Getting to grips with the mechanics of Picture books

I think it’s safe to say that most of us love a picture book. When you can find five minutes to snuggle down on the sofa, or under the duvet, with a small person enveloped in a perfect combination of arms, books and often a soft toy or two, then the moments of escape from reality feel magical.

In a classroom it might be a different, less snuggly experience, but the magic of it shouldn’t be lost. The secret is, making it a safe space, for everyone to be able to say something about the story and as adults we need to stop and think, not just of the words, but to linger over the images too.

Take an old classic, Maurice Sendak’s, Where the Wild Things Are.
Here we think we know it. It’s one of those I call a boomerang book, just when you think you can’t read it anymore, it turns up on your lap again. When this book comes out of my bag at university, and in conferences it’s almost always met with nostalgic sighs. But when I read it with adults and I ask them to focus on the pictures, they are, more often then not, perplexed and then surprised ‘How did I not notice that?’
Let’s take a step back a minute.
Traditional picture books tend to have an adult side (the left), where the writing is, and a child side (the right), where the image is.
Pick up Jill Murphy’s ‘Mr and Mrs Large’ series, or John Burningham’s ‘Shirley’ series and you may well note this pattern.
The same thing can be seen in Where the Wild Things Are.

Ask the children to look at what happens to the picture as the story goes on. They will be quick to point out to you that the image gets bigger and bigger. It begins in a small box, with the writing on the ‘adult’ side. As each page turns, Max’s space becomes more dominant.

Soon the trees have outgrown the frame. Turn again, and the tree has encroached onto the ‘adult’ side, right by the words. There follow brief moments were the words are pushed to the bottom of the page as Max’s fantasy escape continues.

At the moment of complete carnival, once the ‘Wild Rumpus’ has begun there are no words, and it is no consequence that there are no adults either.
There are three pages of partying and mayhem (ish), as above, before Max begins to feel the error of his ways; loneliness encroaches, and the words return.

After these image-dominant pages,  ask the children to focus again on the size of the picture. The children will note how they image begins to shrink again, and that the words, the pictures  and Max, go back to their rightful sides (the image on the right hand side and Max to his room).

By the end, Max has followed the home/away/home pattern (see Perry Nodelman for more on this theory) of much children’s literature, his adventure is at a close, and he returns home. But note, and ask the children to note, what happens on the very last page?  Why are there only words? Where ahs the picture gone?  What might this say about adults?

Let the discussion begin and listen to the sound of the next generation of critical readers….

See more on this in resources….

Ann Alston

Text here