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The Power of the Illustrated Book

It is said that “A picture is worth a thousand words.” In the case of books, illustrations enhance a story by pulling the reader into the world of the characters in an immediate and visceral fashion. Traditional picture books rely on the artwork to tell a good portion of their stories and children often love to spend time looking at or, depending on the complexity of the pictures (think Jan Brett), finding tiny details that reveal hidden jokes or clues, as well as correlations to or discrepancies between, the illustrations and the text.

Even popular books that are categorized as Juvenile Fiction can contain illustrations, most notably the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and its ilk. Graphic novels have enticed kids into reading history (The Nathan Hale series, for example) and realistic fiction that confronts difficult issues in a manageable way (El Deafo, Smile). Regular comic books with their broad range of topics will always have an audience, whether it’s made up of adults or children.

In recent years, many teachers and parents are discovering the merits of “Picture Books for Older Readers,” as many libraries call them, and what we refer to here at Islip Public Library as “Illustrated Books.” These are books which usually have, more or less, a full-page color illustration on each page, but also have either a large amount of text or complex subject matter that would not appeal to younger children. The visual aspect of an illustrated work can be a powerful medium for both storytelling and teaching, belying any suggestion that picture books are just for small children.

For instance, Patricia Polacco writes books that are highly autobiographical and appeal to younger readers, but she also draws upon memories of older relatives and friends to create works that illuminate parts of history (Pink and Say, The Butterfly, Tucky Jo and Little Heart). Using a personal point of view with pictures depicting those times creates an intimacy with that subject that can be far more illuminating than a history lesson from a textbook.

Unique works that are in unusual formats or handmade works of art from other countries depicting that region’s culture are also included within our collection (Drawing from the City by Tejubehan; Migrant by Jose Manuel Mateo). Teachers who are interested in reinforcing the Common Core standards that concern visual literacy – evaluating and integrating content with written text and assessing how a point of view shapes a work - would do well to consider books such as these. Many standardized tests have “DBQs” or document-based questions that very often include political cartoons of different eras that students are asked to interpret and write about. Reading and discussing an illustrated book is a step toward mastering this skill.

Also, English language learners can employ picture books. Reading illustrated works increases comprehension and vocabulary, and in the case of families, the opportunities to connect parents to children in a rich and rewarding way.

Some children’s authors have said that they have observed their books being utilized by middle and high school readers and see no reason to limit their audience to children of a certain age. “You can get different things from picture books depending on your age. An adult can read a whole other meaning into the book and readers of all ages can appreciate the poetry, the rhyme breaks, hidden rhyme schemes. The possibilities are infinite. ” says Jacqueline Woodson. She urges parents, or the adults who are the “gatekeepers” to what books a child has access to, to eliminate the stigma of reading picture books and consider the range of social issues and relevance of the story, as well as the complexity of the text and artwork.

Naturally, the book works best if the language and artwork blend well. Illustrator Chris Soentpiet says that reading deeply the text of a book he is working on is how he develops the ideas for his pictures. “One word, just one word, might inspire an entire painting. It’s about studying the word.”

The potential of these types of books is still evolving and will continue to do so in our current multimedia culture. They are poetry and portable art galleries. They contain insights and object lessons. And they are relevant for readers of any age.

The following “Illustrated Books” are some of my personal favorites:

A Boy and His Jaguar: By Alan Rabinowitz; pictures by Catia Chen

The renowned cat conservationist reflects on his early childhood struggles with a speech disorder, describing how he only spoke fluently when he was communicating with animals and how he resolved at a young age to find his voice to be their advocate.

Advice to the Little Girls: By Mark Twain; pictures by Vladimir Radunsky

The nineteenth-century American humorist, Mark Twain, offers alternatives to little girls who sass their teachers, hurl mud at their brothers, or covet their friends' expensive china dolls.

Cowboy and Octopus: By Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

Cowboy and Octopus maintain their friendship despite different opinions about things like beans and knock-knock jokes.

Amelia and Eleanor go for a Ride: By Pam Munoz Ryan; pictures by Brian Selznick

A fictionalized account of the night Amelia Earhart flew Eleanor Roosevelt over Washington, D.C. in an airplane.

Testing the Ice: By Sharon Robinson; pictures by Kadir Nelson

As a testament to his courage, Jackie Robinson's daughter shares memories of him, from his baseball career to the day he tests the ice for her, her brothers, and their friends.

Sparrow Girl: By Sara Pennypacker; pictures by Yoko Tanaka

When China's leader Mao Zedong declares a war on sparrows, Ming-Li cannot think of the sky without birds in it, and while her countrymen are killing the birds, she and her brother try to save as many as they can.

The Wall: Growing up Behind the Iron Curtain: By Peter Sis

In this powerful memoir, annotated Illustrations, maps and dreamscapes explore how the artist-author’s life was shaped while growing up in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War.

My Uncle Emily: By Jane Yolen; pictures by Nancy Carpenter

In 1881 Amherst, Massachusetts, six-year-old Gilbert finds it both challenging and wonderful to spend time with his aunt, the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, who lives next door.

Christmas in the Trenches: By John McCutcheon; pictures by Henri Sorensen

A World War I veteran tells his grandson of his experiences in 1914, when British and German soldiers declared a truce from fighting to celebrate Christmas together. A music CD is included.

For further picture book suggestions suitable for older readers try the Cooperative Children’s Book Center: https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu

Michele Ferrari

Michele Ferrari

International woman of mystery Michele Ferrari is a voracious reader of just about everything. Striving desperately not to become her neighborhood’s “Crazy Cat Lady” (it may already be too late!), she has been a resident of Islip for over 25 years, with a lot of Buccaneer’s paraphernalia to prove it. She enjoys laughing at absurdities and introducing the right reader to the perfect book. Click here to subscribe to Michele Ferrari's blog posts!

Sandy - May 8, 2017

Lovely article, Michele! People really underestimate the power of picture books. I’ve also noticed that a lot of times, people don’t appreciate the work it takes for writers and illustrators to create picture books—the level of complexity and vocabulary in them are higher than that of easy readers! I’ll have to check out your recommendations; thank you for sharing! 🙂

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