Picture Window

Opening the Doors to Picture Books for All Ages

Kimberly Gotches

Kimberly Gotches currently works in Youth Services at the public library in Bartlett, Illinois.  She is working on her Master’s in Library and Information Science through the University of Illinois.  A member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Kimberly enjoys writing picture books and champions the unique properties and benefits of the form.

Educators, librarians, parents, and all who are involved in the promotion of children’s literature are in a prime situation to correct the misperceptions that picture books comprise a genre and that they are exclusively intended for the very young.  We can promote the reality that the picture book is not a genre, but rather is a form of literature with benefits for people of all ages. To understand this form, it is imperative to consider the interplay of the words and pictures.  Perry Nodelman refers to the pictures in picture books as “‘illustrations’ – images that explain or clarify words and each other” (viii).  He remarks that the words in picture books “often sound more like plot summaries than like the actual words of the story”(viii).  Anita Silvey explains, “well-chosen artistically rendered pictures complement the words, which together make up a package” (219).  The components of this package, both visual and textual, create a combined effect than neither produces alone. I will explore the unique properties and benefits of this literary form and highlight several significant pictures books from various genres.

The use of pictures in books for children can be traced back to the first children’s picture book, Comenius’s Orbis Pictus (circa 1657) (Nodelman, Words about Pictures 2).  Despite this historical connection, Nodelman states, “there is no irrefutable psychological or pedagogical reason that young children should be told the vast majority of their stories through combinations of words and pictures” (2).  He even goes so far to note that it is just as easy to prove that pictures may have negative effects on learning for young children. The package of words with pictures has been delivered largely to children based on historical and cultural tradition, rather than psychological and pedagogical evidence of the benefits.  Thus, his research supports the argument that the mere presence of pictures in books should not be cause to determine the age of the audience or the merit of the literary form.

The pioneering author and illustrator Brian Selznick has skillfully shaken the association of picture books with the very young in his “Novel in Words and Pictures,” The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Notably, the fact that this 533-page book is the longest to win the Caldecott award for illustrations has caused a resurged effort to define the picture book form.  We now look more closely at the Caldecott criteria that notes:

A ‘picture book for children’ as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised. (ALA)

By merging the picture book form with that of the novel, Selznick proposes that the visual and textual experience in a book need not be mutually exclusive and need not only interest the very young.

Selznick refers to the work of the famous American writer, choreographer, designer, and teacher Remy Charlip to point us to the physical structure of a picture book. In his article, “A Page is a Door,” Charlip notes:

A book, as we refer to it today, has distinct properties, just as painting, sculpture, film, and other art forms have their distinct physical properties. A book is a series of pages held together at one edge, and these pages can be moved on their hinges like a swinging door.  They could also be half-doors, doors with windows, double doors, like fold-outs, doors with attachments, pop-ups, textures or moving parts, and shaped doors.

This description of the physical structure of a book is noticeably enhanced in the picture book form.

Consider the picture book Wabi Sabi, written by Mark Reibstein and illustrated by Ed Young.  The pages of stimulating collage-work by the Caldecott winning artist are turned vertically, creating two-page spreads of breathtaking merit.  Charlip explains that a thrilling picture book “not only makes beautiful single images or sequential images, but also allows us to become aware of a book’s unique physical structure, by bringing our attention, once again, to that momentous moment: the turning of the page.” Turning the page in a book such as Wabi Sabi is a physical, mental, and emotional experience that is unique to this form. 

Nodelman points out an additional property that is unique to the physical structure of the picture book.  He contrasts picture books with film, a form that also combines visual and textual elements, in that “instead of providing different modes of communication simultaneously, [picture books] alternate between their two modes, and we cannot both read the words and peruse the picture at the same time” (viii). For example, in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, “more than 300 of those pages are pictures that, like movie storyboard frames, propel the story forward” (Rich). Although the book mimics the film industry, it does not equate. The sequence of absorbing the various media creates a totally different experience.

Charlip’s work as a dance choreographer demonstrates the importance of sequence and unity to the overall flow of a picture book. He created a type of choreography he called “airmail dances.”  Charlip began mailing sketches of dance positions to his students and allowing them to create the order, transitions, and meaning (http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/970623/charlip.html).   He was teaching the dancers that each sketch comprised a part of a larger whole.

Considering the artwork in a picture book is much like considering the ultimate production of a dance.  Like each sketch of a dance position, each picture in a picture book contributes to the whole. The ultimate composition of the series of sketches interwoven with words becomes what the Caldecott committee refers to as “collective unity.”  Accordingly, Nodelman argues that “attempts to use picture books to teach art appreciation are misguided for just this reason: as depictions of single, incomplete actions, moments of disruption and chaos, the individual pictures in picture books rarely possess the harmonious balance we believe ought to exist and seek out in other forms of visual art” (vii). The pictures in a picture book are inextricably linked both to the other pictures and to the text in the book as a whole.

The act of interpreting either individual parts or the whole is a fluid and subjective process where both words and pictures are concerned.  Individual words themselves are not objective connections to a particular idea.  Rather, words, like pictures, subjectively point in the direction of some idea.  Nodelman explains that words “are literally what semioticians identify as signs, in that, like the red traffic lights that tell us to stop, their meaning is nothing more than a matter of agreement among those who use them” (5).  He provides a specific example in that “the sound of the word ‘cat’ could as easily refer to a number as to an animal” (5).  In fact, he notes there is sound similar to “cat” that refers to a number in French.  With this in mind, it becomes clear that even the most simple of words, like cat, can be open for interpretation, just as any particular visual depiction of a cat would be.

The picture book How the Amazon Queen Fought the Prince of Egypt, written and illustrated by Tamara Bower, is a case in point.  This book is drawn from the Story-Cycle of King Petubast, a group of ancient Egyptian stories.  Bower includes hieroglyphs at the bottom of each page, and the text depicted by these symbols is in boldface type. Bower skillfully demonstrates how interpretation of words and pictures overlap.  In her author’s note, she explains hieroglyphs are not “picture writing” in the sense that each picture symbolizes an idea.  She teaches that the hieroglyphs can represent both sounds and ideas depending on the context in which they are used.  She also teaches that the paintings in the book are inspired by ancient Egyptian and Assyrian art and display particular symbolism.  In this manner, the hieroglyphs, text, and artwork each work together to tell the overall story.

In order to interpret the full arrangement of words and pictures in a picture book, advanced skills worthy of practice by people of all ages are utilized.  In her article, “Picture Books for Young Adult Readers,” Sunya Osborn notes that readers use many of the same skills to interpret pictures as they do to analyze text (Osborn, 2001).  In exercising these skills, one draws from both the right and left hemispheres of the brain to make sense of both pictures and text. It is a common mistake to oversimplify the workings of these two hemispheres.  For example, Dr. Linda Silverman, Director of the Gifted Development Center, notes:

Reading, writing, and arithmetic are the curriculum of the sequential left hemisphere. They served us well as society evolved from an oral tradition to a written one, but they are insufficient for success in the new age. […] The computer is to the Age of Information what the printing press was to the Age of Literacy.… [I]t teaches visually…. In the Age of Information, the gifts of the right hemisphere are honored and utilized. (para. 2)

Silverman’s depiction of the roles of the left and right hemispheres does not go far enough.

It is true that there is a dominant manner of interpreting words and pictures. Nodelman agrees “words are best at describing relationships of details, pictures best at giving a sense of the whole” (202).  By its nature, language is a sequential process that starts with a detail (a word) and moves to a whole (a sentence). When we approach pictures, we start with the whole picture and move down to the specific details in a spatial manner.  However, Nodelman goes further to explain:

The idea that words are merely lineal and pictures merely spatial is extremely simplistic.  We could not read words if we could not interpret the visual symbols that stand for them on paper; reading is itself an act of vision.  Furthermore, our understanding of language demands that we find holistic shapes in the sequence of words. […] Pictures in a picture book form a sequence – they can contribute to the act of storytelling because they do imply the cause-and-effect relationships of time. (199)

Thus, both words and pictures require attention to sequential reasoning and spatial vision.
When authors and illustrators have a particularly strong sensitivity to the skills involved in interpreting both pictures and text, the benefits arising from the picture book form are enhanced.  Brian Selznick is an artist with such a refined eye. For example, in the Caldecott Honor Book The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, Selznick and author Barbara Kerley effectively depict the life of this Victorian artist who created the first models of dinosaurs.  Selznick begins and ends the book with an image of a man with dinosaurs encircling him, as if the character’s imaginings are spirits that remain with him.  Purposeful repetition is used to depict the manner in which the imagination of Waterhouse Hawkins carries through as he grows from a boy to a man.  One two-page spread shows Waterhouse as a boy sketching the animals he imagined.  The next two-page spread mirrors the previous of Waterhouse, only this time he is an older man sketching dinosaur bones.  The last page depicts a new boy sketching a bird, positioned in the same manner as Waterhouse as a boy.

These sequential drawings move the story forward and allow the story to continue for the reader when the book is finished.  The drawings are mostly color, with the exception of some drawings made to look like historic photos.  Just as Waterhouse brought dinosaurs to life for the people of his time, Selznick and Kerley bring this man’s history to life in vibrant color. When up against Nodelman’s criticism that “in less successful picture books, our stopping to examine the pictures makes the text seem choppy,” the examination of the pictures in this text “becomes a strength rather than a liability” (Pleasures 154). This successful product is a great tool to discuss a wide array of subjects including science, art, and pioneering figures in history.  The interplay of the artwork with the factual text solidifies the message that art and science are linked.

Another striking contribution to the picture book form is Amelia and Eleanor go for a Ride.  Through the interaction of Brian Selznick’s drawings with Pam Munoz Ryan’s text, the illustrator-author team romanticizes the night Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt flew in an airplane together. The black and white drawings create an ambience that helps bring the stories of these historic women to life in a way that is sure to spark a student’s interest.

This book is a significant example of the picture book form’s proclivity to teaching about literary devices.  The book uses parallel structure in both the text and the pictures to depict the unique personalities of each woman. In one sequence, Amelia pulls a glove on her left arm, the reader turns the page, and then Eleanor mirrors the action by pulling a glove on the opposite arm.  While pulling on the gloves, Amelia states she flies in airplanes “for the fun of it,” and Eleanor states she drives in cars because “it’s practical.” The parallel structure is demonstrated simultaneously by the very structure of the pages, the text, and the pictures.

The use of picture books to model literary devices is worth further exploration.  Consider the book Rome Antics by David Macaulay.  This book is written from the point of view of a carrier pigeon flying over ancient Rome. The pigeon is represented by a red line swirling through the black and white line drawings of prominent architecture of ancient Rome.  The reader learns the literary device of point of view in a concrete manner as we see the buildings from above, below, and every other angle. Notably, the book’s jacket states, “like turning the pages of a good book, turning the corners in the city of Rome always offers surprises.”  The page turn enhances the reader’s first-hand, physical experience of traveling through this corner of history.

            A third example of a picture book’s connection with teaching literary devices is Garmann’s Summer by Stian Hole that, among winning the 2008 Batchelder Honor and Ezra Jack Keats awards, also won the 2007 Bologna Ragazzi Award for design and editing.  The most obvious depiction of a literary device is when Garmann states he is nervous about starting school and has butterflies in his stomach.  Hole includes a stunning picture of butterflies showing up on an x-ray of Garmann’s stomach.  Thom Barthelmess, youth services manager at the Austin Public Library, perfectly describes the relationship of words and pictures in this book:

As a text, it marries a lyrical, colorful narrative with an ambling, utterly child-like structure. You sense that you're experiencing Garmann's apprehension and disquiet personally, because it's presented in so genuine a fashion. And the artwork, with its own marriage of the poignant and the ridiculous, crafted in vibrant collages of snippets and details, has a nostalgic quality that is accessible and discomforting, all at once. And then, the text and the illustrations come together, leaving the reader with an indelible impression of what it feels like to be scared. (CCBC Listserv communication)

Notably, Susan Hall includes a useful list of similarly beneficial books, that she calls “All-Ages Storybooks,” in her book Using Picture Storybooks to Teach Literary Devices: Recommended Books for Children and Young Adults.

Beyond teaching about literary devices, the picture book form is also well complemented by the traditional tale genre.  A memorable example is Jon J. Muth’s The Three Questions, inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s book by the same name.  This picture book attempts to answer a young boy’s three questions:  When is the best time to do things, who is the most important one, and what is the right thing to do?  The watercolor illustrations add to the feelings of questioning with fuzzy edges and merging lines.  Notably, the boy holds a string to a red kite that comes to symbolize the three questions throughout the book.  The kite is never mentioned in the text, and yet it becomes intertwined in the story.  A major turn in the narrative occurs when the boy saves an injured panda bear.  The kite is absent during this scene and the panda’s black and white fur stands out in contrast to the red of the kite.   In the moment of saving the panda, the boy answers his three questions.  The pictures do more than supplement the text in this moving tale, but rather add layers to the story that provokes philosophical and practical considerations for people of all ages.

A second significant example is Golem by David Wisniewski.  Golem is a well-crafted book based on Jewish tradition.  The striking cut-paper, collage work has won the Caldecott award.  Notably, the Golem is created by the chief rabbi of Prague from a pile of clay.  Wisniewski’s choice of collage appropriately symbolizes the multiple layers of creating something from nothing.  The story of Golem, the Hebrew word for shapeless mass, may have been an inspiration for Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.  This picture book can engage readers in discussions related to cultural diversity, history, as well as introduce an English lesson on Frankenstein.  The suspenseful aspects of the story are drawn out in the picture book form through the page turns.

 The enlivening nature of the picture book form also makes it a great tool to present biographies.  A noteworthy example is Only Passing Through:  The Story of Sojourner Truth written by Anne Rockwell and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. The combination of text and pictures in this book is striking and brings the story of this sometimes forgotten historical figure to the forefront.  The illustrations are done in a disturbing, abstract style that fits the theme of slavery and this woman’s struggles.  In one climatic scene, Sojourner Truth is hiding from some drunken men shouting that black people are inferior.  The colors in the painting are hot reds and oranges that depict the intensity of her fear.  The reader has to turn the page to see how Sojourner responds with courage and stands up to the men.  The colors in this picture are cool, tranquil blues and greens, and Sojourner is the largest figure on the page, towering above the men.  The experience of turning this page enhances the story in a way utterly unique to this medium.

By removing the age-related stigma attached to picture books, those involved in the promotion of children’s literature can better reach a wide range of readers.  This range includes struggling readers of all ages, people with cognitive disabilities, and students learning English as a second language.  For example, one mother of an adult son who has Down Syndrome noted extreme pleasure when I discussed my feelings about picture books with her.  She said, “My son needs pictures to help him learn, but he turns away from picture books because they are too young for him.  There isn’t anything that currently fits his needs.”  Her lack of knowledge of the fruitful materials available has made me even more convinced that there is a need for picture books with mature themes to be uncovered and utilized.

Fortunately, it is becoming easier for the general public to evaluate and obtain picture books.  The new online picture book service Lookybook is a testament to this movement.  Lookybook was started by author Craig Frazier in November of 2007 to promote picture books (Kinsella). Vice-president of marketing at Holiday House, Terry Borzumato-Greenberg, expresses why he feels the company will benefit booksellers: “Since browsing the full titles online can’t compare to the cozy feeling of curling up with a physical book, [he] does not think that Lookybook will steal potential book sales” (para. 8). Giving both publicity and homage to the physical reality of the picture book is an honorable mission that promotes the unique value of these books.

If not for the insistence of enthusiastic supporters, picture books would fall into the laps of a small majority of those children deemed young enough for books with pictures. Professor Teri Lesene calls educators to realize that “given the increased presence of graphic novels, manga, and other formats, perhaps [educators] need to redefine what reading is and what it looks like” (23-4). Educators Nancy Polette and Joan Ebbesmeyer model those who effectively have responded to this call.  They advocate for the potential of picture books in their book, Literature Lures: Using Picture Books and Novels to Motivate Middle School Readers.  We are all called to create opportunities for the picture book form to be used in curriculum and in reading for pleasure.  When providing the young with picture books, we should challenge them to consider the relationship between text and pictures. Nodelman states, “We will be farther ahead if we treat children not as different sorts of beings incapable of mature thought but as beginners at mature thought who need and are able to acquire experience of it” (282).  This broadening of perspective is a challenge and an opportunity to open doors to this unique literary form for people of all ages.


Works Cited

American Library Association. “Randolph Caldecott Medal Terms and Conditions.” 9 February 2009.  Available http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/caldecottmedal/caldecottterms/caldecottterms.cfm

Barthelmess, Thom.  CCBC Listserv communication.  20 Feb. 2009.

Bower, Tamara.  How the Amazon Queen Fought the Prince of Egypt.  New York:  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2005.

Charlip, Remy.  “A Page is a Door.”  6 September 2008.  Available http://www.theinventionofhugocabret.com/remy_essay.htm

Hall, Susan.  Using Picture Storybooks to Teach Literary Devices:  Recommended Books for Children and Young Adults (Vol 3).  Westport, Connecticut:  Oryx, 2002.

Hole, Stian.  Garmann’s Summer.  Michigan: Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers, 2008.

Kerley, Barbara.  The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins.  New York:  Scholastic, 2001.

Kinsella, Bridget. “Lookybook Site to Promote Picture Books.”  Publishers Weekly. 15 Nov. 2007.  Online.  Internet. 1 May 2008. Available http://www.publishersweekly.com/index.asp?layout=articlePrint&articleID=CA6500725

Macaulay, David.  Rome Antics.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Muth, Jon J.  The Three Questions.  New York:  Scholastic, 2002.

Nodelman, Perry.  The Pleasures of Children’s Literature. New York: Longman, 1992.

--.  Words about Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1988. 

Osborn, Sunya. “Picture Books for Young Adult Readers.” The ALAN Review 28.3 (2001): 24+. Online.  Internet. 2 Mar. 2008. Available http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v28n3/osborn.html.

Polette, Nancy J., and Joan Ebbesmeyer.  Literature Lures:  Using Picture Books and Novels to Motivate Middle School Readers.  Greenwood Village, Colorado:  Teacher Ideas, 2002.

Reibstein, Mark.  Wabi Sabi. New York:  Little Brown and Company, 2008.

Rich, Motoko. “Reads Like a Book, Looks Like a Film.  The New York Times.  26 Jan. 2008. Online.  Internet. 9 May 2008.  Available http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/26/books/26selznick.html.

Rockwell, Anne.  Only Passing Through:  The Story of Sojourner Truth.  New York:  Alfred A Knoff, 2000.

Ryan, Pam Munoz.  Amelia and Eleanor Go For a Ride.  New York:  Scholastic, 1999.

Sayers, John. “Young at Heart:  A Celebration of Remy Charlip.”  Library of Congress. 23 June 1997.  Online.  Internet.  6 Sept. 2008.  Available http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/970623/charlip.html.

Schwarcz, Joseph H. The Picture Book Comes of Age. Chicago:  American Library Association, 1991.

Selznick, Brian. The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  New York:  Scholastic, 2007.

Silverman, Linda K. Visual-spatial Learners: An Introduction. 2003. 26 May 2008. Online.  Internet.  Available http://www.visualspatial.org/Articles/intro.pdf.

Silvey, Anita.  The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and their Creators.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Wisniewski, David. Golem.  New York:  Clarion Books, 1996.


Kimberley Gotches

Volume 13, Issue 2 The Looking Glass, May/June, 2009

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"Opening the Doors to Picture Books for All Ages"
© Kimberley Gotches, 2009.
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