I’ve spoken before about how much I love Clara Vulliamy’s skill with picture books. She’s got an awareness and respect – and love – for the medium that translates into some very good and very smart books. It was with some excitement when I discovered Ellen and Penguin and the New Baby nestling on the bottom shelves of my library.
Ellen and Penguin and the New Baby is a very sensitive and charming book that is practically a lesson in frames and composition. So I thought I’d share some of that with you by looking at how Ellen is treated throughout the book.
The opening double page spread is our introduction to Ellen and the book. The text is as follows: L) “Ellen had a new baby brother” R) “Penguin wasn’t sure if he liked new baby brother much”. And this is where it started to hit me, that thing about composition and framing. Look at that picture of Ellen on the right hand side. Look at the way she’s almost imperceptibly closer to the right hand side of the page. And look at how she’s bursting out of the page. What do we gain from this? We learn that it’s not Penguin who isn’t sure – it’s Ellen. We learn that she is an exuberant character because even the frame of the image, the frame that is contentedly unbroken around her baby brother, cannot contain her. And we learn that there is a world of difference between her and her baby brother. He looks out towards the reader, forcing an eyeline connection, whilst Ellen glances warily across at him.
This is what I mean when I talk about picture books inculcating a visual literacy. If you read the text and solely the text which displaces the emotions onto Penguin, you’d think it was a story about Penguin. But it’s not. It’s a story about Ellen and her not quite knowing how to act around this thing that has come into her life, her unease and wariness and nervousness around this tiny baby brother. And all of that’s on this spread, right here.
I fell in love with the following spread (Fig 2) because it reinforces that ‘bigness’ of this apparently small and simple narrative. The text reads: L) “Everywhere Ellen and Penguin went,” R) “the baby came too”. The thing to love about this spread is Ellen, yet again, and the use of frames and white space. In the first image Ellen is swinging out of the frame. She’s broken the boundary of the page. She’s caught, mid swing, with the intimation that she’s got more to go. She’s only just begun. Her face is that mixture of nerves and excitement that come when you swing.
And then in the second image – she’s pulled back. She’s back at the start of her swing, momentum gone, her feet being tucked back inside the frame. She’s being controlled again by the image, made to conform to the rules that come with having a new baby brother. And talking of that baby brother – he’s here. Suddenly the image isn’t just Ellen – it’s him as well. She’s having to share an almost equal split with him.
There’s another moment in the book that struck me and it’s in Fig 3. On the previous page, Ellen’s old mobile has just been given to the baby: “The baby was given Ellen’s old mobile / with the woolly sheep hanging down” (I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned it, but when I use a slash in a section where I’m quoting something, it is to indicate a line break. So now you know).
What’s happening in Fig 3 is the biggest incursion into the white space yet. The text reads: ” “Penguin’s cross,” said Ellen. / “He likes that mobile.” “. See here how the book can barely contain Ellen. She’s so very cross ; she’s spilling out out of the boundaries of the frame and storming towards the page turn. Everything about this is wanting you to turn the page. The way her toys fall towards it, the way her body is mid-stomp towards it, but the way Ellen’s turned back, wanting to be noticed, wanting to be valued like she was before adds a whole new level to the piece.
There’s also such a sense of trapped motion here in all these highlighted moments. Ellen is a child who seems to thrive on being able to DO and to BE and she – just – can’t. Not now. Not when she doesn’t know how to be.
These are all images and visual tensions which are resolved in the final pages. If you’re wary of spoilers look away now.
In Figure 4, one of the final images,, Ellen is dancing “round and round” with Penguin. Compare this with Figure 1. Here Ellen is the frame, she’s bright and vivid and dominating it wholly. But she’s dominating it in a positive manner – she’s not escaping any visual lines (thereby constraints) and she’s not doing it by leaving anyone in the background of the image. She’s doing it by being Ellen – and by being her properly.
It’s lovely. I really like Vulliamy’s work, it gives me so much to look and to see and to ‘interrogate’ (though that’s really not quite the best word at this juncture, it is all I can come up with!). I’d really reccommend her as one of the authors you use if you’re wanting to introduce yourself to picture books and to the sheer potential and power of what they can achieve.