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Picture books are relevant for students of all ages

February 5th, 2018 By Gail Cochrane

If you were to ask secondary students, “Are picture books relevant in a secondary school”, what responses do you envisage receiving? An answer from a year 13 student was: “Yes, they help you to understand key life lessons in a fun and easy way”.

Glenys Bichan, the librarian at Cambridge High School, shared that story during the recent Waikato Picture Book Research Unit’s one-day seminar on postmodern picture books held at the University of Waikato. The presenters defined the characteristics of postmodern picture books, which step out beyond the linear storylines and design layouts of conventional picture books. They described how these picture books are being used with students in classrooms, school libraries, and public libraries.

Fantasy illustration of an open page of a book that is covered in grass, with dog, a person walking along car tracks in grass, and other fantasy elements
Narrative, history, dream, tell by Comfreak. CC0 1.0

Putting a spotlight on picture books

A compelling message throughout the Postmodern picture books seminar was that picture books are for students of all ages, including secondary students. This is a message mirrored in National Library Services to Schools' Open the book: Literature at the heart of literacy learning events, being held around New Zealand in 2017 and 2018. All types of picture books can be used to engage students with the joy of reading, such as sophisticated picture books and wordless picture books. Picture books are also great resources for exploring visual and written language, imagination, values, and deeper cross-curricular themes.

Here are a few ideas for using picture books at secondary level.

Reading for pleasure and relaxation — Picture Book Friday!

Encouraging students to read picture books during class or library time conveys the message to secondary students that this type of literature can also be read for enjoyment. At Cambridge High School, for example, Picture Book Friday takes place each week. A Y13 student or the teacher takes about 5 to 10 minutes to share with the class a picture book they have known and loved. The Head of Department (HOD) English introduced the initiative rationalising, “Books hold memories — memories of moments, of people, of childhood — the memories of our lives we so hurriedly try to ‘grow up’ and away from…” As students listen to the interplay between the pictures and text, they may recall their younger years, which can create a relaxing atmosphere — time out from tensions they may be experiencing during their teen years.

Developing critical thinkers

Postmodern picture books can provide secondary students with opportunities to interpret and evaluate visual and literacy features, as illustrated by these titles (you can view a sampling of pages online):

  • Voices in the park by Anthony Browne — uses metafictive device of multiple viewpoints
  • The stinky cheese man and other fairly stupid tales by Jon Scieszka — uses intertextual references to and parodying of characters and themes in traditional tales
  • The three pigs by David Wiesner — uses a self-referential feature whereby the pigs refer to themselves as they climb out of the picture book to leave their story
  • Black and white by David Macaulay — uses surrealistic art and typographic experimentation with font.

You could introduce concepts such as stream of consciousness, intertextuality, and symbolism via non-linear plots where story parts can jumble up and multiple stories coexist. The graphics are also a great way to teach visual literacy and how to use context clues to determine the meaning of words. The short format means students, including English language learners, can grasp concepts in a shorter time frame than when reading a textbook or pages of journal articles.

Enriching reading comprehension, literacy analysis, and writing skills

When reading or listening to a story, students are absorbing and understanding the story elements, which help to increase their reading comprehension. As the story unfolds, students can also make inferences and predict what will happen next, keeping them engaged. You could also focus on literacy features, such as theme, plot structure, setting, character, imagery, symbolism, and dialogue. This assists students to apply their insights to writing and illustrate their own multimodal texts.

Introducing thematic units in a 'fun and easy way'

Cambridge High students, for example, use picture books when studying:

  • human rights (Y9)
  • the rights of the child and equality (Y11), and
  • Anzac (Y10).

The library staff and classroom teachers work collaboratively to plan these units. Choosing picture books where the students can empathise with the experiences of the characters has been particularly successful for encouraging critical reflection and discussion. As the Y10 students at Cambridge High are involved with the local Riding for the Disabled, stories about Anzac horses have especially resonated with them. An example Glenys shared was Midnight — the story of a light horse written by Mark Greenwood and illustrated by Frané Lessac (Walker Books, 2014). Making personal connections with a story’s characters and/or events can also lead to the development of students’ well-being.

Feeling inspired!?

  • What initiatives have/could your library team or teachers and literacy leaders introduce to engage secondary students in reading picture books for pleasure and to make connections with the curriculum?
  • Which picture books do you remember with fondness from your earlier days that you would share with secondary school students?
  • What titles (print and digital) would be suitable to include in your library’s collections or could be borrowed from Services to Schools or your local public library?

Information and resources on reading and picture books

Services to Schools provides information and resources on picture books and engaging teens with reading and a number of blog posts on thematic ideas and read-alouds.

Web pages

  • Picture books — discusses their importance in engaging students with reading and includes links to tips on teaching with picture books.
  • Sophisticated picture books — outlines ways to use these books and suggests sites for keeping up-to-date with new titles to add to your library’s collection.
  • Engaging teens with reading — provides a range of activities for creating a reading culture in teens’ lives.

Blog posts

Services to Schools' lending service

Lending service — schools and home educators can borrow picture books to support students with inquiry and to encourage and develop their reading for pleasure.

Digital resources and formats

  • MacKenzie College and Community Library — useful list of links to digital resources.
  • Also check your local public library for access to ebooks and digital resources like TumbleBooks, which is an online collection of books and picture books with animation, music, sound, and narration.

Acknowledgement: With special thanks to Glenys Bichan, the other presenters, and the seminar organisers for an informative and enjoyable day.

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Gail Cochrane
13 February 2018 8:36am

Thanks, Kathleen, for sharing the ways in which you and your teachers are engaging students with picture books at intermediate level - to encourage reading for enjoyment, skills development and as curriculum resources. And it is wonderful that staff are being role models in reading aloud! As you have illustrated, picture books also have relevancy in schools beyond primary level and you are providing an important ‘bridge’ for ongoing enjoyment at secondary level. Fabulous!

Kathleen Van der Putten Librarian
12 February 2018 1:59pm

Thank you for an inspiring article on post modern picture books for secondary students. One aspect I have always promoted to my students at Intermediate level is "You are never too old to read picture books" Picture books as well as sophisticated picture books are a source of enjoyment. Our teaching staff often take out a series of picture books in different formats as a teaching resource for their classrooms. In particular they place these books on their library shelves for students to browse and read during silent reading times. The staff often choose a picture book to read to the students during their time in the library. There are many facets of the curriculum developed in using picture books to develop comprehension and critical thinking skills.