An Examination of Children's Books and Picture Books
Children's Literature and Books Home
Picture Book Reviews

Chirs Van Allsburg

William Steig
"Sylvester and the Magic Pebble"
"Doctor De Soto"

Tedd Arnold
"No Jumping on the Bed"

Jon J Muth
"Zen Shorts"

Ezra Jack Keats
"The Trip"
"A Letter for Amy"

Robert McCloskey
"Make way for Ducklings"
"Blueberry's for Sal"
"A Time of Wonder"

Molly Bang

Margaret Bloy Graham
"Harry by the Sea"

Vladyana Krykarka
"A Promise is a Promise"

Gerald McDermott

Simon James
"The Birdwatchers"

Faith Ringgold
"Tar Beach"

Analysis of Picture Books, for the very young

Understanding Picture Book Language

There has been a great debate within the realm of children's literature as to the function of picture books, for although many presume that the function of picture in picture books is to help children to read this is not a proper function. There is after all some evidence that pictures only distract a child from the words, making it harder for them to learn how to read. To further complicate things pictures are themselves complicated and multilayer in meaning. Nodleman in his book "Words About Pictures" pointed out that not only do the meanings of pictures change but the ability to see them varies from culture to culture. It  has long been known by those who study cultures, that those pictures which seems clear to one group may be confusing to another.

Goodnew and Levine (1973) for example found that composition and the way composition is seen varies from culture to culture. Much of the way pictures are seen depends on the way in which the people of a culture read and write. Children however are unable to read or write so how they view pictures would be vastly different from the way the most skilled artists create them. Further many of the illusions we see are a result of learning and education. Deregowski (1972) found that people without formal schooling where often unable to see the illusionary and perspective effects within pictures.

For all these reasons it is presumed then that seeing pictures is a learned ability and so what they do for children is minimal. However Jon M Kennedy in A Psychology of Picture Perception showed that even animals can recognize various pictures, and they did not learn such traits such things where inborn into them. Deregowski (1972) found in studies that people from any culture could interpret many pictures with enough thought, again showing that this ability is at least inborn in us. So why is it people from different cultures have trouble understanding pictures? 

In psycholinguistics researchers have found that many of the aspects which allow us to speak all languages are wired into our brains from birth. However was we never hear the phonemes from a language these are lost as the ones from the languages we do hear grow larger. Like language the ability to understand visual stimulus such as the pictures within a picture book is partly in born, however like the phonemes of a language never heard this understanding can be lost or altered. For example in other studies psychologists found that if a kitten was prevented from seeing vertical lines it would loose the ability to see these (Blakemore and Cooper 1970) The kittens who never saw vertical lines then would run into vertical objects such as bars, as they could not see these.

 So it is with pictures, when a persons brain is exposed to pictures they develop the ability to see such pictures properly. Picture books in this way can be though of as a language, a means by which to teach children to be able to see pictures, and to expand their ability to do so. The function of picture books for this reason can be thought of as a way to teach children the language of art, and illustration. In many ways our society uses this language as extensively as verbal languages, from instructional video’s to magazine layouts and the internet, we utilize visual cues in order to gain a better understanding of things faster, and to help make life more enjoyable.

Of course much of the understanding of pictures does come fairly quickly, like sign language children can learn visual languages faster then spoken or written languages. After all larger portions of our brain are devoted to interpreting visual stimulus and so we can come to interpret these more quickly. For this reason children respond almost instantly to picture books, because as visual creatures picture books speak to us on a very basic level. Further for very young children picture books can offer new tactile sensations, as will as the opportunity to have their parents discuss pictures with them. Such discussions are helpful to the young child’s development as it has been found that children who where read to more have better language skills on entering preschool. Picture books therefore are a means by which parents can discuss visuals with a child in a meaningful and easy to understand way, even as the child learns both story elements and the visual language of art.

This is important because much a persons intelligence is developed before the age of 8, and even the youngest children's brains are growing and making determinations about the world around them. One should therefore very the child's experiences while also giving them lots of social and discussion time.

It can be said the function of pictures in picture books are much the same as the function of text, to provide the child an opportunity to learn the visual language. Also pictures provide parents a point of interesting discussion with the child, what is often forgotten with picture books is that before the child can read they are not the reader of the picture book or the primary interpreter, their parents, teachers, older siblings, etc are the primary readers. These people discuss the pictures in a picture book with the child and so the child is able to understand the pictures better then one would  think they should.

One thing that keeps children from developing an interest in picture books is that for many adults picture books can be boring despite the fact that they provide social time with their child, after all children are amused by some of the strangest things in the books, and love the repetitions in the book, or in reading a book over and over again. Parents however should keep in mind that it is repetitiveness and interest which help to drive a child’s learning. Such potential boredom with picture books helps to bring up another important point about them, this is that high quality picture books should also provide some interest for those who are older then children as will. After all much of the greatest entertainment for children is actually family entertainment. Movies have already discovered this, and so many of these such as "Finding Nemo" have many variables in meaning, as while as artwork which would appeal to anyone. So although picture books need to appeal to children, having story points they can understand and pictures they would love, they should also be geared towards others, with story points for older people and pictures nearly anyone would like. For picture books are read to children, and so these stories impact and are impacted by older brothers reading to little sisters, aunts reading to nephews, fathers reading to sons, and preschool teachers reading to a dozen children. 

This understanding that picture books are often read to children brings up another reason that children’s literature is so often picture books. This is that those reading picture books often do not like to read long stories, however the story has to be full in order to capture and keep their attention and build the literary intelligence of the child. A picture provides a means to add more information with out having to add a lot of text, because once a child learns to understand the visual language they will be able to see descriptions, events, ideas, emotions, and more in the illustrations of the picture book.

Great picture books are those which speak to both parents and children. This is because one of the main reasons children don’t learn to love literature is that a parent might get bored reading a picture books. Picture books then are not for young children so much as they are for people within groups. The great movies for children have discovered this as will, thus the reason for companies like Pixar’s great success. Many picture books have learned to tell stories to adults as well, through their imagery and their beautiful interplay of text and pictures these stories have become fun for adults as well.

Picture books speak to the audience very differently for other literature, for while most literature is limited to only words to tell stories, picture book utilize images. In our society pictures, and visual cues have become another language, one which we all know surprisingly well, even when we aren’t thinking about it. This is the interesting thing about illustrations, that often times they tell a story without the person reading them knowing it. Some have presumed that the fact that they are not aware of what critics and visual theorists say makes these things unimportant, or untrue. However the difference between a good picture book and a poor one often hinges on the way the pictures tell a story many people are not overtly aware of.

The illustrations in picture books have many methods of telling stories, a good example  of how picture books tell stories is found in the Wiesner’s 2007 Caldecott winner “Floatsom.” Wiesner has won three Caldecotts, two for wordless picture books. Having no text in the picture book makes it much easier to see and understand the way in which the illustrations are communicating to the readers, and with a master like Wiesner one sees how this is done well.

In Floatsom Wiesner tells much of the story through sequence, within the picture book sequence is very important to meaning, because as humans we are skilled at watching visual events unfold in order to understand a story. As the protagonist of the picture book becomes excited to get pictures developed the number of pictures in the sequence increases to build energy. The hand off of the film to the girl working at the counter requires two pictures, by showing her less interested in the second picture Wiesner  has given the viewer the opportunity to contrast the two character, his interest, passion, and excitement, verse her more jaded outlook on life. As this story is about discovering wonder this contrast is important to the overall message and theme of the picture book. Then as the main character waits for film to be developed Wiesner uses multiple pictures of the same shot, letting the viewers see the passage of time.

In “Blue Berries for Sal” McCloskey illustrates a sequence of events regarding the human mother and her daughter Sal. McCloskey then illustrates the same sequence of events with the bears. Textually what each says is fairly different, though both are coming to gather blue berries for the winter, the bears and humans have drastically different thoughts about how to go about this. The text in this case supports and divides the illustrations, allowing the viewers/readers of the picture book to see the connection between the characters quickly. While allowing for a more direct understanding of the contrast between and relationship between their lives and ideas. The matched sequence in McCloskey’s story also lets the reader know that these two sets of characters are going to meet up. So with a simple sequence McCloskey has provided his simple story with foreshadowing as will as with additional thoughts to ponder.

Composition of the Illustration

Part of what makes McCloskey’s sequence of drawings work so well is the composition of the pictures which he draws. He has the mom and the girl walking from page left to right while he also has the bears walking from page right to left. This lets us know that these two are heading towards each other. Further when each set of characters is headed home they head back the way they came, allowing the viewers to visually know that they are leaving the meeting world, the place where humans and nature come together for food and going back to the place they came from.

The picture book Owl Moon illustrated by John Schoenherr utilizes composition for a similar purpose, allowing the readers to see the characters moving into the woods, and seeing them walk home. It is interesting to note however that when the protagonists of the story finally do get to spot an owl they spot it in the same direction home is. By having the characters face home rather then the wilderness Schoenherr is drawing in the connection between the force of nature and the humans in its realm. This is done quickly so that there can be only a few pictures of the owl itself, in order to build anticipation for the moment they see the owl. The Owl Moon also utilizes broad negative space to both ad energy to the figures and to make the background as still as it would be on the moonlit night in which the story takes place.

Sendak utilizes composition in his master piece “Where the Wild Things Are.” This book tells the story of a boy as he heads out into the wild of his mind. As his fantasy grows and grows the pictures within the book grow larger and larger, then as the boy (Max) leaves his imaginary world to return home the pictures grow smaller and smaller. The story in this way tells both of the vast size of the mind and the intimacy of home. Something that is reinforced by the fact that dinner is waiting for Max on his return home.

Distance of the characters

The Owl Moon like so many other picture books also utilizes apparent distance from objects and characters as a means of telling the story. In this picture book the figures draw closer and closer as they enter and ultimately connect with nature by calling out for the owl. When the owl doesn’t come, and after it leaves the apparent distance from the characters grows larger. In this book then we are lead to understand that the father and child grow closer to each other as they grow closer to nature.

Molly Bang in her picture book “Goose” does something similar, though in her book distance is meant to show the depression and isolation of being alone, and the joy of being with and returning to ones family. In Krykarka’s “A Promise is a Promise” Distance is used in a different way with the pushing in close to the characters representing fear, much as with would in film. This closer proximity to the characters draws viewers into their fear and so heightens the sense of danger and tension.

McCloskey in “Make Way for Ducklings” utilizes distance as a means of giving details, letting the viewers see the a bike headed for the ducklings before they do, then showing the readers the bike nearly hitting them up close in order to pull the viewers into the sense of danger the mother duckling feels at that moment.

Style in the Picture Book

One of the first things that readers of picture books will notice is the style of art the illustrator chose to utilize in creating the book. Style is a very important aspect of the story, altering its mood greatly. The black and white stippling work done by Van Alsburg in Zathura is reminiscent of television fuzz, a left over form the big bang. This lets the reader know immediately on reading t5he title that this is a science fiction style book. What’s more the story seems to call back to the begging for wisdom. In this case this is that one should be nice to their little brothers. This is seemingly in contrast with Ban Allsburg’s similar tale Jumangi, which has smooth highly rendered graphite drawings. These drawings are so realistic in the Western Artistic understanding that they become surreal. This stories visual style along with the other elements of the picture book seems to say that one should be careful not to let their dreams take control of them. At the same time by not showing the faces of any adults in the book Van Allsburg makes the story a privet dream for children.

In some senses the meaning of Jumangi and Zathura are similar, in Zathura however the older brother learns that his younger brothers dreams will impact him even if the he ignores the younger brother. This picture book then is about imagining along with those close to you.

In a very different style of picture book “Knuffle Bunny Too” by Mo Williams, the reader is treated to drawings that allude to the Saturday morning cartoon, helping to insure that this picture book will be light hearted, fun, and funny.



Best Picture Books

Best Fantasy Picture Books