Word and image
Word and image

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Word and image

3.5 Picturebooks and multimodality

There are many modern picturebooks where the images assume a central role in telling the story and creating the central meaning(s) of the narrative. This is achieved in a variety of ways. Images are often wholly integrated with the words, and layout, image and typography are inextricably intertwined. An example of this is shown in Figure 12, taken from a children's story by Sarah Fanelli, about a butterfly who lacks the confidence to fly. She travels around asking the world's flying experts for help – in the extract, she has partial success in Italy, before leaving for Paris. Among the many meaningful visual and verbal elements here, you could consider the following. On the first page:

  • the signs which connote Italy and ‘Italianness’: Italian words (via aerea, farfalla – on Butterfly's purple wing); the buff-coloured wings with geometric drawings, reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's diagrams;

  • the layout showing Butterfly taking off towards the right (like the NASA aeroplane poem, in Figure 5).

On the second page:

  • the signs connoting ‘Frenchness’: the red, white and blue of the French flag; the French words; the Eiffel Tower;

  • the layout of the words, reflecting Butterfly's descent to the ground in Paris.

On both pages, note that Butterfly's body is constructed of letterforms. A variety of backgrounds are used, most notably the ‘graph paper’ done in blue, perhaps connoting ‘design’ or ‘technology’ to echo the design of her mechanical wings by Leonardo in Italy.

Figure 12
Figure 12: First Flight, Sarah Faneli

Another visual device for narration is the cartoon format. Usually, cartoons use the left-to-right reading path of English prose (although this directionality can be violated to particular effect).

Activity 5: The cartoon format as narrative device

Timing: 0 hours 30 minutes
Figure 13
Figure 13: Ethel and Ernest, Raymond Briggs

Look at the double page spread taken from Raymond Briggs' story of the life of his parents, Ethel and Ernest (Figure 14). The book – written primarily for an adult audience due to its subject matter – is an affectionate narration of the lives of the author's parents, from their early adulthood in the late 1920s when they met, through the birth of their son, the trials of living through the Second World War and their later life. The book ends with their deaths, within a year of one another, in the early 1970s. As you read, consider the following questions:

  • Why do you think the author chose the cartoon format for his story?

  • What elements of the visual and verbal text seem to you significant, and why? In other words, what are the signs and what do they connote?


The multiple signs – and therefore the possible range of interpretations – are complex. The text uses a fairly conventional cartoon format in some ways – scenes are depicted in a series of frames which are read from left to right, speech bubbles are connected graphically to the speaker or laid out in columns, so that the reader can attribute one part of the conversation to the man and the other to the woman. Emphasis and intonation are conveyed through large, bold type and capitalisation (and of course exclamation marks and ‘spiky’ speech bubbles). The fact that this cartoon is so carefully hand-drawn made me wonder if this has semiotic significance – the care and attention to detail evident in its production seem to add to the overall meaning of the book, as a ‘homage’ to the author's parents. The writing, too, seems genuinely handwritten rather than produced with a computer-generated cursive font. You may well, in your reading, have found other details more salient, such as the use of colour, perspective, and the details of the couple's clothing and car.


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