Why Picture Books?

Radhika Menon, Managing Editor, Tulika Publishers
Points discussed at an illustrator's workshop organised by Bala Sahitya Institute, Trivandrum, 2000

Reading of illustrations is as important as the reading of words, sometimes even more so. Fluent readers are using the very techniques and approaches to reading which picture books can so readily teach. The skills acquired while reading picture books contribute to the long-term growth of a reader in a significant manner. In this context, therefore, it is important to introduce picture books in early literacy programmes. 

          Holding and reading wordless picture books can be the first positive step towards learning reading skills. Readers are not intimidated by words and they gain confidence by the knowledge that they are able to comprehend the contents of a book on their own. The more they ‘read’ picture books, the more familiar they become with the basic skills of reading. From there to reading books with words becomes a smooth transition. 

    Picture books often require young readers to ask the basic question: What will happen next? But it doesn’t stop there. The books also invite readers to look backwards. This ability to travel back and forth in a book facilitates the development of reading skills.

    Picture books are full of details. Absorbing these details while looking at the pictures helps children enjoy the nuances of language as they become more fluent readers.

    Thinking by means of metaphor is often necessary in reading picture books; clearly, it is also necessary in the pleasurable reading of many novels and poems.

    Picture books leave spaces for the reader to fill in. Reading between the lines or even beyond the lines is an all-important and intensely pleasurable aspect of the art of reading.

    Well thought out and sensitively done picture books can extend experience beyond the image in the books, present positive images of both sexes and all races, and evoke emotional and aesthetic responses in children.

    Often the books are highly topical and therefore an effective starting point of discussions on issues as diverse as concern for the environment, violence, disability, alienation and so on.

The Place of Illustrations 

With proper guidance and research, apart from an open-minded approach to the subject, illustrations for wordless picture books offer immense possibilities for original, creative work. There is a misconception that illustrations for children must always be realistic. While this may be the style certain illustrators prefer, there is tremendous scope for stylization, innovative techniques and original approach. It depends upon how well the illustrator is able to communicate, simply and clearly. There is a challenge in this, both for illustrator and reader and, certainly, the guide.

How Picture Books Work
In the context of literacy programmes at the elementary level, picture books work at several levels. 

    They familiarise very young children with books and the physical process of reading such as turning pages, looking at each page, focusing attention on a page or a detail in the picture, etc.

    Children automatically look at books together and this sharing becomes an important socialising exercise in the classroom.

    By spontaneously talking about the pictures, children acquire confidence to verbalise their thoughts and opinions.

    The processes involved in reading picture books facilitate those reading skills which are often disregarded in the conventional ‘teaching reading’ methods.

    There is a universality about picture books that crosses all linguistic and cultural barriers unlike written texts, especially at the early learning stages.

    These books are for all ages. Take, for instance, Raymond Briggs ‘The Snowman'. Such tremendous ideas, both simple and complex, are conveyed by appealing directly to the heart with wonderful illustrations telling a simple, feeling story.