Debbie Pullinger: Poems and Pictures

Poems and Pictures

This week I heard about a new poetry book prize. This year, at the International Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the BolognaRagazzi award for illustrated children’s books has a special category for poetry – “in acknowledgement of the wealth of poetry books produced in recent years by the children’s publishing industry worldwide.” Hurrah, indeed. One of this blog’s contributors, Morag Styles, is on the illustrious judging panel, so we can look forward to hearing more about it in due course. In the meantime, it’s got me thinking about what makes for good poetry book illustration, and about how pictures and poems interact with each other.

As adults, we may be used to reading poetry quietly, reflectively. Or we may prefer to hear it read aloud. Like music, it has to come off the page. Either way, we’re tuning into the poetic language, allowing the sounds to enhance the sense, the words to resonate with connotation, the imagery to unfold. For me, it’s a sort of listening with which pictures would really only interfere. It’s like the old adage about listening to the radio “because the pictures are better”. (The science behind this: neurologically, incoming visual stimuli tend to override aural ones.)

But it would be an odd book of rhymes for the young that had no illustration. For pre-literate children, especially, the pictures are doing some vital work – signalling to the child that this is something specially for them; helping them to navigate the collection and to relocate their favourites; making the book a pleasurable object in its own right. A picture can also help them to key into a poem and what it’s about. Since many rhymes and poems – especially those for the very young – come with actions and gestures, or special voice and sound effects, I wonder, too, whether poetry illustration may be supplying a sort of visual equivalent on the silent page.

There are many books of children’s poetry where the illustrations seem to have insinuated themselves into the work. I cannot think of Ted Hughes’ Season Songs without feeling the almost awkward bulk of that book and seeing Leonard Baskin’s haunting illustrations, or of Michael Rosen’s early volumes without seeing Quentin Blake’s amiable figures, all feet and elbows, ambling across the pages. Both in their own way seem to capture and conjure the wordworld of the poet, in all its richness and particularity.

Sometimes, less is more. I think of Ann Stevenson’s black and white motifs that dance around Carol Ann Duffy’s work, or the stark woodcuts of Jonathan Gross that punctuate the poetry of his father, Philip in Off Road to Everywhere. As oblique as the poems themselves, they work metaphorically, metonymically – poetically.

More recently, Jackie Morris’s beautiful watercolours have shared equal billing with Robert Macfarlane’s extraordinary poems in The Lost Words. Although more lavish and more figurative, they still manage to create space for the imagination. It’s interesting that these particular poems went on to forge a further cross-media collaboration in a set of musical arrangements, premiered at the Royal Albert Hall proms. Of course, there are those who would rather let the poem speak for itself rather than be spoken over by music. But that’s another blog.

So then, it is possible that hearing a poem performed well is the best way to fully experience its poetry, to engage the musical ear and the mind’s eye. But equally, illustration and design (let’s not forget those oft-unsung designers) can add another dimension. The finest can play along with the words – whether in unison or harmony or counterpoint – to create a rich, multimodal experience that opens up the imaginative space in different ways.

Debbie Pullinger

Debbie Pullinger is a writer and researcher, based at the University of Cambridge. Her book From Tongue to Text: A New Reading of Children’s Poetry was published by Bloomsbury Academic. Website: