Targeted at older children, Sophisticated picture books weave words and pictures to tell a story.
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:
- is written for older or mature readers
- deals with realistic issues and concepts beyond the comprehension of younger readers
- uses illustrations to portray information not provided by the text
- uses challenging or complex artwork and varied design layouts
- demonstrates a high level of integration of text and visual features
- develops non traditional structures (plot, characters and settings) to challenge the reader's expectations
- is multilayered, portraying several levels of meaning or multiple narratives
- contains subtlety of meaning that may be lost with younger readers
- challenges the reader to go beyond the story
- challenges and engages the reader in new and different ways to construct meaning
- uses powerful, rich, creative text and literary devices such as metaphor or satire
- makes inter-textual references requiring readers to make connections to other books or knowledge to enhance understanding of the 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
- visual arts: static images
- literature: retelling of traditional stories
- history: biographies, events, war
- geography: social issues such as immigration, prejudice, refugees, child separation, gangs, urban development, alienation, homelessness
- science: conservation, environmental issues
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
The Literacy Learning Progressions contain many references to the use of visual language features to enhance student understanding of text across all levels, including:
- using visual language features to support their understanding of ideas and information in the text (by the end of Year 4)
- interpreting illustrations (by the end of Year 6)
- inferring ideas and information not directly stated in the text (by the end of Year 6)
- interpreting complex plots and sophisticated themes (by the end of Year 8)
Sophisticated picture books and NCEA
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.
Sophisticated picture books and multiliteracies
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)
Suggested classroom activities
Here are some ways that you can use sophisticated picture books in the classroom, at upper primary or at secondary school level:
- As a stimulating introduction to a new topic or context. Difficult topics can be presented in a format that is meaningful and accessible to all students. For example, nuclear fallout as dealt with in When the wind blows, by Raymond Briggs.
- As a springboard for creative writing. Read the illustrations and write your own text, or write an alternative ending. Wordless picture books are particularly useful for this. For example, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg has fourteen black-and-white drawings with only captions. They inspire the imagination and entice readers to make up their own stories. What a great way to stimulate creative writing.
- Use with ESOL students. The visual features enhance the reader’s understanding of the text. ESOL students can use them to good effect because the level of content is age appropriate and these books are normalised in the classroom. They are also a useful adjunct to the classroom writing programme with students writing their own text. This could be oral, in their first language, or with subsequent translations into English.
- As a read aloud. Hearing a good story read aloud by an enthusiastic teacher or school librarian can pique a student’s interest. The adult reader’s enthusiasm for reading and the book can be contagious and their role in setting the context for the book is important. Sophisticated picture books are short enough to be read in entirety in one period with sufficient time for follow up discussion. They need to be read and re-read, with each reading revealing different layers of meaning. More information is in the section Creating Readers: Reading aloud.
- Write or develop a musical interpretation or sound track to accompany a narration of the story.
- Retell traditional stories, in particular fractured fairy stories. These can be compared and contrasted with the originals.
- Sophisticated picture books are ideal resources for literature circles and guided group discussion, as their content and presentation leads to differing interpretations.
- Independent reading: the freedom for students to choose their own reading is an important factor in cultivating a positive classroom reading culture.
- For further ideas about classroom strategies go to classroom strategies.
- Many author and publisher websites include very useful teaching notes. For some examples of these see the attached list of recommended sophisticated picture book authors and illustrators.
Here are some tips and guiding questions for teachers and librarians:
- Read the sophisticated picture book through once to relax and enjoy.
- Read it again looking more closely at the narrative.
- Read it again looking more closely at the visual features.
- What ideas, emotions, atmospheres are being conveyed?
- How do the text and visual features work together to tell the story?
- What is the context in which the story is set?
- What prior knowledge do I need to fully understand the story?
- What are the author’s intentions in writing it? What are the messages?
- What is NOT being said?
- How is the story structured?
- How does this book challenge the usual or traditional way of story telling?
- How am I as a reader involved in interpreting the story?
- What are the differences or similarities between the beginning and the ending?
- Is the cover of the book important?
- Is there an online version that I can compare and contrast with the print version?
Sophisticated picture books and visual language features
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:
- Colour: intensity and shading
- Shape, size, scale and perspective of images
- Hidden images
- Placement and shaping of the image on the page
- Use of frames, no frames, multiple frames, breaking the frame
- Use of white space
- Font style and placement of text
- Motifs and symbols
Through the explicit teaching of these techniques, students can be guided to think critically by responding to the following questions:
- Why do you think the artist has used this technique?
- What difference does this technique make to your understanding of the text, or to your emotional response to the story?
- What is the author or artist telling us about a particular character or situation?
- What associations are created in your own imagination through 'reading' the pictures?
- What is the relationship between the image and the text?
Recommended sophisticated picture book authors and illustrators for your school library
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.'
Searching for sophisticated picture books in the National Library collection
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:
- Select 'Keyword relevance' from the search menu options, and enter the term "sophisticated picture book" in speech marks in the search box (NB: 'book' is singular)
- This search will pick up your search term in the short annotation wherever it appears in a catalogue record
- It can sometimes be difficult to determine whether a picture book is “sophisticated.” This list can provide you with some guidance
- This is also a useful search to identify possible gaps in your schools sophisticated picture book collection and to identify titles that you would like to explore further. For example, sorting the results by ‘Earliest year first’ will provide you with a guide to some of the now classic titles - while sorting by 'latest year first' will bring up the most recently published titles that have been added to the collection.
2. To find works by a specific sophisticated picture book author
- If you don't know the name of a sophisticated picture book author, first do the keyword search outlined above.
- Once you have selected the author whose body of work you want to explore, do an 'author' search using the search options menu, and enter the author's name in the search box, surname first.
- This will bring up the range of titles held in the National Library collection by this author, and is useful for anyone intending to do an indepth study of an author's work.
3. To find sophisticated picture books on a specific topic
- Search for your specific topic, for example 'war' and include the term 'sophisticated' in the search box
- Select keyword relevance from the search options
- This is a useful search strategy when looking for sophisticated picture books with a specific curriculum focus.
Requesting sophisticated picture book titles or collections from the National Library
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:
- Use the Curriculum Services online request form to request resources
- Phone or visit your local National Library Centre
Read reviews of the latest sophisticated picture books in our Create Readers blog
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.
- Collaboration: It is essential that library staff and teaching staff work collaboratively when selecting material. Discussions that take place during this process are essential to ensure that all resources, including ebooks, are chosen to support the curriculum and students' reading interests.
- Curriculum links: Sophisticated picture books cover all areas of the curriculum and all class levels.
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.
- Use ‘sophisticated picture book’ in the 'Type' field. This identifies all your sophisticated book titles and is useful for collection management and collection development purposes.
- Include any reference to the availability of teaching notes in your catalogue records and/or hypertext links to a website about the author.
- Titles with senior content or challenging issues may not be suitable for your younger readers and may require a warning of some description. This could be an alert at the issue desk or an alert on the book itself. Also include a reference to the alert in the catalogue record.
- Ensure all your sophisticated picture books are clearly labelled as such, to distinguish them from your main picture book collection.
- Ensure you are consistent about placement of the label, for example top left-hand corner of the front cover. This will make both shelving and identification easier, especially where face-out shelving or browser bins are used for your picture book collections.
- Shelve separately. Sophisticated picture books are viewed as a collection in their own right and should be shelved separately from the picture book collection.
- Face-out shelving is recommended for this genre. The book covers are on display, creating their own focal point.
- For more examples see the School libraries galleries on this website.
- All areas of the library collection, including sophisticated picture books, need to be actively and regularly promoted.
- Sophisticated picture books are particularly rewarding and lend themselves perfectly to imaginative and fun promotional activities
- See the attached story from Fendalton School, Christchurch (PDF), that shows how one school librarian collaborates with the teachers at her school to promote the use of sophisticated picture books, as well as using online tools such as book trailers as promotion tools.
Sophisticated picture books, in summary, are able to offer many advantages, including:
- A seamless transition of the picture book as a valid literary form throughout schooling and beyond
- An invitation to discussion and reader participation in creating meaning
- Short format makes it easier to grasp concepts in a shorter time frame
- Less threatening for use for students who may be English Language Learners (ELL) or reluctant readers since the images give contextual clues
- Can be used to provoke and engage learners, and to encourage critical reflection
- With multiple layers of meaning they can be used in mixed class groups and across different levels
- They are FUN!
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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.