Picture books

Girls reading picture books.

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Learn what makes a good picture book and how to use them to engage students with reading.

What makes a good picture book

Picture books use illustrations, with or without text, to convey stories, which delight and engage children.

In picture books with text, the author and the illustrator jointly share the responsibility of making the picture book 'work'.

A brief history of children's books and the art of visual storytelling, an article by Maria Popova in The Atlantic, provides an interesting background to picture books.

According to Literary Agent Tracy Marchini, a successful picture book has the following 9 factors:

  • illustrations that are engaging, varied, and colourful, while adding to the storyline
  • strong characters that are identifiable and evoke emotion
  • humour
  • a story that teaches a concept or value
  • elements of pattern, rhyme, and repetition
  • an interesting plot that captures the attention of the reader
  • rich vocabulary
  • re-readability.

9 factors that make a picture book successful

What makes a good picture book — a presentation by the National Library Board of Singapore — also gives a useful overview of what makes a good picture book.

Wordless picture books

Wordless picture books rely on illustrations alone to tell a story. They are a wonderful resource that allows children to tell the story 'in their own words'. These books encourage children to:

  • read the pictures
  • look at the details
  • follow patterns and sequences
  • explore characterisation
  • work out what is going on and bring their own language to their own version of the story.

Picture books and diversity

The New Zealand Curriculum includes cultural diversity and inclusion as principles that underpin decision-making within schools. A rich and diverse library collection can be a powerful tool for seeing ourselves and the world beyond.

Picture books can show our diversity such as differences in ethnicity, abilities, family structure, and gender roles. These websites have good resources:

Mirrors and windows in our library collections

Building an inclusive collection

Picture books and the mind

In the article 'What reading does for the mind', Ann E. Cunningham and Keith E. Stanovich review studies that compared the number of rare, unusual, and interesting words in:

  • written language — from children's preschool books to scientific articles
  • words spoken on television in prime time viewing
  • adult speech — from conversation to courtroom testimony.

The researchers found that the incidence of rare words in children's books was greater than in adult conversation (except courtroom testimony) and in prime-time TV programmes.

What reading does for the mind

Studies involving brain scans of preschool children by the Reading & Literacy Discovery Center of Cincinnati's Children's Hospital found evidence of the ‘potential benefits of reading and the potential detriments of screen time on brain development’. The studies also found that reading picture books are better for children’s brains than video or text.

This is your child's brain on books: Scans show benefit of reading vs. screen time

Illustrated story books are better for kids' brains than video or text, study finds

Using picture books to inspire readers

Reading aloud

Picture books can be read to children of all ages — from babies through to teenagers. Sophisticated picture books make great read-alouds for secondary students, who appreciate the layered meanings and themes.

Sophisticated picture books

Read aloud regularly, regardless of the age of the students.

The best picture books provide an appealing mix of engaging story, strong characters, rich language, and visual wonder.

The greater your knowledge of the books, the greater your ability to inspire a love of reading, writing, and inquiry.

Picture books are relevant for all ages

Exploring picture books

Talking with children about picture books stimulates wonderings while building comprehension, empathy, and visual and critical literacy. Draw attention to how the book is designed and its look and feel. Use questions that cover aspects such as how:

  • illustrations fill in the words, add to the story, or give a different perspective
  • the narrative is carried through the book.

Picture books can also be great starting points for exploring a topic and as mentor texts and frameworks to inspire creative writing.

Forms of writing

Resources for exploring picture books

Use our Book and Beyond educator and student literature guides as prompts for discussion. They invite readers to explore, reflect on, and discuss elements of a book and how they add to understanding and enjoyment.

Guides for exploring children's and YA literature

Other picture book resources include:

Picture books — Ministry of Education's English Online resource has information about how you can use picture books to explore static images.

Power of Pictures — on the Center for Literacy in Primary Education's (CLPE) website. Has resources for primary school teachers to help 'develop their understanding of the craft of picture book creation and illustration as a way of raising children’s achievement in literacy'.

Teach with Picture Books — a blog by Keith Schoch.

The whole-book approach — Megan Dowd Lambert shares her whole-book approach in an excerpt from her book: Reading Picture Books with Children: How to Shake up Storytime and Get Kids Talking About What They See.

Find out more

Books and Reads — for kids and teens — use our Books and Reads tool to explore, find, and share picture books and reviews.

Inspiring inquiry through picture books — by Kath Murdoch, Education Consultant.

Page by page, creating a picture book — from the National Library of Canada.

The International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) — has information and publishes the quarterly refereed journal Bookbird.