Clare Walters: “Picturebooks open doors into new worlds, both familiar and unknown”

clare walters

“All the picturebooks I have written have a verbal text, but it’s true that books without words can be ‘read’ in different ways. That’s because each person brings their own ideas and knowledge to the story and interprets the pictures in their own way. However, in practice how wide that interpretation will be is often dependent on how closely the story is illustrated. (…) It all depends on how many clues the illustrator chooses to provide.” – interviewed by: ORA MUŠĆET

Clare Walters is a freelance writer and journalist, who, together with Jane Kemp, published more than 30 books for children and their parents. Although she started the career as a school teacher, Walters continued to work as a writer for magazines such as Practical Parenting and Eye magazine, intended for graphic design and visual communications. At the Roehampton University, Clare Walters graduated on Children’s Literature with a dissertation on picturebooks without words. Currently, she is an independent Artistic and Quality Assessor for Arts Council England. Walters is also an active participant of the literature events regarding Children’s Literature and reviews books and exhibitions for Eye magazine and the Children’s Books History Society.

 

OM: You have co-authored over 30 children’s picturebooks and parental guides to games and activities to play. Play is an important factor in discovering new experiences and acquiring new information. How much is playing being neglected these days? To what extent has it been replaced by modern ways of interaction via tablets and mobile phones?

CW: I don’t think play is being neglected, as young children will always find a way to play. It’s just what they have to do and how they learn. For adults, it’s a question of providing as many opportunities for children to play as possible. Being outdoors is the obvious one, as a trip to a park or playground, or walk in the countryside, will create ample opportunities for both imaginative and social play, whether that’s chasing the birds or splashing in puddles for toddlers and their friends, or playing a game of football for older kids. When play needs to be indoors, playgroups and after-school clubs and classes come into their own, as do play dates at home with other children. Even a short bus journey can be a moment for a quick game, for instance spotting all the green cars, or looking for number plates with the letter ‘z’ in them. While tablets and mobile phones are bound to be tempting – for adults as much as kids – they shouldn’t dominate the household. One handy tip is for everyone in the family to put their phones in a basket at night-time, so that bedrooms remain phone-free places of rest and calm.

 

"Outdoor Fun And Games For Kids", an activity guide for parents by Jane Kemp and Clare Walters

“Outdoor Fun And Games For Kids”, an activity guide for parents by Jane Kemp and Clare Walters

 

OM: In collaboration with Jane Kemp, you wrote scripts for two TV series for children, Balamory and Me Too!, that aired for several years on the BBC. Is there a big difference between writing a children’s book and writing a script? Did you have to adapt to some new rules and television requests?

CW: Writing a book, even if you are working as a partnership, is a fairly solitary thing. It’s down to you to come up with the original idea, structure the plot, decide on the characters and write the words. With a TV script it is very different. For start you are working with a director and a team of other people, all of whom will have their own ideas. The basic premise of the show may already have been decided on, the characters established, and the format and timings for each episode tightly planned out. The storyline may be given to you, too. In this case it’s your job just to write the dialogue as believably and entertainingly as you can within the defined limits. In both cases your work will be edited, and changes may be suggested. Another practical difference is that there is a particular way TV scripts are presented – for both those shows Jane and I were given templates to follow that left plenty of room for other people working on the script to write notes.

 

"Dog", a board book by Jane Kemp and Clare Walters, illustrated by Linzi West

“Dog”, a board book by Jane Kemp and Clare Walters, illustrated by Linzi West

 

OM: You studied children’s literature at the University of Roehampton in London, where your MA dissertation was on picturebooks without text. How was your interest for that particular kind of picturebook born? How did you start your research and how did you classify them?

CW: I did the Roehampton MA course part-time over two and a half years, working four days a week as a journalist and one day a week as a student. I chose Children’s Literature because I’d had a lifelong interest in children’s books – from my original English and Education degree, to sharing stories with children as an infant teacher (and later my own kids), to working as the books editor on Practical Parenting, a magazine for parents of under-5s. While at Practical Parenting I wrote a feature on books without words, and this prompted me to start collecting them. When I had to choose a subject for my MA dissertation, wordless picturebooks seemed like the obvious choice, and I became even more interested in this niche area of publishing. These books can be classified in so many ways – by chronology, age range, subject matter, or country of origin. However, on my website the books show up on the virtual shelves at random, so you always see a new book each time you enter the site.

 

“Picturebooks are hugely important and stimulating for young children, as they open doors into new worlds, both familiar and unknown. Kids take picturebooks very seriously, reading and re-reading their favourites again and again, and poring over the pictures for ages.”

 

OM: Picturebooks without a text offer possibilities for re-telling different stories from the same material. Such stories not only stimulate the imagination of the kids, but of the parents too, who help create the stories by following the hidden instructions from the authors and illustrators. Can you describe the process of ‘reading’ a wordless story?

CW: All the picturebooks I have written have a verbal text, but it’s true that books without words can be ‘read’ in different ways. That’s because each person brings their own ideas and knowledge to the story and interprets the pictures in their own way. However, in practice how wide that interpretation will be is often dependent on how closely the story is illustrated. For instance there may be a sequence of pictures where the gaps between each action is very small, and in this case most readers will describe what is happening in a very similar way. Alternatively, there may be bigger gaps between the actions that allow for a much more open interpretation. In addition, in a picturebook with multiple characters, where they are all doing different things, there are no end of stories you could choose to follow and elaborate on. It all depends on how many clues the illustrator chooses to provide. For instance, they might draw a character lifting the lid off a box, yet not actually show the contents of that box. Then it will be up to you to imagine what might be inside.

 

Changes of scale in Barbara Lehman’s "Museum Trip" (2006) mark the boundary between reality and imagination

Changes of scale in Barbara Lehman’s “Museum Trip” (2006) mark the boundary between reality and imagination

 

OM: It is said that children’s imaginations have no borders. With pre-school children, especially, picturebooks without text are yet another way of stimulating the imagination that hopefully in later in life will have a positive impact on their creativity and problem-solving abilities. As the role of the picturebooks is so direct and immense, how do you decide which ones to choose?

CW: Picturebooks are hugely important and stimulating for young children, as they open doors into new worlds, both familiar and unknown. Kids take picturebooks very seriously, reading and re-reading their favourites again and again, and poring over the pictures for ages. To find ones that are appropriate for the age of your child, it’s worth asking for recommendations from teachers, librarians and friends with children of the same age. Also many organisations, such as Book Trust in the UK, publish lists of books on particular themes, such as the natural world or inclusivity.

Books without words, though, can often be quite challenging, as young children have to ‘decode’ the pictures in order to extract the story. One academic, Judith Graham, noted that, on the first reading of a wordless story, children tended to tell the tale in the present tense, as if the events were immediately unfolding before them. But once that book had been read, they would tell the story for a second time in the past tense, as the events were now familiar to them. Reading in this way is a learning curve that can be quite tiring, and therefore it may help children to share these books with an adult on first reading.

 

“The beauty of stories told in pictures, though, is that they repay the time we spend on them. If we take time to linger over the images, really ‘reading’ them and noticing all the tiny details, we get so much more out of them.”

 

 

OM: Such picture books present a form of active reading, as telling a story requires a constant change of course because you are working from illustrations only. It is yet another way of learning and understanding visual language. In these days when one is inevitably surrounded by pictures, not understanding visual signs and symbols is often heard about. How do you think it can be changed?

 

CW: Actually I think we are all getting pretty good at reading visually nowadays. For instance so many signs are picture-based, such as the green man for crossing the road, or the visual instructions found in IKEA flat-packs. These signs and symbols are now recognised across many countries. Also we all watch so many movies and videos that we have become adept at spotting the tiniest visual clues that we often see for only a moment. The beauty of stories told in pictures, though, is that they repay the time we spend on them. If we take time to linger over the images, really ‘reading’ them and noticing all the tiny details, we get so much more out of them. Some wordless book illustrators are particularly good at encouraging this, such Barbara Lehman with her changes of scale and perspectives, and Rotraut Susanne Berner who specialises in illustrations with multiple characters. The more you look, the more you see. An older title “The Great Escape” by Philippe Dupasquier is another example of a book where there is just so much to spot that it rewards many re-readings.

 

Wordless picturebooks were displayed openly on the shelves at The Story of Books for the #NoWords exhibition in 2018

Wordless picturebooks were displayed openly on the shelves at The Story of Books for the #NoWords exhibition in 2018

 

OM: Your collection of picturebooks without text, partly accessible on the website and presented at The Story of the Books 2018 Exhibition, is hugely interesting. There is a short description of each book, accompanied by photos of its illustrations. How and when did you start collecting picturebooks? How do you present them to the public?

 

CW: I began collecting them when I was Books Editor at Practical Parenting magazine in the 1990s. However, even before that I was interested in picturebooks that featured elements of wordless story-telling in them, such as Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are”, or Pat Hutchins’ “Rosie’s Walk”, where the words tell one story and the pictures a totally different one. Raymond Briggs’ “The Snowman” is one of the most well-known wordless stories, but there are so many others – and they cover such a wide age range, from very simple books for toddlers to complex and rich works for older children and young adults, such as Shaun Tan’s “The Arrival”. My collection really starts in the 1960s, but I am always on the lookout for recently published books. The exhibition at The Story of Books in Hay on Wye was a great chance to show the physical objects to the public. However, on my website there are nearly 100 books to see digitally at the moment, and I’m adding more regularly.

The Arrival (2006) by Shaun Tan portrays a powerful story about the emotional experience of migration

The Arrival (2006) by Shaun Tan portrays a powerful story about the emotional experience of migration

 

OM: Over time, children’s picturebooks are becoming more demanding and detailed and, with that, more interesting and attractive to adults. What is it that is so attractive in those books that engage older readers as well?

 

CW: There has been a growth of interest in picturebooks for older readers for a number of reasons. For instance, there has been an increase in non-fiction titles, and illustration can really help bring non-fiction alive. You can see this in books like “Shackleton’s Journey” by William Grill and “Suffragette: The Battle for Equality” by David Roberts. Then there have also been some outstanding works of fiction and poetry for older children that have made people look afresh at picturebooks, such as “Nos Vacances” by Blexbolex. I think people have realised that, if presented appropriately, older children and young adults enjoy this format as much as younger children, as words and pictures can come together in such moving and effective ways in a picturebook. “The Lost Words” by Jackie Morris and Robert MacFarlane is an excellent example of this. It’s a book of poems – or ‘spells’ – that every age can enjoy, but which never talks down to children.

 

"The Lost Words" (2017) mixes acrostic poems by Robert Macfarlane with stunning illustrations of the natural world by Jackie Morris

“The Lost Words” (2017) mixes acrostic poems by Robert Macfarlane with stunning illustrations of the natural world by Jackie Morris

 

OM: You also contribute to Eye magazine for graphic design and visual culture, where you often refer to picturebooks and exhibitions displaying them. The transfer of a literary work into the exhibition medium is particularly interesting. One such exhibition at Victoria & Albert Museum in 2018 was dedicated to children’s classic Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne. What is the educational yield of such projects?

CW: “The Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic” exhibition at the V&A was a hugely successful show, and one of the main reasons for this was that it had a dual appeal to both children and adults. Children could play in the life-size sets, curl up in Christopher Robin’s bed or walk over a model of the famous Poohsticks bridge, while adults could enjoy looking at the originals of the E. H. Shepard’s drawings and discovering how he and A. A. Milne worked closely together on the design of the books. It really was an exhibition that everybody in the family could get something out of, and I think that sort of shared pleasure strengthens the bonds between parents and children. And of course it introduces a new generation to the books. There have now been a number of exhibitions like this, such as “Tiger, Mog and Pink Rabbit: A Judith Kerr Retrospective” at Seven Stories in Newcastle and the Jewish Museum in London, and more recently “Marvellous and Mischievous: Literature’s Young Rebels” at the British Library in London. But the Winnie-the-Pooh exhibition really was a standout example of this.

 

A screenshot from Clare Walters’ website – wordlessbooks.co.uk – showing virtual shelves of books without text

A screenshot from Clare Walters’ website – wordlessbooks.co.uk – showing virtual shelves of books without text

 

 

 

OM: Now that digital books are gaining more ground, picturebooks without text offer a genuine tactile experience of gorgeous illustrations, as if bringing us back to the beginning of written sources. Do you see a replacement of palpable, printed books with digital versions as a threat or as a new chance? To what extent can a high quality illustration be transferred into an electronic book?

CW: I see digital books as complementing printed books, not replacing them. Handling a beautifully produced physical object and immersing yourself in it is such a delicious and heady experience that I don’t think we will ever want to lose that. But, that said, books can sometimes be heavy and cumbersome, especially when you are travelling, and in that case it can be useful to have them stored on a digital device. And of course kids are likely to enjoy any interactive elements. So there is definitely a place for both in children’s lives.