Teach art literacy when sharing picture books

When children start to “read” picture books, generally they are reading the pictures; that is, they are trying to get meaning from the pictures since they can’t read the words yet.

They might study the appearance of a character, noting if it is a boy or girl from the clothes. Or they might look at the dark swirling clouds or the beaming sun to discover the atmosphere of the story. They might look at the colors the illustrator uses. Bright colors and pastels might indicate a happy or peaceful theme; dark colors or colors tinged with greys and blacks might indicate danger. Horizontal lines or smooth lines might indicate calm while jagged or diagonal lines might indicate action.

children looking at picture of Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln

Some children perceive these clues without explicit instruction, but many children need someone to point out how colors, lines, and facial expressions tell the story too.

According to research by Kathleen Ellen O’Neil, illustrations can interact with the text in four different ways.

  • The art can reinforce the text, “showing” the text. For example, in “The Mitten,” adapted and illustrated by Jan Brett, a boy loses a mitten which his grandmother has just knit. One by one, we see animals from a tiny mole to an adult bear squeezing in to the mitten. The illustrations show the hedgehog’s quills and the badger’s nose poking through the wool.
  • The art can supplement the text, providing description which the text either skimps on or doesn’t describe at all. For example, also in “The Mitten,” we see the boy dressed in a Ukranian tunic, leather pants and boots with folk art borders. The book doesn’t mention where the setting is, but the art shows.
  • The art can provide far greater detail than the text, offering new insights which a literally-minded child might miss. It can illustrate nuances, inferences, humor and irony, adding depth to the text. In “The Mitten,” for example, the boy finds his mitten after the animals have left it behind, and he brings it home. The last page of the story shows the grandmother holding both mittens and noticing how much bigger one is than the other. No words are used, but we can hear her wondering, “How in the world?”
  • The art can convey a parallel story which either expands the text or contradicts it. Still in “The Mitten,” to the left side of almost every page we see the boy playing in the snow—hopping on a log where the rabbit lives, poking with a stick above the hedgehog’s burrow, looking in a tree’s knothole where the owl lives and climbing atop a woodpile where the fox lives. To the right side of those pages we see an animal leaving its disturbed home, and on the next page that animal squeezes into the mitten. Nothing in the text says that the boy disturbed the animals, forcing them to seek shelter elsewhere. A discerning youngster might notice it, but many children will need this part of the story explained.

For more information and other examples of books which clearly show the four different kinds of art interaction with text, go to the November 2011 issue of “The Reading Teacher,” page 214, for the article by Ms. O’Neil.

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