Words and Pictures

How do picture books support the early skills of reading? I am currently engrossed in a delightful and thought-provoking book, entitled ‘Children’s Picture-books’: The art of visual story telling (Lawrence King Publishing): a gem for any writer aiming to write picture books. Whilst picture books have been around for a long time, the 21st Century versions explore to a greater extent, the ‘witty, ironic relationship’ between words and images. Like many adults, I have greatly underestimated the potential of picture books as tools for developing thinking. What is this ‘word-image’ relationship? It seems that the pictures do far more than merely illustrate the words. They add extra meaning. We might draw a picture of a star. Is it just a shape? How many points? Shining or not? Are all stars the same? Does the star express emotion? Is the star sad or happy? Where is the star against its background? Is it central to the story? Which words might help to tell the star’s story?

Picture books are an art form. The book referred to above further explores picture books as potential for children to see multiple meanings in visual sequence. There is interaction between the pictures and words, by the simultaneous display of two facing pages. The picture and words communicate with each other to tell a story. Easier said than done! I am currently trying to write in this genre for a competition sponsored by Writing magazine. I have mocked up a paper book, stapled pages together, drawn outlines of pictures on each page and am now trying to add text – bearing in mind this need for interaction and communication. Neither the pictures, nor ANY words can be redundant. They must complement each other as a team.

Is my story a cosy one, for amusement mainly, such as Poo in the Zoo (Little Tiger books: an amusing tale exploring different kinds of animal poo – and the zoo keeper’s dilemma in having to clean it all up? As a picture book, this works through being particularly silly and hilarious – limited to making children laugh. After all, most young children are fascinated by such disgusting bodily stuff as poo, wee, sick and snot.

Or is there a serious theme – such as bereavement or friendship: intended to make young minds ‘think’ beyond mere amusement? How is any serious theme, especially death or disability, to be tackled in a sensitive way that young minds can handle? Is the theme obvious, or do children have to think about the pictures and the text to tease out the meaning behind them? In these more complex stories, I am reminded of multiple meanings. Depending on personal experiences, not all children will create the same meaning from a story. For serious themes, such as disability or illness, is analogy a positive strategy – using animals in order to distance the problem from humans? I once tried this: in my story Giraffe was too small to access the leaves on the trees ( a growth impairment) so he had to find a way around his problem.

Whether the book is lighthearted or serious: how do writers and illustrators manage to create wonderful picture books that are real page turners: to be enjoyed over and over again? That is the mystery? Picture book texts are far harder to write than we think – even though the number of words is low. Every word must do its job.

Another thought: how far do picture books invite young listeners (it is mainly adults who read them) to negotiate meaning by inferring between the spoken words as well as the pictures, and to recognise the interrelationship? Isn’t this where the artistic nature of these books lies? How often have we studied paintings in an art gallery and tried to think what they mean – what message has the artist sent us? Perhaps it is the same, albeit at a simpler level, with picture books. It helps when adults ask questions: not just ‘what’ but ‘how’ and ‘why’? The aim is to lead children beyond what is simply seen on the page.

At this point, I am reminded of my first question: the role of pictures in the early skills of reading? How does reading pictures support the reading of words? How does the process work as visual literacy? What can children see in a picture – and how do its parts work together? We could explore these questions through various aspects of comprehension: the main idea (what is the book about – its theme?), details (parts – what can you see in the picture?), comparison (who or what is different?) or cause and effect (why did the action happen?). Can you see the dinosaur? Which word do you think it is? Questioning goes a long way to helping children blend the book’s parts and nuances into a satisfying wholistic experience.

Picture books are a child’s first ‘book’ experience: therefore very important. Children need to interpret all kinds of visual material – much of it, inferential. So might we say that picture books support reading comprehension: as do screens and tablets – even adverts? In the search for comprehension, the book I have referred to also suggests that drawing is a much under-valued activity in primary education. So what do children gain by drawing? A lot! Children might read a sentence – then draw a picture to go with it. Alternatively, they might write a sentence, or some words, to go with a given picture. How closely does the drawing match the words? Are the details included?

Children could draw their own sequence of pictures to tell a story. This activity is more difficult than it sounds. Children would have to identify their main idea – as the theme. Who is in the picture – as characters? What do the characters do? They need to ask, as in any narrative, ‘What happens next?’ to create a sequence. But what an excellent activity this could be for developing children’s visual literacy – to support their understanding of picture books!

So far I have not talked about emotions. How far do we invite young children to feel, through their understanding, a range of emotions – from laughter and happiness – to crying and sadness? Do characters in picture books cry? Mine does – because she is far from home, although there is a happy ending. This is a highly sensitive issue. Picture books are meant to be enjoyed – not to cause upset. Yet, there is also a strong case for enabling children to deal with issues in their lives – again, through the analogous distance of creatures.

So, after reading this blog, how about trying to write a picture book – or get your child to write a picture book? Better still – write one together. There is no better way of encouraging your child to understand the inter-relationship between words and pictures. Picture books are far from trivial: they underpin the serious development of literacy.

Want to know more about early learning? Check out my book: ‘Support Your Child at the Early Years Foundation Stage: a guide for parents’. Available from Lulu.

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