When Purple Means Anger: Mood and Color in David Shannon's Art

Book Links: April/May 2001 (v.10, no.5)

by Sara McLaughlin

Sharing picture books with children is an important tool in developing their sense of story, and focusing on the ways in which illustrations and other artistic elements of a book work together with the text can create a deeper appreciation of any book-for teacher and student alike. Most children are already adept at recognizing details within a picture and understanding how a picture relates to the plot of the story. A picture can contribute much more to a book than merely illustrate what is happening, however. But children may need help in learning to see the ways that a picture can relate to other elements of the story besides the plot. They may intuitively understand that a picture can convey a mood, reinforce a character, or foreshadow a plot development, but not know how it does so. Similarly, they may need assistance in learning to recognize other visual clues within a book that also contribute to its effectiveness. But before we can teach these skills to children, we must be able to apply them ourselves. Looking at David Shannon's work as author-illustrator in this light can be especially rewarding because of the way he tailors each of his books to its particular audience, and the style of illustration to the story. Of all the visual elements that can be found in his illustrations, perhaps the most notable is his use of color as a stylistic device. He consistently uses color to convey the mood and tone of the story, to emphasize character development, and to enhance the plot.

How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball

How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball a boy defeats a Big Brother-like villain named Boss Swaggert, who is obsessed with wiping baseball off the face of the earth. On the front cover, muddy and somber grays and blacks are used to depict the wintry urban setting as well as to foretell the pessimistic mood of the story's beginning. The dark gray-blue used for the front endpapers, and again on both the title page and preface page, reinforces this bleakness. The back endpapers use the same gray-blue hue, but in a subtly lighter shade that reinforces both the carefree mood of the final picture and the story's happy ending.

Georgie's role in the story is obvious from the book's title; however, other visual clues foreshadow and reinforce his significance. When we first see him on the cover, his gold-colored cap is luminous and the point-of-view elevates him slightly. The larger-than-life, snow-covered baseball that is spotlighted in a beam of sunlight on the title page is another hint that his actions will be heroic and legendary. When we see him for the first time in the story itself, his gold cap frames his face almost as a halo would. And when the sun breaks through the clouds after he strikes Swaggert out, it reflects off his cap as if Georgie himself were the source of the world's brightness-and as baseball's savior, he is certainly the source of the country's newfound joy.

As the story moves from pessimism to optimism, the overall palette changes from dark to bright, reinforcing the transition. This shift in intensity is most notable when Georgie's pitching showdown against Boss Swaggert begins against a snowy sky, still gray but brightening. The diagonal lines that lead the eye from left to right in this picture, and that are broken only by Georgie's figure, are both clues to the heightening tension of the plot. And when Boss Swaggert strikes out explosively, the vivid gold background (the same gold as that of Georgie's cap) intensifies the climactic moment. Finally, the bright blue sky of the final picture confirms that indeed all is now right with the world, a happy ending that is foretold in the small horizontal vignette that tops the story's beginning.

No, David!

The color palette used on the cover of
No, David! gives us several clues about the story to come. The energetic bright orange and chartreuse green wall foretells the exuberant mood of the story. The dynamic color scheme is carried through the endpapers and onto the title page, where the depiction of David's mother, who is drawn so large that we see her only from the midriff down, establishes the story's point of view. Throughout the book, background color reinforces David's shifting moods-the purple wall that he walks past as he is being sent to his room matches the mood of his scowling face perfectly; the vivid yellow of his bedroom wall in the next picture reflects his intense satisfaction in jumping wildly on his bed; and when his mother invites him, "Davey, come here," the warm blue that frames his upstretched arms reinforces his need to be comforted and at the same time foreshadows the satisfaction of his mother's encircling hug that ends the story.

From the cover illustration alone, there is much that we can predict about both David's character and his impact on the story to come. His cheeks are flushed with the same vivid orange of the wall, enhancing his fevered expression and suggesting the strength of his personality. David's importance to the story is further emphasized when we see that the title itself is a response to his mischievous attempts to reach the fish bowl, whose bright blue color helps focus our attention on the mishap about to happen. It isn't difficult to predict that this will be a character-driven story. As the story progresses and David's antics become increasingly frenzied, his physical size and placement within the illustrations consistently become more and more pronounced, culminating in double-page spreads that are completely taken up by his face.

No, David! offers an especially good opportunity to reinforce younger children's abilities to recognize visual elements that foreshadow plot developments. The copyright page shows a crayon-scribbled wall that extends onto the first page of the story, crayon marks and all, where we see David busy at work with his crayons writing out the book's title on his wall - a strong clue that his misbehavior will drive the plot. Likewise, cause and effect are readily apparent as we witness the sequence of David playing with his food and chewing with his mouth agape. When he sulks to his room after being sent away from the table, his blankie in tow, he passes the televised image of a flying superhero, and we can easily predict how he will choose to entertain himself while banished to his bedroom. And when he is warned to put his toys away, his baseball and bat are featured prominently in the foreground, making it easy to guess what his next exploit will be. When we see him attempting to play ball in a room that contains almost nothing that isn't breakable, the outcome is virtually assured, and again we aren't surprised to see a tearful David sitting in the corner next to the broken vase.

David Goes to School

David Goes to School with its predecessor,
No, David!, offers an interesting opportunity to consider how visual clues are used in the second book to show David's growing maturity as he begins to learn to be a member of a school community. Although David's behavior once again elicits the book's text, placing him in a school setting surrounded by other children reinforces the fact that his world is expanding. Likewise, showing the text as hand-printed in upper- and lowercase characters that children use, and on familiar double-lined paper, highlights how much he is learning while also drawing the child reader into the story. The shapes David sees in the clouds as he daydreams out the window and the doodles he scribbles on his desk show us that his imagination is as lively as ever. When he blurts out an answer without raising his hand or interrupts reading time by drumming on his book, we know that this is the same irrepressible character. And when he cuts in front of his classmates in the cafeteria line, the pride in his face and posture suggest that once again his actions are having an unintended effect. Both books use a warm blue hue to reinforce their respective happy endings; however, the final illustrations in the books are quite different. When David has completed his after-school chores, he exuberantly runs down the sidewalk to join his waiting friends-a final clue that his world is indeed expanding beyond the security of home that we see in the first story. Children, especially first- or second-graders reflecting on their own first days of school, will easily recognize the challenges David is facing.

These are just a few of the ways that elements of visual literacy can be explored within the context of a picture book. This discussion has focused on Shannon's use of color in three books that he wrote and illustrated; however, each of these books offers other opportunities for discovery in addition to those that have been explored here. Artistic elements such as shape and line, for example, create movement and energy within these illustrations. Shannon uses shape to help the reader realize the significance of the picture. Similarly, he uses line to help draw the reader's eye across the page, building anticipation of the next plot development. Where he places his figures within the picture is another device that can give the reader clues about point of view and character development.

Children, while listening to a teacher or librarian read a picture book to them, have the luxury of being able to concentrate on the illustrations. It's a common phenomenon that we've probably all experienced-a child excitedly pointing out a detail within a picture that we, as adults, may have overlooked. Sometimes that detail may have a special significance; other times it may not. The important thing to keep in mind is that it really doesn't matter whether or not the significance is real or imagined, whether it is intentional or serendipitous. What does matter is that the appreciation of that detail can be one more important step toward literacy for the child. What children might think of as guessing is really visual interpretation of cues the artist has provided. Finally, just as children enjoy exploring the ways that pictures and text reinforce each other, they also enjoy learning the vocabulary of a book. Talking about how the endpapers, title and dedication pages, and cover illustrations contribute to a book's story is empowering to children. Taking the time to notice large and small details can add a much deeper appreciation of a book's qualities for adult and child alike. Not to mention that it's fun!

Questions for Discussion

  • What observations can children make about the personalities of each of the main characters just by looking at their depictions on the covers of the books? Similarly, what do the cover illustrations reveal about the mood of the stories? What other guesses can children make about the story to come?
  • In Georgie Radbourn, Shannon intersperses three double-page-spread illustrations among single-page illustrations. Consider why he chose to insert them where he did. How do they relate to the plot of the story?
  • Ask students to consider when
    Georgie Radbourn took place. Is it in the past, the present, or the future? What clues can they find in the pictures that support each of these possibilities?
  • Unlike many of Shannon's books, the illustrations in
    No, David! and
    David Goes to School are not placed on the page within a frame; rather, they bleed off the edges of the pages. Invite children to consider how this technique suits these stories.
  • Ask students whether they think the David books would have been more or less fun to read if the characters had been drawn in a more realistic style.
  • Often, the illustration chosen for the front cover is one that can be found within the book itself. For each of these three books, however, Shannon has drawn a separate illustration for the cover. What do these particular cover illustrations tell us that a picture from within the book wouldn't? Ask students to select a picture from within the book that they would choose for the cover. Why? What does it tell us about the story to come? Alternatively, with other books, when children notice that "that's the picture on the cover," ponder how that picture represents the story.
  • Invite students to compare these books with books illustrated by Shannon but written by someone else, such as
    The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin (Putnam, 1992),
    Encounter by Jane Yolen (Harcourt, 1992), or
    The Bunyans by Audrey Wood (Scholastic/Blue Sky, 1996). What techniques can they find that are similar? Different?
  • Share Shannon's
    A Bad Case of Stripes with students. Track the ways Camilla Cream's appearance changes as the story progresses. (Look especially at the picture of Camilla becoming "one with her room.") Invite speculation about why her pink hair ribbon is striped in the final picture.

Sampling Shannon

The Amazing Christmas Extravaganza. 1995. 32p. Scholastic/Blue Sky, $15.95 (0-590-48090-1). K-Gr. 2.

A Bad Case of Stripes. 1998. 32p. Scholastic/Blue Sky, $15.95 (0-590-92997-6). K-Gr. 2.

David Goes to School. 1999. 32p. Scholastic/Blue Sky, $14.95 (0-590-48087-1). K-Gr. 2.

How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball. 1994. 32p. Scholastic/Blue Sky, $14.95 (0-590-47410-3); paper, $5.99 (0-590-47411-1).

No, David!. 1998. 32p. Scholastic/Blue Sky, $14.95 (0-590-93002-8). Preschool-Gr. 2.

The Rain Came Down. 2000. 40p. Scholastic/Blue Sky, $15.95 (0-439-05021-9). Preschool-Gr. 2.

Sara McLaughlin is the children's librarian at Baker Demonstration School, affiliated with National-Louis University in Evanston, Illinois. She conducts weekly story-times with Pre-K through first grade students, who consistently query her, "Does this book have a wrap-around cover?" She lives in Wilmette, Illinois.