Picture books

Picture books use illustrations, with or without text, to convey stories, which delight and engage children visually, orally and textually.


About picture books
Picture books and vocabulary
Picture books and visual literacy
Wordless picture books
Using picture books in the classroom
Picture book resources

About picture books

“A picture book is a complicated form of collaborative art.” - Karla Kuskin (1998)

Picture books are usually 32 pages, large format with brief text - sometimes wordless. Pictures usually take up most of the space on every page.

They contain at least three elements:

  • what is told with words
  • what is told through the pictures
  • what is conveyed from the combination of both – the integration of verbal and visual art.

Text alone will not carry the story – the author and the illustrator jointly share the responsibility of the book to “work”. Author / illustrator Barbara Cooney says that a picture book is like a necklace with the illustrations being the jewels and the text is the string that holds them all together.

Read Maria Popova's A brief history of Children's Books and the Art of Visual Storytelling in the Atlantic.

Michael Rosen – poet, author, UK Children’s Laureate 2007–9, gives a wonderful, passionate paean to the picture book in his 2007 Patrick Hardy lecture (PDF). Here is an extract:

"I’m talking about - the picture book. There it sits like some massive inflorescence, budding and flowering and reproducing in all its delightful, complex and beautiful ways, all freighted with the same impulse – how to please, intrigue, and amuse young children and their carers and teachers.

And it does this ... in many different ways: visually, orally, textually and in any combinations of all three. Eye and ear are constantly challenged to look and listen here, there and everywhere."

Picture books and vocabulary

How do we learn words?

We learn most effectively through language exposure, and we learn our most interesting vocabulary from books and other print. sources. In the article What reading does for the mind  Ann E. Cunningham and Keith E. Stanovich review studies that compared the number of rare, unusual, interesting words in:

  • written language - from picture books to scientific articles
  • words spoken on television in prime time viewing
  • adult speech - from conversation to courtroom testimony.

Researchers found that the incidence of rare words in picture books was greater than in all of adult conversation (except courtroom testimony). It was also much more than prime-time adult television shows!

Picture books

Picture books and visual literacy

Visual literacy is the connection between seeing and interpreting, and picture books are a fantastic resource to develop this skill.

Whole book approach guide

Use these questions as a guide to draw attention to aspects of the design and illustration that are noteworthy.

  • Jacket: Think of the jacket as a poster for the book and use VTS questions. (See Part 1 of this series)
  • Spine: Does the jacket image wrap around the spine? Consider the lettering.
  • Cover: Is it cloth bound? Embossed? What are the colors? Why?
  • Format: Portrait? Landscape? Square? Shaped? Why?
  • Endpapers: How are they the visual overture for the art in the book?
  • Front Matter: How do these pages ease you into the book?
  • Gutter: How does the artist accommodate or use the gutter between the verso and recto pages?
  • Typography: How are all elements of the book proper arranged on the facing pages? Consider the absence or presence of frames, the use and pacing of double and single spreads, font choices, placement of text and pictures, etc.
  • Medium and Style: How does the artist’s choice and use of medium(s) suit the story? How does the medium generate attention to artistic elements

Wordless picture books

Wordless picture books rely on illustrations alone to tell a story and are a wonderful resource, which allows children to tell the story "in their own words". They encourage children to:

  • read the pictures
  • look at the details
  • follow patterns and sequences
  • explore characterisation
  • work out what is going on and bring their own language to their own version of the story.

ReadWriteThink is the website of the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English. It is a useful resource for lessons using books as mentor texts for classroom activities. For example:

  1. Draw a Story: Stepping from Pictures to Writing
    Students draw a series of pictures that tell a story, including character action, problem and solution. They ‘read’ their story to others, transcribe it into writing, and create an accordion book. Grades K – 1
  2. Applying Question-Answer Relationships to Pictures
    A picture is worth a thousand words. Students are guided in viewing wordless picture books and responding to four different types of questions about the images they see. Grades 3 – 5
  3. Creative Writing Through Wordless Picture Books
    Students are exposed to wordless picture books and begin developing story lines, orally and in writing, using an online, interactive story map. Grades 6 – 8

Wordless picture book lists:

Using picture books in the classroom

Sharing picture books with children leads to amazing conversations. In the best picture books there is a gap between the pictures and the words, a gap that is filled by the child's imagination.
Anthony Browne, Children's Laureate 2009 - 2011

The first stage for using picture books in your classroom literacy programme and to inspire and model writing is to get to know the books. Then the ideas will flow. Searching online for "teaching with picture books" brings up a wealth of resources including:

Picture Book of the Day blog by Anastasia Suen recommends a picture book each day of the week (some days have a special focus such as non-fiction Monday, Poetry Friday). She adds a one or two line plot summary, a short quote from the text (in italics), and a suggested writing activity for one of the six traits of writing.

Download the attached resource for ideas and examples of how you can use picture books to support your writing programme.

Picture books resources

The following represents a small sample of general websites and blogs about picture books.

Specific picture book author and illustrator websites

Try searching for the name of the author or illustrator you are interested in – many have great websites to explore, sometimes with a related blog. Here are a few examples but there are many more. Sometimes well-known books or characters have their "own" website too.

Picture book review sites

There are also a number of excellent sites that review picture books including:

Other Picture book sites

These sites investigate various aspects (including evolution, creation and display) of picture books not covered above:

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