The Guardian view on the picture book: not just for children

When a Nobel-prizewinning novelist turns to illustrated fiction, it’s time to question assumptions

While anglophone fans await a translation of her 1,100-page magnum opus, the Nobel-prizewinning Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk has a picture book out. She created her story, The Lost Soul, with artist Joanna Concejo. At 48 pages it is certainly slender compared with her epic historical novel, The Books of Jacob, which will be published in English in November. Concejo refuses the idea that the book might be any more suitable for children than adults – or vice versa.

It seems a quixotic move from Tokarczuk. And yet, from the unfurling visual narratives of Chinese handscrolls, to the jewel-bright stories contained in the stained-glass windows of medieval cathedrals, it is perfectly clear that there is intense pleasure and meaning to be gained from stories told through images. Those lucky enough to have had books to hand as children often remember, with fierce delight, the pictures at least as clearly as the words – classics such as Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, or Edward Ardizzone’s lively artworks for Stig of the Dump. And there are picture books proper, like The Tiger Who Came to Tea by the late, great Judith Kerr, that are recognised as much more profound than “mere” children’s books.

George Cruikshank had a (sometimes troubled) partnership with Dickens, and Gustave Doré produced extraordinary artworks for books such as Don Quixote, but the cheap paperback of the postwar period pushed illustrated books for adults to the luxury margins. Somehow, pictures had also come to seem childish or eccentric (one thinks of the wonderfully dark work of Edward Gorey). And yet readers love stories told through pictures, as the ever-increasing cultural purchase of the graphic novel suggests, with works by Art Spiegelman, Raymond Briggs, Marjane Satrapi and others regarded as classics.

Text and picture, after all, are not so far apart: in fact the former derives from the latter. Early writing systems such as Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese used pictograms: things in the world were expressed in written form by stylised pictures of them. Syllabic and alphabetic systems in the Near East developed via the rebus principle, in which the sound associated with an image became decoupled from its original meaning. For example, the Sumerian word for beautiful, sheh-gah, was written in cuneiform using the characters for barley, sheh and milk, ga, though “sheh-gah” has nothing to do with the idea of barley or milk. Through a similar process, our letter A, which derives from the Phoenician aleph via the Greek alpha, is thought ultimately to derive from the Egyptian hieroglyph for an ox – indeed, turn A on its side, and you’ll glimpse the creature’s horns, still visible in the form of our letter.

What is the use of a book without pictures? asked Alice. Very little, it turns out, particularly if we consider that pictures are buried within the very symbols used to write words. As for a picture book for adults, Tokarczuk sweeps away all doubts: “I adore the picture book,” she has said. “For me it is a powerful, primeval way of telling a story that’s able to get through to anyone – regardless of age, cultural differences or level of education”. It’s hard to disagree.

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