Education, Illustration, Literacy

The Mystery of the Disappearing Visual

When I would sit on my Grammy’s porch reading my Nancy Drew books, the soft summer breeze wafting through the screens, the scent of my Pop’s lawn clippings mixing with the mildewy odor of my beloved mysteries, I remember how frequently I would peek forward to the next Rudy Nappi illustration, would use that next sketch of the titian-haired sleuth as a kind-of sign post that signaled the completion of yet another leg of my literary journey.


Put another way, I really dug the pictures.

These illustrations often provided me with “text” to read that wasn’t included in the text text: a better idea of what the characters looked like, how they might have been feeling, what details made up their immediate world. It was the same with my Ramona books. I would practically study the illustrations, would count the pages until the next ones would appear. When the books I read began to lack illustrations, I would frequently take breaks from my reading to flip back to the covers of my Taffy Sinclair and, later, my Sweet Valley High books to rest my gaze on the characters’ hair, their pastel-colored clothing, their delicately-drawn 80’s accessories.

Then I really upped reading my game and began devouring Stephen King, V.C. Andrews, and Erma Bombeck as fast as I could get my hands on ’em, and the illustrations dwindled even further, no longer taking up the majority of the cover page, or–if they did–becoming much more abstract, symbolic, design-y. I would often find myself able to “read” the covers more deeply, able to pick up more nuances in the jacket design, the further I was into the book. The most glaring exception to this illustration-shunning was Stephen King’s widely-underappreciated graphic novel Cycle of the Werewolf, a book that delayed my slumber on many a full moon. I adapted to this kind of image-free reading, for sure, and didn’t even think to question why as my reading life “matured,” the ubiquity of illustrations decreased–and in most cases, ceased to exist altogether.

Subconsciously, I’m sure I started to associate illustrations with easier, less important, less mature texts. My high school work as well as my  undergraduate work within the English Teaching program at the University of New Hampshire seemed to perpetuate this notion, as I cannot recall even one conversation about illustrations or other kinds of visual texts–diagrams, charts, maps–that didn’t link them to the greater creation at hand: the text. If they were mentioned at all, it was to acknowledge their purely supplemental relationship to the text, where the information, evidence, argument, artistry, and brilliance inevitably lay. (Not to mention the fact that unless I was in art class, the concept of actually creating visual texts was inconceivable.)

And while, twenty years later, we are lucky enough to live in a world where visual texts exist not just for children, but for all readers–although I would argue that the majority of visual texts that are typically found in the children’s section of our libraries and bookstores have always been meant to be enjoyed and read by “all readers”– as an educator I continue to witness the dwindling of visual texts, including illustrations, that seems to occur the older students get. While the reading of visual texts is beginning–slowly and painfully–to pick up a thread of steam in some classrooms, the composing of visual texts continues to be associated with “less”: less mature, less rigorous, less valued.

To what end?

We can no longer argue–if we ever could–that visual texts do not assault us everywhere we go, both virtually and otherwise. Click on your Facebook News Feed and see for yourself: not only will you find photographs with which people are choosing to communicate their life “status,” but also a plethora of infographics, memes, and videos. Is this increasingly visual world being reflected in our classrooms?

If it is, are we teaching students how to read it?

If so, I want to hear from you (“you” meaning the five readers of this blog). How well does your classroom reflect our increasingly visual world? How often are your students exposed to visual texts? What are you doing to teach students to read these texts? In doing so, what challenges have you and/or your students faced? Do your students compose visual texts when they write? Please share this post with your colleagues so that I can learn from them, too.

As always, I thank you in advance for your thoughts, comments, and questions!





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