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  • Writer's pictureRuta Saksens Kalmane

A Road Less Travelled: Photography in Children’s Literature

Looking at a children’s literature section in book stores leaves me perplexed: are there any photographically illustrated books for children among the dozens of children books containing graphic illustrations? In short - yes, they do exist, however, photographically illustrated stories for the youngest of readers seem to be a rare find in the sea of children books, especially trying to locate an interactive photographically illustrated book for children is like trying to find a unicorn.

The fact is that although the medium of photography has existed for quite some time now, it has not taken over the shelves of books for young audience, nor has this area been thoroughly investigated among academic scholars. Meanwhile, there are plenty of works done in this area by well-known photographers, from Alexander Rodchenko’s photo-illustrations and Edward Steichen’s photographs of everyday objects for babies developed in the 20th century to such contemporary projects as David Robinson’s mushroom luminograms of Penny Bunn’s adventures, Nancy Rose’s constructed reality of Mr. Peanut’s daily life, William Wegman’s mixed-media stories with dog characters, and many more.

Rose c.2014. Scenes from the book ‘The Secret Life of Squirrels’

Photography shouldn’t be considered as a medium too complex to digest by young audience. Let’s keep in mind that ‘‘we learn to read visual language, without formal instruction, earlier and more spontaneously than verbal language. Children with modest verbal reading ability can read complex visual images, yet are often presented with only simple, childish ones’’ (Eubanks 1997:33).Reading photographic images just like reading textual information is a skill that can (and should) be trained from an early stage in life. Furthermore, in this path of exploring the web of visual language, accompanying textual messages can come handy in developing creative thinking and establishing links between image and text. Let’s put aside Barthes’s (1977) accusations of all text having a ‘parasitic’ relationship with image and Arnhem’s (1969) bold claim that visual language is superior to words, because it is not as linear, sequential and one dimensional as verbal language, and instead look at these two modes of communication as potential ‘partners’ in creating meaning, equalizing the imbalance of power. David Robinson’s story about Penny Bunn’s adventures, for example, is full with images that have multiple meanings, waiting to be deciphered by its audience, for instance mushroom pieces laid in circles to form a resemblance of eyes in the storybook ‘The Mushroom Picker’ (2012).

Robinson 2012. Luminogram from the book ‘The Mushroom Picker’

Such images that go beyond their primary meanings and finding connections between text and image can motivate children not only to read (which is important for educational purposes, personal development, mental health, as well as social and cognitive development), but also to develop problem-solving skills by establishing links between what we see and what we look at (assuming that Mirzoeff’s (2015) observation is true and we see the world with our brains while we look at the world with our eyes). Having established the importance of exposing young audience to photographic content within books for children, we should further think about spicing it all up and making this content more engaging and more complex by offering interactivity. Children form their perception of the world from experiencing it through all the senses and not only through storing visual information in memory. Most of the photographically illustrated books for children contain flat, two-dimensional photographic images created for the purpose of looking at the content and not experiencing the content, while combining physical interactive elements within a photographically illustrated storybook for children is a way how to challenge the traditional status-quo in the creator-viewer relationship, offering more complex engagement with the content and creating a richer, more nuanced narrative. Although it is not common for photographically illustrated books for children to contain any physical interactive elements and such books are yet to be developed by contemporary photography practitioners, it is worth mentioning that some photographers achieve a ‘dialogue’ between a book and its viewer through inviting a child to find objects from one page in the other, like Andrew Knapp who encourages to find his dog hidden in different scenes and Molly Magnuson who offers to find a particular everyday object among similar ones in the book ‘Baby Loves: A first Book of Favorites’.

Knapp 2017. From the book ‘Let’s Find Momo’

Hence, going down the road less travelled can bring unique results.


1. ARNHEIM, Rudolf. 1969. Visual Thinking. University of California Press: Berkeley.

2. BARTHES, Roland. 1977. Image – Music – Text. London: Fontana.

3. EUBANKS, K. Paula. 1997. ‘Art Is a Visual Language’. Visual Arts Research 23 (1): p. 31-35. University of Illinois Press.

4. MIRZOEFF, Nicholas. 2015. How to See the World. UK: Penguin Random House.

Image references:

1. ROSE, Nancy. c.2014. Scenes from the book ‘The Secret Life of Squirrels’. From Nancy Rose. 2014. ‘The Secret Life of Squirrels’. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

2. ROBINSON, David. 2012. Luminogram from the book ‘The Mushroom Picker’. From David Robinson. 2012. ‘The Mushroom Picker’. London: Violette Editions.

KNAPP, Andrew. 2017. From the book ‘Let’s Find Momo’. From Andrew Knapp. 2017. ‘Let’s Find Momo!’. Quirk Books: Philadelphia.

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