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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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Fairy Tales, Scary Tales?

This article, Fairy Tales too scary for modern children, say parents, appeared in The Telegraph a couple of weeks ago, following the results of a survey showing that one in five parents have eschewed the old stories in favour of modern picture books.

The issues that have been raised centre around two key aspects of the tales.

First is the potentially scary content of some of the stories.  It’s not difficult to guess which of them may cause problems.  Two of the three little pigs are eaten by the wolf, who also (ok, probably not the same one) consumes Grandma, Red Riding Hood, and the seven little kids.  Hansel and Gretel are kidnapped by a witch and in real danger of being eaten.  Rumpelstiltskin promises to take the princess’s child from her.  Rapunzel is abducted and imprisoned in a tower.   The Gingerbread Man is reduced to nothing but a handful of crumbs by a cunning fox.

Secondly there is the issue of changing roles in modern society.  Cinderella, so the article points out, has a young girl slaving for her elder sisters.   Snow White is permitted to stay with the dwarfs on the basis that she keeps their house clean (something they seem to have been doing perfectly well by themselves to that point). Most of the women in the tales are subservient and even in their happy endings their ‘achievements’ are to marry well and look pretty.  Red Riding Hood’s journey through the wood alone seems laughably stupid in a world in which small children can’t even walk to a corner shop to buy milk.

Undoubtedly old-fashioned and scary as they are, are they actually that damaging?  The thing about fairy tales, unlike modern stories, is that the characters tend to be two-dimensional. We do not hear too much about what they think or how they feel.  The wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood without much drama, the three little pigs are despatched in a matter of fact manner.  Without this the stories are less deeply frightening and more thrilling.  It is not horror that we see.

There are also those that believe that the move away from fairy tales is damaging in itself.  Fairy tales are simple, and uncomplicated.  The wolf is bad, the children are good.  The beautiful can be evil (Snow White’s stepmother) and the unconventional warm-hearted (the seven dwarfs).  It is what people do that counts.  If they do good, they are married, rewarded, become rich, live happily ever after.  If they do evil, they are killed, go mad, or are punished.  Last year Sally Goddard Blythe*, child development specialist and author of The Genius of Natural Childhood, argued that fairy tales are necessary to help parents teach morality.  “Fairy tales help to teach children an   understanding of right and wrong, not through direct teaching, but through   implication.  When you don’t give children these stereotypes of good and bad, you don’t give them a moral code on which to start to develop their own lives.”

“These stories are not cruel and discriminatory; rather they help children to understand, firstly, the quirks and weaknesses of human behaviour in general, and secondly, to accept many of their own fears and emotions.  If as parents or society we seek to protect children from all unpleasant  events, we do not equip them to deal with the real world,”

Without wishing to generalise too much modern children’s books have a tendency to blur the boundaries between good and evil.  Bad characters are redeemed.  Naughty behaviour is sometimes funny.  No ‘real’ evils or threats cross the paths of our heroes and heroines.  Whilst they may do an excellent job of helping children to explore their emotions and understand relationships they are more complicated in terms of punishment and reward and morality is not always obvious.

Traditional fairy tales do teach some fundamental lifeskills in imaginative ways.  Hansel and Gretel may be in a dark situation but they survive as a result of their initiative and resourcefulness.  Little Red Riding Hood learns a valuable lesson about listening to her parents and staying where it’s safe.  The Gingerbread Man’s pride comes before his inevitable fall.

Although there are elements of these stories which are old-fashioned and need explanation, especially with regards to gender roles, it is short-sighted to dismiss them out of hand.  Read right, there is still a lot to be learned – and enjoyed – from the traditional fairy tale.

*comments quoted from another article in The Telegraph published 14 May 2011