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Picture Books Through Puberty

By Irma Colven

The myriads of books that can be found tossing and tumbling in my mini van, range from professional to pictorial. I have grand plans to continually use these varying titles to teach writer’s craft, share a piece of history during social studies, or visit animals through photographs and unforgettable language in science. If you have not guessed; my profession, is teacher. My mantra is, read to learn. My own children know this all too well. Each of my three children still have an interest in picture books, albeit fleeting, given the high demands placed on them in high-school and college courses. But when they enter mom’s car they imbibe. Of course they are only humoring their over zealous mother, or so they would like me to think; but I watch them. They are intrigued. They are involved. They are transacting with the text and the pictures (Rosenblatt, 1978). There is a certain power in the partnership between author and illustrator that only a picture book can harness. I relish in the joy I see in their subtle grins, as they revisit the stories of yesterday, absorbed in the joint effort between text and artwork to convey a message, tell a story or make a point. As I glance between highway and passengers I ask myself, “Why does the magic of picture books have to end with elementary school?“ Is a picture still not worth a thousand words? Is there a place for these works of art, both visual and literal, in our secondary education classrooms?

The picture book is defined in a multitude of ways, Sutherland offers the following, "a book featuring pictures and text that extend each other and reinforce both the concepts and storyline, so that neither eye nor ear senses an interruption in the flow of the book."

While Maurice Sendak states, "the picture book is a peculiar art form that thrives on genius, intuition, daring, and a meticulous attention to its history and its various, complex components. The picture book is a picture puzzle, badly misunderstood by critics and condescended to by far too many as merely a trifle for the kiddies."

It was Sendak's reference of these beautiful works of art as mere trifles, which motivated me to make a case for the extension of the life of picture books in our student's lives.

There is a large body of research and resources purporting my point: picture books aren’t just for the elementary classroom any more. The use of these linguistic and visual works of art are beginning to find and define a new place for themselves within the secondary education classroom. So secondary teachers, put down the novel, blow the dust off of those childhood picture books and stretch yourselves to find new ways to incorporate these gems into your curriculum. Your students just may find themselves intrigued and motivated to read. After all isn't that our goal?

In her book, Using Picture Books With Older Students, Joyce Roberts outlines the underlying research behind the use of picture books with older students. She offers a triad of support for this model: including Bloom's Taxonomy of higher order thinking, Gardener's notion of multiple intelligences and the realization that creative art fosters creative thinking and imagination.

She not only offers the foundational reasoning behind the use of picture books but also offers several titles that address topics appropriate for the secondary education classroom, including environmental health and homelessness.

We must recognize that “during the last decade the breadth and depth of picture books has changed dramatically” states Ammon. The topics and teachable moments that this genre can provide to our adolescent readers just may be the spark they need to ignite their passion for delving deeper into any number of topics.

Keith Schoch, A New Jersey teacher, consultant and prolific blogger is a stalwart supporter of the use of picture books in the secondary classroom. He argues several benefits regarding the use of this genre in the upper grades. Three of his strongest points are that picture books make abstract concepts concrete, they breathe life into dry facts and figures and they provide a common knowledge background for the learners in your charge.

His blog offers teachers multiple resources and links as to how to incorporate this genre into your classroom. Tags provide easily navigable paths to curricular areas such as social studies, science, math, and writing. Additionally, he provides archives of more topics than can be discussed in this article. The site is located at the following address:  If you are contemplating following my advice and incorporating pictorial text into your secondary classroom this site is a great place to start.

Another proponent of this genre is the RIF foundation. In an online publication the organization notes the benefits that illustrations in non-fiction text can offer to readers, "Illustrations in children’s non-fiction books can expose children to new ideas, different people, and places they’ve never seen. Or careful exploration of the illustrations may uncover new facts about familiar objects. Whether fiction or non-fiction, a picture book can help children gain knowledge and move them to ask new questions about history, inventions, nature, and other cultures." As teachers I would think that we would embrace any mode; which encourages questioning and meaning-making on the part of our students no matter what their age.

So, What does Leonardo Da Vinci have to do with picture books? Art is art, whether prose or poetry, both have potential for helping us as learners. Perhaps one of the most intriguing statements I have read on the potential beauty of the marriage between painting and prose is from Leonardo da Vinci, "Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen." I could not help to consider the power of the combination of these two mediums to entice young learners on any number of topics.

Picture books are the perfect tool for illuminating science topics, no matter what the age of the learner, argues Brazee (1992). Picture books can rekindle scientific curiosity. They can present our students with human experiences within a microcosm, which they otherwise may not be able to access. Picture books provide opportunities to enhance vocabulary with the support of pictures as well as a verbal context in which to frame meaning.

They offer a way to teach character development, style, and even parts of speech in a scaffolded manner that can move students along the continuum of understanding as they encounter more difficult story structures and language usage.

Picture books are readily available in the subjects you teach, and children's pictorial informational books are a wonderful way to introduce concepts, demonstrate a point, or provide information to supplement textbooks.

Jim Trelease states, “The last two decades have seen an unprecedented blossoming of the historical picture book in American children’s literature. No longer are they dull or “textbookie,” but instead read like life itself — just like history (2009).

The potential is there. We need to harness the talents of picture book authors and illustrators to engage students. Keeping in mind that they are writing with a sense of audience. Cynthia Rylant says, “I like writing picture books because that medium gives me a chance to capture in a brief space what I consider life's profound experiences… I write a picture book that speaks to any person, any age."

So I ask you, “Is the adolescent unable to appreciate the intermingling of text with picture as the two create an amalgam of meaning? Are we not still moved by the linguistic and artistic features that picture books have to offer simply because we have had more birthdays?

In the skillful hands of teachers like yourselves; the melding of author, illustrator and thoughtful educational practitioner knows no bounds.


Benedict, S., & Carlisle, L. (Eds.). (1992). Beyond words: Picture Books For Older Readers and Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Ammon, Bette D. & Sherman, Gale. (2000). Worth a Thousand Words: Picture Books for Older Readers and Writers. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Bishop, R. S., & Hickman, J. (1992). Four or Fourteen or Forty: Picture Books Are For Everyone. In S. Benedict & L. Carlisle (Eds.), Beyond Words: Picture Books For Older Readers and Writers (pp. 1–10). Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann.

Brazee, P. (1992). Using Picture Books To Promote The Learning Of Science. In S. Benedict & L. Carlisle (Eds.), Beyond Words: Picture Books For Older Readers and Writers, (pp. 107-133). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Danielson, K. (1992). Picture Books To Use With Older Students. Journal of Reading, 35, 652-654

Schoch, Keith. "Why Picture Books?" Squidoo. Blog posting. July 2011.

Sharp, P. A. (1991). Picture Books In The Adult Literacy Curriculum. Journal of Reading, 35, 216–219.

Sutherland, Zena. (1997). Children and Picture Books. Allyn and Bacon (9th ed.).