Because of the relatively short length of the picture book, these multimodal texts provide information in a readily accessible format. Picturebooks can be used to introduce new content area topics or stimulate in depth discussions in a single class period. In addition, picturebooks are an excellent resource for reading aloud with older readers. The lyrical writing and exceptional artwork used in contemporary picturebooks anchors the sounds of written language in students, provides appropriate and enjoyable literary experiences and entices readers to interact with literature in a relatively risk-free environment. Picturebooks are not a genre in themselves, rather they are a particular literary format that contains many genres. Mystery stories, historical fiction, contemporary realistic fiction, fantasy, fairy tales and poetry are all available in picturebook format.
The illustrations and visual elements contained in picturebooks may well be the first time young children are exposed to art and artistic techniques. Young readers are drawn into the world of reading and literature through the images and artwork contained in picturebooks. As readers get older, the picture books that are intended for them become more sophisticated. The media used to create the illustrations, the interplay between visual elements and written text, and the meanings and significance of the visual elements in picture books become more complex. Illustrations in picturebooks are a separate meaning system, not simply as a support for understanding the written text. Contemporary picturebook illustrators draw upon a wide variety of artistic techniques including; realism, surrealism, impressionism, cubism, and postmodernism to create their illustrations and visual elements. Making connections between the art in picture books and classic art forms and styles can increase older reader appreciation of art itself. The art contained in picturebooks may be a door into the world of art that older readers need to make connections to the vast array of visual elements in other texts and experiences.
Older readers in today’s society experience more variety and complexity in the texts and visual media than readers of past generations. Hypermedia in the form of web-sites and music videos, the internet, multimodal art, advertisements, television and pop culture present new experiences and challenges for older readers. Picturebooks may serve as a bridge between traditional written texts and these new forms of writing and visual design. The interplay between written text and visual components is complex and ever changing. Illustrations no longer simply support the written text, they provide information and meaning on their own.
As picturebooks grow more complex and contain more meta-fictive elements, it is necessary for readers to become more actively involved in the reading and meaning making process. Due to the non-linear structures and complex visual designs of these texts, readers are required to decide on their own how to navigate these texts and how they will construct meaning as they experience the story or stories presented. These polysemic texts contain multiple perspectives and story lines and require readers to make decisions about how the book will be read, not simply follow along with the a single, linear text. Roland Barthes calls these texts “writerly” texts and says that readers actually “write” these texts as they read them, filling in important gaps in the text to make sense as they are read.
Because of the multiple perspectives and ambiguous nature of these meta-fictive texts, readers must learn to entertain and tolerate ambiguity in order to sustain meaning while reading. There is simply no “main idea” to be found in the text. Readers must be active constructors of meaning and make decisions on their own as they navigate these complex texts. As teachers of older readers, we need to help readers assume this more active stance to reading, rather than dulling their reading senses in an attempt to “discover the main idea.”
Contemporary picturebooks, with their complex designs and meta-fictive elements set new expectations for readers. Readers are now required to generate meanings, negotiate these meanings with other readers and make conscious decisions during the reading of texts. As more complex picture books are presented to readers, readers begin to view reading as an exploration, an investigative search for meaning. Margaret Meek stated that texts teach readers how they are to be read. As the texts readers read become more complex, they require more sophisticated strategies and comprehension skills to be successful readers.
As readers leave elementary school and enter middle and high school, reading as a separate subject gives way to English classes and the reading of classic and traditional texts. Students no longer learn to read, they are required to read and study the texts of Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Twain and Salinger. These texts may be challenging for even proficient adult readers. Using pictur books that contain the same themes, settings, literary elements and writing techniques, along with these classic novels and plays, can help readers make sense of these challenging texts.
Picture books aren't just for young kids anymore! Teachers need to get over their biases about this literary format and begin to explore the abundance of quality texts that are available as picturebooks. The complexity and sophisticated nature of these texts will be rewarding for themselves and their readers alike. I have yet to meet a group of older readers that have not enjoyed reading picture books. Once they understand that these aren’t “baby” books, they will enjoy reading these texts for years to come.