The colourful world of picture books

Ellen Birch 19 October 2017

There is nothing like attempting to wade through the treacle of some dense academic text to make one look wistfully outside the library window and remember how nice it was to enjoy reading. This is not to say that I do not enjoy what I study, yet it is undoubtable that in some ways the saturation of reading that accompanies many (especially arts and humanities) students’ lives here can make it difficult to reclaim reading as a source of escape and care.

This is in part because the texts we tend to embrace for pleasure are sometimes as dense as the ones we seek to escape. No one has time after a day of reading Foucault to come back and get stuck into Tolstoy or the latest overly intense booker prize nominee. I have tried to read ‘good literature’ as a means of escape here on many occasions and found myself exhausted and turning all too easily to a marathon session of Gilmore Girls on Netflix.

In place of this I have often found at the most difficult times the place I go to for escape is not just to reading for pleasure, but in fact to familiar friends in the form of children’s literature. What is it exactly that makes these books such a comfort to me?

A big part of this for me is the illustrations. There seems to be an unwritten, and in my view entirely misguided, rule that only books for children are allowed to be illustrated. Yet the presence of pictures allows the eye, and the mind, to wander in and out of focus on the text without losing immersion in the narrative. They also tend to be short accessible narratives, free from a demand for commitment at a time when commitment is the last thing one seeks.

My personal go-to is a beautiful edition of Tolkien’s The Hobbit illustrated by Allan Lee. The rich and colourful depictions of scenes that run through the book gave it an enduring magic during my childhood which I suspect will never wear off. Even to this day when I am having trouble sleeping, or I am anxious about something, this is the well-worn book that I always take off my shelf. I always find that spending an hour with it is an activity which leaves me feeling refreshed and relaxed.

While Netflix is a great escape, I (usually in vain) try to cut down on my screen time. Sometimes the attempts to do great reading during term time defeat us, and that is what drives us to easy mindless comfort on a laptop. I think this term I might try to beat the foolish feeling of opening a picture book and allow my bedtime reading to be childish, colourful and unproductive. Perhaps, although this may be step too far, we ought to encourage our libraries to stock a few nicely illustrated picture books alongside Hobbes and Econometrics.