Picture Books for All

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The other day I received an email from a reader, expressing her disappointment that her Year Three daughter had been told that she can no longer borrow picture books from the school library, only novels. Clearly, this sent me off the deep end as there is no age limit on picture books…

High quality contemporary picture books are works of art, sophisticated visual narratives which invite discussion and debate, and there are titles to suit all ages. 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 and convey messages.

Visual literacy is the term used to describe the skills needed by children to comprehend, create and communicate with visuals. Attention to visual literacy skills 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.

As adult readers, we may have held fast to 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 and visual literacy elements 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 during library lessons, 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. Please note that not every picture book reading should be a formal lesson, and enjoyment of the story should always 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, author’s names, illustrator’s name, blurb, title.

We then look at the design features and discuss if they 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.

After exploring the physical features of a book, I then hit pause on ‘teachable moments’ and just read the book! I 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. The first time I read a book to a child or group of children I believe it is all-important to read it in one fluid and expressive reading so as not to interrupt the flow of the story. No discussion at all, just a well-paced reading with pauses where the text indicates for absorbing words and images and letting the entire ‘package of the book’ speak for itself. Don’t underestimate your audience – if you read aloud well, they will do the rest of the work.

On a second and sometimes third (or more) re-reading and after some discussion, we may stop along the way and unpack ideas about the intent of the author and illustrator and how they may have used point of view, lines and colours, angles and typography to influence how we read the text. 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.

Comparison of visual features in ‘Mrs Millie’s Garden’ and ‘The Incredible Freedom Machine’ – both illustrated by Matt Ottley.

If you’re looking for some *new* picture books, these are some of my recent favourites – click on each title to read more (including age range – though I believe picture books are for all ages) and purchase.

Picture Books for ALL (a few NEW must-haves)

Click on ‘Buy from Booktopia’ when shopping online in Australia to #supportaustralian. Apple and Amazon options for overseas & eBook purchases. Purchase in store from your local independent bookstore where possible #supportlocal.


‘The Kantha Chest’

‘The Bird in the Herd’

‘Rajah Street’

‘Don’t Forget’

‘Shine’

‘Backyard Magic’

‘My Shadow is Pink’

‘The Way of the Weedy Seadragon’

‘Maybe’

‘Pandemic’

‘When the Sakura Bloom’

‘Dog’

‘Blue Flower’

‘The March of the Ants’

‘The Unwilling Twin’

‘Plantastic! A to Z of Australian Plants’


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