Although the illustrations in picturebooks have been a subject of scholarly inquiry for years, often with an interest in attempting to understand how they work or create meaning, few have attempted to look at particular visual motifs as cultural products and drivers. In taking a material culture approach in combination with semiotic theories, this study explored how images of houses in picturebooks reflect themes of innovation and tradition in comparison with children's depictions of houses in their artwork. These images reveal how American culture considers the house through its representations of it while suggesting new ideas of how pictures work to convey meaning.
This study took a mixed methods approach, combining qualitative and quantitative analysis of the images to triangulate observations about: a) how houses are depicted in picturebooks; b) how the patterns of house depiction in picturebooks correlated to children's drawings; and c) how illustrators and children innovated in their depictions of houses. The data collected included a random sample of 110 picturebooks that depicted houses and 84 drawings created by 39 children ages 4 to 8. Each child was asked to first "draw a house" and then "design a house" in an uninhibited manner in order to assess how they innovated. The data was analyzed using a combination of a priori categories as the result of a pilot study and categories developed using grounded theory. Basic inference tests helped describe the features of both sets of data.
The findings identified nine patterns, each with their own conventions of house depiction (iconic, tall, simple, square, urban, neighborhood, haunted, castle, and tree), as well as other characteristics of house depiction: text/picture differences, location within the book, number, variety, criterial aspects, role of the house, and reflections of the American Dream. The patterns found in children's drawings diverged from those of illustrators along the lines of pattern featured and other characteristics but only to a moderate extent. The children's creative processes suggested that drawing is a social process influenced through both verbal and visual interactions. Nontraditional shapes and decorative elements were the most common techniques for innovation. However, production practices also appeared to play a role in innovation.
This study concluded that ways of depicting houses are conventional, most commonly following patterns that depict houses as small and simple, and include conservative ideas of dwellings. Although both children and illustrators depict houses as icons, illustrations reflect greater variety fostered by experience and skill. Illustrators occasionally include elements of realism but often choose a symbolic representation that correlates with children's drawings. However, both groups are limited by the need to communicate, discouraging innovation. Thus innovation is generally superficial, timid, or merely a substitution of a different building type. This could be improved through exposure to nontraditional houses, additional instruction in observational drawing, and using means of indicating "houseness" other than criterial aspects. Increasing innovation in both depictions and conceptions of houses would better prepare future generations to meet the challenges of providing housing creatively.