Sunday, November 1, 2015

Ghost Imaging: Haunting Visuals in Books and Movies

Did I scare you?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say no. No, I did not scare you.
Now, picture this. You’re in a dark room, covered in spindly cobwebs. There’s a dark stain on the left side of the floor. There’s a steady drip, drip, drip of leaky pipes, and suddenly, you hear a woman scream.
Did I scare you now?
I would imagine this attempt was better than my first, but once again, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that my description of a spooky dungeon probably will not give you nightmares tonight.
Okay, let me try one more time:

Now did I scare you?
Okay, okay, this was a cheap shot. And we can quibble about the definition of “scare.” I mean, this startled you. Maybe it made your heart speed up, or your breath catch in your lungs. Maybe you even let out a little scream at the very end. Or maybe you’re not someone who flinches easily, and you’re reading this paragraph wondering when I’m going to make my point.
Movies can rely on things like startle-scares, eerie lighting, and ghostly music to create horror, but these techniques simply don’t work in books. I can say that you’re watching a dimly lit room, staring at a rocking chair, and suddenly the chair starts to move all on its own, but that isn’t nearly as frightening as the video of it. And no matter how good of a sentence-writer I am, I am never going to be able to startle you when the ghost jumps out.
So, if I cannot rely on startle-scares, eerie lighting, and ghostly music to frighten my readers, how do I do it? What makes a book scary?
            There are dozens of techniques for making a story scary, and what is scary to one person may not be scary to another. I was bored silly by Pet Sematary, but someone with arachnophobia might need a nightlight after reading Charlotte’s Web. I recently read Slasher Girls & Monster Boys, which is an anthology of short stories by fourteen different young adult writers. And while books can’t show you a haunting image of a dungeon to scare you, books create an imagery all their own. By describing real-world people with disturbing or even magical descriptions, the reader can become unsettled in a way that is entirely unique to books.
            In Nova Ren Suma’s The Birds of Azalea Street we learn the story of a group of young girls who feels threatened by a creepy neighbor, Leonard. Leonard is a loner who likes to shoot birds and take photographs of teenage girls, but no one seems to realize it except Tasha and her friends. This all changes when one night a strange girl comes home with Leonard.
            There is nothing specifically odd about this visitor (except for the fact that she is with Leonard), but we sense something strange about her from the beginning. Even though Suma cannot accompany the girl’s first appearance with trembling violins and a gray lighting filter, she can make us feel uncomfortable using her language.
First of all, the girl is the literary equivalent of Wilson from Home Improvement in that we never see her face. She begins as nothing more than a shadow:
That night we noted the questionable shadow in his passenger seat. It was taller than usual. It had a distinctly human-sized head.

(And a human-esque shadow at that.)
Then, she gets a body, but we don’t see her face:
She wore a dark hood, and around it was a haze of fur, like she’d just landed in our subdivision from the North Pole and didn’t realize that, down here, it was spring.

And finally, we see her legs:
Even with all that, I could see her legs. Her legs were in black stockings, the kind with seams. At the end of her legs were little pointed blades that took to the pavement like ice picks.

As time progresses we get a more solid view of Leonard’s friend:
The fur trim on her coat rippled in the wind like a layer of feathers.
His lady friend had dark, deep-purple painted nails, and they were long and curling, almost like claws

She cocked her head in the frame of the window.

In every description, the girl is described as though she’s a bird. Her fingernails are claws, her coat is feathers, her movements are jerky. When she arrives somewhere she “lands”, and the words “North Pole” and “spring” evoke images of birds flying south for the winter. And even though the girl’s legs are described only as legs, they are long and thin and separated from her coat-body in a way that makes us feel like they are birds’ legs, even though they are not described as such.
Finally, when the girl gets her revenge on Leonard, we are told explicitly that the girl was a bird all along:
…and her legs, her beautiful legs, shrunk in and shifted. Her coat became a part of her body, or maybe it always was. Her arms—what was left of them—opened wide. A dark streak took off from the back steps and the sky caught it and it was a bird, it was always a bird, she was, and the bird soared up into the clouds…

Suma pulls off this technique of juxtaposition with incredible aplomb. She has a mastery of language that is evident not only in the fact that she utilizes this technique, but also in her specific word choices. For example, let’s take a look at this quote:
She wore a dark hood, and around it was a haze of fur, like she’d just landed in our subdivision from the North Pole and didn’t realize that, down here, it was spring.

I am particularly fond of this sentence, because its word choice is not particularly avian. For example, Suma uses the word “fur” not “feathers”, and there are not many bird species that are known for living in the North Pole. But, if we rewrite this passage using different details, we notice something interesting:
She wore a dark hood, and around it was a halo of fur, like she’d just arrived from Alaska and didn’t get the memo that over here it was t-shirt season.

Even though this sentence is nearly identical to the first one, it carries an entirely different tone. Suma uses the word “landed”, which implies that the girl herself was the one doing the landing, whereas when I use the word “arrived”, implying someone coming in on an airplane. Swapping out “haze” for “halo” suddenly makes the girl seem angelic, which clashes with Suma’s preexisting avian picture. Changing “North Pole” for “Alaska” seems like it might be trivial, since both are places known for being cold, but by using the word “North” right next to the word “spring” we create an image of birds flying south for the winter. And by referencing t-shirts, suddenly my imagery becomes almost teeny-bopper. So even though my rewrite carries the exact same meaning as Suma’s original, I have stripped the magic of the passage.
The Birds of Azalea Street occupies a space between reality and magic that Nova Ren Suma has made her home. There are no ghosts or vampires, and the only monster is a creepy neighbor. There is no explicit magic—“bird” is another word for “woman” after all—and this story isn’t the sort that is going to give me nightmares. And yet throughout it all the reader has a vague feeling of discomfort. The feeling of never quite knowing what is real and what is not, what is girl and what is bird, leaves the reader feeling unsettled. It provides creepy imagery without attempting to rely on movie tropes.
In Leigh Bardugo’s Verse Chorus Verse the reader learns the story of Jaycee, a young pop star who goes into rehab. Like Suma, Bardugo uses metaphor and descriptive language to evoke a feeling surrounding a character. But where The Birds of Azalea Street uses imagery to make us wonder what is real and what is magic, Verse Chorus Verse uses imagery to make us wonder who can truly be trusted.
In the first section of the story, we’re introduced to Louise. We meet her through the eyes of Kara, Jaycee’s judgmental stage mom, and we’re immediately drawn to her, simply because we don’t like Kara and Kara doesn’t like Louise. And when we first meet Louise in person, we want to like her. She’s the voice of reason in Jaycee’s chaotic pop star lifestyle. Jaycee claims she doesn’t drink, Louise calls her out on it. Jaycee says she doesn’t want to go to group therapy, Louise makes her go. So when we start to see details of Louise’s appearance that don’t quite line up with our perception of her, we start to get uncomfortable:
Louise smiled. She had yellowing teeth, smoker’s teeth.
This bit of imagery sticks out because “yellowing teeth” is not only a disturbing image in and of itself, but it contrasts so strongly with our existing image of Louise as a good nurse and the rehab facility as a pure, pristine place of assistance. Then, as we progress, the disturbing imagery grows:
Louise took a slim band of rubber from a drawer and tied it tightly in place above her elbow. Jaycee’s hand started to throb. She couldn’t stop looking at the thin line of grime embedded beneath each of Louise’s nails.

This quote evokes and even more visceral description. The reader can almost feel their arm throbbing, and they shiver slightly as they imagine someone touching them with dirty fingernails. And as Louise begins to take Jaycee’s blood, the reader is flooded with grotesque details:
Up close, her teeth looked more brown than yellow. They were thick, with dirty little ridges. Not like teeth, Jaycee thought. Like tusks.

Louise took hold of Jaycee’s arm and Jaycee saw that the nurse had coarse, dark hairs on the backs of her wrists.

The smell coming off of her was sweat and the ashy vegetable stink of dumpsters in a hotel alley.

Moments ago her laugh had seemed warm and friendly; now it had an ugly, knowing sound to it.

 And finally, as the nurse starts to probe further and further into Jaycee’s life, the disturbing descriptions reach a climax:
The nurse’s eyes looked bloodshot, her nostrils curiously wide and dark. Flecks of foam had formed in the corners of her mouth. Jaycee tried to stand, but her knees buckled. Dimly she was aware that there was a needle still in her arm. The room tipped and she hit the white floor with a loud crack. She saw the soles of Louise’s purple Crocs. They were caked with something black and foul.

Looking at Bardugo’s passages, there is an overarching theme of color. In the beginning of this passage we are in a hospital room: sterile, pristine, white. Then, slowly, color starts leaking in. Louise’s teeth are yellow. No, not yellow, brown. The hairs on the backs of her hands are dark, and the red blood is so dark it’s almost black. Let’s take a look now at the climax of the passage:
The nurse’s eyes looked bloodshot, her nostrils curiously wide and dark. Flecks of foam had formed in the corners of her mouth. Jaycee tried to stand, but her knees buckled. Dimly she was aware that there was a needle still in her arm. The room tipped and she hit the white floor with a loud crack. She saw the soles of Louise’s purple Crocs. They were caked with something black and foul.

While the earlier passages have a splash of color here and there, this paragraph sloshes them all together at once. We have bloodshot eyes, and dark nostrils. When Jaycee falls she hits the white floor, and Louise’s Crocs are purple, but they’re covered with something black. This scene, when taken as a whole, makes me think of a Pollock painting; it’s a white background with splatters of color. But the last paragraph makes me think of someone smearing all the colors together to cause chaos. Now, let’s see what happens if I rewrite this passage without using color words.
The nurse’s eyes were watery, and her nostrils so wide that Jaycee could make out every hair. Flecks of foam had formed in the corners of her mouth, and when Jaycee tried to stand, her knees buckled. Dimly she was aware that there was a needle still in her arm. The room tipped and she hit the linoleum floor with a loud crack. She saw the soles of Louise’s Crocs. They were caked with a smelly muck.

Watery eyes can be eerie in their own way, but bloodshot evokes images of spidery, almost Pollock-esque veins. And even though nose hair is gross, Jaycee’s ability to see them directly contradicts the previous images of darkness. Linoleum floor implies cheapness, not sterility, and removing the word “purple” as a descriptor of Louise’s Crocs removes the shock of bright color against this black-and-white background. And even though smelly muck is unpleasant, it doesn’t evoke darkness and grime the same way that “black and foul” does. Even though this rewritten passage has the same sentiment as the original one, removing the colors disrupts the feeling of a crescendo of chaos coming to surround Jaycee. Bardugo’s precision of language in this scene is expertly done and creates a terrifying tone that is perfect for horror.
When it comes to scaring your readers, there is no one formula that works for everyone, and what works in one story may very well fail in another. But we want to take advantage of the medium we’ve chosen to tell our story. So even though a literal description of a haunted dungeon isn’t as scary as an image of it, the opposite can hold true as well. A picture of dirty crocs doesn’t scare us:

nor a picture of yellow teeth:

but when we use these details as descriptors, our stories go from flat to frightening.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge: Using Book References In Fiction

Meet Philosoraptor. He’s a Denizen of the Internet, often popping up next to Conspiracy Keanu and The Most Interesting Man In The World. Or, if you run in certain circles (*cough, tech, cough*), he will pop up in almost every formal presentation you watch. Like the listicle, memes can be seen as the Internet at its worst. Formulaic and clich├ęd, perhaps, but memes are a valuable way to emphasize a point, check if your audience is paying attention, or even establish common ground between presenter and listener. A well-placed meme can say, “Look, buddy, I’m just like you. I also spend too much time on Reddit and think GIF is pronounced ‘jiff.’”
Writers are constantly looking for ways of establishing common ground with their readers. They want their characters to be “just like you” even if they are fantastically beautiful and secretly a vampire. When someone gives a tech presentation, it is safe to assume that their viewers know the Internet. Whether or not they are fans of Philosoraptor, they will at least know who he is. Philosoraptor is a part of the universe in which the talk exists.
In books, however, the universe is not the Internet, but rather Book World. It’s a world where everyone will catch a reference to Catcher in the Rye just as quickly as they will grok a reference to Stranger in a Strange Land. Including an intertextual reference creates common ground between author and reader. It roots the story in reality and makes readers feel temporarily safe, even though they may very soon fly away to Neverland. An intertextual reference can emphasize a point, check if the audience is paying attention, or even establish a connection between character and reader. It’s a way of saying “Hey, buddy, I’m just like you. I also spent my teenage years crushing on Mr. Darcy, and I eagerly await a letter from Hogwarts every September, even though I’m thirty-two.”
Readers will relate to a character who is also a reader. And the first thing they want to know when they meet someone who reads is to find out what they read. Bella Swan reads Pride and Prejudice, Meggie Folchart reads Peter Pan, Matilda reads Great Expectations. This tells readers something powerful about these characters. Just think how different Bella Swan would have been if her favorite book had been Gossip Girl. These characters read the classics. They are smart, sophisticated, and immediately set apart from the other kids in their class, who probably don’t read at all, and if they did, would probably read Gossip Girl.
If you’re anything like me, you’re relating already.
So why does Bella read Pride and Prejudice and not Catcher in the Rye? Why does Matilda read Great Expectations and not War and Peace? Why does Hermione tear her way through every book on magic in the Hogwarts library, but we never see her reading the collective works of Mark Twain?
Every word used in a story creates a ripple. If I whisper something, that feels different than if I mumble it, or if I breathe it. It isn’t just the word that comes through the page, but all the images associated with that word. Whisper makes me think of girls giggling behind their teacher’s back, and mumble makes me think of giving a presentation but having stage fright. Breathe, on the other hand, makes me think of lovers in a bed exchanging pillow talk. The ripples might not be the same for everybody, but the point is that the ripples exist. If this much imagery ripples forth from a single verb, imagine the ripples that emanate from a whole book!
The words Pride and Prejudice, separated entirely from the work by Jane Austen, make me think of stubbornness and exclusion, class structures, rules, and someone with her nose in the air. And when we add to the ripples that emanate from the book’s title to the ripples of the book itself we end up with waves. We think of romance and tension and gossip and Victorian England. We think of long conversations over steaming mugs of tea, and elaborate dresses worn to even more elaborate parties. We think about gardens and grandmothers, or even Jane Austen herself. And just like that, we understand Bella’s headspace, simply because we know what she reads.
When an author includes an intertextual reference to a well-known classic, she is creating common ground. She is putting the character in a position that is relatable, while simultaneously creating imagery and giving her character a back story. But what happens when the author includes a less well-known book in her text? What happens when the book isn’t even explicitly named, but is merely referenced? Maybe the book is an endowed object, like A Wrinkle in Time in When You Reach Me, or maybe it is just a textural element, like the fact that Petey’s favorite book in Bone Gap is Blankets. Or maybe it’s just a throwaway joke, like when Ezra thinks, “As if I were not in danger of losing interest in everything else” in Monstrous Beauty.

Rebecca Stead references A Wrinkle in Time in her book When You Reach Me, but it’s never named directly. We first learn about Miranda’s favorite book on page 8:

I knew the first line of my book without even looking. “It was a dark and stormy night,” I said.
She nodded. “Classic. I like that. What’s the story about?”
I thought for a second. “It’s about a girl named Meg—her dad is missing, and she goes on this trip to another planet to save him.”

Miranda’s favorite book is critical to the story, not only because it plays a role in the plot, but also because Miranda’s life mirrors Meg’s. Both protagonists are young girls with missing fathers, and, of course, both girls are surrounded by a time travel mystery. Miranda even draws a spiritual connection between herself and Meg when she says, “The truth is that my book doesn’t say how old Meg is, but I am twelve, so she feels twelve to me. When I first got the book I was eleven, and she felt eleven.” In many ways, When You Reach Me is a rewriting of A Wrinkle In Time, but When You Reach Me can also exist independently of A Wrinkle in Time. Miranda’s favorite book may as well be a book made up in Rebecca Stead’s head as far as the casual reader is concerned, but a close reader will notice the connection and draw parallels between the two books that enrich both stories.
In Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap, Petey loves the book Blankets, but, just like Miranda’s favorite book, it isn’t referenced by name. While a cursory knowledge of A Wrinkle in Time is critical to understanding When You Reach Me, one could read the entirety of Bone Gap without even realizing there are references to Blankets at all:

Now Petey got up from her bed and grabbed a book, one of her favorites. It was a graphic novel about two brothers, one who falls madly in love with a girl only to have his heart horribly broken. If novels could be trusted, there was a boy in the world who shared a bed with his brother when he was very small, peed on his brother for fun and torment, fell so madly in love with a girl that he could convince himself that she was crafted by a divine artist, and that she was both perfect and unknowable. Petey was an only child, and boys—kind ones, gentle ones—were a mystery to her. She liked imagining small boys fighting over blankets.

If a reader wanted to, they could read this passage and simply glean that Petey wants a boy to fall madly in love with her. But, a close reader could draw a parallel between the way that Craig sees Raina through his drawings and the way that Finn sees Petey through his face blindness.
In both When You Reach Me and Bone Gap, the intertextual reference exists as a way to deepen the story for close readers. But sometimes, an intertextual reference is simply a way for the author to express her humanity from behind the veil of text. Even though the book exists in its own universe, the author exists in the same universe as the reader. If the author can connect to the reader, not just in the book-world and but the real-world as well, then the reading experience can become far more interactive. In some cases the reference can be a PR tactic, like the fact that George R. R. Martin is naming a future character Dave Goldblatt because someone won that “reward” in an auction. Other times it can be to honor a fan, like when J.K. Rowling named a character Natalie in Goblet of Fire after a young leukemia patient wrote to Rowling to find out how Harry Potter ended before she died. Other times it reads almost like a joke, or a wink at true-blue fans, like when Roald Dahl briefly refers to “vermicious knids,” the evil alien race that resembles a turd from Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator in James and the Giant Peach.
When I asked Laura Ruby why she referenced Blankets in Bone Gap, she wrote me a very thoughtful response about the parallels between Petey and Raina, and how Blankets helps Petey imagine herself worthy of love. And this is true. The Blankets reference highlights some thematic elements of Bone Gap that I might not have noticed otherwise. But, the very first thing Laura said to me in her response was, “I think Blankets is amazing and I put it in my story because I could.  :)

CEOs of Fortune 500 technology companies use memes in their internationally-broadcasted presentations to say, “Look, buddy, I’m just like you. I put on my shoes one foot at a time and lol at lolcats with the best of them.” But ultimately, they use memes because they think they are funny. They love Philosoraptor and Conspiracy Keanu and The Most Interesting Man In The World just as much as writers love making their character mumble “So it goes” under his breath when his grandma dies, or making him “screw his courage to the sticking place” when he’s nervous.
We write because we love it. We write because it’s how we connect with the world and how we express ourselves. It’s how we tell the people we love that we love them, and the people who hurt us where they can stuff it. And when we make references to our favorite books it’s because we love our favorite books, and we love people who love them too. It’s our way of thanking all the people that we couldn’t fit into our acknowledgments section, and winking at the people who we know will appreciate it.
And that’s all there is; there isn’t any more :).

Works Cited
(Note: I reference a whole bunch of books in my essay, and I included most of them here, but I got bored and stopped because there are like 20 and most of them are mentioned just once by title and never again. Also one of the most important sources for this paper was when Laura Ruby responded to an email I sent her asking why she chose to reference Blankets in her book Bone Gap. I didn’t know how to reference that either, so I’m including this parenthetical)

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Modern Library, 1995. Print.
Dahl, Roald, and Quentin Blake. Matilda. New York, NY: Viking Kestrel, 1988. Print.
Eliot, George, and Gordon Sherman. Haight. Middlemarch. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956. Print.
Fama, Elizabeth. Monstrous Beauty. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012. Print.
Funke, Cornelia Caroline., and Anthea Bell. Inkheart. Frome, Somerset: Chicken House, 2003. Print.
Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land. New York: Putnam, 1961. Print.
L'Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1962. Print.
"Meme Generator." Meme Generator. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Sept. 2015.
Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Ruby, Laura. Bone Gap. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Salinger, J. D., E. Michael Mitchell, and Lotte Jacobi. The Catcher in the Rye. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Stead, Rebecca, and Kate Gartner. When You Reach Me. NY, NY: Wendy Lamb, 2009. Print.
Thompson, Craig. Blankets: A Graphic Novel. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf, 2003. Print.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

This is Leakhena.

She is four years old, and her mother abandoned her at a pagoda temple in her home of Cambodia when she could no longer afford to feed her. Now, Leakhena earns enough money to eat by sorting through garbage at the dump to find recyclables. Her biggest dream is to some day be able to go to school.
            Unless you’re a heartless cretin, you care about Leakhena. You’ve seen her face, you’ve heard her story, you’re rooting for her. You might even donate money to save her.
            Now what if I told you that 3.5 million children die from starvation every year?
            One would think the second statement would elicit more empathy, and thus more donations, than Leakhena’s story. If someone would donate $5 to save one child, why wouldn’t they donate at least that much to save 3.5 million? But, as it turns out, people are twice as likely to donate money to Leakhena as they are to donate money to “children dying from starvation.”
            Experts might say that this is the result of something called The Identifiable Victim Effect. People care more about the one child they know than about the 3,499,999 children they don’t. Writers, however, will say that Leakhena is a round character, and the other 3,499,999 children are flat.
Maybe a writer isn’t trying to elicit monetary donations from her readers, but she is, in a sense, trying to elicit temporal donations. A writer wants her readers to invest time in the story. This can only be accomplished by creating a Leakhena, or a round character.
Everyone connects more strongly and more quickly to an image than they do to text describing that image but for young readers, this disparity is quite large.
Lucido’s Conjecture -- The importance of illustration in the creation of a round character is inversely proportional to the age of the intended audience.
            Young children do not possess a mature ability to synthesize words into pictures in their head, so in order for children to connect to a story, they need a concrete image for even the most basic of craft elements, like character and plot. And in a format that emphasizes economy of language, picture books simply do not have the space to create the emotional connection out of words that can be done instantaneously with a picture.
This is Lilly.
This image conveys a lot of information about Lilly. There’s the obvious, like Lilly is a mouse girl, but the information is even deeper than that. Lilly is happy, as evidenced by her smile and her skip; she likes to play dress-up, as evidenced by the crown and the boots and the cape; and something magical is going on in her head, as evidenced by the stars. There is more information in this image that could possibly be conveyed in a single page of text in a picture book. But this picture of Lilly is more than just a way to convey information. It gives children that instant connection they need in order to be invested enough to turn the page.
            Every page of Lilly’s book is illustrated to define what is happening in that part of the story. Young children need the images not only to connect to the characters, but also to understand the story’s plot. For example, we are not just told that "[Lily] loved the pointy pencils. She loved the squeaky chalk. And she loved the way her boots went clickety-clickety-clack down the long, shiny hallways." we are shown an illustration for nearly every word in this sentence: 

           As kids grow up, their books start to have fewer pictures. Kids no longer need explicit images to be able to visualize a character, and authors have more words to work with in chapter books than in picture books. Once children start to read books like Ramona, a combination of explanatory words and sporadic pictures suffices.
This is Ramona.


Just like in the picture of Lilly, this picture of Ramona conveys a ton of information. We can see that Ramona is pretending to be a bunny, which means that she has a lot of imagination. She’s active, because she’s jumping, and she’s crafty, because her ears look hand-made. Her hair is a little messed up, she’s wearing overalls instead of a dress, and her straps seem a little cockeyed. From this we can figure out that, unlike Lilly, Ramona is not the sort of girl who worries about how she looks.
In a book about Ramona we have many more words to describe her than we do in a book about Lilly, so the primary focus of this image isn’t to convey information, it’s to convey expression. Nearly every picture in every Ramona book captures the characters at the height of emotion:

The readers of Ramona are old enough to visualize the characters and events of the story, but in order to feel the emotion that Ramona is feeling, it helps them to have physical images on the page.
Finally, let’s take a look at a book like Harry Potter, which provides small illustrations at the beginning of chapters.
            This is Harry. 

By the time children mature to the point where they can read a story about Harry, they are capable of creating images in their heads with words. They no longer need to know exactly what Harry looks like at all times in order to care about him, because they can imagine Harry in the way that the reader of a book about Lilly or Ramona cannot, simply because they are older and have a greater ability to synthesize words into pictures. So the images at the tops of the chapters no longer convey critical story or character information, but rather a mood. The image above doesn't tell us anything about what happens in this chapter of Harry Potter (in fact, I don't even know off the top of my head which book it comes from) but the long shadow gives us a sense of foreboding. Harry's expression looks nervous, and the angle gives us a sense of a little Harry in a large room.
One does wonder if Harry Potter would have been quite so successful if these little images hadn’t begun each chapter. If we are two times as likely to donate money to help a starving child if we see a picture of her, does that mean we care two times as much about her? Perhaps we would only have cared half as much about Harry Potter as we do if we had never been shown Harry’s picture. Of course, Rowling does an incredible job of describing Harry in such a way that we have a mental picture of him even without the drawings:

"Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley's, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. the only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightening."

 Not only does this give us a vivid picture of Harry's appearance, but it also tells us about him as a person. He gets beaten up by his cousin. He wears hand-me-downs. And he has a strange scar on his forehead that he likes. As wonderful as this description is, and as wonderful as the rest of the book is, it is a useful exercise to consider how the drawings that so perfectly capture the mood of the chapters might have contributed to the success of the series.
            They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but that’s a load of crap; there’s no exchange rate between text and illustration. For young readers illustrations are priceless, as the story wouldn't carry weight for them without it. As the intended audience ages there is a sort of illustration devaluation. A picture becomes less and less valuable, and when a book is written for an adult, images aren't needed at all to forge a connection between reader and character.
            Unless you're asking for money. Then all bets are off.

Works Cited

Cleary, Beverly, and Tracy Dockray. Beezus and Ramona. New York: HarperTrophy, 2006. Print.
Fang, Z. (1996). Illustrations, text, and the child reader. What are pictures in children’s storybooks for? Read. Horizons 37: 130-142.
Genevsky, A., D. Vastfjall, P. Slovic, and B. Knutson. "Neural Underpinnings of the Identifiable Victim Effect: Affect Shifts Preferences for Giving." Journal of Neuroscience 33.43 (2013): 17188-7196. Web.
Henkes, Kevin. Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse. New York: Greenwillow, 1996. Print.
"Ramona Quimby: The Mischievous Girl Next Door." NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2015.
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