One exciting trend that seems to be growing across the board in YA publication is the merging of visual and textual forms. No longer considered an indicator of an immature or low-ability target audience, the inclusion of illustration has come to be seen as adding an extra dimension of complexity to texts, complicating straightforward readings and inviting plurality of interpretation. As Stephanie Zvirin explains, "Dramatic changes in children's and YA publishing over the last decade have blurred the lines between children's and adult books. The fact that a book has 32 pages, full-color illustrations, and a 9-by-13 inch trim size no longer automatically means it's ‘for children only’" (Zvirin, 1998, 1716). Ultimately, reading visuals is as complex and challenging as reading texts, and combing both in a narrative extend the potential and challenge to readers’ critical thinking and interpretation. According to Sunya Osborn, “Readers use many of the same skills to interpret pictures as they do to interpret print, such as determining their purpose for reading; drawing upon their background knowledge, experience, and attitudes; asking and answering questions; inferring; and visualizing. Putting these skills together through both illustrations and text enhances comprehension and the creation of meaning” (Osborn, 2001, n.p.). In a culture which increasingly demands that young people critically interpret not only the written word, but an overload of visual information delivered digitally twenty-four hours a day, these hybrid texts may be crucial to developing literacy in the twenty-first century. Here are five of my favorite illustrated YA texts.
Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony, illustrated by Rodrigo Corral:
This novel tells the story of a young girl, a talented pianist prodigy, who disappears from the rest home where she is recuperating from tour-induced exhaustion. A victim to the loss of her mother at an early age, a demanding father, and the pressures of living up to her talent, Glory became traumatized to the extent that she could play only Chopsticks. Although the text of the novel tells one story about her disappearance, the pictures tell quite another. The story doesn’t have much text except for graffiti and the words on objects in the book, like the TV screen, newspaper articles, photo album captions, postcards, letters, playbills, sheet music, invitations, IMs, emails, song titles, artwork, etc. Throughout the novel the reader is forced to piece together the truth from these seemingly opaque images and objects.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs:
This novel is as much about the lavish photographs that swell its covers as it is about the text. Jacob’s grandfather tells him that the people in these old photos actually existed, but although Jacob believed this as a child, as a sixteen-year old he knows that the bizzare images in the photographs cannot possibly be anything other than illusion. That is, until his grandfather is killed by a monster that only Jacob can see. Doubted by everyone including himself, Jacob travels to the cost of Wales, where the photographs were supposedly taken, to try and uncover the truth about his grandfather’s past. The novel incorporates actual vintage photos–strange and eerie images of such subjects as a levitating girl, a boy encased in bees, a figure without a head, a baby-faced dog, and many others. Like the text, the images which illustrate the novel play with the readers’ understanding of reality and fiction, form and illusion.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick:
Twelve-year-old Hugo is an orphan, a clock-keeper, and a thief. He lives in the walls of a Paris train station, and depends on secrecy and anonymity for his survival. However, when an eccentric young girl and a toy-booth owner enter his life, both are put in jeopardy and his whole world is threatened with discovery. At the heart of his story lie a cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message. Each picture – and there are nearly three hundred pages of pictures - takes up an entire double page spread, moving the story forward as the reader interprets each enigmatic image. This is a story told in both pictures and words. Not exactly a novel, nor a picture book, nor a graphic novel, nor a flip book, nor a movie, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a dazzling combination of all these things.
Phoenix by S. F. Said, illustrated by Dave McKean:
Lucky is just a normal kid living with his mom on Phoenix, a moon of the planet Aries One. Although humanity is currently at war with a terrifying race of cloven-hooved and horned aliens, the war has not reached Lucky’s sleepy home-planet, and Lucky is more concerned with missing his absent father than with worrying about Alien attacks. However, Lucky is not quite as normal as he seems: when a dream of touching the stars wakes him to find his bedclothes on fire, Luke is suddenly ripped from the safety of his home and what he thinks he knows as his mother begins a frantic attempt to flee the planet and drag Lucky away from a threat she refuses to name. Then his mother is killed, and Lucky finds himself fleeing home and the terrifying Shadow Guards in the company of a renegade group of Alien refugees, uncertain of who his enemies are, where he is going, and - most importantly – who, or what, he is. Central to the interpretation of the story is the series of black-and-white star-scapes which illustrate the novel throughout. Dramatic and haunting, these illustrations are not detailed enough to detract from the reader’s pleasure of imagining these new worlds for him or herself; beautiful and abstract, they add an extra element of strangeness to the story.
Tinder by Sally Gardner, Illustrated by David Roberts:
Sally Gardner's novel takes as its starting point Hans Christian Andersen's The Tinderbox, originally a merrily amoral tale about getting rich, outwitting witches and gaining status. Gardner's version is much darker: 18-year-old Otto Hundebiss, is a soldier fleeting the horrors of the thirty years. Wounded, homeless, orphaned and battle-sick, he meets a healer who gives him a set of dice. The dice will guide him through the forests of Mitteleuropa: an eerie invocation of “fairyland”. Both magical and menacing, Tinder is a dark tale. This sense of menace is amplified by David Roberts's striking black, white and red artwork which variously illustrates, comments on, interrupts and overwhelms the text.
Osborn, Sunya. “Picture Books for Young Adult Readers.” The Alan Review, vol. 28, no. 3, 2001, n.p. https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v28n3/osborn.html.
Zvirin , Stephanie. "Crossovers: Juvenile Books for Adult Reading." Booklist, June 1 1998, pp. 1716-1718.
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.