I’m a keen reader of children’s picture books, my bookshelf at home is stocked full of them. This isn’t because big words confuse me, but because I’m interested in how illustrations support our understanding of text. Illustrations encourage us to use our imaginations and also increase our enjoyment. But more importantly, they help make text easier to comprehend.
At BrightCarbon, we know that visual presentations improve audience engagement and help to get your message across, and we apply this theory to all our presentations and eLearning. I’m going to show you just how effective images, and thus visual presentations, can be at maximising our understanding of text through my personal love of picture books.
Picture books are usually around 20 pages long and can have as few as 50 words (similar to a 20 minute visual presentation.) This means that illustrations are often used to provide crucial details such as setting, time and mood.
In Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Max is sent to his room without supper. Over a series of images his room transforms into the kingdom of the Wild Things, demonstrating an important shift in setting. The illustrations reveal what the text leaves out, letting us know that the change in place is part of Max’s imagination and helping to establish setting for the rest of the story.
In The Dark by Lemony Snicket, Laszlo is afraid of being alone at night. Through dimly lit, open and empty spaces in which Laszlo seems extremely small, the illustrations communicate a relatable feeling of anxiety and fear that makes us easily able to connect with the emotional content of the narrative.
The brevity of text in picture books often limits character development. We get a sense of how characters think, feel, and appear through illustrations where characters are brought to life through facial expression and body language.
Illustrations help to develop characters by depicting situations and emotions that are relatable. This sequence from I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen shows a very suspicious looking rabbit. Through his shifty eyes and nervous posture, (not to mention what’s on his head) we can guess that he might be responsible for Bear’s missing hat. His facial expression provides a narrative cue for the reader, revealing much more than the text alone.
Far from just providing a visual representation of what’s going on in the text, illustrations can advance and develop the plot by providing extra details.
In Klassen’s We Found a Hat, we can infer from the text that a conversation is taking place between two characters. But the illustration reveals much more than this. We can see that the first turtle is trying to distract his sleepy friend so that he can take the hat, unfolding a significant part of the plot and revealing what is really going on.
Providing a Different View Point
Illustrations are often used to tell a slightly different story than the text.
No! By Marta Altes tells the story of a disobedient puppy. We know that he is behaving badly because his actions directly contradict the text. Here the illustrations offer a different perspective to the text, becoming the punchline and adding humour.
Illustrations often use pattern and repetition to help readers quickly grasp elements of the narrative, and anticipate what might happen next.
In The Way Back Home, Oliver Jeffers uses a sequence of images to show his characters’ actions as they try to fix their spaceships. Instead of using one single image, he repeats similar images with small changes in body language and movement to demonstrate the advancement of time and action.
Images, when used purposefully, can be a very useful messaging tool. They are most effective when they interact with text in such a way that meaning can be easily grasped. Rather than using images to simply decorate your text, think about how they can help you create a visual presentation and bring something unique to your story and help to keep your audience interested and engaged.
Footnote: Zhihui Fang, ‘Illustrations, Text, and the Child Reader: What are Pictures in Children’s Storybooks for?’, in Reading Horiz