This week I have great pleasure in introducing you to Emma Middleton who is here to discuss illustrations in picture books as tools for analysis, enjoyment and interpretation.
Emma is a picture book author, illustrator, children’s performer and former ballerina who lives near Noosa, Queensland. After a career in performing arts, during which time she danced for the Vienna Ballet, she returned to Australia to direct and teach at The Brighton Dance Academy.
Emma retired from teaching dance to follow her passion for picture books by creating stories that will enhance a child’s sense of wonder, delight and unlimited possibility. Emma is the author of companion picture books The Lion in our Living Room and The Bear in our Backyard.
Welcome to readilearn, Emma. Over to you.
Illustrations in picture books can be an excellent tool for developing children’s analytical and interpretative skills, as well as enhancing their enjoyment of art. Picture book advocate Megan Daley says, ‘Picture books are works of art which should adorn the walls of art galleries and libraries.’
For young children, illustrated books open the door to understanding story. Illustrations provide young readers with an immediate vision of the characters, setting, and mood of the story. Children instantly respond to characters from their visual appeal. We all know and love many picture book characters from their image alone.
The first introduction to decoding words and story comes from interpreting the visual narrative. Picture books are especially helpful in this process, particularly in books where the illustrations play a vital part in the storytelling. Stories that rely on the images to complete the narrative, encourage active interpretation and engagement.
It is hugely enjoyable for children to discover clues in the illustrations that inform them of vital elements in the story. This is particularly apparent in the case of the unreliable narrator. Immediately, children set out to discover the clues within the illustrations.
There are many examples of the unreliable narrator in picture books. In John Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, the reader needs to solve the dissonance between words and pictures. This is a brilliant tool for developing theory of mind.
In, The Lion in our Living Room, by Emma Middleton and Briony Stewart, many questions are raised within the text. The first page begins with Tom and Tilly’s dad saying, ‘Be careful at the door… you never know who might come knocking with his giant paw.’
Immediately, the young reader searches for clues to discover the identity of the mystery guest. We hear that it will be a paw, (and not a hand) that might come knocking, and although a lion is not mentioned specifically, there are many lion clues referenced in the illustrations.
This includes the lion toy, the lion shaped stained glass window, the lion in dad’s newspaper, and most importantly, the lion mask on the floor. These references continue throughout the book, much to the continued delight of the children.
As we turn the page the refrain asks,
‘Will he come? Won’t he come? Will he come and play?
Will the mighty lion come and play with us today?’
Simultaneously, the children see the giant paw of the lion stepping through the long grass that is speckled with dandelion flowers. The illustrations answer the question…Yes, the lion is coming to play.
As the story continues, anticipation builds over the lion’s arrival.
After dad goes for a nap, visual clues are seen in the form of shadows that reveal the silhouette of a lion, another clever device that is used to help tell the story.
Young readers are excited and empowered to discover these clues for themselves. They become active participants in decoding the story. Perhaps to our surprise the illustrations also show the twist in this story, when it is revealed that it was in fact, dad pretending to be the lion. In subsequent re-readings children gain further confidence from their acquired knowledge of the story arc.
In the companion book The Bear in our Backyard, similar visual clues provide answers to the mystery around the bear. Children are keen observers of visual detail such as the muddy ‘paw prints,’ and the bear shaped hedge.
The reader observes further links such as the similarity between the bear’s dressing gown and mum’s dressing gown.
As we discover that Tom and Tilly’s mum is about to have a baby, we see that her tummy was hidden throughout the story to save this revelation until the end.
As mum waves goodbye to her children her shadow brilliantly makes the shape of a big mummy bear.
The text continues this theme with images of ‘mummy bear hugs’ and ‘baby bears.’
The colour and tone of picture book illustrations also serve to set the emotional mood. In The Fix-It Man written by Dimity Powell and illustrated by Nicky Johnston, colour beautifully expresses the most challenging of moments when the child’s mother passes away.
Within this beautifully written story, we see the sunny yellow sky turn to a wordless page featuring a sombre grey room filled with love, tenderness and loss. Only the light from the moon shines in on the memories of the child’s mother, represented by her rainbow mobile and checkered rug.
In the final spread, their hearts are mending as the full colour spectrum has returned to the precious items that belonged to Mama.
Picture books are a truly unique genre. They rely on the visual narrative as an essential ingredient of storytelling. This makes them a perfect medium for children’s first relationships and enjoyment of story and art.
Addendum: Interestingly, a newly published study gives some insight into what may be happening inside young children’s brains as they listen and look at picture books, as opposed to audio narration or animation. Lead author Dr. John Hutton, observes that there is an apparent ‘Goldilocks effect’ — some kinds of storytelling may be ‘too cold’ for children, while others are ‘too hot.’ And, of course, some are ‘just right.’
I am sure it would come as no surprise to early childhood educators that picture books provided the ideal learning condition that Hutton called ‘just right.’
Hutton says, the children’s understanding of the story was scaffolded by having the images as clues. When children experienced picture books the researches saw increased connectivity between, and among all the networks they were looking at: visual perception, imagery, internal reflection and language. – Emma
Emma, thank you for sharing with us these wonderful thoughts about illustrations in picture books. There is far more to it than initially meets the eye. As adults, we can become reliant on the text for meaning but, as you’ve shown us, so much of the story is told through the illustrations.
Thank you for having me.
To find out more about Emma, visit her website.
Author, Illustrator, Performer
Or connect with her on social media
Facebook: Emma Middleton
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