Pat L.
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Picture books are intended to serve as a resource in the development of visual literacy skills, not only for young children but for students of all ages. Through the evolution of literature, picture books are no longer considered as "easy books" and "only for children." Their use constitutes a broad mind-set in utilizing various methods to teach concepts and construct meaning across the curriculum. Picture books constitute a strategy to expand literary experiences for children by providing a variety of "sensory images and vicarious experiences, settings, and themes" (Cianciolo 3). The variety in presentation results in both emotional and intellectual stimulation. Children readily connect with the illustrations, experiences and adventures of fiction or nonfiction characters. According to Amy Bright (qtd. in Donawa 2012), "The constant process of interpreting one text with reference to another encourages critical thinking as it builds a knowledge base that informs individual thought and comprehension." Combining quality fiction and nonfiction picture books engages students in inquiry as thinking, speaking, listening, reading, writing, and media literacy are stimulated. Likewise, literacy skills are developed through the controlled vocabulary and concepts.

What is a Picture Book?

  • As the artistic abilities of writer and illustrator are combined, a blend of text and illustration is created.
  • Books vary, some may have few or no words with the illustrations.
  • There is a collectively unified story-line, theme, or concept.
  • Illustrations are central to the storyline, with text playing an important and supporting role.
  • The language of the text is usually chronological and linear, while images may be non-linear.
  • Informational picture books artistically reveal information: issues, concepts, themes, and facts of real people & events in the real world.
  • Usually limited to 32 to 48 pages.

Types of Picture Books

* Picture Storybooks

  • Illustrations are on two facing pages
  • Pictures complement the story - mirroring the plot.
  • Text leans towards narrative prose instead of rhyming text*
  • Stories have an established plot, beginning and end, with text and pictures equally balanced.
Example: The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant (1933) by Jeane de Brunhoff

* Illustrated Picture Books

  • Text is central with pictures giving support.
  • Text is not driven by the pictures, pictures are merely decorative.
Example: Beetle Soup (1997) by Michael King, Leap Into Poetry (2001) by Avis Harley

*Informational Picture Books

  • Used in an instructional capacity.
  • Concept books, alphabet and counting books
  • Picture book biographies are brief and highlight major events in the life of an individual.
  • In biographies, pictures are essential in telling the story.
  • Illustrations and text complement one another; neither overpowers the other.
Example: Skin Like Milk, Hair of Silk: What are similes and metaphors? (2009) by Brian P. Cleary

Criteria for Effective Picture Books

a. Content


  • Age appropriate for students
  • Connection of book to the curriculum topic
  • Quality of language
  • Does the book incite curiosity and stimulate thinking about the topics?

b. Illustrations

  • Is the text extended by the illustration?
  • The text and the illustrations are woven together. Is rhythm and movement created in any way?

c. Format

  • The book jacket and end papers are appropriate to theme and setting

d. Theme

  • The theme should be worthwhile - not too obvious or overpowering

e. Accuracy and authenticity

  • Illustrations should be accurate when called for.
  • Author's background should qualify him to write on the topic
  • Can fact and fantasy be distinguished? Does it matter for the intended purpose?

Benefits of Picture Books

a. Teaches visual literacy: In our day and age, we are inundated with color, shapes, movement, and sound that filtrate through the various forms of media that daily surround us. As human beings we learn to evaluate, analyze and interpret information through viewing the various forms of media. As we continue to make meaning from our surroundings, we also make meaning from words in association with pictures. Scholars have researched how we "read" pictures. Their findings indicate a picture-text relationship which "requires readers to call upon cognitive skills." The importance of picture books having multiple meanings and multiple discourses, and the ability to read images is needed in a globalized and technological
age. (Nikolajeva, qt in Matulka 142).

b. Teaches pictorial elements: Texts are designed to move from left to right, top to bottom, using words, spelling and other elements of literature to portray meaning. Images are nonlinear. The eyes scan the picture to find meaning. Skillful illustrators create a planned and intentional path for the eye to follow. The eye may be drawn to a spot of dark color on the top of a white page, or a curved line in the middle of a colored circle. The illustrator uses color, line, shape, texture, perspective, and value to create meaningful images.

c. Exposes students to varied literary genres: The picture book is a genre all its own. It exhibits high quality visuals and meaningful writing. Vital concepts are addressed and encourages even the struggling reader to "want" more. The compilation of subject matter and artistic literary illustrations sets this genre apart from ot
her genres.

d. Models intonation and the pleasure of reading while developing a rapport with students and a sense of community. Reading creates a "fun" and relaxing environment where imagination and creativity soar.

e. Presents provocative topics that stimulate thinking. As students progress through the grades, their level of cognition increases. Picture books for adolescents offer cognitive and affective challenges which stimulate serious thinking about important ideas and issues. The text and illustrations offer a more complex meaning for these readers.

f. Explains interesting information about different cultures: Through the use of picture books, readers gain new insights into themselves and into the culture of other people. Issues concerning adolescents are explored, using more sophisticated language, expressions and illustrations.

g. Suggests creative art and language activities

h. Stimulates student writing

Activity Examples

A. Teaching a Thematic Unit:

  • As teachers we are encouraged to integrate different supplementary resources to enrich the curriculum and engage students in learning. Through the use of picture books, concepts can be clarified, visual and literary sources meet to enhance the topics of the unit. Graphic organizers can be used in conjunction with picture books throughout the thematic unit, or the picture book can be used as an introduction to a specific concept. Hint: pictures can be placed on the smart board for the read-aloud.
  • Concepts such as sequencing, main idea & supporting details, cause and effect, mood, feelings, attitude, vocabulary, and predictions can be introduced by picture books.
For example, if you want to do a thematic unit on " Freedom," the following books would aid instruction.
1. Sequencing: Amitstad: A long road to Freedom by Walter Dean Myers. Puffin books, 1998.
2. Main idea & supporting Details: Follow the Drinking Gourd, by Jeannette Winter. Dragonfly, 1988.
3. Cause and Effect: Freedom River, by Deborah Wiles. Atheneum Books, 2001.
4. Vocabulary: Remembering Slavery, by Ira Berlin. New Press, 2000.
5. Predictions: Stowaway,by Karen Hesse. Scholastic Inc., 2000.
6. Divisions 1-3


B. Teaching Literary Elements

1. Read the picture book aloud to the class
2..The book Crickwing by Janell Cannon (Harcourt, 2000) helps students understand sequencing, identifies fact, fiction or opinions, introduces a simple plot, setting, main idea, cause and effect, and can lead into character analysis through the story's rich vocabulary
4. Hoops by Robert Burleigh (Harcourt, 1997) stimulates thought, identifies techniques, and elements of language (foreshadowing, flashback, and suspense) (7.2.3, 7.4.2)
5. Possible activities: create acrostics, write reflections in journal, free write, create own story or poem using elements discussed. Find an article, picture, book, or web site that relates to the topic being studied, share and compare information, style, use of language devices etc. Can be used to introduce a writing theme.
6. Divisions 1-3

C. Teaching Social Studies Topics:

  • Concepts on Aztecs, History, Spanish, Age of Discovery, Dominance, Inter-cultural contact and identity can be introduced and expanded by using the picture book: Broken Shields by Claudia Burr
a. Tells the brutal destruction of the Aztec civilization by the Spanish
b. Text is simple but highly descriptive, with historical illustrations.
c. Objectives covered: (8.3.4)
  • Concepts on Renaissance, High Middle Ages, Europe, Society, Social Structures, Social Context will be creatively introduced by using the picture book: Archers, Alchemists, and 98 other medieval jobs you might have loved or loathed by Priscilla Galloway (2003).
a. 98 different jobs are highlighted in 10 different categories that were part of Medieval life.
b. A timeline of events is illustrated leading up to the Middle ages.
c. The book provides Information about population, class system and how life was different during that time.
d. Objectives covered: (8.2.4)
e. Division 3
  • Concepts on the quarry process and details of the spirit of the Renaissance is covered in the book: The Neptune Fountain: The apprenticeship of a Renaissance sculpture.
a. Possible activities: interviewing someone who comes from a different culture or create a newspaper article about what it was like in ancient Renaissance. Create a new book cover. After listening to the book, students can write a journal entry imagining what it would be like to be living during that time. Choose a job from the several mentioned in the Archers" picture book" and create a partner poster of what life would be like. Choose a job, compare and contrast today with the time of the Aztecs - create skits and present to class.
b. Objectives covered: 8.2; 8.3: Worldviews in Conflict: The Spanish and the Aztecs
c. Division 3

D. Teaching Topics in Science

1. Present an item which will be used to introduce a specific topic. Example: polymer alligator placed in a jar of water.
2. Read Zack's Alligator by Shirley Mozelle.
3. Have students predict what will happen at key points.
4. Compare "Bridget" from Zack's Alligator with the grow alligator
5. Compare and contrast the story alligator with the visual polymer alligator.
6.Use Zack as an imaginary person to whom they will write to and explain what they did to test his idea and what they found out.
7. The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle. A grouchy ladybug is looking for a fight regardless of size or strength. Create of size or strength comparison graphs.
8. Further uses: follow up with maps, charts, make new jackets for the book, create word searches, further research in the library on people, events, etc. found in the book(s).
9. Divisions 1-3

E. Teaching Topics in Math

1. Introducing a concept in math presents a creative opportunity to share a picture book.
2. Choose: G Is for Googol by David Schwartz, to teach concepts with humor or On Beyond a Million by David Schwartz in which he uses popcorn to illustrate number concepts.
3. Students can create another book with similar focus, yet different illustrations. Compare other books on similar concept.
4. Counting on Frank by Rod Clement, uses funny illustrations to engage readers in mathematical operations.
5. Betcha by Stuart J. Murphy, centers on guessing how many jelly beans are in a jar, then leads to other estimates. Create estimation charts, puzzles and games
6. Anno's Magic Seeds by Mitsumasa Anno. (call #513.4) The reader is asked to perform a number of mathematical operations in the story.
7. Divisions 1-3

Sample of Picture Books by Division

Division 1 (1-3)

  • The Magic Rug. Rejean Aucoin and Jean-Claude Tremblay (2002).
This picture book provides an accurate account of Acadian heritage through a story of a grandmother who escapes deportation
Key themes include: Acadian: heritage and community.
Objectives covered are: 2.1.2, 2,1,3, 2.2.1, 2.2.4

  • Did you Say Pears? Arlene Alda (2006)
This picture book covers phonetic similarities and contrasts their meanings.
Theme addressed: grammar
Objectives covered are: 3.1.2

Division 2 (4-6)

  • A Prairie Year. Bannatyne-Cugnet, Jo (1994)
A month by month anecdotal record of experiences of life on the prairies with full page paintings provides students an opportunity to learn more about life in rural Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Other themes addressed are: Geography; Natural environment; Ways of life.
Objectives covered are: 5.1.1; 5.1.2.

* LaRue for Mayor, Letters from the Campaign Trail. Mark Teague (2008)
This picture book addresses the electorial process in a fun way, using Ike the dog, who decides to become involved in politics.
Other themes addressed are: citizenship; the Democratic decision-making process; and Democratic Process.
Objectives covered are: 6.1.1 and 6.1.2.

Division 3 (7-9)

  • Awful Ogre's Awful Day. Jack Prelutsky (2001)
This book of poetry utilizes expressive grammar to convey meaning
Other themes are language interpretation and context clues
Objectives covered are: 7.2.2, 7.2.3.

  • Shi-shi-etko. Nicola Campbell (2005)
This book illustrates the "pleasant days" in a young Native girls' life before she goes to residential school
Other themes are: Aboriginal Peoples; First Nations; Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; Collective and Individual Rights; Exploitation; Identity; History; Quality of Life.
Objectives covered are: 9.1.2,9.1.7,9.1.8.

Division 4 (10-12)

  • Leap Into Poetry; More ABCs of Poetry. Avis Harley (2001)
This illustrative picture book uses literary devices to express meaning and gives examples of various kinds of poems.
Objectives covered are: (10-1, 10-2, 20-1, 20-2, 30-1, 30-2): 2.2.2, 2.3.1

  • The Island. Armin Greder (2008)
This is an important and powerful picture book for its allegory of the prejudice inherent in humanity. The story progresses from fear, hatred to ultimately crime. Themes of xenophobia, racism, refugees can be explored.
Other themes are:Human rights, Conflict, Collectivism, Society
Objectives covered are: (30-1 & 30-2): 1.2, 1.3, 1.5, 1.6, 2.12, 3.9, 4.2, 4.3, 4.5.


Cianciolo, Patricia J. (1997). Picture Books for Children.

Christie, Kim. (2004). Using Picture Books in Middle School: grades 6-8. Westminster, CA. Teacher Created Materials Inc.

Gertz, Susan E., Dwight J. Portman, Mickey Sarquis.(1996). Teaching Physical Science through Children's Literature. Ohio: McGraw Hill.

Hurst, Carol Otis. Picture Book Guide: first and second grade. (1996). Ohio: McGraw Hill. Literature Connections. Grades K-12. web:

Lima, Carolyn, and John a. Lima. (2006). A to Zoo: Subject Access to Children's Picture Books. 7th Ed. London. Libraries Un.

Matulka, Denise I. (2008). A Picture Book Primer,London: Libraries Un.

Teacher Ideas Showcase: Picture Books Across the Curriculum. web:

Tiedt, Iris M. (2004). Teaching with Picture Books in the Middle School. Newark: International Reading Assoc .