Pictures Mean Literacy

Work in Progress for my graphic novel class. I'll
post it when it's finished! Click to view in full
By Candy Gourlay

I always say that if I had my life to live all over again, I would change nothing. Recently, I realised that this is not true. I do regret ONE thing.

A few weeks ago I started Emily Haworth Booth's graphic novel class at the Royal Drawing School. I took the class last year and had to wait ages for the second part of the course.

We are just three sessions in, and I love it so much. I love drawing, I love thinking about drawing, I love thinking about what paper to use and pens and pencils and even sharpeners. I am happy when I'm drawing.

And that is my regret. Almost 25 years ago, I stopped drawing. I became too busy - what with learning how to write novels, bringing up babies and keeping house ... drawing became a luxury. Even now, if I don't sign up for a class, I don't draw.

If I had my life to live over again, I would  make time for drawing, no matter how busy I am. I love it. It makes me happy. It makes me a nicer person. Why did I ever stop?


Drawing was on my mind last week when I  organised an event for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators with my author pal Mo O'Hara (My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish) . It featured Sarah McIntyre, who co-authored Oliver and the Seawigs with Philip Reeve.

Oliver and the Seawigs was nominated for the Carnegie this year, but only Philip appeared on the nomination. Sarah, who illustrated it but also closely collaborated on the story, was left off the nominations list.

Sarah quite bravely queried the Carnegie's definition of 'author'. Her forthright challenge resulted in a revision of the longlist and a re-examination of the august award's rules -- good on the Carnegie librarians to accept that there was a problem.

When does an illustrator become the co-author of a work? Why is the authorship of illustrators often forgotten or disregarded by awards lists and literacy organisations? You can learn more about the Sarah Incident here and here.

We had a good turn out - the journalist Charlotte Eyre turned up, and so did Joy Court, chair of the Carnegie Working Committee, who arrived out of the blue, paid her three pounds entrance fee, and was promptly made a panelist. (I owe you a drink, Joy)

Sarah's blogged about it in detail, and Charlotte wrote a feature about it in TheBookseller last Friday ... but let me bullet point for you the shocking facts we discovered:
  • Nielsen Bookscan, data provider for the book publishing industry, lists writers and not illustrators (Correction: tis not as simple as stated - do look at Sarah McIntyre's comment below)... so even a high profile book like The Gruffalo will only be recognised for its writer Julia Donaldson but not for its illustrator Axel Scheffler. Is Nielsen's software outdated? Or does this require the industry to change its attitude to illustrators?
  • Illustrators have to negotiate with writers for a share of income from library lendings (Public Lending Right) ... it's not automatic.
  • Until Sarah raised the issue, the Greenaway, an award for illustration, always listed the writers. And the Greenaway was not the only one. The Bookseller, the Reading Agency, and The Book People quickly amended their listings to include illustrators
  • Illustrators in attendance shared many woeful tales - including one illustrator whose book was highlighted by the BBC -- almost all her illustrations were featured but only the writer was mentioned ... and it was a WORDLESS book! 
We chewed over the problem.

It's complicated of course: "For illustrated fiction I think it’s quite difficult to know exactly where the parameters should be. I wonder if it would be helpful or appropriate for illustrators to be recognised as co-authors [in cases] where the illustration feels like an integral part of the book,” Liz Cross, publisher at Oxford University Press Children's Division, is quoted in The Bookseller. The problem may not just be with Nielsen Bookscan software but something that runs deeper. Do we have a culture of not valuing illustration?

Do keep an eye on the hashtag #PicturesMeanBusiness - if we keep talking about this issue, it won't go away.


It was interesting how the discussion ranged far and wide: we talked about how the success of digital is fuelling a rise in beautifully produced illustrated books. We talked about the book as object. Studies were cited on how visual literacy plays a role in raising reading and writing in children.

You might want to watch this 15 minute video on Visual Literacy after reading this post.

My late Dad was a workaholic architect and my memory of him was that he was always drawing. There were six siblings in the family and we were all ALWAYS drawing, sitting around the dining room table filling reams of paper with our scribbles.

I was a big reader of books but I had mountains of comic books as well, and I read them just as voraciously as my novels.

My Mom was so proud of our drawings that she kept everything we drew - there are filing cabinets of our drawings from when we were small.

And yet one day when I was a young teen, I came home from school to find that she'd put all my comic books on the bonfire.

I won't linger on that traumatic event, sorry. Even now, I don't like remembering what happened, and wondering how my mother could marry a man who was drawing 24/7, show pride in her children's artistic abilities ... and yet reject comic books. To be fair she belonged to the generation that thought comics were 'bad for children'.

Today, Mom refuses to be parted from her collection of our childhood drawings.


Visual literacy is not about looking, it's about SEEING, something this world of self-interruption and empty social engagement really needs.

As a novelist, I am all about text. As a children's novelist though, I am keenly aware of how text can be a disabling thing for the young people I am writing for.  It's  just too much like school work.

That is why when I visit schools and run workshops for children, I don't focus on text, I focus on story.

Over the past five years of visiting schools as an author, I've discovered that children emerge from their shells when they draw. So I have begun to use comic techniques to teach writing - it's amazing to see how drawing can unleash a creativity that can be inhibited when limited to text.

[Breaking news! I just spotted this on a Facebook group on Reading for Pleasure in Schools - How Wordless Books Can Help Your Child Read - thanks to Bev Humphrey for the link!]

Trust me, pictures always lead to ideas. And when there are ideas, words are never far away.

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  1. Thanks so much, Candy, that's great! And thanks so much to you and Mo O'Hara for hosting our event! I'm bookmarking your video to watch tonight, thanks for that!

    Just one thing about Nielsen, it does list a lot of illustrators, although not all of them. You can find Axel's name with Julia Donaldson's books, but the issue is searchability: you can't *search* for books just using Axel's name, and you definitely can't find figures of his overall book sales, as you could for Julia. Technically that information could be manually pieced together, but it almost never is, because that's too time-consuming.

    And the problem doesn't seem to be just Nielsen, it's that each publisher has a different way of organising and submitting data, so Nielsen's sifting through their irregular entries, with lots of missing pieces. Something about this whole process definitely needs cleaned up.

    Thanks again for giving us a platform to talk about this! :) Good luck with the comics class, sounds fabulous!

    1. Thanks, Sarah, I was so impressed that you dared to raise your head above the parapet. We'll done

  2. You write well about the importance of visual literacy and comics. Unfortunately I think there are many parents even now who feel the same way as your mum. Though my parents are probably of the same generation as her, and are conventional in many ways, they never said anything negative about comics or cartoons. In fact they read them as much as I and my brothers did. I only recently became aware of the concerns of some parents about comics and it came as a shock.
    It's great to see your new comic, I'm looking forward to seeing more of it.

    1. Thanks, Amanda. I'm glad times have moved on. I get so much joy out of comics. Making them and reading them.

  3. Yes - respect to the stories contained in pictures - and to kids who know all about that! It was so cheering to hear Joy Court of the Carnegie and Charlotte Eyre of the Bookseller talk of the importance of pictures for kids learning to read - for understanding meaning as well as making the sounds of words! Thanks for this precious recap of our very important business and see you tomorrow for more graphic novel making!


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