Picture perfect: The role of picture books in a secondary classroom

Trisha Templeton, a teacher librarian, considers the value of examining sophisticated picture books in secondary classrooms.

Picture books are frequently used in learning and teaching for young children. However, this style of narrative is pushing the boundaries in educational practice. Research has shown that picture books can be used to teach multiliteracies and other curriculum content to older students. Picture books can also operate as a means of broaching sensitive subjects (Marsh, 2010).

Unlike ‘illustrated books’, where images are usually decorative, picture books require images to be the central feature working concurrently with the written text (Barone, 2011). As Dawn Marsh (2010) suggests, both images and written text are required for decoding the story. Titles such as Mem Fox’s ‘Where is the Green Sheep?’ and Alison Lester’s ‘Are We There Yet?’ are fine examples of traditional picture books. Their format is ideal for younger children as the illustrations assist the reader in decoding the written text.

Recent decades have seen a sub-genre emerge in the form of ‘postmodern’ picture books. These are designed to provoke and stimulate the reader with absent or contradictory text (Aitken, 2007). The classification ‘postmodern’ generally applies to picture books which employ techniques that operate to subvert the traditional picture book. Devices and techniques used by authors and illustrators of postmodern picture books can include: a non-traditional plot structure, intertextuality, parody, pastiche, metafictive devices, unusual design layout, pictorial fonts, or surprising perspectives. Sometimes they even omit the written text altogether.

The absence of written text encourages a reader to ‘self author’ and fill in the dialogue (Aitken, 2007), as is the case with Flotsam by David Wiesner. In Flotsam, the reader is required to apply prior knowledge and understanding of the beach to decode the illustrations (Panteleo, 2018). Older readers may perceive the overt message of escapism and fantastical stories as well as the underlying message of tradition and conservation. Another example in the postmodern vein is Wiesner’s book ‘The Three Pigs’. This retelling of a well known tale has several contradictions between words and images, compelling readers to re-read the page and search for details previously missed (Aitken, 2007).

Compared to traditional picture books, where the author’s voice is strong, postmodern picture books allow for a change in narration and perspective (Aitken, 2007). In ‘Flotsam’, the reader is required to bring their own knowledge and experiences to the narrative. The lack of written text encourages a reader to engage more deeply with the storyline and characters, and the visual text is more likely to activate the experience of different emotional responses or cognitive thought processes.

More sophisticated picture books, that is those which provide various levels of meaning, integrate multiple narratives, deal with complex issues or emotions, use rich literary devices, and/or include intertextual references, are aimed towards older readers. These books are particularly useful in secondary school classrooms. They have great capability to provide learning and teaching experiences and can be used as a vehicle to teach content, multiple literacies, and to influence social and emotional development (Pantaleo, 2014). John Marsden and Shaun Tan’s ‘The Rabbits’ (1998), Shaun Tan’s ‘The Red Tree’ (2001), Bruce Whatley’s ‘Ruben’ (2018) and Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood’s ‘The Feather’ (2018) are all excellent examples of sophisticated picture books. Such texts often integrate postmodern elements, encouraging readers to question both the content and the format in greater detail.

The ability to decode and make cognitive connections is not inherent. Children and young adults often need to re-read such books multiple times and have discussions with others in order to understand the various nuances (McDonald, 2013). Such subtleties will manifest differently with different readers. Interpretations will depend upon personal cognition and experience. This means that sophisticated picture books are ideal for classrooms with diverse needs, as the book itself may be an aid to differentiating learning.

There are many advantages to using picture books in a secondary classroom. The obvious advantage is their brevity. These concise books can be useful for introducing engaging thematic units of work. They also provide an alternative as class texts for reluctant readers, students struggling with literacy or those who do not speak English at home. Another advantage is the apparent innocence that surrounds picture books (Marsh, 2010). Their familiar structure can be reassuring for students as many remember them from their own childhood and early schooling. Consequently, such books are often seen as non threatening, and student resistance is reduced.

Of further significance is the fact that the ‘image’ has become essential to daily communication and, in some instances, has supplanted the alphabet in terms of importance (Short, 2018; Ross-Johnston, 2014). Rosemary Ross-Johnston (2014, p 619) is adamant that students need to be competent in image analysis across various contexts. But in order for adolescents to be able to make successful connections between literacy and comprehension, they need to learn the skills to decode language and symbols. This can be achieved through the use of challenging picture books as a focus for learning and teaching.

Picture books often connect with popular culture and the new texts, technologies and literacies that accompany it (Flores-Koulish & Smith- D’Arezzo, 2016). Kendall Haven (2007) reminds us that storytelling is the most fundamental way humans have sought to understand the complexities of life. Therefore narratives operate at the base level of understanding and are within everyone’s capability. Traditional stories with clear demarcations of beginning, middle and end, allow children to organise information in a logical manner (Haven, 2007). More complex picture books, with contrary and/or absent text, force the reader to make their own connections, which promotes critical thinking (Short, 2018).

Considering these predominantly visual texts from another perspective, it has been well established that emotional regulation is important for social development and is the basis of human interactions (Harper, 2016). Laurie Harper (2016) believes that picture books provide an excellent framework to convey messages about empathy and tolerance. Emotional literacy, is the ability to regulate one’s emotions in social situations. Conflict resolution, common in playgrounds, sports grounds, canteens, boardrooms and bedrooms, all require competence in social and emotional literacy. In fact any positive social interaction needs parties to be emotionally literate. Reading and the analysis of literature involves a reader in connecting with characters, which often generates increased levels of sensitivity and empathy.

The strength of literary works lies in the assumption that readers are able to vicariously experience a character’s conflict and thus develop an understanding of their feelings. Sophisticated picture books use illustrations and text to elicit an emotional response in the reader. For instance, in ‘Ruben’ Bruce Whatley uses monochromatic images to show the harsh dystopian world in which the protagonist has to survive. Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood employ various points of view in ‘The Feather’ to draw the reader into the images. In ‘The Rabbits’ John Marsden and Shaun Tan portray the invaders as pompous, barrel shaped creatures who are oblivious to the presence of the original inhabitants. This allegorical tale uses satire to point out the devastation the colonisers inflicted on indigenous peoples and forces the reader to re-evaluate historical versions of such events. Shaun Tan’s story of a forlorn child in ‘The Red Tree’ offers the reader a visual representation of what depression may feel like. The vivid imagery of a monstrous fish, the sketchings of endless days, and the depiction of being close to drowning gives readers a chance to understand how depression affects people. It also gives students who suffer mental health issues a means to describe their feelings.

Short (2018) reiterates literature’s ultimate purpose in identifying the inner humanity of individuals and ensuring fundamental experiences of life are accessible to all. Sophisticated picture books can be a valuable tool for addressing various cognitive, behavioural and developmental needs of the reader. Given the tendency of images to dominate written text in the modern age, it is important that visual literacy is a focus in the curriculum. Like other narrative texts, picture books have literary merit because they are able to affect the reader significantly (Ross-Johnston, 2014). Picture books are multimodal in nature and provide a means of addressing issues of a sensitive nature. Such publications should be an important part of a high school library collection.

References and further reading

Aiken, A. (2015). Postmodernism and children's literature. ICCTE, 2(2).

Barone, D. M. (2010). Children's literature in the classroom: Engaging lifelong readers. New York: Guilford Publications.

Cornett, C. E. (2014). Creating meaning through literature and the arts: An integration resource for classroom teachers (5th ed.). USA: Pearson.

Flores-Koulish, S. & Smith-D'Arezzo, W. (2016). The three pigs: Can they blow us into critical media literacy old school style? Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 30(3), 349-360.

Haven, K. F. (2007). Story proof: The science behind the startling power of story. Westport, USA: Greenwood Publishing.

Harper, L. (2016). Using picture books to promote social-emotional literacy. YC Young Children, 71(3), 80-86.

Hateley, E. (2013). Reading: From turning the page to touching the screen. In Wu, Y., Mallan, K. & McGillis, R. (Eds.) (Re)imagining the world: Children's literature response to the changing times. Germany: Springer.

Marsh, D. (2010). The case for picture books in secondary schools. LIANZA, 51(4), 237-247.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2012). English K-10 syllabus.

Pantaleo, S. (2014). The metafictive nature of postmodern picture books. Reading Teacher, 67(5), 324-332.

Ross-Johnston, R. (2014). (Fifth edition). Children's literature in the Australian context. In G. Winch, R. Ross-Johnston, P. March, L. Ljungdahl & M. Holliday (Eds.), Literacy: Reading, writing and children’s literature. 557-581.

Short, K. (2018). What's trending in children's literature and why it matters. Language Arts, 95(5), 287-298.

Turner, C. (2014). Opening the portal: An exploration of the use of postmodern picture books to develop critical literacy and contribute to learning in the Australian Curriculum: English. Literacy Learning: Middle Years, (1), 52-61.

Wolfe, S. (2014). Children's literature on the digital move. Reading Teacher, 67(6), 413-417.

How to cite this article – Templeton, T. (2020). Picture perfect: The role of picture books in a secondary classroom. Scan, 39(6).

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