Reading Picture Books: So What?

The past two weeks in the Children’s Literature course that I teach, we spent the majority of the time discussing picture books. Two weeks ago they read an article by Lawrence Sipe titled, Learning the Language of Picturebooks (1998). It is sometimes overwhelming for the students – a common assumption is that picturebooks are simple, cute, colorful and fun and this article has a glossery of almost four pages. Perspective, point of view, front matter, gutter, frame, bleed and peritext are just a few of the terms. They read about even more this week as they read the chapter from their textbook about illustrative elements like color, line, shape, medium, and style.

My goal is to extend their assumption about simplicity as the only view of picturebooks. To not only show them examples of sophistication, beauty, complexity, and edginess but to give them tools so that they can engage deeply with picturebooks. Giving students specific language and then practicing using that language is a key way that I move them towards seeing and discussing their observations and responses to a wide range of picturebooks.

I often use When Sophie Gets Angry, Very, Very Angry by Molly Bang as the first book that we look at it together. Color, line and extension of text with the illustrations are clear and accessible for a first discussion. As they start to point out observations about color in the lines around Sophie, I ask them to extend their observation and answer “So what”?

This question allows each of them to think about how the color (or line, shape, etc) impacts them individually as a reader. It empowers them to begin to trust themselves as readers of the text, the illustrations and the synergy of the two.

We’ll be having our first book discussion this week with Grandpa Green by Lane Smith (recent winner of a Caldecott Honor Medal). The entire class reads the book (multiple times), writes a response paper prior to class, and then we will have a discussion about the book in small groups and as an entire class. I can not wait to hear and read what they have to say.

Sipe, L. (1998). Learning the language of picturebooks. Journal of Children’s Literature, 24(2), 66-75.


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