Torn Paper Collage Illustrations in Children’s Nonfiction

Our family visited an exhibit of botanical art at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix last week. There was a heavy emphasis on scientific accuracy in all the incredible illustrations, which you can see by going to the member’s gallery
at the American Society of Botanical Illustrator’s website and clicking on any of the artists’ names.

Seeing these works made me think of the illustrations in a couple of children’s nonfiction books I had seen lately: How an Egg Grows Into a Chicken by Tanya Kant and Carolyn Franklin (Illustrator), and Life in a Coral Reef (Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2) by Wendy Pfeffer and Steve Jenkins.
In both cases the illustrators choose to use torn paper collage. This is a lovely and artistically interesting technique, but I’m afraid that the details and accuracy are lost somewhat. For example, in the first book the torn paper eggs look rough and irregular, not really egg-like at all. In the second book, one of the illustrations looked like it was composed of leftover dots from a hole punch. To paraphrase a famous comedian, if it looks like anyone off the street could have done it, it probably isn’t great art.

As a person interested in art, I like the unusual look and neat texture of torn paper collage in other contexts. As a scientist, I am worried that a child will not get as much out of a book with illustrations that are confusing, lack definition or are flat out unrealistic, especially when there are so many really good books out there with scientifically-accurate illustrations or fantastic photographs.

What do you think of this trend? Are torn paper collages useful or over used?

How an Egg Grows Into a Chicken
Tanya Kant and Carolyn Franklin (Illustrator)

Reading level: Ages 4-8
Paperback: 32 pages
Publisher: Children’s Press(CT) (September 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0531238016
ISBN-13: 978-0531238011

Life in a Coral Reef (Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2)
Wendy Pfeffer and Steve Jenkins

Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover: 40 pages
Publisher: Collins (September 1, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0060295538
ISBN-13: 978-0060295530
Product Dimensions: 10 x 8.1 x 0.4 inches


Nonfiction Monday is a blogging celebration of nonfiction books for kids. For more information, stop by Picture Book of the Day. This week’s post is at Practically Paradise

2 Replies to “Torn Paper Collage Illustrations in Children’s Nonfiction”

  1. I guess my answer is it depends on who the artist is. I generally find Steve Jenkins work to be beautifully done and am often amazed at the depth and precision he achieves. I don’t have the CORAL REEF book at home, but it is in my collection, so I’ll need to look for it.

    The other response I have to this issue is that sometimes kids get tired of photographs and need the variety provided by illustrations. My son is almost 9 and right now he’s reading a book on snakes. He has several with photographs, but the one he’s engrossed in now is illustrated.

    Sorry for rambling. This is an interesting question that I don’t have a real answer to, but will need to think more about. Thanks for raising it.

  2. I confess I shouldn’t have included Steve Jenkins because he actually cuts the paper. In his Living Color book, the illustrations are crisp and I can identify a sea urchin as a sea urchin right away.

    I was actually more concerned about how concrete an illustration is versus abstract. This is an issue I am struggling with because I know in math that children are not supposed to comprehend the abstract concepts of algebra until they are around 12. In science, some early skills to teach are classification (sorting). Do the illustrations need to be concrete to develop that skill? That’s what I’m wondering.

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