Picture books are a popular book format for youth. They generally combine visual and language elements. In some cases, they depend entirely on pictures to tell the story. Crossing genres, they may include prose or poetry.
Wartenberg (2013, 2) notes that "writers of great picture books are well attuned to the features of the world that baffle young children. Since many of these bewildering puzzles also befuddle philosophers, picture books frequently focus on philosophical issues... Many of the essential problems of philosophy are made tangible by picture books."
The Charlotte Zolotow Award recognizes the best picture book of the year. Past winners include:
- The Dark (2013) by Lemony Snicket
- Each Kindess (2012) by Jacqueline Woodson
- Me... Jane (2011) by Patrick McDonnell
- Big Red Lollipop (2010) by Rukhsana Khan
The image below right is from The Dark by Lemony Snicket. Click the image to read the page.
Go to the Picture Book Database.
Browse their collection.
Some of the earliest, illustrated books for children were alphabet books. In most cases, each page presents a letter along with a word and photo illustrating use of the letter. These books were designed to teach the letters of the alphabet. However, they’re actually not the best way to teach the alphabet.
Many alphabet books are simply used as a way to organize information about the world in a visual way. For instance, Gone Wild: An Endangered Animal Alphabet (2006) (shown below) by David McLimans presents a different endangered animal for each letter of the alphabet. Alphabet City (1995) by Stephen Johnson created paintings that feature letters of the alphabet formed by objects in the urban areas.
When selecting an alphabet book, think about the intended audience and their vocabulary. For instance, Alphabet Rescue (2006) by Audrey Wood is useful to introducing lowercase letters of the alphabet. Farm Alphabet Book (1981) by Jane Miller uses the alphabet book format to introduce children to all aspects of farm life.
Keep in mind that not all alphabet books are warm and fuzzy. The Z Was Zapped: A Play in Twenty-Six Acts (1987) by Chris Van Allsburg shows letters of the alphabet caught in bad situations. For instance, the "B was badly bitten" and the "C was cut to ribbons". Older children enjoy guessing what heinous act will befall each letter. However the book may be disturbing to younger children. The book has even been challenged in some primary schools.
Sleeping Bear Press is known for their alphabet books on a range of topics including states, parks, landforms, animals, and other topics. Titles include A is for Arches, B is for Blue Crab, and C is for Cowboy. Jerry Pallotta is known for his alphabet books on a wide range of topics that appeal to youth including airplanes, boats, and deserts.
Some alphabet books focus on science topics such as the The Butterfly Alphabet (1996) by Kjell Sandved. The photographer spent several decades collecting the images of these magnificent creatures. The author’s website even contains an online set of images and descriptions called Nature’s Own Alphabet.
Not all alphabet books take a traditional letter with matching object approach. For instance, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (1989) by Bill Martin Jr. uses rhyme to introduce multiple letters at a time.
Z is for Moose (2012) by Kelly Bingham takes mixed up approach to an alphabet book that children will find hilarious.
Watch the trailer for Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham. Notice that this is not your usual alphabet book!
Many alphabet books are published as board books. Think about the users of the books and whether a board book will be appropriate. If the library has a large preschool following, a board book makes sense.
When reading alphabet books with children, talk about the format of the book in additional to the letters. Consider the following ideas:
- How is this book organized? Do you see a pattern?
- What’s the same and different on each page?
- What do you notice about the words? What do you notice about the illustrations?
- What pages do you like and dislike? Why?
Want to have some fun? Think about an alphabet book theme. Then, create your own alphabet book using the Alphabet Organizer.
Like alphabet books, counting books were some of the earliest books designed specifically for children. While some of these books simply provide the numeral along with the matching number of objects, others introduce basic additional and subtraction too. For instance, the tactile element of punched out eyes makes counting fun and easy with Fish Eyes: A Book You Can Count On by Lois Ehlert.
Tunnell (2012) notes that Anno’s Counting Book (1977) by Mitsumasa Anno is an outstanding example and one of the few that doesn’t ignore the number 0.
For very young children, the topic of shapes, colors, opposites, transportation, and animals are popular. As children grow older, their informational interests change. Concept books introduce children to a single idea such as weather or seasons. Rather than covering many topics, concept books take a focused approach.
Concept books are particularly popular with children, parents, and teachers. For some examples of seasonal books, go to Allen County Public Library’s Seasonal Books page.
Many authors specialize in writing concept books for children. For instance, Gail Gibbons is known for her short, easy-to-read concept books on topics such as ladybugs, apples, and emergency. Many of her books focus on cycles or processes such as From Seed to Plant (1993).
Informational Picture Books
Picture books are a wonderful way to introduce young people to a wide range of topics. Books about friendship, school, and social issues are common themes. However, these books are also a wonderful way to introduce science and history topics.
The Locomotive (2013) by Brian Floca explores the history of the train. Click the image below to read a page from this book.
Parrots Over Puerto Rico (2013) by Susan L. Roth focuses on endangered parrots in Puerto Rico. Click the image below to read a page from this book.
While concept books introduce topics to youth, informational picture books provide additional depth and detail. Although these two categories overlap, concept books are generally associated with younger readers and basic information. Some informational books picture book may be very detailed and focused toward older readers. For instance, How Much is a Million (1985) by David Schwartz helps children understand understand large numbers.
A popular category of informational picture books is biographies. Diane Stanley is known for her beautiful picture book biographies including Michelangelo (1997), Saladin: Noble Prince of Islam (2002), and Mozart: The Wonder Child (2009).
Read Lambert, Megan (July/August 2011). Dave the Potter and Stevie the Reader. Horn Book.
Many series such as The Magic School Bus books (1985+ series) by Joanna Cole fall into this category.
Authors like Seymour Simon, Nic Bishop, and Sy Mongomery are well-known for their informational books on science related topics.
Picture storybooks for children emerged in the 19th century with authors such as Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway. In the early 20th century, authors like Beatrix Potter extended the popularity of books designed specifically for c hildren with her books featuring Peter Rabbit and other animal characters. By the mid 20th century, authors like Dr. Seuss (The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, 1938) and Robert McCloskey (Blueberries for Sal, 1948), and later Maurice Sendak (The Nutshell Library, 1962) became well-respected for their work for children.
There are many ways to tell a story. While some stories are told as prose, others use elements of poetry.
Read Yolen, Jane (January/February 2014). Owl Moon Redux. HornBook, 46-50.
Angela M. Wiseman (2013, 11) notes that picture books can help youth deal with a wide range of experiences including death and grieving.
"Children’s picturebooks can provide a way to address and support children as they experience trauma and begin to understand the emotions surrounding their grief."
During the 1970s, Mercer Mayer became popular with this lovable monsters. These books dealt with the everyday problems that young children face including new siblings, friendship, and fear of the dark.
Back in the early 1990s, Broderbund's Living Books produced the first computer-based interactive, multimedia, animated books. One of my favorites was Just Grandma and Me by Mercer Mayer. These books were distributed on CD-ROM. Students could read the story, listen to the story read aloud, or play with the story. Today, this doesn't seem like a big deal. However 20+ years ago this was a major jump in sophistication and marked a shift from text to graphical interfaces for children's computer-based materials.
Many of these original interactive books have now been converted to the app format.
Some of these books may seem like light bedtime reads, but others have much deeper meanings. The Lorax (1971) by Dr. Seuss is about preserving the environment and the cost of not taking a stand. In the Night Kitchen (1970) by Maurice Sendak may seem like a whimsical bakery dream, but on closer analysis readers can find elements of the Holocaust represented. Many of these books use imagery and metaphor to help young children deal with difficult subjects.
Read Connolly, Paula T. (2013). ‘‘Texts Like a Patchwork Quilt’’: Reading Picturebooks About Slavery. Children’s Literature in Education, 44, 29–43.
When parents first begin reading to their children at bedtime, picture storybooks are often their choice. Children enjoy the bonding that occurs when books are read aloud over and over again. These early literacy experiences are critical for developing a passion for reading. Kitten’s First Full Moon (2004) by Kevin Henkes is an example of a beautiful picture book focusing on two things young children find fascinating: kittens and the moon.
From humorous books to serious historical topics, picture storybooks cover a wide range of topics. Seek out books that will appeal to the interests of children. Jon Scieszka is known for his Trucktown picture books like Smash! Crash! (2008) that are geared to the interests of active children, particularly boys.
Look for humorous books that will attract reluctant readers such as the Super Fly Guy (2005+ series) by Tedd Arnold. Look for fun that connects with topics meaningful for youth. Shark vs Train (2010) by Chris Barton focuses on not one, but two favorite topics!
Seek out stories that children can connect to their own lives. Blackout (2011) by John Rocco tells the story of a family dealing with a summer blackout in their city.
Actively engaging children in individual book pages an effective way to help young children become accustomed to analyzing images and text.
Children love to play I Spy through Scholastic’s well-known series including I Spy Animals (2012) by Jean Marzollo and I Spy Colors in Art (2007) by Lucy Micklethwaite.
Tunnell (2012, 66) defines a participation book as those “designed to involve children in a physical activity that goes beyond the reading of the text, such as finding hidden objects in an illustration (Where’s Waldo The Great Picture Hunt by Martin Handford, 2006), manipulating the flaps and tabs of a pop-up book (The Wheels on the Bus by Paul Zelinsky, 1990), or chiming in with a refrain (“Hundreds of cats, Thousands of cats, Millions and billions and trillions of cats” from Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag, 1928).”
Graeme Base is well-known for adding participatory elements to his books. Many of his books such as Animalia and Waterhole are now available as apps. Click on the image below right. Can you find all the P words?
Five little monkeys jumping on the bed… can you finish this rhyme? If not, it’s time to do some predictable reading and before long you won’t be able to get it out of your head.
Predictable books are loved by young readers. Their repetitive nature makes them easy to read and encourages young readers. They often contain repeated story elements, language patterns, and narrative sequences. The Napping House (1996) by Audrey and Don Wood includes repetitive passages and rhyming language. Young children enjoy the cadence of language as each creature is added to napping grandmother.
Effective predictable books draw children into the story. Youth naturally repeat the refrains. Tunnell (2012) notes that these are sometimes called pattern books and can serve as a bridge to independent reading.
Cumulative repetition, repeated patterns, and circular plotlines are popular in many predictable books. Cumulative stories repeat the story numerous times adding new elements with each retelling. Examples include A Fly Went By (page below left) (1958) by Mike McClintock and There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly (page below right) (1997) by Simms Taback. Click the images below to read a page from these books.
The best predictable books stick in your head. I remember reading A Fly Went By (1958) by Mike McClintock as a child. To this day, I can hear the cadence in my head. As a teacher librarian, I enjoyed reading predictable books to children because they so easily engaged a young audience. Even the squirmiest child could sit still long enough to help recite the repetitive story. These stories also work well for storytelling activities because they are easy to remember. I had a "librarian apron" with many pockets where I could store lots of props for invented stories. I would show and hide the props over and over as the story progressed.
Bill Martin Jr.’s book use a repeated pattern that children easily recognize. The visuals lend support and encourage children to chime in even if they don’t know how to read.
Laura Numeroff’s books like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (1985) are examples of predictable books that apply a circular plotline. One event causes the next event. The story ultimately ends where it begins. Click the images below to view three pages from If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
Books without words are an engaging category of picture book for all ages. Young children learn to “read” by telling stories they see on the pages. Older children invent stories or use their experiences to retell stories they know using the images provided. The Snowman (1978) by Raymond Briggs is a classic example.
While many wordless books like The Lion & the Mouse (2009) (shown above) by Jerry Pinkney are intended to tell a visual story, others focus on teaching concepts using only visuals.
Tana Hoban is known for her simple concept books that teach about colors, shapes, and opposites through the use of pictures rather than words.
Many parents, teachers, and librarians use wordless books as part of activities that include writing and discussion activities. Wordless books provide many opportunities to teach children visual literacy including reading the faces of characters, interpreting the action through still images, describing the setting, and predicting the plot based on visual elements.
For instance, ask youth to read the visual story of Journey (2013) by Aaron Becker.
David Wiesner has won numerous awards for his wordless books like Flotsam (2006). The visuals make the story so clear that some people forget they're actually wordless. Click the images below for a couple sample pages.
Read the short essay David Wiesner and Flotsam by Dinah Stevenson. Think about how editing process for wordless books might be the same and different from other picture books.
Keep in mind that not all wordless books are designed for young children. The Arrival (2006) by Shaun Tan is a wordless graphic novel that explores an immigrant's life in an imaginary world. Using photographs from places like Ellis Island as inspiration, Tan is able to tell the universal story of arriving in a new world. Click the images below for a larger view.
From board books for infants to pop-up books for older children, novelty children’s books have been popular for over two centuries. Often called engineered books because of their physical structure, these book involve unusual elements such as flaps, folds, and objects that readers manipulate. These elements reveal story elements, help explain concepts, and engage readers in the experience.
Some books contain just basic elements. For instance, Dinosaurology: The Search for a Lost World (2013) by Jack Fawcett contains hidden windows and tabs. However, others have very intricate elements. Cinderella: A 3-Dimensional Fairy Tale Theater (2012) by Jane Ray contains three-layer images to provide the feeling of a stage production.
David Carter is known for his pop-up books for very young children such as Bed Bugs (1998). Jan Pienkowski is best-known for his pop-up book Haunted House (1979).
Read Boyce, Lisa Boggiss (2011). Pop Into My Place: An Exploration of the Narrative and Physical Space in Jan Pienkowski’s Haunted House. Children’s Literature in Education, 42, 243–255.
Some novelty books rely on manipulating paper, such as flaps, shapes, and folds. For instance, die-cut books can be created in various shapes such as animal figures, geometric shapes, and transportation.
Others novelty books involve tactile elements. For instance, Sandra Boynton’s books contain pieces of fabric and other materials that children can touch. Everyone wants to pet Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt.
Many pop-up books have been adapted from other popular books such as The Wheels on the Bus (1990) by Paul O. Zelinsky.
Pop-up books related to movie tie-ins such as Transformers: The Ultimate Pop-Up Universe (2013) by Matthew Reinhart and Emiliano Santalucia have become popular. Other titles relate to movies like Star Wars.
Science topics are popular for popup books such as Bugs (2013) by George McGavin and Jim Kay. This book includes a wide range of approaches including slide-out panels, tabs, foldouts, mini-books, and pop-ups (shown on the right).
In some cases, youth can remove and manipulate elements of the books. How Cars Work: The Interactive Guide to Mechanisms that Make a Car Move (2013) by Nick Arnold and Allan Sanders provides "build-you-own" cardboard elements for creating hands-on projects.
Electronic elements are also being embedded into books. From simple sound effects buttons to books that read-aloud each page, there are many options available.
Eric Carle has incorporated simple elements into his books. In The Very Lonely Firefly (1995), a small battery-powered light is used to represent the firefly’s light and in The Very Clumsy Click Beetle (1999), a sound chip is used to make a click sound.
Watch a video trailer for The Little Mermaid (2013) by Robert Sabuda. Think about the pros and cons of pop-up books in the library.
Evaluating Picture Books
1. Read the book straight through.
2. Read only the text, ignoring illustrations.
3. Read only the illustrations, ignoring the text.
4. Read aloud listening to the sound of the text.
5. Read to notice where the text breaks.
6. Read to notice the illustrator’s choices.
7. Read the colors.
8. Read for the page layout.
While some people think of picture books as only for young children, many of these works are enjoyed by people of all ages. Many middle school teachers enjoy sharing the works of Jon Scieszka with both elementary and middle school youth. Book like The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (1989), The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992), and Squids with be Squids (1998) contain satirical elements that are great for jumpstarting creative writing activities and group discussions at all ages.
Watch a few of the video interviews with Jon Scieszka from Reading Rockets.
Visit the Picture Book Month website for lots of ideas for using picturebooks with children.
Irwin, Marilyn (2013). Materials for Youth. Lecture notes.
Lamb, Annette (2013). Book History. Unusual Book Forms. Available: http://eduscapes.com/bookhistory/artifact/5.htm
Tunnell, Michael O., Jacobs, James S., Young, Terrell A., & Bryan, Gregory (2012). Children’s Literature, Briefly. Fifth Edition. Pearson.
Wartenberg, Thomas (2013). Sneetch is a Sneetch and Other Philosophical Discoveries: Finding Wisdom in Children's Literature. Wiley-Blackwell. Available as an e-Book through IUPUI.
Wiseman, Angela M. (2013). Summer’s End and Sad Goodbyes: Children’s Picturebooks About Death and Dying. Children’s Literature in Education, 44, 1–14.