GUEST POST: So Long and Thanks for all the Fish: Some Words about Picturebooks

Retired from the University of Winnipeg for the last thirteen years, Perry Nodelman volunteers as a guide at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, plugs away at a new novel for young people, reads much of the night and stays safely north in the winter. He occasionally gives talks at conferences—often about picture books, sometimes about fish, sometimes, as at the recent conference in Cambridge, about picture books and fish at the same time.

All photos by Angus Whitby

As the call for papers for Synergy and Contradiction suggested, this year marks the thirtieth birthday of my book Words about Pictures. Thirty years is a long time in academia, and so are the thirteen years since I retired from the University of Winnipeg English department. While I still do the occasional essay or conference talk (sometimes about fish), I’m well beyond my best-before date in terms of knowledge of the field of picture book studies. As a result, I came to the conference expecting to be surprised by how that field had changed in the thirty years since my own major contribution to it. What most surprised me was how very little surprised I was.

The paper call for the conference suggests a reason for that: it mentioned Words about Pictures in order to invite considerations of picture books as aesthetic objects and on how words and images combine to tell stories—a focus that must have discouraged presentations on currently more popular ways of thinking about texts for young people—in terms of issues surrounding gender and diversity, for instance. But even so, many of the papers I heard seemed vaguely familiar–versions of papers I’ve been hearing at conferences over the past three decades.

The main reason for that is also implied in the paper call for the conference. Three decades ago, I started putting Word about Pictures together because, as a literary scholar new to teaching children’s literature, I was encountering books that combined what I thought I understood–words–with, of all things, pictures, which I definitely did not understand. Nor could I find anything directly about children’s picture books that was much help in developing a better understanding of them, and so I began to search for clues in semiotics, in art theory and history, and so on until, finally, Words About Pictures emerged. But people in the same position nowadays can make themselves aware of the many essays and monographs in picture book studies or become connected to the various academic networks devoted to them. They can even choose to do a Ph.D. on picture books without being laughed at by their fellow academics. Picture-book studies is genuinely a field now, a field with a history that includes a lot more than Words about Pictures.

And the thing about a field is, it inevitably works to shapes whatever interacts with it. You have to show the relationship between your new work and what exists already or be accused of ignorance. All too often, then, the field constrains the kinds of free spontaneous movement of ideas that I was able to engage in thirty years ago, when, as far as I knew, there was nothing to do but try to figure out what mattered to me all by myself. The field encourages timidity, conservatism, the reiteration of the same old same old—as do, also, the current constraints of the academic job market, which quite rightly lead young scholars to fear being too different from what already works and has power.

Perry Nodelman presenting his keynote: Fish is People

And as an almost inevitable result, and through no particular fault or deficiency of any of the presenters at the conference, I heard quite a lot of the same old same old. I heard papers attempting to arrive at generalized definitions or distinguish various subtypes of types—trying to establish abstract generalizations based on their knowledge of the field before exploring specific texts that might better suggest potential generalizations if first explored on their own. I head papers that grouped texts as representing specific types without much consideration of why such types might exist or of how they might have emerged from existing ideas about children and books. The mere existence of the field seemed to short-circuit attempts to explain why the work being described mattered.

I also heard a lot of discussion of “materiality” as the element of how books invite interactions form their readers that has previously been ignored in picture book studies. I learned, indeed, that referring to “materiality” now seems to have replaced the craze for referring to “multimodality” of a few years back; I don’t think I heard a single reference to multimodality at the conference, but materiality was omnipresent. Same old same old, really: there are sections of Words About Pictures that discuss how elements like the size and shape of books and the kind of paper in them help to convey meanings. Back then, of course, I didn’t know the now-appropriate jargon to describe what I was talking about. Nor was materiality the only fashionable academic jargon I heard as the conference, sometimes in papers that seemed primarily interested in stating conventionally accepted ideas in more complicated and academic-sounding ways that would presumably make them conform to the field.

I also heard interesting reports of work with children that downplayed the specific class and lifestyle and abilities of the children involved, perhaps in order to imply generalizations about how children read. These reports often left unexplored what specifically might be learned from these encounters or how they might suggest further thinking or further research. Once more, I suspect, the field includes so much of this kind of work that it invites scholars to simply produce more of it without considerations of why and how it might be worth doing.

Another old familiar thread of the conference had to do with the kinds of books people choose to discuss. As I have experienced across the decades (and as I was guilty of myself in Words about Pictures), much of what I heard was about unusual, distinguished books—the kinds of books the excite adult critics or win prizes rather than the vast bulk of more conventional books that libraries and parents more often purchase and thus form the bulk of what most children experience. Distinguished books certainly deserve attention—but so, surely do more ordinary ones. I suspect a lot of us scholars still tend to ignore the ordinary ones out of a surprisingly old-fashioned need to feel respectable in the eyes of our friends in accounting or medicine or our academic colleagues who specialize in more adult literature: “Look, we have complicated analyzable books, too!” But the real challenge, surely, is coming to terms with what is least unusual and therefore most likely to have an effect on most child readers.

Perry Nodelman, presenting his keynote, Fish is people, demonstrating just how many picturebooks there are about fish

All this makes me sound like a cynical old man who should have stopped attending conferences long ago. So I want to acknowledge that much of the work I’ve criticized here has its value. It colours in outlines and fills in gaps. It shows how current generalizations are confirmed and even, in some instances, how specific texts might challenge them. It reveals the depth and richness of picture book production for children internationally.

It was the international scope of the conference that I found most thought-provoking. In one of the sessions I attended, Ana Margarida Ramos suggested that the picture book is a specific form within the broader spectrum of texts that use both words and pictures—a form established as an editorial or publishing category and then used by those in the business to produce new texts that fit within the category. Ramos based her theory on her awareness of the brief history of the picture book in Portugal, where, she said, examples of the form have only been produced in the last few decades, but where, after Portuguese practitioners familiarized themselves with what editors and others internationally understood to be picture books, some of the books since produced have won international acclaim. Learning that led me to think of a number of intriguing paths to follow:

First, what was it about Portuguese ideas about children and/or literature that did not require the existence of the picture-book form before then? Is it a form alien to the original culture? If so, why?

Second, about international acclaim. As successful examples of what works internationally as a picture book, do these books represent a version of childhood at odds with what was once Portuguese culture? Does the international market for children’s picture books lead to a global homogenization of childhood or at least of adult ideas about childhood? And if it does, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Is there an international brotherhood of children in the works, beyond national difference? Or are the multinational corporate interests that control so much of what gets published and distributed rebuilding childhood in their own consumerist image?

Third, that last possibility suggests another thread not often explored at the conference: the ways in which picture book emerge from and might represent the business decisions of the people who hope to profit from producing them. A conference focused on the picture book as the product and expression of the marketplace might well be a logical next step.

Which is to say, finally: the conference may not have surprised me, but it certainly did make me think. And that means it was, for me, a resounding success. Well-deserved congratulations to Maria Nikolajeva and her conference committee. So long, and thanks for putting up with all the fish.

A conference attendee taking notes by drawing images of fish during Perry Nodelman's keynote, fish is people

For more highlights from our international conference, Synergy and Contradiction: How Picturebooks and Picture Books Work, check out our posts from our conference photographer, Angus Whitby, and current CRCLC PhD candidate, Jen Aggleton    


  1. Reblogged this on Emmie Kay Loves YA and commented:
    I was so lucky to attend the University of Winnipeg for my undergrad. The entire English department, particularly the Children’s and Young People’s Texts and Cultures program, is so influenced by Perry Nodelman’s work. Loved this piece on the significance of visual cultures!


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