No wonder, then, that after my last post, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role that illustrations play in nonfiction. Of course, pictures can be purely functional. I’m not sure that a picture always can or should “replace a thousand words” but in some instances, pictures are very helpful in making a point or clarifying something – especially in nonfiction books. Imagine, for instance, if we writers had to rely on written instructions alone when we wanted to tell kids how to do an experiment or make an object! That, in itself, should make us value illustrators – and I certainly hope we do.
However, pictures can be so much more than purely functional or even just attractive. They can transform a work of nonfiction in an intangible way. The example I’m thinking of is JUMP! - a biography written and illustrated by Floyd Cooper. This lovely book about Michael Jordan focuses on an incident in Jordan’s childhood. I did make it to the basketball team in my high school, long, long ago, but I can’t say I’ve really kept up with the sport- I rarely watch it (or any other sport for that matter) – and I hardly ever read stories about sports personalities – so it’s unusual for me to rave about a book like JUMP!
It’s not that words aren’t important in JUMP! They certainly are. Cooper’s spare yet beautiful prose kept me smiling throughout the book – it touched just the right chord, it had just the right lilt. The words bounced along ever so smoothly – and if that sounds like a contradiction to you, then think about your favorite basketball player dribbling, passing and shooting, and you’ll know what I mean.
But it was the illustrations that made the book so incredibly special to me. Cooper uses a palette of browns and grays that seem to melt onto the page and transport the reader into another world – a world that seems to be more fantasy than reality. His illustrations confer a dream-like quality onto the pages – they seem not to be made of paper, but rather woven out of some gossamer fairy-tale fabric.
And that special combination – of words rooted in fact and pictures that seem to swirl with magic – makes this one of those very special works of creative nonfiction that brings alive the dream-like quality of life of the sports celebrity whose life it celebrates.