readilearn: The importance of illustrations in picture books – a guest post by Emma Middleton

  • Published on June 1, 2018

Emma Middleton picture book author and illustrator discusses the importance of illustrations in picture books

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.

we become familiar with popular picture book characters

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.

illustrations may tell another story

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.

children look for clues in Emma Middleton's The Lion in our Living Room

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.

Illustrations answer questions in Emma Middleton's The Lion in our Living Room

As the story continues, anticipation builds over the lion’s arrival.

anticipation builds as children find more clues inEmma Middleton's picture book The Lion in our Living Room

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.

visual clues help to tell the story in Emma Middleton's picture book The Bear in our Backyard

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.

children become active participants in subsequent readings of Emma Middleton's picture book The Bear in our Backyard

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.

keen observers find many clues Emma Middleton's picture book The Bear in our Backyard


the bear-shaped hedge in Emma Middleton's picture book The Bear in our Backyard

The reader observes further links such as the similarity between the bear’s dressing gown and mum’s dressing gown.

Children make links from clues in Emma Middleton's picture book The Bear in our Backyard

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.

clever illustrations from Emma Middleton's book The Bear in our Backyard

The text continues this theme with images of ‘mummy bear hugs’ and ‘baby bears.’

Bear hugs from Emma Middleton's picture book The Bear in our Backyard

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.

Dimity Powell and her delightful picture book The Fix-It Man

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.

Dimity Powell's The Fix-It Man colour sets the tone

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

Thank you guest author

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.

Emma Middleton

Author, Illustrator, Performer


Or connect with her on social media

Instagram: Emma_Middleton

Facebook: Emma Middleton

Twitter: EmmaMpicbooks

Emma Middleton picture book author and illustrator

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    Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Rebecca. Emma wrote a fantastic post, didn’t she?

    Thanks Norah and Emma! I remember reading story books with illustrations to my sons when they were small and I could almost hear their imaginations ticking over as they pondered and wondered. eg the Dr. Seuss books and the Roald Dahl – quirky illustrations. But especially I enjoyed how you illustrate how ‘clues’ in the stories get the children to imagine …

    I’m so pleased you enjoyed the post, Susan, and that it brought back memories of reading to your own children. It has to be one of life’s greatest pleasures, doesn’t it?

    Now more than ever. I had a sleep over with my grand niece last time I was up north. (We’re six) I referred to some classic fairy tales but if she knew any of them it was a video; oh, she’d say, I saw that. Not the same. Good thing I had a stash of picture books with me.

    Good thing, indeed. Picture books invite a lot more discussion and stimulate a lot more imagination that movies. In movies, unless you constantly hit the ‘pause’ button, there’s no time for discussion in case you miss something, and there’s no room for your own imagination as someone else is showing your theirs.

    I have never really thought about it, Norah, but this article is correct, illustrations can tell a story all on their own. I really enjoyed and will try to incorporate its message into my own artwork.

    Illustrations are so important to comprehending stories, Robbie. Your own illustrations are unique. I wonder how you will try to incorporate Emma’s message into them. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Lovely to learn about Emma and the intricate thought that goes into illustrating for children. Looks like two wonderful books too! 🙂

    Thank you so much, Debby. I’m pleased you enjoyed finding out about Emma and her beautiful books.

    Picture books are wonderful! Illustrations and performance are both visual interpretations of stories so I can understand the evolution of Emma’s career. Her two books would be fun to read with children to look for the clues.

    Thank you, Charli. Emma is great at combining performance with her storytelling sessions. As a former ballerina, I guess she has a lot of the visual arts to draw upon. I’m pleased you enjoyed the interview. Emma has shown how much fun it can be to look for clues in picture book illustrations.

    I think everyone appreciates illustrations, but they’re most beneficial for children, whose language is still developing. It’s lovely to meet Emma and her gorgeous illustrations! Wonderful post, Norah ❤

    Thank you, Tina. I’m so pleased you enjoyed meeting Emma and finding out about her wonderful picture books. She has clearly shown how important the illustrations are to children’s comprehension of the stories they read or hear.

    Picture books are a wonderful art form. This was an enjoyable post that points out some of the delights and mindful engagement that the pages hold for young children. Loved the Goldilocks addendum, it makes sense.

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting, D. I’m pleased you enjoyed the post. That picture books are the ‘just right’ ingredient in children’s development is not really surprising, is it? But it’s nice to be reminded occasionally.

Please share your thoughts. I love it when you do.

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