Allan Ahlberg and visual literacy

Whilst searching for information about Allan Ahlberg, I came across this article in The Guardian from April last year.

It is an interesting insight into one of the most iconic figures in children’s writing, particularly given the curious twists of fate that led him there.  The books produced by the Ahlbergs have been amongst the classics for many years now and it is their originality and detail which make them such.  The holes in Peepo!, the partially concealed characters in Each Peach Pear Plum, and of course the letters in The Jolly Postman make the experience of reading each one unique and lodged them forever in the memories of those now old enough to have read them to their own children.

Ahlberg makes a good point about the interplay between text and pictures: “‘When I’m writing a picture book, I automatically think ‘I don’t need to say that’ because the pictures will say it. Or, better still, ‘I’ll say this and the pictures will say that, which contradicts it.'”  Really good picture books use their illustrations not just to reflect the words but to supplement them, develop them, evaluate them and challenge them.  Margaret Meek makes this point repeatedly in her short book on literacy “How Texts Teach What Readers Learn”, a text familiar to most English and primary school teachers.  She argues that even readers with only half a toe on the ladder to literacy can benefit and learn reading skills from picture books.  Children can learn about narrative structure simply from ‘reading’ pictures.  Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, for example, has no words, yet the story is perfectly clear.  Pictures also offer narrative freedom, particularly in the Ahlbergs’ books, where the level of detail means the reader can chose which elements of the pictures to talk about, and what is important or otherwise to the story.  Subplots can be seen in pictures that never appear in the text.  And where the illustrations contradict the story, or include additional information, young readers begin the process of understanding subtext, ambiguity and irony.

Allan Ahlberg and his late wife clearly understood this.  Giving books to children goes beyond merely exposing them to words, bringing them enjoyment or expanding their vocabulary; it gives them access to the stuff of which narrative is made and right from the beginning of their engagement with books it helps them to develop their skills as readers.  As Meek says at the end of ‘How Texts Teach’: “the reading of stories makes skilful, powerful readers who come to understand not only the meaning but also the force of texts. It is a strong defence against being victimized by the reductive power of so-called ‘functional literacy’.  It also makes writers.”

We will return to the issue of literacy and literature another time.  For now, if you are reading picture books, think about how the words and pictures interact, and how you can interact with them.

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