Every man and his proverbial dog knows the importance of reading in young children and thus the inclusion of picture books into primary school libraries is heavily encouraged.
There is skepticism when it comes to including picture books for a high school library collection. The simple reason for this quizzical brow raise is that many people view picture books as infantile. This is because picture books are by definition, mostly pictures with some text, the purview of the young and or uneducated (Marsh, 2010). Their prevalence in schooling years tends to diminish with age because they are assumed to be less literary or simple in nature (Marsh, 2010). But this is a fallacy.
Welcome to the world of sophisticated picture books.
Literature has always been the core of schooling (Ross Johnston, 2014). From Seneca to Homer, Chaucer to Fielding, Bronte to Orwell, Dickens to Zusak, literature has formed the framework of teaching and learning from the ancient Greeks to current digital natives. ACARA (n.d.b) points out that the English curriculum is structured with literature, language and literacy at its core. This clearly implies that students need to achieve competency in all three strands in order to be considered proficient.
Literacy has evolved from its traditional stance of reading and writing in this information age. ACARA (n.d.a) believes that literacy is the ability to access, interact with, decode, comprehend, use and present information in a meaningful manner. Ross Johnston (2014) concurs that language is useful in organising thought and thus metacognition is the most profound aspect of literacy. Literacy is no longer limited to text but now includes multiple modalities such as written, oral, visual, print and digital forms of information; as well as non traditional text forms such as Braille, Auslan and other gestural sign language. This plethora of modes means that students need to be proficient across multiple literacies for success in this new world order (Wolf, 2014).
Picture books (PB) are commonly used in teaching and learning for young children. Early childhood and primary school teachers often use picture books to teach literacy, content and concepts to their students. But these books are pushing the boundaries in educational practice. Research has shown that picture books can be used to teach older students multiliteracies, curriculum content and broach sensitive subjects (Marsh, 2010). Their use of illustrations and text provoke the reader to look past the overt narrative and search for the covert message. Picture books’s application in literacy and learning is extensive and therefore should be defined as literature.
Traditional picture books follow a linear movement of text and images. Marsh (2010), believes that both images and texts are required for decoding. Unlike illustrated books, where images are the supporting act to the main text event; picture books require images to be the central feature with text working concurrently with the picture (Barone, 2011). Children are able to follow the story as images are often clear and the tone is developmentally appropriate (Marsh, 2010). Titles such as Mem Fox’s Where is the green sheep and Alison Lester’s Are we there yet are perfect examples of traditional picture books. Their format is ideal for younger children as the illustrations assist the reader in decoding the text.
Conversely postmodern picture books are designed to provoke and stimulate the reader with absent or contradictory text (Aitken, 2007). The absence of text encourages the reader to ‘self author’ and fill in the dialogue (Aitken, 2007), as Wiesner’s Flotsam exhibits. In Flotsam, the reader superimposes their own prior knowledge and understanding of the beach to decode the illustrations (Panteleo, 2018). With most Australians living within an hour of the coast, readers readily identify with the illustrations and corresponding fantasies (ABS, 2017). Older readers are able to see the overt message of escapism and fantastical stories as well as the covert message of tradition and conservation. Whereas another Wiesner’s book, Three Pigs, has several contradictions between words and images, forcing the readers to re-read the page and search for details previously missed (Aitken, 2007).
Compared to traditional picture books where the author’s voice is strong, postmodern picture books allow for a change in narration and perspective (Aitken, 2007). In Flotsam, the reader superimposes their own knowledge onto the narrative. This change allows the reader to engage more deeply with the storyline and characters, and in turn, more likely to experience an emotional or cognitive change in thought.
Sophisticated picture books are also known as picture books for older readers, and they are extremely useful in secondary school classrooms. They have great capability to provide teaching and learning experiences and can be used as a vehicle to teach content, literacies and influence social and emotional development (Pantaleo, 2014). Marsdens The Rabbits’ (1998), Tan’s Red Tree (2001), Whatley’s Ruben (2018) and Wild’s The feather (2018) are all excellent examples of sophisticated picture books. It must be noted that post modern books can be for both younger and older readers, but sophisticated PB are primarily for older readers but can have postmodern elements. Tan’s Red Tree and Marsden’s The Rabbits are both examples of sophisticated PB with postmodern elements.
This ability to decode and make cognitive connections is not inherent. Children and young adults often need to re-read such books multiple times and have a discussion with an adult and peers in order to understand the various nuances within (McDonald, 2013). Additionally, these nuances will manifest differently to readers. The manifestations will depend upon personal cognition and experience. This means that sophisticated picture books are ideal for classrooms with diverse needs as the book itself differentiates the lesson.
There are many advantages to using PB in a secondary classroom. The obvious advantage is their brevity. Brevity in books is a great tool for constructing engaging thematic units of work. It also provides a valid alternative as a class text for disinterested teens, reluctant readers, students with low literacy and those that do not speak English at home. Another advantage is the innocence that surrounds PB (Marsh, 2010). Their familiar structure reassures students as many remember them from their own childhood and early schooling. Consequently, these books are seen as non threatening and student’s resistance is reduced.
The ‘image’ has become essential to daily communication and has supplanted the alphabet in terms of importance (Short, 2018; Ross Johnston, 2014). One only needs to walk through playgrounds to know that tiktok, snapchat and instagram are the preferred social media platforms of teens. Ross Johnston (2014, p.619) is adamant that students need to be competent in image analysis across various contexts. But in order for teens to be able to make successful connections between literacy and comprehension, they need to learn the skills to decode language and symbols.
Since visual culture is proving to be a driving force for the 21st century, visual literacy needs to be explicitly taught and sophisticated picture books are eminently qualified for the task (Harvey, 2015; Short, 2018). Exposure to picture books regularly encourages visual literacy as the reader is encouraged to use both the images and the text to decode and comprehend the story. These skills of decoding and comprehending are the cornerstone of literacy proficiency. As discussed previously, the notion of literacy has evolved over the past century and picture books promote multiliteracy as they are a multimodal form of literature. Picture books connect well with popular culture and the new texts, technologies and literacies that accompany it (Flores-Koulish & Smith- D’Arezzo, 2016).
Haven (2007) reminds us that storytelling is the most basic way humans have sought to understand the complexities of life. Therefore narratives are the base level of understanding and within everyone’s capability. Traditional stories with clear demarcations of beginning, middle and end, allow children to organise information in a logical manner (Haven, 2007). But sophisticated PB with contrary and or absent text, force the reader to make their own connections which promotes critical thinking through their multilayering of overt message and underlying tone (Short, 2018).
Critical media literacy is also enhanced by picture books. In a world filled with fake news and the ‘Toilet paper gate of 2020’, it is patently clear that society needs immediate action regarding media literacy. Flores-Koulish & Smith- D’Arezzo (2016) point out that media is part of the socialisation process and requires skills as it is intrinsic to cultural practice and will differ between societies. Unfortunately media literacy is not addressed appropriately and equally across Australian schools. The combination of the digital divide and lack of appropriately skilled teachers has meant students are not taught the relevant skills, nor have access to technology required to decode and interpret images. The importance of media literacy can never be dismissed, after all, one only has to recall the bizarre result of the 2016 Presidential election to remember that media literacy cannot be treated lightly.
It has been well established that emotional regulation is important for social development and is the basis of human interactions (Laurie, 2016). Laurie (2016) believes that picture books provide an excellent framework to teach humanity about empathy and tolerance which comes under social and emotional intelligence. This regulation, or emotional literacy, is the ability to regulate one’s emotions in social situations. In fact as Laurie (2016) pointed out, humans require skills in emotional regulation prior to social literacy competency. Conflict resolution, common in playgrounds, sports grounds, canteens, boardrooms and bedrooms; all require competence in social and emotional literacy. In fact any positive social interaction between peers needs both parties to be emotionally literate. Reading, discussing and the analysis of literature lures the reader into connecting with the character, which leads to increased levels of sensitivity and empathy. PB are able to broach sensitive issues with ease as their innocent appearance lulls readers into a sense of security (Barone, 2011).
Literature’s strength lies in the fact that readers are able to vicariously experience the character’s conflict and thus develop an understanding of appropriate responses. Sophisticated picture books use the illustrations and text to elicit an emotional response in the reader. Whatley’s Ruben uses monochromatic images to show the harsh dystopian world that the protagonist has to survive in. Wild’s The Feather uses orientation to draw the reader into the image. Marsden’s The Rabbits draws the invaders as pompous, barrel shaped creatures who are oblivious to the presence of the original inhabitants. This allegorical tale uses satire to point out the devastation the colonisers inflicted on the Indigenous peoples and forces the reader to re-evaluate the history book’s version of events. Tan’s story of a forlorn child in Red Tree gives the reader a visual representation of what depression can feel like. The vivid imagery of a monstrous fish, etchings of endless days and drowning gives readers a chance to understand how depression affects people. It also gives students who suffer mental health illness a language to use to describe their mental state.
Short (2018) reiterates literature’s ultimate purpose in identifying the inner humanity of individuals and ensuring fundamental experiences of life are accessible to all. The current trend towards standardised tests and prescribed reading has disengaged students from engaging with books purely for emotional benefit (Flores-Koulish & Smith-DÁrezzo, 2016; Short, 2018, p.291). As mentioned previously, due to brevity, older students can be encouraged to engage with picture books but without the guilt of ‘wasted time’.
Sophisticated picture books are an excellent tool for addressing the various cognitive, behavioural and developmental needs of the reader. Images are superseding text in this modern age, therefore it is important that visual literacy is explicitly taught through the curriculum. But PB’s greatest impact on adolescents is upon the development of emotional literacy in adolescents. Therefore, it can be argued that picture books are literature because they are able to affect the reader so significantly (Ross Johnston, 2014). Picture books are multimodal in nature and their sophistication in addressing issues of a sensitive nature as well as problematic relationships, makes it an important part of a high school collection.
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