I really dislike it when people say that picture books are just for young children or beginning readers. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that I never grew out of them myself and have an ever-expanding wish list. Casting slurs on my level of maturity and all that…
Anyway, as a primary teacher, picture books are one of my favourite resources and I use them across all grade levels. Most people are familiar with the quote: “A picture speaks a thousand words”. What I consider to be one of the most beneficial characteristics of pictures is that these “thousand words” are those of the reader. A good picture book is rich and open to a variety of interpretations. It can spark discussion and engagement with difficult or controversial concepts. Whilst they do provide an avenue into literacy for struggling readers, it can be too easy to downplay what they have to offer to students who have excellent skills in this area. The beauty of a text that is so open to interpretation is that everyone can access it at their own level and pull different meaning from it depending on their skills and background knowledge. You could probably compare it to an allegory, which can be read at face value or with the deeper meaning in mind.
Another advantage of picture books, as compared to written texts like novels, is the interplay between the words and the pictures. What is not said is just as, if not more, important than what is said. This technique creates much of the humour and appeal in picture books, and can inspire students to be creative and think outside of the box. The last element that I particularly appreciate is that of “defamiliarisation”. Essentially this refers to a technique by which familiar things are put in unfamiliar contexts or described in unfamiliar ways. I find this really useful for extending the thinking of those students who always want to know “the right answer” or tend towards common or stereotypical interpretations of meaning.
In hindsight, I should have been aware of just how hard it is to narrow my favourite picture books down to a short list! These are just a few of the ones I like to use with older students:
· I love anything by Shaun Tan. He is one of those authors who has a very unique perspective and imagination. Every time I read one of his books, I notice something new. Titles include Tales from Outer Suburbia, The Arrival, Rules of Summer and The Lost Thing.
· Libby Hathorn’s Way Home is a really touching and confronting picture book about homeless children. Very thought-provoking!
· Anything at all by Oliver Jeffers! I am yet to pick up a book by him that hasn’t made me laugh. At first glance they are very simple, but when you read them closely they are incredibly creative in their simplicity, which prompts some great discussion. Favourites include Once Upon an Alphabet, The Day the Crayons Quit, The Great Paper Caper, The Heart and the Bottle, Stuck, The Incredible Book-Eating Boy, and This Moose Belongs to Me.
· Imagine a Day and Imagine a Night (Rob Gonsalves & Sarah Thomson) – these books provide some of the best stimuli for creating writing I’ve seen.
· Erika’sStory (Ruth van der Zee), RoseBlanche (Roberto Innocenti) and Letthe Celebration Begin (Margaret Wild & Julie Vivas) are some of my favourite picture books about the Holocaust.
· Jeannie Baker’s two books Window and Belonging are wordless and show changes in an environment over time. Really good discussion starters and writing prompts!
· The Peasant Prince (Li Cunxin & Anne Spudvilas) is the children’s version of Mao’s Last Dancer. One of its best points for use as a teaching resource is how it represents the fables and stories that inspire the main character. You end up with rich, thought-provoking “stories within a story”.
Thank you to Zana, my lovely enthusiastic daughter who is venturing out as a new graduate teacher, for sharing some of the ways she uses picture books in her teaching.