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Picture Books Can Be…

Picture Books Can Be…

By: Kathy Halsey

Yes, it’s still November, even though your holiday decorations may be up already. It’s still Picture Book Month, too. As librarians like to say, “Picture books are rated ‘E’ for everybody, ” but they can be even more. Read on to discover how picture books can be a STEAM resource or a mentor text for students and teachers.

The STEAM of Picture Books

Have you ever thought of the picture book as an “object?” If we examine a picture book with our students via the STEAM lens, we notice that a picture book is engineered, produced, and designed.

My own process in mining the picture book as object began with Megan Dowd Lambert’s groundbreaking professional title READING PICTURE BOOKS WITH CHILDREN, 2015, Charlesbridge. Megan created/field-tested “The Whole Book Approach,” during her tenure at the Carle Museum. (Peruse the SLJ article here.)

I have adapted her whole book approach and the technical language used in picture book design (See “Glossary of Book and Storytime Terminology” in Megan’s book.) to hook older readers based on visual thinking strategies.  

Have students examine a mix of newer picture books, fiction and nonfiction, with you modeling the process. Take time to explore the material beyond art & main text before you read aloud. Walk through a picture book and explore its unique format together in a sophisticated form of “show & tell.”
  • How many pages do picture books have? Why? (Make them count the pages.)
  • If possible, show them an F&G, a picture book ARC with folded pages that is gathered into signatures (a bundle of 16 pages.)
  • Examine jackets/covers if not taped down as sometimes the cover has a different design.
  • Look at the variety of endpapers in the books the students have. Speculate on why color and illustrations were chosen
  • Check for front matter and back matter, especially in nonfiction and biographical picture books. Make a group list of all the types of back matter.
  • Discuss typography. Why are some words bigger, bolder than others in the text? How does typography lend meaning to a book? (Bully by Laura Vaccaro Seeger is a great one to share for this design element.
  • Check out the gutter. Why are some illustrations on the left side and the right side of a 2-page spread? (Use Yo! Yes? by Chris Raschka. Placement of characters on opposite sides of the gutter and then on the same side of the gutter shows visually the progression of friendship.)
  • Finally, have students search their books for gatefolds, an oversized page folded to the same size as other pages but intended to be opened out for reading. How does the gatefold add to the story?

Picture Books as Mentor Texts

Did you know that picture book authors study other writer’s books for inspiration, ways to approach topics, and for unique ways to structure a book? During the month of March, an entire month is devoted to what we writers call ReFoReMo or Reading for Research Month. You can adapt this process with student writers or just use the plethora of lists to inform your own reading of picture books. 

ReFoReMo lists are grouped by topics and structures with over 45+ topics listed alphabetically. The lists are fluid, updated, and created
by those who work in the field. They are a gold mine for busy librarians hoping to keep current with their reading, yet they include classics, too.  Themes and topics include compassion, interactive books, character formation, and concept books for older readers. Structures include wordless, layered text, second person POV, and metafiction. Check out the Facebook group and website that includes a research tools page.

Their mission is “to help picture book writers reform writing by reading and researching mentor texts in the month of March. The challenge is supported by educators, authors, illustrators, editors, and literary agents in addition to a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction picture book recommendations. We welcome classrooms, educators, writers, illustrators, and publishing professionals to learn with us.”

The Payoff

When librarians and educators delve deeply into the myriad ways picture books can be used, students of all ages will appreciate them more. The idea that these books are for “little kids” or that they are easy to write will be dispelled. As Peter Reynolds reminds us from his NCTE 2018 session, “picture books are wisdom dipped in art and words. Picture books make big ideas transportable. Picture books are for all ages.” Pick up a stack of picture books and dip into the magic soon.

Kathy Halsey is a former K-12 school librarian, seventh grade English teacher, and Past President of the Ohio Educational Library Media Association. She writes picture books and nonfiction. Currently, she works part-time at Cover to Cover Books for Young Readers, Upper Arlington. She blogs about writing with other kid lit writers at, and speaks at educational and literary conferences.