“And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”
Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
Have you ever wondered why adult books don’t have any pictures? We accept this state of affairs, but it hasn’t always been that way. I think two reasons explain for this loss of images, neither of which are very good. In fact, I believe this lack of pictures impacts our reading habits.
Some of the earliest written stories were comic strips. That’s right… comic strips, painted on cave walls. Later, when people needed something more portable, they painted on scrolls. Many early writing systems, such as the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt, came directly from images and these comics-like stories.
Fast forward a couple thousand years and you find illuminated books spreading over the globe. Even after the invention of the printing press, books came with illustrations. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that publishers dropped the pictures. I
As children, we learn to read by flipping through beautifully illustrated books. Why is it that suddenly, in the middle grades, book illustrations disappear? The printing press isn’t solely to blame because adult books, most notably those by Charles Dickens, came with illustrations into the late 19th century. Experts often speculate that illustration died because it costs more. Think about it. A publisher has to pay a writer and an artist. In addition, printing pictures is more time consuming and expensive. Even today, in our Print-On-Demand world, uploading a text-only book for e-publication is a snap. But, try adding a figure or illustration, and the formatting gets complicated. In addition, I think our culture has scorned illustration as childish. Readers graduate from children’s books, which are full of pictures, to chapter books, which are not.
The Ten Year Old Slump
No matter the reason, dropping illustrations in adult books has had many consequences. Children tend to hit what’s called the “ten-year-old slump.” They lose interest in reading and spend little time devoted to it. This slump is our fault. We divert children from “reading for pleasure,” to “reading for school/work.” We hand them dreary text books and Spartan chapter books. When they complain, we say, “don’t you want to be a grown up? Grown-ups don’t read books with pictures.”
I’ve heard the argument that we don’t need pictures because oral stories didn’t have pictures. I disagree. It’s misleading. Ancient story tellers often accompanied stories with live action dramatization, musical accompaniment, puppet shows, audience participation, and/or actors. Our long tradition of storytelling is more akin to watching a movie than modern book reading. It’s no wonder that children stop reading; they have easy access to media our ancestors never dreamed of.
What’s the Answer?
And don’t be fooled by people who say reading is down. On the contrary, people are reading more than ever… on the internet, where storytelling and information transference is accompanied by images and sound. If print media is to thrive, instead of just survive, we need to reinvigorate the art of illustrating our stories for adults, as well as children. The images add a richness to the experience, in addition to providing schema and prompts that actually facilitate the act of reading. Picture books for all ages are the answer to revitalizing the publishing world and keeping the tradition of written stories alive into the next century.