Sophisticated picture books

Targeted at older children, Sophisticated picture books weave words and pictures to tell a story making them highly effective at engaging students with reading.


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

Sophisticated picture books - defining the genre

A picture book differs from a book with illustrations, as it tells a story using 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 not explicit in the written text. This produces different layers of meaning. Text and illustrations are carefully interwoven to tell the story in a way that the words alone could not.

Aimed at older and more mature readers, there exists a variety of terminology used to refer to this group of books. Depending on the context, 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.

What makes a picture book sophisticated?

Any or many of the following 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
  • integrates text and visual features
  • develops non traditional structures (plot, characters and settings) to challenge the reader's expectations
  • is multilayered, with 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.

Sophisticated picture books and the New Zealand Curriculum

Students used to learning visually in today’s multimedia world relate naturally to picture book format. 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.

Key competencies

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 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.' Sophisticated picture books provide a viable alternative in the study and use of static images. Refer to English Online for more details.

Curriculum connections

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
  • mathematics
  • science: conservation, environmental issues

Sophisticated picture books and reading for pleasure

"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. Providing students with the resources, opportunities, and encouragement for reading for pleasure helps build positive attitudes and habits for lifelong reading.

Many students, although they can read, don't as they find it arduous. Selecting a range of relevant sophisticated picture books is a wonderful way to introduce children and teens to the joys of reading. These books also enrich and extend their language.

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 multiliteracies

The term 'multiliteracy' describes the range of skills and attitudes students need to engage in a multimedia world. Print and e-book format sophisticated picture books are an integral part of this multi-modal world, and an essential tool for your class and reading programmes.

Using sophisticated picture books in the classroom

Multi layered you can use them 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 the teacher and the school librarian.

Ideal to use as a springboard for critical thinking, they can challenge the reader’s traditional expectations of story. These books 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

Ideas for using 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 meaningful and accessible format for 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 14 black-and-white drawings with only captions. They inspire the imagination and entice readers to make up their own stories.
  • 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 one period with sufficient time for follow up discussion. It's best to read and re-read them, as each reading reveals different layers of meaning.
  • 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.

Remember to allow students to choose their own reading. The freedom for independent reading is an important way of cultivating a positive classroom reading culture.

Many author and publisher websites include very useful teaching notes. For examples see the attached list of recommended sophisticated picture book authors and illustrators below.

Read classroom strategies for more ideas.

Read more about using sophisticated picture books in secondary school

Sophisticated picture book interpretation

Tips for teachers and librarians

  • Read it again looking more closely at the narrative.
  • First read the sophisticated picture book through once to relax and enjoy.
  • Read it again looking more closely at the visual features.

Guiding questions

  • 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 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.

Once recognised and understood these features add layers of meaning to the reading of the book. As well as noting the artistic medium chosen (such as collage, photographs, paint), you 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, you can guide students to think critically using 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?

Sophisticated picture books in the school library

Recommended sophisticated picture book authors and illustrators

To create a strong and vibrant sophisticated picture book collection in your school library you need a mix and range 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.

The multi layered nature of sophisticated picture books means many titles in this genre will be suitable for 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.

Sophisticated picture books in the National Library’s collection

The National Library has a large and comprehensive collection of sophisticated picture books. 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.

Look at the entry in the National Library catalogue and check the summary section to see recommended level of a book, or whether the book is a sophisticated picture book.

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 find 'sophisticated picture books for borrowing. To create a list of sophisticated picture book titles, which can then be sorted by year, author, or title just use the search term 'sophisticated picture books'.

To find works by a specific sophisticated picture book author:

  • First do the keyword search for Sophisticated Picture Books.
  • Once you have selected the author, 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.

This is useful for anyone intending to do an indepth study of an author's work.

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.

Read reviews of the latest sophisticated picture books in our Create Readers blog

Read National Library staff reviews of the latest sophisticated picture books. 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.

Managing sophisticated picture books in your school library

The successful management of sophisticated picture books covers five main areas: Selection, Cataloguing, Labelling, Shelving and Promotion.

1. Selection

  • 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.

2. Cataloguing

  • 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.

3. Labelling

  • 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.

4. Shelving

  • 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.

5. Promotion

  • 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

Advantages of using sophisticated picture books

Sophisticated picture books 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!


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. 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).
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.

The International Visual Literacy Association has a comprehensive list of links to educators resources, publications, research, associations and databases.

Image: display of sophisticated picture books from National Library Schools Collection