Many experts believe that the staple of a truly great picture book is a balance between text and illustrations that captures the essence of the story. The yin and yang of text and illustration encourages children to think creatively by comparing and contrasting the visual and literal contents that are represented in the book. Among the first visual materials that children come in contact with, illustrations in picture books play an important role in jump-starting their visual literacy.

When you look at a well executed illustration closely, you can tell that the artist’s unique way of relating to the reader is woven into every line and brushstroke, shape and shade. Educators at many art museums call this “visual thinking strategy.” The same method can be applied when looking at illustrations in picture books during storytime.

Below are some examples of things you can talk about with your child when you’re looking at a picture book illustration. To mark Maurice Sendak’s recent passing, let’s analyze this spread from his classic Where the Wild Things Are in this fashion:

  1. What do the hues the artist used mean to you? Here, the gleaming yellow eyes of the “wild things” and their white fangs and claws are highlighted against the gloomy night sky with the gray-shaded moon. This contrast makes them appear as if they are popping out of the illustration and illustrates their wild and lively characteristics.
  2. What about the lines? The busy, cross-hatching lines add a sense of three-dimensionality to the subjects and enlivens the scene furthermore.
  3. What shapes do you see? There is a running theme of sharp edges throughout the composition; the shape of the crescent moon, the horns and claws of the “wild things,” and the leaves of the indigenous plants seem to echo one another. How does this make you feel?
  4. What about the movement of the characters? The protagonist moves from left to right in conventional picture book design, paralleling the movement of the reader’s eyes as he or she flips the pages. In this scene, Max has just stepped off his boat and emerged as “the most wild thing of all.” As he settles in to his role as the “king of all wild things” in the next several pages, he inches his way further and further to the right of the composition, informing the progression of the narrative.
  5. Frame or no frame? In the beginning of the book, Max is framed within a small space. As he travels towards “where the wild things are,” the frame gradually expands and the forest grows out of the confined space within the frames of the illustrations. Why do you think the artist chose to do this? This illustration fills the upper two thirds of the spread. Does this make you feel like you’re pulled into the space of the picture furthermore?

By using some of these questions and creating your own, try pulling the details apart in your next reading! It’s easy to flip to the next page after finishing the last sentence, but if you take a moment to look at the illustration alone, and I mean really look at it, the details of the narrative slowly surface and enrich you and your child’s storytime experience even more.

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