benjamin stated that reading is not used to increase our experiences but used to increase ourselves. He wrote:

“Children, in particular do read like that: by integrating, and not by identifying with. Their reading is in a very personal relationship; less between their culture and their knowledge of the world, than between their growth and their power.”[11]

     In France, each year since 2002, teachers of primary school are invited to study ten books for use in the classroom. So the use of the Picturebook in a geography class is an excellent opportunity to evaluate the process of transaction. In 2009, a teacher-training student decided to teach with a Third Grade class structuring in space from  Gerda Müller’s picturebook: Devine qui fait quoi?[12] This picturebook comprises no text apart this sentence which is on the first page, that is: “Let’s follow this track…”. Actually, page after page, the reader follows a little boy from his bed, through his bedroom and then through his house, out to the courtyard, down to the river and all the way back home.

     The perception of space which is transferred by this picturebook could be qualified as psychological or “proxemique”, according to the sociologist Abraham Moles. Indeed, we can see, as he calls it, an interlocking of “shells” that human being has built around himself. The little boy’s course is the expression of his own growth: he leaves his “intimate sphere” (his bed, under the blankets), crosses his “personal sphere” (his bedroom), then a “social sphere” (kitchen, hall). Outside the house, he is thrown into a “public sphere” where he meets people and animals. At each time, the little boy surmounts barriers or limits. At first limits are familiar and later unexpected and new.

     The first time, to start, the teacher in training presented the book to the children. They described each double-page and built a narrative. On the second occasion, the children recreated the little boy’s journey in a model of the house made by the teacher. They went on building the narrative. Then for the third step, the children were asked to draw the little boy’s house and his itinerary inside the house. I have chosen to show you Paulin’s drawing. His representation seen from above is very similar to the model: the house forms an “L shape”. For Paulin, the house is a long corridor opening at the outside world and where different spaces are interlocked. At the end of the corridor, we find the bed. The bedroom and the dining room are separated by a thin wall. The hall-door is as large as the corridor and is represented as an airlock between the inside and the outside. Paulin has integrated the perception of the space transferred by the picturebook. If I am using the verb “integrate” instead of “assimilate”, it is because, to me, Paulin has done more than merely adopted the author’s perceptions. He has mixed them with his own perceptions, even though it may have been unconscious. In fact, Paulin’s drawing may be regarded as a uterus, a very special and protected space. In this case, the transaction was facilitated by the activities led by the student teacher around the book reading.


     To conclude this short presentation of my research, I would like to quote Walter Benjamin again. When he spoke about a certain “porosity” of the Picturebook he wanted to express the amazing place of exchanges this particular medium offers. Children are plunged into a universe of words and pictures with which they can build new pictures and new spaces:

“In such a porous word, full of colors, where everything is going to move at every step, the child is welcomed as game partner. Enveloped by all the colors he catches in his reading and his vision, he stands here, in the middle of a masquerade, and he is involved in it.”[13]

[2] Walter Benjamin, about a work on the beauty of colored pictures in children’s books, 1918-1921.

[3] Barbara Bader, American Picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within, New York : Mac millan Pub Co, 1976,

[4] Janine Despinette, « Du point à la ligne » in J. Perrot (dir.), Jeux graphiques dans l’album pour la jeunesse, Paris : CRDP de Créteil, 1991, p.75.

[5] Michel de Certeau, L’invention du quotidien, volume 1, Paris : Gallimard, 1990, pp.170-171.

[7] Gaston Bachelard, La poétique de l’espace, Paris : Gallimard, 1957, p.99.

[8] Virginia Lee Burton, « Making Picture Books” in Horn Book Magazine, vol. 19, n°4, Juillet/Août 1943, p.232.

[9] Virginia Lee Burton, op. cit., p.232.

[11] Walter Benjamin, « Vue perspective sur le livre pour enfants » (1926) dans Enfance. Éloge de la poupée et autres essais, Paris : Rivages Poches, 2011, p.65.

[13] Walter Benjamin, op. cit., p.66.

Christophe Meunier

Docteur en géographie / ENS-LSH de Lyon / UMR 5600 Environnement, Ville et Société / EA 6301 - Laoratoire InTRu / ESPé Centre Val de Loire - Université d'Orléans

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