Picture Book Perfection: How to get the Most From a Shared Reading
High quality contemporary picture books are works of art and the best way I know to teach visual literacy and dive deeply into critical thinking and discussion with both the very young, and with tweens and teens. The language in quality picture books is often complex and the storylines sophisticated and thought-provoking. The illustrations extend upon or enhance the text and talented illustrators embed visual literacy elements in their work in order to add meaning making and convey messages. They invite discussion and are perfect when practising ‘reading the visuals’. Careful attention to visual literacy techniques enables readers to become astute consumers and creators of images in an age where we are required to read visuals in all areas of our lives.
Twenty or thirty years ago many picture books illustrations often existed to merely capture and reinforce what was said in the text, though there are examples to the contrary. Many of us have held fast to our pre-conceived notions of picture books formed in our childhood and perhaps not had exposure to the richness of contemporary illustrated texts. The best way to understand, unpack and work with picture books is to read widely from the vast array of picture books available for all ages – from babies to adults.
When I am reading and working with picture books, I always talk about the book as a whole, and follow a similar routine in each picture book session with students from kindergarten to Year Six. Of course, not every picture book reading should be a formal lesson, and, at all times enjoyment of the story should be paramount.
I start most picture book readings with a discussion of the physical features of a book, explicitly pointing parts out and naming them: spine, front cover, back cover, endpapers, authors’ names, illustrator’s name, blurb, title.
We then make predictions about what the text might be about and how the design features help us to form an idea about the book. Questions may include: Look at the cover … did it give you clues about the story? Is the title of the book written on the spine? Why is it written in a certain direction? What do you think of the illustrations in the book? Are they painted? Drawn? Collaged? Photographed? Can you see the endpapers? How do they relate to the story? Is there a photograph of the author and a bio or is this inside the book? Other physical features which can be discussed include: dust jacket, double-page spread, gutter, recto/verso pages. Also consider if there are any unusual design features such as cut pages, pockets, flaps, deckle edges or fore-edge painting. There is no better book, in my opinion, than ‘Parsley Rabbit’s Book About Books’ for talking about the physical features of a book with students from K-3, or even older.
After discussing the physical features of a book, I then hit pause on ‘teachable moments’. The first time I read a book to a child or group of children I believe it is important to read it in one fluid and expressive reading so as not to interrupt the flow of the story. I often begin by saying, ‘I’m going to read you the words in this book now and your job is to listen and also to read the pictures’. In this way I make it clear that reading the visuals is as much part of a picture book as reading the text. On a second and sometimes third (or more) re-reading we will stop along the way and unpack ideas about the intent of the author and illustrator and we might consider if the text and images are telling a different or parallel story and we always mull over how the book makes us feel.
The books below are some of my favourite picture books at the moment. This list is not exhaustive, and the lists in my book ‘Raising Readers’ contain many more ideas.
Click on title links or cover images to purchase or read more.
20 Examples of Picture Book Perfection
(age suitability ranges from babies – young adult – please check suitability for your child)
‘One Tree’ by Christopher Chen and Bruce Whately
‘Collecting Sunshine’ by Rachel Flynn and Tamsin Ainslie
‘Can we Lick the Spoon Now’ by Carol Goess and Tamsin Ainslie
‘One Small Island: The Story of Macquarie Island’ by Alison Lester and Coral Tulloch
‘Wandering Star’ by Natalie Jane Prior and Stephen Michael King
‘Rock Pool Secrets’ by Narelle Oliver
‘When the War is Over’ by Jackie French and Anne Spudvilas
‘Swan Lake’ by Anne Spudvilas
‘Tales from the Inner City’ by Shaun Tan
‘The Red Tree’ by Shaun Tan
‘All the Ways to be Smart’ by Davina Bell and Allison Colpoys
‘I’m a Hungry Dinosaur’ by Janeen Brian and Anne James