We live in an age where printing techniques have developed to such an extent that new picture books are constantly being published, adding to the wealth of books already on the market – but, as we know, some are more engaging than others; so how do we make an informed choice?
As teachers, we know the value of a good picture book. When deciding which one to share with our children, we often make a choice based on a range of features, including content, the author, illustrator, front cover, or simply that it excites us. Think about your favourite picture book: why do you like it so much? How do you ignite that same feeling in your children?
Illustrators often say there is no point illustrating a book if the information is all contained in the text. The text is obviously important but the illustrations help to bring it alive, so we need to fully engage with both the illustrations and the text. This can be done through developing visual literacy skills in your children that help them to fully appreciate the wonders of a great picture book. Visual literacy is based on the understanding that pictures can convey meaning and that they can be 'read’. By analysing illustrations and using them as a tool to aid learning, we see the illustrator as not just a talented artist, but also a storyteller. When we explore this, we can often uncover a hidden deeper meaning. The best children’s books are all about human experience and help young children to understand how the world works and their place within it. This is greatly enhanced through illustration.
Take Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. On the surface, it is about an imaginary land, visited by a young boy. Scratch this surface through analysing the illustrations, and you reveal a much deeper understanding. This book was acclaimed as the first to portray psychological realism through the subject of a boy’s tantrums. Maurice Sendak uses the surrealist pictures to guide you through a rollercoaster of emotions. He does this in many clever ways, including through the varying size of the pictures.
If you get a chance to take another look at this book, then ponder these questions:
- take a look at the title page; who is afraid of whom?
- who do you think is in control: Max, or the Wild Things?
- what relevance does the picture of Max (on the wall in the hall) hold?
- compare the first and last pictures in the book; how does Max appear to feel in both pictures?
- Sendak uses the white border in parts of the story, but not in others; why do think this is?
- in the final illustration, Max’s supper is waiting for him; what does that mean?
- the moon appears to change as the story progresses; why do you think this is, and how long is Max away?
If you can’t answer all these questions (or would love to know more), then don’t worry – we have the solution! Ruth Goodman and Martin Galway (HfL English Advisers) have created a course entitled 'where the wonderful things are’. This one day course is aimed at supporting teachers in understanding the hidden depths of picture books through art appreciation and exploring illustrations and text. A wealth of high-quality picture books will also be on display to support text choice in school, so if you love picture books and consider yourself to be a true bibliophile, then this course is for you.
The above images have been used with the kind permission of Mini Grey. Mini's latest picturebook The Last Wolf is available now in hardback from Jonathan Cape Publishers.