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.
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.
Rowling, J. K., and Mary GrandPré. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2000. Print.