We are all familiar with picture books for younger children. However, sophisticated picture books open up the genre to older readers, using words and pictures to convey meaning and subtexts.
This section explores the genre of sophisticated picture books, their value in engaging students with reading, and strategies for selecting and using them effectively in classroom programmes.
Sophisticated picture books - defining the genre
What makes a picture book sophisticated?
Sophisticated picture books and the New Zealand Curriculum
Sophisticated picture books and reading for pleasure
Using sophisticated picture books in the classroom
Sophisticated picture book interpretation
Sophisticated picture books in the school library
Sophisticated picture books in the National Library’s collection
Managing sophisticated picture books in your school library
Advantages of using sophisticated picture books
A picture book differs from a book with illustrations in that it is a story told both in words and pictures. A picture book for a young child might use pictures to demonstrate or highlight an aspect of the text. A sophisticated picture book might use additional visual features to provide subtle subtexts and elaborate on ideas that are not made explicit in the written text. This produces different layers of meaning. The text and illustrations are carefully interwoven to tell the story in a way that the words alone could not.
There is a rich and growing field of publishing which focuses on books in picture book format aimed at older and more mature readers. A variety of terminology is used to refer to this group of literature. The terminology chosen depends on the context in which it is used. Alternative headings might be ‘Senior picture books’ or ‘Picture books for young adults’. They may include the specific genres of graphic novels and wordless picture books.
Any or many of the following criteria might apply. The picture book:
Students accustomed to learning visually in today’s multimedia world relate naturally to picture book format. Thus the continued use of sophisticated picture books is a natural progression from early school years into the upper primary and secondary school. Effective use of these books in classroom programmes can contribute towards achievement of a wide range of objectives within the New Zealand Curriculum.
One of the key competencies of the New Zealand Curriculum is ‘using language symbols and texts’:
Students who are competent users of language, symbols and texts can interpret and use words, number, images…in a range of contexts. They recognise how choices of language, symbol and text affect people’s understanding and the ways in which they respond to communications. - New Zealand Curriculum
English is the study, use, and enjoyment of the English language and its literature, communicated orally, visually and in writing, for a range of purposes and audiences and in a variety of text forms. Understanding, using, and creating oral, written and visual texts of increasing complexity is at the heart of English teaching and learning. - English in the New Zealand Curriculum.
The viewing and presenting strands in the English Curriculum, refer to ‘reading visual and dramatic texts, including static and moving images. Many of these static images communicate by combining visual elements with words.’ Thus sophisticated picture books provide a viable alternative in the study and use of static images. Refer to English Online for more details.
The themes of sophisticated picture books cover a wide range of curriculum contexts. Themes might include such things as
Most importantly there is the enjoyment factor. The New Zealand Curriculum states: ‘students will select and read texts for enjoyment and personal fulfilment.’ - English in the New Zealand Curriculum.
As educators, one of our key missions is to create readers. Positive attitudes and habits for lifelong reading are encouraged through providing students with the resources, opportunities, and encouragement for reading for pleasure. Using sophisticated picture books is an effective pathway to reading for students who find it difficult to engage with the continuous and dense text of many novels.
Many students, although they can read, choose not to, finding it arduous. The astute selection of a range of relevant sophisticated picture books is a wonderful way to way to introduce them to the joys of reading. Such books may also be used to reintroduce young adults to the pleasure of reading.
Reading a wide variety of texts across the curriculum is essential to enrich and extend students’ language experiences. Sophisticated picture books are an integral part of their range of reading experiences.
The Literacy Learning Progressions contain many references to the use of visual language features to enhance student understanding of text across all levels, including:
One example of an achievement standard is NCEA English Unit 8823 (Level 2). To achieve this standard the student is required to select and respond to a range of written, visual and oral texts based around a theme. One example which integrates the use of sophisticated picture books might be the theme of persecution and acceptance. Armin Greder’s The Island and Shaun Tan’s The Arrival could be used either alone or in a comparative study on this theme.
The term ‘multiliteracy’ describes the range of skills and attitudes that students need to engage in a multimedia world. Sophisticated picture books, in print and in e-book format, are an integral part of this multi-modal world and are able to be used as an essential tool within classroom programmes.
Sophisticated picture books are multi layered and can be used across all levels. However, some layers of meaning may be lost on junior students, and senior students may need guidance to uncover deeper layers of meaning. This guidance can come from both the teacher and the school librarian. See Sophisticated picture book interpretation, below, for some useful questions to trigger a deeper exploration of image and text.
They are ideal to use as a springboard for critical thinking, as they can challenge the reader’s traditional expectations of story. They look different and are meant to be read differently from traditional picture books.
We want our students to recognize how important their thinking is when they read. It’s our job as teachers to convince students that their thoughts, ideas, and interpretations matter. When readers engage in the text and listen to their inner conversation, they enhance their understanding, build knowledge, and develop insight. - Harvey and Goudvis (2007)
Here are some ways that you can use sophisticated picture books in the classroom, at upper primary or at secondary school level:
Here are some tips and guiding questions for teachers and librarians:
Pictures now do far more work and in far more complex ways than they used to. -Phillip Pullman
In the modern multi-literate world images are no longer used just to entertain and illustrate. They are becoming central to communication and meaning making. Peter Felten
Sophisticated picture books provide ideal examples of many visual language features.
These visual techniques, once recognised and understood, add layers of meaning to the reading of the book. As well as noting the artistic medium chosen (such as collage, photographs, paint), the teacher can direct students’ attention to the effects the artist’s techniques have on their understanding and emotional response to the story. Without direct instruction, students might take these techniques for granted and overlook them. With instruction, the student can be guided to realise their significant contribution to the overall relationship between image and text, and the meanings portrayed.
These techniques might include:
Through the explicit teaching of these techniques, students can be guided to think critically by responding to the following questions:
To create a strong and vibrant sophisticated picture book collection in your school library you need a mix of great titles. Include a selection of relevant titles from the much loved classic sophisticated picture book authors and a larger selection of titles from the exciting new authors emerging in this genre. This mix will ensure you have a great range and balance of titles.
The multi layered nature of sophisticated picture books means many titles in this genre will be suitable for both primary and secondary school libraries. However, teacher or librarian guidance may be advisable with some of the more senior titles, in relation to use among younger audiences.
See the attached Sophisticated Picture Book lists - one gives some of the classics in the genre, and the other some of the latest, published since 2007.
The National Library has a large and comprehensive collection of sophisticated picture books. This includes many classic titles, along with the latest publications. All titles are recommended for school use and can be borrowed by teachers, librarians, home educators and teacher trainees. Check the National Library of New Zealand catalogue for individual titles and authors.
The National Library catalogue can also be used as a tool for collection development, to identify possible gaps in your school’s sophisticated picture book collection.
If you are unsure about the recommended level of a book, or whether the book is a sophisticated picture book another useful guide is to look at the full entry of the title in the National Library catalogue and check the summary section.
For example, here is the summary section from the National library’s catalogue record for Voices in the park by Anthony Browne: ‘Lives briefly intertwine when two youngsters meet in the park. A sophisticated picture book. Suggested level: primary, intermediate.’
You can use the National Library catalogue to locate resources for borrowing and also as an aid to developing your school library collection. Here are some search options you can use.
1. To create a list of sophisticated picture book titles, which can then be sorted by year, author, or title:
2. To find works by a specific sophisticated picture book author
3. To find sophisticated picture books on a specific topic
You can phone, visit or place an online request for resources. For example, you are able to request a selection of the latest sophisticated picture book titles, or a selection of titles by one particular author, or a selection of sophisticated picture books to support a specific curriculum focus. Whatever your need, please:
Read some of the latest sophisticated picture book reviews written by National Library staff . Keep up to date with postings by creating a link from your school library blog to the National Library’s Create Readers blog or use the RSS feed to read the blogpost in your RSS reader.
The successful management of sophisticated picture books covers five main areas: Selection, Cataloguing, Labelling, Shelving and Promotion.
It is during the collaborative selection process that curriculum links are first identified. The librarian can add enormous value by making curriculum links explicit, for example adding curriculum references to catalogue records.
Sophisticated picture books, in summary, are able to offer many advantages, including:
Anstey, M. (March 2002). Its not all black and white: post modern books and new literacies. Journal of adolescent & adult literacy, 45:6.
Benedict, S., & Carlisle, L. Beyond words: picture books for older readers. Heinemann, 1992.
Briggs, R. When the wind blows. Hamish Hamilton, 1982.
Felten, P. Visual literacy. Resource review(PDF). Retrieved October 5, 2011.
Fisher, C. (2009, May 27). Using picture books in the secondary curriculum. Talespinner, p.36-37.
Greder, A. The island. Allen & Unwin, 1987.
Harvey, S., & Goudvis, A. Strategies that work: teaching comprehension to enhance understanding. 2nd edition. Stenhouse, 2007.
Literacy and learning progressions: meeting the reading and writing demands of the curriculum. Learning Media for the Ministry of Education, 2010.
Marsh, D. (2010). The case for picture books in secondary schools (PDF). New Zealand Library and Information Management Journal. Volume 51 Issue No 4 27 –37. Retrieved October 5, 2011.
New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington, N.Z.: Learning Media for the Ministry of Education, 2007.
Riesland, E. Visual Literacy and the classroom (PDF). Retrieved October 5, 2011.
Spandel, V., & Culham, R.An annotated bibliography for use with the 6 trait analytical model of writing assessment and instruction. Portland: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 1994.
Tan, S. The arrival. Melbourne: Lothian Books, 2006.
Van Allsburg, C. The mysteries of Harris Burdick. Andersen Press, 1985.
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