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English Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Picture Books

Among the static images with which young students first become familiar are those found in picture books. Picture books are also an excellent means of exploring visual language for students from year 1 to year 13. Many picture books are very sophisticated, both in the features and conventions of visual language they use and in the effects and meanings they communicate. Some use words, and some do not, but they all use a range of particular visual features and conventions.

In picture books with words, the relationship between words and images is crucial. Picture books are not texts with illustrations; rather, they combine verbal and visual features as an integrated whole to communicate particular information, feelings, and meanings. A picture book for a young child might use visual features to depict and reinforce a specific aspect of the written text; another might provide subtle subtexts and elaboration of ideas.

Greedy Cat, by Joy Cowley, with illustrations by Robyn Belton (Wellington: Department of Education, 1983)

This interdependence of written text and visual images is exemplified in the Ready to Read title Greedy Cat, where the narrator is only implicit in the verbal account of events but is significant in indicating visually to the reader her dismay at Greedy Cat's increasing raids on the shopping basket. Her vain attempts to attract her mum's attention form an ironic subplot. The text is spare: no verbal links are made between Greedy Cat's inspection of the goodies and his "Gobble, gobble, gobble". The pictures show us the trail of sausages and other foods and link the actions. The interplay between visual and verbal features enriches meaning and interpretation.

The techniques and the technologies used to convey the visual features in picture books reflect the purpose and audience. Pictures may be line work, in ink or other media, where clear lines or blocks of colour give fine definition or detail. Or pictures may be tone work, monochromatic, or with a narrow range of colours, which includes shading and creates softer effects that reflect a gentler mood. Bolder line techniques may indicate movement and produce a feeling of dynamic energy or animation.

Pastels, chalk, and charcoal may complement the words in an evocative type of narrative. Watercolour can provide fine washes of colour, often appropriate to rural scenes and, of course, the sea, and bolder, thicker media, including oil and gouache, may be selected for vigorous texts.

Teachers should encourage students to investigate the techniques and media used in picture books in order to understand how the technologies have been used to achieve different effects and to relate these to purpose and audience. The framework for analysis outlined on pages 181-2 can be used in conjunction with exploring how the visual elements of typography, colour, shape, proportion, and composition have been combined with the text to communicate meanings.

The Longest Scarf in the World, by Roger Hall, with illustrations by Clare Bowes (Wellington: Learning Media, Ministry of Education, 1992)

The illustration by Clare Bowes from The Longest Scarf in the World shows the usually vivid, colourful scarf submerged in water. This wordless picture book is a narrative that was originally written as a text by Roger Hall. The story was published entirely in pictures that effectively convey the determination and adventures of the knitter and invite the reader to interpret visual language. It is an interesting example to consider in terms of the technology chosen to achieve its effects.

Window, by Jeannie Baker (London: Red Fox, 1992)

In Window by Jeannie Baker, the artwork was prepared as collage constructions and reproduced from photographs. The author selected these materials and this technology to meet her purposes, and again it is interesting to consider the effectiveness of the choice. Each double-page spread shows the motif of a single-textured, coloured illustration of a window. The foregrounds include details like birthday cards, which help the reader to trace Sam's growing up and the passage of time. The background, which we can see through the window, shows the changes in the originally rural landscape as it is increasingly built on. The illustrations invite the reader to compare what can be seen when Sam is two years old with the view depicted when he is twenty and to predict what will be presented when Sam is twenty-four and the story ends. These pictures provide extensive and detailed information as well as conveying ideas about change that demand a response.

Summary of Terms

line work tone work

Exploring language content page

Published on: 07 May 2009