Friday, April 19, 2013

Visual Literacy

Mary Murphy's (I Kissed the Baby!) latest board book, Quick Duck!, attests to why her storytelling is ideally suited to this format. She repeats the title phrase, then lets youngest book lovers know--in just a few words and brush strokes--where the duckling is on the path to (as we soon discover) his or her family.

Last weekend, at the Bank Street College of Education, the Center for Children's Literature (where I serve as interim director) hosted its first Writers Lab mini-conference, "Early Childhood Literature: What Do You Need to Know?" Laura Vaccaro Seeger delivered the closing keynote, and focused on visual literacy. "At some point, we stop seeing things the way a young child does," Seeger said. We stop noticing things. Seeger skillfully uses die-cut pages in many of her books to draw the eye to specific details--books such as The Hidden Alphabet, and her two Caldecott Honor books, First the Egg and Green. With a turn of the page, we continue to notice those details within the context of a larger picture. She teaches us how to see, to notice, all over again.

Seeger also talked about a game she played with her boys when they were little: "How little can I show and still convey an expression of surprise?" Is it the eyes, the mouth? This game later became the basis for her book Walter Was Worried.

Like Seeger, Murphy understands the importance of conveying only the essential details. She keeps the pages clean and the focus on her duck, with its thick black outline against a pastel, mostly white background. A thin green line makes a reed; a thick purple stroke transforms it into a cat tail. The path of muddy webbed footprints betray a sense of urgency and also tell us that the feathered hero knows just where to go ("Out of the mud!"; "Under the hedge!"; "Over the stones!") to arrive safely to a waiting mother and siblings.

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