By Molly Alexander
As winter approaches, we hope everyone enjoys some cozy days curled up with a good book. Picture books have the power to take us on adventures to imaginary landscapes, transporting us to new places and experiences. Picture books can be especially magical when we take the time to slow down and pay close attention to the illustrations. The art in picture books can inspire even the youngest reader to become an active participant in the creation of a story.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” As one of our five senses, vision is relied upon to make sense of our world beginning in infancy. Young children can read pictures long before they can read words. Pictures have been used to tell stories throughout human history, from cave paintings, to ancient pottery and stained glass windows, all the way up to contemporary picture book art. Images tell stories and they should be read as carefully as any text. As children’s book author and illustrator Uri Shulevitz puts it, children’s book artists are “writing with pictures.”
What happens when we slow down and take the time to look closely at illustrations? Looking closely helps us to see so much more than we may have noticed upon our first impression. When you engage with your child around illustrations, wonderful conversations can take place by asking simple questions such as “What do you notice? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find?”
Line, color, proportion, and shape play a central role in telling a story. Meaning and emotions can be conveyed through color, texture, and perspective. The design elements of picture books (size, orientation, use of space, borders and frames, etc.) also participate in the telling of a story. For example, in Jan Brett’s The Mitten, images along the borders are used to provide additional information and foreshadowing as the story unfolds. A square layout of a book such as A Good Day by Kevin Henkes can conjure feelings of safety and coziness, while a large vertical layout of a book like Madeline by Ludwig Bemelman creates the space for the viewer to experience the height of the Eiffel tower and the “old house in Paris covered in vines” as well as the smallness of Madeline.
Wordless picture books in particular show us how a story can be told through images alone. One of the most delightful aspects of wordless picture books is that they can be “read” by pre-readers and beginning readers, speakers of all languages, and illiterate or semi-literate adults who want to read with children. Simply exploring the illustrations on each page, discussing what you see, what the characters are doing and feeling, the setting, and sequence of events can lead to a rich shared family reading experience.
One of the most pleasurable aspects of focusing on illustrations with your child is getting a little window into their observations and thoughts! Every person brings their own prior visual experiences into how they understand an image. For example, one day shortly after Halloween, after many experiences playing with pumpkins, my toddler looked at the cover of I Like Me! By Nancy Carlson and announced, “She’s sitting on a green pumpkin!” Once you get into the practice of talking about what you see together, you will start to hear more and more of your child’s unique perspective.
Time spent noticing and appreciating the illustrations together in picture books will support your child’s development of visual literacy skills. The National Art Education Association describes visual literacy as the ability to interpret, comprehend, appreciate, use, and create visual media. Visual literacy is critical in helping us understand our world, especially since we are surrounded by visual images— on boxes of food, signs, murals, television, social media, emojis, the internet, etc. How can children learn to interpret images and make meaning out of them? Reading picture books together is a fantastic way to promote visual literacy skills.
The next time you settle down with a book together, whether it’s a new title or a beloved old favorite, we encourage you to pay more attention to what the illustrations have to offer. We hope you discover something new to savor! Here are some recommendations for excellent wordless picture books:
The Red Book by Barbara Lehman
Draw! By Raúl Colón
The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney
Flotsam by David Wiesner
A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka
If you’re feeling inspired to dig deeper into visual literacy, we encourage you to check out these wonderful resources:
- Toledo Museum of Art Resources
- The Whole Book Approach by Megan Dowd Lambert
- Speechless: The Art of Wordless Picture Books. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art has this exhibition on view until December 5th, and there’s still time to check it out online at the Carle’s website!