The explosion of the visual: illustrated albums triumph in bookstores


Anyone who goes to a library will see that the children’s section is increasingly populated by large format books, full of illustrations and with little text. We enter a bookstore and from the window we already see the presence of works for children in hard cover and with impressive images. There is no Early Childhood classroom that does not have a good handful of these so-called illustrated albums. But, to what is this success?

Overall, children’s and young people’s literature is on the rise: since 2016, it has experienced a period of growth above the average of the publishing sector, reaching more than 15% of the total billing pie of this market (according to figures from the Federation of Publishers’ Guilds of Spainand the Observatory of Reading and the Book ).

In addition, the publishers’ own confidence reflects this positive trend with the increase in the average print run -4,222-, again above the sector as a whole and surpassed only by the comic.

The dance between words and images

And among such a proliferation of works for children and young people, there is an actor that increasingly takes center stage: the illustrated album or book-album, a genre that offers a novel dance between words and images that intertwine to create meanings and to which It’s hard to live without the others. But, why now blows in favor of this type of literature that have generated even the constitution of publishing associations aimed at its promotion?

The omnipresence of the visual

It is necessary to recognize that the images have almost always accompanied, in one way or another, the literary transmission : think of the illuminated medieval manuscripts, the engravings of the sheets of string or comics and comics. However, our society is increasingly visual. We live in a media world that tends to subtract territory from written culture in the field of communication. And this, obviously, influences the expectations and habits of the public.

With this background, we ask ourselves: is the rise of the illustrated album one of the social effects of the omnipresence of the visual in our culture? On a theoretical level, according to McLuhan’s theory , it could be. Today the image has become content, and shapes the way we understand literature and approach narrative fiction.

From the educational position, on the other hand, more and more voices cry for a literacy that transcends the verbal code and is also media, informational or visual ( as Arizpe and Styles’ research shows ); this would support the appearance of “educational” cultural products (in an enculturative sense) as the illustrated album. In other words: there is a coherence in the relationship between the strength of the image as a communicative medium, the need to prepare ourselves to manage and manage in that visual medium, and the existence of visual products aimed at childhood.

Social revaluation of early childhood

There is currently a large-scale social revaluation of early childhood and a redefinition of the kind of care and attention it should receive.

For example, the educational stage of Early Childhood Education, until not so much considered secondary, today is unofficially required in its second cycle in Spain, and policies of extension to the 0-3 year cycle are considered.

It is an indication of the importance that is recognized to these early years as an essential learning stage. And when we think of learning and stimulation material, we immediately think of books. Taking into account that before the age of 6 the reading of learning has started and, of course, it has not been consolidated, the titles destined to children of this age are not based on the text, even though it is read by the adult; the role is played by the illustration, which young receptors will be able to interpret, since their code is less hermetic.

If that is a possible cause of the recent success of the book-album, no less noteworthy are the technical improvements in the editing processes, which greatly expand the creative possibilities of the authors and illustrators . In fact, elements as assumed today as four-color printing, or the superposition of text on image, are considered key in the emergence, throughout the twentieth century, of this genre.

Authentic works of art

There is no doubt that the illustrated album is a fertile ground for the creativity of children’s authors and illustrators. Classics such as Maurice Sendak , Leo Lionni or the recently deceased Tomi Ungererexperimented in the 1960s with their mixed code (textual and visual), format, technique, color, etc. Nowadays, we can find illustrators who put authentic works of art on the pages, sometimes with techniques as unusual in a children’s book as oil, collage or digitally treated photography.

The prosperity of the album runs in parallel with that of other literary genres that use mixed or visual codes. The comic is perhaps the clearest exponent: since the 1960s, when some Italian and French academics ( Umberto Eco, standing out among them ) began to take an interest in him, he has moved from a “peripheral” and “subcultural” position in the literary system towards more central positions, and today it is prestigious to read, say, graphic novels.

Contests with large prizes

In an analogous way, the book-album supposes in a certain sense the dignification of children’s literature in the eyes of critics and the market : a canon is constituted, competitions are held with large prizes, a space is made official in the stalls. And along with this dignification, gender tends to expand towards more advanced ages, expanding beyond the borders of children’s literature, with more complex themes and structures (just take a look at Emigrantes de Shaun Tan).

In short, the current moment is a moment of blossoming and celebration for the illustrated children’s book and, more specifically, the album. An intelligent and artistic literature is produced, with a good number of publishers involved (in Spain, fundamentally since the beginning of this 21st century), and with good reception data. A literature in keeping with the current features of our society.

Author Bios: Ignacio Ceballos Viro is Accredited Doctor of Language and Literature Professor, Faculty of Education and Health and Marta Larragueta Arribas is a PhD student in Children’s Literature both at Camilo José Cela University