Storytime · Training Courses · Ways to Inspire Reading

“Do you see what I see?”: How to interpret picture books.

“What does the composition of the picture tell you about the characters?

How does the use of space make you feel?

What does the viewpoint tell you about what’s happening?

And why is the dog talking?!”

I’ve often sat in front of a class or a book group with a Greenaway shortlisted title in my hand, asking children of all ages questions about the illustrator’s use of colour, or what the endpapers or title page tell us about the story. But if I’m really honest, most of that was taken straight from the teacher resources on their very helpful website. And quite often, if confronted with an uncommunicative class, or an unenthusiastic book group, I didn’t really know what to say next.

Guardian Pic Book Blog Photo

I’ve never been much good with art. Neither the creation of it (“draw me a dinosaur mummy. Not a cat, a dinosaur silly”!) nor the interpretation of it. So, courtesy of the wonderful Guardian Reading for Pleasure conference (which I thoroughly recommend for all teachers and librarians with a passion for inspiring kids to read) I found myself sat in Mathew Tobin’s workshop on using Picture Books for Older readers. Ready to learn.

Mathew is passionate about the power of picture books, and especially the impact a good picture book can have on older children, say Yr 5 and 6. But how can you tell a good picture book from a mediocre one? Mathew showed us the classic story John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat by Jenny Wagner (pictured below), and after giving us a brief run down of the things you should be aware of when looking at illustration, we were off, discussing the imagery and what we thought it all meant. And by the end of it, I actually felt like I understood the book. That I could appreciate the skill of the author and discuss with authority what she was trying to communicate through the pictures. It was like magic! So for anyone who, like me, shrinks slightly when presented with Shaun Tan’s “Rules of Summer” and a KS2 class to discuss it with, here is a brief summary of the things to look out for when discussing picture books. and some links to explore this further .

John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat

Start by examining the cover closely, and then take your time to read the book looking carefully at all of the pictures. The pictures can amplify, elaborate , or extend the text, or they can contradict it. What is the relationship between the text and the illustration?

Then consider some key pages, bearing the following in mind….

1) Size matters. As does position…. Of the characters. High on the page equals happy or powerful, and low can mean sad, or weak. The larger the character, the more powerful they are, and if they’re central on the page then they’re central to the story and in control. On the outskirts of the page, they’re possibly marginalised and less powerful.

2) Where are they going? The main characters are often on a ‘journey’ of sorts, and travel from left to right across the page. Left of the page (or the gutter) can be interpreted as safer, more secure but perhaps restricted, to the right of the page lies adventure, risk or freedom.

3) Reader viewpoint. Are you in line with the characters, going with them on their journey? Or looking down on them, if they are weak or unstable in some way? Or are they above you, which can indicate security? Or are they facing away from you, inviting the reader to decide what they are thinking or feeling?

4) Framing. If the pictures are breaking out of a frame, then this often suggests escape or freedom. A circular frame around a character can indicate security and contentment, whereas a spiky or rectangular frame can mean the opposite.

5) Balance. If you divide the picture into segments (cut it up along the horizontal/vertical/diagonal like a pizza!) what is in each segment? Are they balanced or is one dominant? Why?

6) And finally… Don’t forget to look at the size of the book, the shape of the book, the title page and the end papers. A picture book is a work of art.. all of it has been carefully constructed by the author to tell you something.

I’m approaching my forthcoming Greenaway shadowing groups with a new confidence this year; I feel better equipped to find meaning in the books, and I’m less terrified that I’ll run out of things to say. I might even enjoy myself.

Especially now that I know that when discussing picture books, there are never any wrong answers.

Written by Emily Pailing, SLS Librarian


This is a very brief summary by a novice about a massive topic. For more info please have a look at Mathew’s excellent blog  especially his post “Why Picturebooks Matter”.

Or get a copy of “Looking at Pictures in Picture Books” by Jane Doonan.

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