What is the Purpose of Setting in Children's Picture Book Text?
"You couldn’t write a story that happened nowhere." Eudora Welty
The possible exception to Ms. Welty’s statement may exist in children's picture books. In the world of picture books, where illustrations provide subtext, setting, and sometimes even the punch line of a story such as in "The Carrot Seed," as in all fiction, the inclusion of setting within the text must have a purpose intrinsic to the lesson or plot.
According to Rebecca McClanahan’s "Word Painting," setting includes time and place, as well as the accoutrements therein such as a waterfall in a jungle or clock ticking by a bed (McClanahan, 171). In a novel, the purpose of a setting can range from a simple backdrop for the action to a mirror for the plot, or as an influential character in and of itself (172). But very young children experience their world in a significantly different way than adults and require their literary settings to accommodate their relationship with the world, a world that exists before abstract thought has developed.
If the abstract concept of time is a primary consideration to setting, then a child’s experience of it must be taken into account. A young child’s relationship with time is based on relevant, relatable experiences, as demonstrated by this conversation recorded during a study of conceptual growth by M.M. Rust:
CHILD: I’m four, aren’t I?
MOTHER: Yes, four years.
CHILD: What’s a year?
CHILD: Is that a long time?
MOTHER: Quite a long time.
CHILD: How long?
MOTHER: It’s hard to explain, but it’s a lot of days, 365, and that’s many.
CHILD: Well, but how long?
MOTHER: Well, well, you know when it was Christmas.
CHILD: Oh, yes, and I had a tree, and once I had a tree in the corner and once I had it on the table.
MOTHER: Well, that was twice, and it takes a year to have a Christmas. You see we have Christmas, then the time between that
Christmas and the time between the next is a year.
CHILD: Well, that’s a very long, long time. When I was very small we had a Christmas. Is a year a birthday?
MOTHER: Well, you have one birthday, then the time between is called a year, then you have the next birthday.
CHILD: Yes, three then four-then five-. Say, how old are you?
CHILD: How did you stretch up?
Hence, to most four-year-olds, time can only be relative. According to child psychologists Arthur Jersild and Jean Piagets’ findings, their minds are incapable of abstract conceptual manipulations until an average age of six and a half years old (446). The child makes an abstract concept easier to understand by relating it to a subject of personal importance, such as a holiday or specific section of the day she is comfortably familiar with.
In a picture book, place in the setting can have a similar relational orientation. Setting can provide the child with both a reference point as well as a platform for expanding his/her relationship with the world. Jersild explained the very young child’s relationship with language and visual elements thus:
Perception builds, in part, on increased ability to recognize likenesses and to discriminate differences. When a person
perceives something new as identical to something he is already familiar with, he is applying what he knows to what he sees.
When he perceives it as different, he is also applying what he knows. The new event does not fit into any established
thought structure, and he must now accommodate himself to that fact. As time passes...he becomes able to respond to
"reduced cues." ...the process by which a certain cue becomes potent does not merely involve any element in a past
stimulus situation becomes effective in reintegrating (re-establishing, standing for) the whole, but involves the way
certain cues become distinctively effective. (Jersild, 441)
With the exception of specific historical context inherent to the purpose of a story such as Mary Quattlebaum’s "Sparks Fly High," picture books exist inside a young child’s experience of time and relativity. Setting is more likely to occur in the experiential, such as the time of day or season, or weather can be a setting. They experience things in the small space of their limited life’s context, in a room, in a park, or in the enormous realm of their imagination. Therefore, providing "cues" from the average child of one’s audience’ existence allows the child reader to "recognize likenesses and to discriminate differences;" to use setting as a contextual reference point. By providing these "cues," an author supports the child reader’s initial understanding and aids in their development.
In "Writing Picture Books," Ann Whitford Paul states that, "You don’t have to set the scene with long and lovely descriptions" (Paul, 71). In her example, instead of painting the color of the barn and surrounding it with a "picket fence," she shows that by simply introducing her character by his profession, "Farmer Jack," she has created the image of a farm in the readers mind. The color of the barn and the picket fence are not essential to the story itself. Eliminating those constraints gives room for the child’s relativistic comprehension of where a farmer works. This provides the young reader the necessary "cue" to something they can comfortably relate it to. It has the added benefit of providing the illustrator open fields to plow her own professional creativity.
But, according to Paul, picture book text should "focus on the action and dialogue." Paul states, "Descriptions, unless vital to your story, should all be eliminated" (9). If setting is only to serve the forward momentum of picture book text, then when is it necessary to the story?
In John Burningham’s author illustrated "Mr. Gumpy," only two pages of the thirty-one page work includes textual references to setting that provide cultural "cues" for the story’s narrative arc. The setting is introduced on page two, "Mr. Gumpy owned a boat and his house was by a river" (Burningham, 2). The boat is the catalyst for the ensuing action as he punts down the river taking on passengers with the fatal caveat that they leave their intrinsic behaviors onshore. The inclusion of the house does not become clear until page twenty-six while the action all takes place upon the river. After the boat tips over due to the children and animals reverting back to their normal behavior, they "all swam to the bank and climbed out to dry in the hot sun." In this line, the inclusion of a setting is key to the action. This is followed by a "walk home across the fields" to imbibe in that ever so important English comfort ritual, "tea" at the aforementioned house. Many an English child is keenly aware of the traditional time of day "tea" or snacks will be served. After Burningham’s characters had taken an unexpected dip in the river, the comfort of being able to dry-off in un-customarily dry weather and have snacks makes the dunking all right. Every aspect of setting is neatly tied into the action and has a cultural relevance for the period it was written.
"Mr. Gumpy’s Outing" won England’s Kate Greenway Medal in 1970, making Mr. Burningham the only author to have won this prestigious award twice up until then. That this is a full concept work with an accomplished author-illustrator shows in its deft balance of relational time and comfort concepts in setting for his known audience. Additionally, the setting in this work was essential to the forward momentum of the narrative.
In Arthur Dorros’ "Abuela," the setting is intrinsic to the story, but Dorros manages to keep any terms spare and descriptions on a need-to-know basis while integrating setting into action and providing plenty of "cues" for his young readers. On the first page "bus" and "city" provides place and transport for his main characters, Rosalba, and her "abuela" or grandmother, with "cues" that allow a child to conjure an initial relationship with the setting. On the following page, the reader learns their destination is a "park," another generic, child-friendly setting that is easy to relate to. It is important to note that Dorros’ uses passive descriptive language for the benefit of the bilingual dialogue of the text. For instance, on page two the grandmother says, "El parque es lindo," to which the little girl narrator thinks, "the park is beautiful too."
Dorros’ focus remains on specific textual setting components that provide a relational concept for a child, such as on the next page when, "a flock of birds surrounds us." The birds provide the entrée for the main action, flight, and a series of city settings viewed from their bird’s eye perspective as on page four they, "leap into the sky...skirt flapping in the wind." The reader needs to make the leap into this perspective to enjoy the action. The "skirt flapping" and "wind" are extraneous to the action but provide a beautiful metaphor to the action of a bird’s wings and help the child’s imagination lift these characters off the ground. In this manner, the author provides a familiar visual "cue" that the child reader is likely to have experienced, birds, before introducing the more abstract concept of humans flying. Dorros’ laid a platform for his reader to "recognize likenesses and to discriminate differences" (Jersild, 441).
From the main characters’ viewpoint soaring above the city they see "parks and streets, dogs and people...factories and trains...and glide close to the sea," where they almost "touch the tops of waves" and "race with sailboats." They "fly to where ships are docked, and watch people unload fruits." Each of the words chosen to describe these scenes is generic, nonspecific, and provides a "cue" of images allowing the average child to conjure up a relatable concept.
It is not until page eighteen when they fly over a specific setting element, the Statue of Liberty, that this story is taking place in New York City is absolutely clear. But New York is never named, it doesn’t need to be. The adult reader will immediately know the relevance of the Statue of Liberty to immigrants of the United States.
Dorros and Burningham provide the relevant details as they are needed, eliminating unnecessary textual references while providing settings with visual "cues" for the child reader. This leaves room for children to create their own concepts based on their life experience while comfortably expanding their world view. The inclusion of setting within the text is best used to the benefit of the forward momentum of the text, but to do so most effectively requires language and visual "cues" that the young audience has experienced.
Burningham, John. Mr. Gumpy’s Outing. New York; Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. Print.
Dorros, Arthur and Elisa Kleven, il. Abuela. New York; Dutton, 1991. Print.
Jersild, Arthur T. Child Psychology; Sixth Edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ; Prentice-Hall, 1968.
Krauss, Ruth and Crockett Johnson, il. The Carrot Seed. New York; Harper & Row, 1945. Print.
McClanahan, Rebecca. Word Painting; A Guide to Writing Descriptively. Cincinnati, OH;
Writer’s Digest, 1999. Print.
Paul, Ann Whitford. Writing Picture Books. Cincinnati, OH; Writer’s Digest, 2009. Print.
Quattlebaum, Mary, and Leonid Gore, il. Sparks Fly High: The Legend of the Dancing Point.
New York; Melanie Kroupa Books, 2006.
Rust, M.M. The Growth of Children’s Concepts of Time, Space, and Magnitude. New York;
Teacher’s College, Columbia University. Unpublished - reproduced by permission.