Do Book Illustrations Have Gender?

I took a gentle wander through some recent photographs looking for one to post here today. It hit me that even photographs seem to have a gender bias. One folder of lovely wisteria against salmon coloured walls looked far more feminine than other folders of photographs. The observation surprised me, and set me thinking about gender bias in books.

I see this photograph as being feminine, yet the photograph could well have been taken by a man. Is it the colours that make me think this?

blog wisteria

When I took the photo I was looking at colour, depth of field, composition, but not thinking gender at all. Am I influenced by the feminine gender words bella vista, bella panorama, perhaps? Would I see it as less feminine if I had composed it differently, and thought of it as a great view?

I looked for another photo from that day. Is this one more masculine? It’s certainly of a great view.

blog wisteria b

I ponder this because, as I choose colours for my illustrations, I think it is something I need to be aware of. My drawings and paintings will match the stories that I write, but will there be an inherent gender bias in my choice of colours? Is that something I should consider, or doesn’t it matter at all?

I was an avid reader as a child and devoured the Biggles series of books as much as I did the Katy series. Did these books have a gender-specific target audience? If they did, I certainly ignored it and read every word with equal pleasure.

A Book Without Pictures

“and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” (Lewis Carroll, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’(Lewis Carroll, in Through the Looking Glass).

One of the blogs I follow is Brainpickings. Today my inbox brought me some background on Alice in Wonderland.

It has been an ‘Alice’ kind of week. A young Italian friend is reading Alice in English. She purchased her copy of it in Spain. Alice certainly gets around. We had a little fun with my favourite quotation about memory. Here it is (in context):

‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’

‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly: ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first —’

‘Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’

‘— but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’

‘I’m sure mine only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.

Occasionally I wonder if I am living backwards. My book without pictures has been on hold for a long time, stalled on 30,000 words when I took a break from it. The next chapter is writing itself as I sleep – my subconscious has been working backwards. My paintings for an exhibition are progressing reasonably well; my daytime work is going forward. And somewhere in the working day, and on my desk, are some little owls waiting for some colour. A book must have pictures, after all.

I Can Do That

blog drawing linesWhat is perfection, and should we aspire to it? My illustrations show action, colour, empathy, but never perfection. It is not my aim. It is important to me that my art for children is ‘accessible’.

I like to imagine that with pencil, paper, pen, paint and water, they too could begin to illustrate their own stories. I imagine a classroom teacher saying to the little ones “Can you see the pencil lines? What do you think she did next, after drawing the picture?”

I could remove all the pencil lines when the paint holds the form. In fact, I did remove most of them, but then added some again. If you look closely at the image you might see where some have been lightly erased, where the wrist and the sleeve meet. It is a calculated choice, what to leave, what to erase, what to put back more strongly to be read in the picture. It is this kind of interpretive interaction that brings out the creativity in little ones. And, perhaps, in the big ones too.

Once the brain engages with a process, or with imagining what might be in a space, the imagination is captured and brought into play. I don’t think that happens quite so much when everything is perfect; you are more likely to look, appreciate, and move on without actively engaging with the creative process.

As with all art work, illustrations have at least three aspects; what the artist intends, what the viewer sees, and what happens in the space in between. In shared reading there is yet another dimension, with the reader leading the discussion. I have considered putting in a page of discussion starters at the end of my stories, and more educational facts that I find in my research, but so far (apart from in the true story, Michelle and the Bumblebee) I have resisted this temptation. The readers will find what they are ready for, when the time is right.

But I digress. Back to the illustrations. In this digital age I think it is important that young children look at original art, and at the process of creating art. Art that is not ‘perfect’ with every line defined, every colour and shading transition smooth. I would like children to see my construction lines, and to think “I can do that”.

jamie helping Nonna blogSharing the process with a young reader. Quality time for both of us 🙂

Thanks Also to You

A lovely message arrived in my in-box. Here is a section of it.

“Gosh (grandchild) and I have enjoyed your books, they evoke so many questions, you have added so much detail and she doesn’t miss a thing.”

One of my aims is to have my books read to children, and with children, ideally snuggled in with time to enjoy. It is a time that I love myself, and must have enjoyed as a child. It is more than reading; it is physical contact, sharing, exploring new things together, revisiting old friends, and wandering off into an imaginary world in a safe way. So a big Thank you 🙂  This made my day.

And a response to my “Discipline Required”  post on Facebook: “That picture makes me want to be in Italy SO MUCH!! But you should work, because I had to read “The Lost Happy” about 6 times in a row to D and J yesterday!!!”

Here is a little tease from Fluff and Scuff, while you are waiting for the next books, D and J.

From page 7:

Scuff scampered and scurried and hurried up the tree, branch by bendy branch, twig by wobbly twig.

Don’t fall off, Scuff.

Page 11:

Wind looked all around.  What did he see?

He saw baby owls asleep in the tree. 

But by Page 25:

Fluff was looking up at a big, yellow… 

What was Fluff looking at, I wonder?

The Research Stage

Is it a case of ‘once a teacher, always a teacher’, I wonder?

One of the things I aim for in my books is to educate, or to at least provide space for learning and discussion. Michelle and the Bumblebee is an example of this.front cover 2

When I agreed to write the story, I wanted to complement the true story with accurate pictures. I was surprised at how little I knew about the bumblebee. I had painted them from “life” (actually from corpses I had found in my garden) many years ago, but couldn’t remember the details. How many segments are there in the bumblebee’s legs? Which way do its ‘knees’ work? How many stripes does it have? Are the stripes all the same colour? Is it ‘bumblebee’ or ‘bumble bee’?

I enjoyed the research, which started a little like this:

bee details

As the story developed I also tried to give Mr Bumble Bee a persona. He became more of a cartoon sketch, his stripes became more random as his face took on more expression and his wings varied in size to create the effect I wanted. bee face

Despite this evolution, I kept the details of his body structure and legs accurate.


The teacher in me also had the last word. I concluded the story with a diagram illustrating the pollination cycle, and gave the last illustrated page to a realistic bumblebee.

bee small for blog

All of the illustrations were fun, but this last one was the illustration I enjoyed the most.

Where Does Inspiration Come From?

“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”  ― Saul Bellow

I have always loved to write. My childhood efforts were published in the children’s pages of the national farming magazine. The writings were usually poetry, but occasionally I wrote a short story in prose. I think it made me feel special, and linked to the exciting, unknown, city world,

Recently I have been wishing that I could see these again. My scrapbook of cuttings has long gone. I wonder, though, was that the beginning of the desire to publish now? I remember the waiting, after I had posted my fat envelopes, carefully licked to stick really well. The magazine came out once a month. Would it have any of my work in it? Often it did.

Where did my inspiration come from then, and where does it come from now?

When I was a child my inspiration came floating, tumbling or charging in as I settled to sleep, when I woke in the night, or on rising. I guess it was my subconscious* (See below) trying to make sense of my world.

I kept pencil and paper by my bed. Sometimes when I reached out or searched with my torch I couldn’t find it – disaster!  I couldn’t turn on the light; I shared a bedroom and I was supposed to be asleep.

My thoughts were precious to me – always inspired, my child’s brain was so sure. If I didn’t record them they would vanish. I would tiptoe on the cold floor and record those ideas the only way I could without waking my sister. The next morning I would be first up, springing from my bed, grabbing pencil and paper, and copying furiously.

My middle of the night inspiration was always there, thank goodness, safely recorded with a cold, wet finger in the condensation on the window. I had to be the first one up, in case my sister or my mother wiped the window dry and washed away my precious words. If there was no condensation on warmer nights I would huff and puff on the glass to create my own. Those mornings I really had to strain to see, looking from different angles to read what I had scrawled on the glass. If I didn’t wipe them off they would reappear the next time the window was wet, and my midnight thoughts would be exposed.

Now my inspirations are triggered in my waking hours. A chance observation, a snippet of conversation, a wonderful view or an interesting corner. Filing them away in notebooks and sketches doesn’t always work for me. I am happiest when I can grab the idea and run with it, abandoning whatever it was that I might have been doing. I write best with that urgency, chasing the idea in a much fuller form before it escapes. That wonderful window which is surely hiding a fascinating story, the house with a happy face, the tree with so many gnarled branches – all those wonderful settings wait in my subconscious and will emerge when the characters arrive.

The Lost Happy  page 13
The Lost Happy page 13

* Bryan Tracy, author of “The Psychology of Achievement”, writes a brief post about the subconscious here: Understanding the Subconscious

Spring Cleaning the Studio

Picking up my Italian life again wasn’t too hard, but there was the inevitable “re-entry blues” patch when the reality of leaving family behind hit home again. Away from children and young people, my routine has changed and my productivity is down.

It’s time to welcome spring, throw open the windows of the studio, and move back to a productive space. Being busy does not equal being productive.  Having ideas does not equal producing books. 

This is the setting that alternately distracts and inspires me – and now it’s upstairs to work for me!

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