The Art and Magic of the Picture Book

If you were to ask me what my favorite kind of children's book is, I would have to say the picture book. That might surprise you since I have advocated for nearly every genre and form, especially poetry and fiction. But if I had a magic wand and could put one book in the house of every child, it would be a picture book. This is the book that shapes readers from the very beginning. It's the book that connects children and caregivers, the book you read over and over, the book that teaches you how books work, the book that merges art and text. Whether it's Good Night Moon or The Tale of Peter Rabbit or The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Where the Wild Things Are or Are You My Mother?—five of the bestselling children's books OF ALL TIME—the picture book conjures up images of bedtime reading, storytime at the library, bonding over books, the perfect intersection of literacy and intimacy. The late Caldecott award-winning author and illustrator Mordicai Gerstein thought of picture books as a child's introduction to the theater, with the dramatic unfolding of the story from page turn to page turn. Others have compared picture books to art museums, providing children with their first real opportunity to look closely at art and to consider the details and emotions they see there. And of course, picture books also introduce children to the power of words and reading, offering children their first steps in a lifelong process of gaining information as well as self revelation through literature. And all this happens in 32 pages of a "simple" book that you can buy at Target or Walmart (or your favorite independent bookstore). Powerful stuff!

Picture Book Art

In the classic text Children and Books, Zena Sutherland, a highly respected critic of children's literature, suggested that well-written and well-conceived picture books and their illustrations should also build an appreciation of beauty and aesthetics, open up interpretation and imagination, and encourage the child to actively participate in the story. Picture books are far more than "cute"; the best ones are works of art in every sense of the word. In fact, it is possible to see hundreds of examples of the art of children's book illustration via the websites of several significant special collections, such as the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota ( or the de Grummond Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi (, which each house a research library of original manuscripts and art that help document the entire creative process of book creation. In addition, two notable museums of children's book illustrations also specialize in picture book art including the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art ( in Massachusetts and the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature ( in Texas. Both feature regular and rotating exhibits, workshops for children, and visiting artists and speakers.

Picture Book Forms

Picture books come in so many different forms now, too. You can find classic alphabet books, clever counting books, innovative wordless books, participatory predictable books, and even picture books with historical settings, among others. By far the most common type of picture book is the picture storybook, which is simply a picture book that tells a story. It far outnumbers all the other types. These have words and pictures, but no pop-up features, no special counting or listing, no hidden images, and so on. They just tell a story through lyrical language and beautiful illustrations, like this year's Caldecott medal winner, Hello, Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall (Little, Brown, 2018).

Picture Books Aren't just for Young Children

But, picture books are not just for our very youngest emerging readers. Modern printing techniques have enabled artists to experiment more freely with illustration media in creating more complicated and edgy art in the 32–page picture book format. These books may be slim volumes that fit on the "E" shelves, but their content, style, or language will often be over the head of the usual young audience. Books such as Neil Gaiman's collaboration with Dave McKean, The Wolves in the Walls (HarperCollins, 2003), for example, benefit from the older child's experiences with books, language, and life. Indeed, the lines between the highly visual picture book for young children and the innovative graphic novel for the young adult are blurring. Illustrated novels and graphic novels are capitalizing on this visual trend, but picture books have potential here, too.


As much as I love technology, apps, audiobooks, videos, and film, there is still something very satisfying about opening a well-made picture book printed on creamy paper and bound between hard covers. From holding the hardback binding, to eyeing the colorful cover (and dust jacket), to turning the thick paper pages, to poring over the illustrations, it's a very satisfying visual, tactile, and aesthetic experience. Add to that the pleasure of cuddling with a child on your lap to share the story page by page and holding the book together, a kind of totem against the reality of routine life. As a parent, memories of those times with my own children are nearly palpable. As much as I enjoy the opportunities that today's technology provides for quick reading and communication, there is still something about the art of the picture book that feels unique and magical. And, we are in the lucky position to be guardians of that literary legacy—finding, reading, selecting, and sharing picture books, and guiding young people as they shape their destinies molded by the stories and art they find in these books.


Literature in Action: Sharing Picture Books Aloud

Picture books are meant to be read aloud and shared. The practice of one adult holding a picture book out at arm's length to a group of young children sitting rapt at her or his knees is a fixture in children's services. It's one of my favorite times in working with children. But sometimes we get into a rut with our picture book read aloud practices. Let's consider a variety of options for sharing picture books in ways that encourage a deeper understanding.

Think Aloud

In using the "think aloud" strategy, we verbalize our own internal thought processes as we examine a book and begin reading, showing children how fluent readers think. We can involve the children in guessing what the story might be about based on the cover, the title, the author, the dust jacket, and so on. This helps children see that good readers do a lot of thinking while reading; reading doesn't just magically happen. For example, you might hold up the book and say, "I wonder what this book will be about. I see the title is ___ and the author is ___ and it's illustrated by ___. The picture on the cover makes me think that___." This helps children see how readers use all the cues and clues at their disposal to read and interpret a book.


Reading experts remind us that good readers are constantly predicting what will happen next. This is another aspect of reading that we can model and encourage from time to time. For example, read the story aloud to the climax of the plot. Pause and ask, "What do you think will happen next?" Invite the children to turn to the child sitting next to them and tell what they think will happen next. This way, all the children get to share their ideas in just a few minutes, everyone stays involved in the story experience, and you don't lose momentum. (Remember, it's the thinking and predicting that is important, not necessarily guessing right!) Then continue reading and finish the story. Discuss the ending and why it ended the way it did, and what clues helped "predict" this story's ending. It's not as important to guess correctly as it is to learn to understand the story elements. This is a valuable strategy for helping children become familiar with how stories are structured.

Building Visual Literacy

Although children naturally use the illustrations to understand the story, most come to believe that is "cheating." (Some adults think so, too!) It's not. All good readers use all possible sources to understand information, including visuals. Help children see how you do that on purpose, how you see a structure based on the visuals themselves. Flip through a picture book without reading the words, as if the book were a wordless book, telling the story loosely based on the pictures alone. Invite the children to join you. What can be learned from the illustrations only? Point out that readers use all kinds of cues and clues in reading. Sipe and Pantaleo (2008) found that children glean information from many parts of the book, even the endpapers. In fact, readers often learn some things from pictures that are not in the text, giving us an extra layer of the story.

Interactive Read Aloud

Sometimes a book is written in a way that invites the children to participate in the read aloud experience. It may have a repeated phrase or countdown or a sequence. Children can join in on a repeated phrase, take parts with the existing dialogue, complete a predictable sentence, conclude with "The End," and so on. This helps children stay alert to the story being read aloud and begin to see the pieces of writing that make up a story. However, you may want to decide beforehand how you want to handle this and alert children to their parts before you begin reading. Sometimes we want a quiet audience to build engagement and even suspense, and sometimes we want a participatory, lively experience. We need to teach the children the difference and set the stage before reading, so they'll know which is which.

Echo Reading

With "echo" reading, we can invite child participation without a great deal of advance preparation, and we can include children who are not yet readers or who are still struggling with learning the English language. Here, children participate as a group, simply repeating key phrases or words after you read them. Choose books with short sentences or rhyming/rhythmic text. Read the line or sentence out loud and have the children "echo" or repeat the line after you. Continue. This strategy only works with some books, like Karen Beaumont's Move Over, Rover (Harcourt, 2006), but helps children tune into the rhythm of story language and makes them feel like part of the read aloud experience.


Any time we read a good picture book aloud, we hope for an enthusiastic response. Sometimes the best response is awed silence. Sometimes it's a cry for "read it again!" Either way, it's important to allow a few moments for a response after the reading aloud. You can simply invite the children to share their reactions, feelings, connections, and the like. Allow plenty of "wait time" and avoid being the first one to share your own responses (otherwise children often think yours is the only correct response). Try to be open to varied responses and opinions. Encourage them to support their opinions, to go back to the book for examples that support their responses. Flip back through the book to ponder a favorite moment, consider a particular illustration more closely, or revisit an appealing phrase. This shows children that good readers are not finished when the book is closed. They often work backward to enjoy parts of the story again or to figure out something they missed or misunderstood. Many children don't realize this and think it's a sign of poor reading; they need guidance and modeling to show otherwise.


Finally, reading aloud one picture book generally calls for more reading. One book is rarely enough. What to do? One of my favorite things is to pair a poem with a picture book, following up on the theme of the book with a poem that echoes the story. For example, the classic picture book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst (Atheneum, 1972), can be paired with Karla Kuskin's poem listing the same kind of "bad day" woes in "I Woke Up This Morning" (in Kuskin, 2003). Or consider reading aloud another book by the same author (or illustrator), or about the same topic or theme, or follow up with a related song. Ask the children, "What do you want to read next?" Don't be surprised if they want to hear the same book again. Young children especially find repeated readings comforting and necessary as they develop what's called "story schema," an intuitive understanding of how stories and story language work.

From Sylvia Vardell's Children's Literature in Action: A Librarian's Guide, third edition. For more information visit Libraries Unlimited. You can also find professional learning activities, handouts, and related Web resources on the book's companion website at

About the Editor

Sylvia Vardell is Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University and teaches courses in literature for children and young adults. She has authored or co-authored more than 100 published articles, more than 25 book chapters and given more than 150 presentations at national and international conferences. She is the author of Children's Literature in Action: A Librarian's Guide, Poetry Aloud Here!, The Poetry Teacher's Book of Lists, Poetry People, co-edits The Poetry Friday Anthology series (with Janet Wong) and maintains the PoetryForChildren blog and poetry column for ALA's Book Links magazine.

MLA Citation Vardell, Sylvia M. "The Art and Magic of the Picture Book." School Library Connection, October 2019,

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Entry ID: 2229685

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