Monday, 14 December 2020

Make Way for Art! How Picture Books Are Ideal for Building Visual Literacy in Digital Natives • By Natascha Biebow

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

The readers of our picture books are digital natives. 

They are driven by the visual.

The Internet has completely revolutionised the way images serve communication. People currently upload and share 1.8 billion photos every single day. On Instagram alone, 50 billion photos have been uploaded since 2010.

In fact, 90% of what we take in in the world is visual.


Surprising, even reading is visual: In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center found that when we look at a known word, our brain sees it like a picture, not a group of letters needing to be processed. Neurons in a small brain area in the left side of the visual cortex remember how the whole word looks — using what could be called a visual dictionary.


Pictures are the new language. Yet the focus in education is very much on reading and writing words, on verbal literacy – not on art, not on interpreting and analysing images. But, now more than ever, children need visual literacy.




“According to researchers, educators, museum professionals, filmmakers, and artists, visual literacy can improve creativity, critical thinking, educational achievement, empathy towards others, and ability to decipher technology.” (source OpenEd)


If you’ve ever read a picture book with a child, you’ll appreciate that they can read it long before they can read the words. This is of course because visual learning is the precursor to verbal learning.  


Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

In his time at the Toledo Museum of Art, Brian Kennedy did some research into visual literacy: “Nearly 30% of the brain’s cortex is devoted to visual processing. More than the other human senses. The optic nerve has over a million nerve fibers. Ninety percent of all the information we take in from the world we take in visually. With so much of the brain’s cortex devoted to visual processing, it is logical that visual literacy is the key sensory literacy.” 


“It’s as important to be visually literate, to understand pictures and how they affect us, as it is to be word-literate,” Kennedy says. “Being fluent in the language of images gives us an advantage at school, at work, and at home.”


Photo by from Pexels

But what is visual literacy exactly and what does it have to do with picture books? Or with teaching and valuing art and design for young children?


To be visually literate, a person should be able to ‘read’ and think critically about images. If you are visually literate, you should be able to go from passively seeing an image to really LOOKING. This means being able to interpret images meaningfully, by first looking at images, then analysing them, and eventually situating them in terms of their cultural, social and historical context.


Images can convey meaning with immediacy in a multiple ways, and have increasingly become an essential tool for generating innovative solutions in business, design, science and technology, among numerous other fields. I previously blogged about using doodling as a tool for my writing and business. Here is another really cool tool: The Periodic Table of Visualization Methods shows just how versatile images can be in a myriad of contexts. 


"Towards A Periodic Table of Visualization Methods for Management"
Lengler R., Eppler M. (2007)

Being able to both understand images and convey meaning through them are key skills that future generations of children will need more than ever.


As picture book creators, we know just how powerful images are. We know that how words and pictures work together in a picture book creates something that is more than the sum of its parts.

It is ART. 

Art that tells a story. ART that communicates powerful messages and evokes beautiful things:

This powerful image from Small in the City by Sydney Smith shows a little girl looking for her lost cat, small in the city, just like her.  No words are needed to convey the emotion of this scene: the art with its use of colour, composition and fluid lines conveys the message beautifully.

In his book
Grand Canyon, Jason Chin paints in masterful realistic detail the majestical rock formations and the tiny creatures that live in the Grand Canyon so that readers everywhere can experience this beautiful place and its history. Chin's impactful artwork compositions, combining macro and the micro views, guide readers in making connections between the elements immediately visible and those observed through taking a closer look.


Benedict Blathwayt's stunning watercolours are packed with so much detail for young readers to pore over! In this spread from Green Light for Little Red Train the train speeds through a mountain landscape, but it is all the delightful additional 'mini' stories that invite a closer look.

In this story about the boy Matisse, inspired by a lifetime surrounded by art in nature and at home, Hadley Hooper instantly creates a visual connection between the boy's world and the grown-up artist's famous (actual) paintings through her evocative, colourful, bold picture book artwork. From the Irridescence of Birds by Patricia McLaughlan and Hadley Hooper

No need for words in this instantly-recognizable scene. Mo Willems' inspired combination of photographs and comic-style illustrations conveys the simple joy of being reunited with a favourite toy. From Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins is a gem with its bold imagery and simplicity, yet clever complexity. Even the youngest of children can spot the joke in the images -- the wily fox is always one step behind the hen in this classic example of how the art speaks volumes.

This illustration from Chris Wormell's One Smart Fish, the story of a clever fish who dreams of walking on land, ends with this amazing image - such a lot of information about the story of evolution is conveyed in just one piece of art!


As Picture Book creators, we recognize the importance of including all kinds of art and diverse imagery in picture books so that children everywhere can really see themselves and their world reflected in the pictures they encounter in books.

From Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross


Tony Ross' vibrant, lively pencil drawings depict Susan experiencing all the emotions and enjoying all the activities every child loves - from painting, to go-karting to playing with Dad. The final image might surprise readers and encourages them to consider their assumptions and empathise with Susan, unique, just like every child. From Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

With beautiful textured paintings, Britta Teckentrup uses simple and bold imagery to pack in a heartfelt and universal message about belonging. From Under the Same Sky by Britta Teckentrup

Todd Parr's distinctive, simple, colourful images speak first, almost before the words - conveying powerful messaging in bold artwork. From The Family Book by Todd Parr


Evocative, imaginative and empowering artwork fills this beautiful book, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, empowering children to find a home in a world of books and dare to dream big.


So many different styles of ART with powerful visual messaging!

From an early age, picture books are perfect for scaffolding children in order to extend their innate visual literacy. By encouraging parents and teachers to value the visual art form that is picture books, and engage in conversations that prompt children to really LOOK and think critically about their pictures – even older children – could we be helping to set them up with critical skills for a better future in our digital world?


Make way for art!



Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor

Natascha is the author of the award-winning The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, illustrated by Steven Salerno, winner of the Irma Black Award for Excellence in Children's Books, and selected as a best STEM Book 2020. Editor of numerous prize-winning books, she runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission, and is the Editorial Director for Five Quills. She is Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. Find her at








Jane Clarke said...

Interesting post, thanks Natascha. My small granddaughters are definitely more visually literate than me - they often point things out in the pictures that I haven't spotted because I'm focussing on the words.

joy said...

I could not agree more with the argument you put forward Natascha.

I do think, however, the majority of teachers of English in primary schools, that is all primary school teachers, teach visual literacy. If you were to look at the primary curriculum you would not find objectives that are directly linked to reading images but there are those where an interpretation can include use of the images. Most teachers will take the word 'read' and apply it to text and images. In picture books it is impossible to do otherwise if they are being used as texts that teach/core texts/mentor texts/guided reading texts or any other name for the text which is stimulating discussion, reading and writing.

I do admit that as children move up to Yr6 the images start to take second place due to the pressures felt around testing but good teachers retain a focus on the use of images to support understanding/tell the story/tell a different story etc.

Continuing professional development for teachers in this area is vital - which would include reading great blogs like this one. Thank you.

Natascha Biebow said...

Thank you, Joy, for elaborating on the curriculum links. I'm pleased to hear you agree that picture books are an important resource for teaching and developing visual literacy. As you point out, it is often the case that the pictures come second when interpreting this genre. Art and graphics are certainly not placed centrally in the curriculum, often being 'bumped' when the pressure is on to deliver the three Rs. But are we failing children by doing so?