More than pictures, more than books: the educational value of picture books By Olivia Hope

There are stories I know by heart having read them to my sons hundreds of times. Ones that come to mind include The Gruffalo (Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler), Little Rabbit Foo Foo (Michael Rosen and Arthur Robins) and We're Going on a Bear Hunt (Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury).

Then there are the story books that are most worn and read by my boys, such as Oi Frog! (Kes Gray and Jim Field), The Bear (Raymond Briggs) and How to find Gold (Viviane Schwarz). I like to think that these books are more significant because they are titles that the boys chose to “read” by themselves, even at that pre-reading stage when they were interpreting the illustrations.

Is there any other art form that can be enjoyed by all ages? Grown-ups can read picture books with children. Children can flick through them with their friends or even look at them and read them all on their own.

It’s very easy for me to say that picture books are the most critically important art form. As a picture book writer, I would say that, after all! But there is no other genre that allows our children access to original artwork, scintillating storytelling, and wonderfully engaging characters – all in only 30 or so pages.

While nobody doubts the benefits of books for developing literacy, many are unaware that there are lots of other ways of using picture books outside of story time in the classroom.

1. Books can be linked to lessons, seasons, or weekly themes.

Inviting children to bring in books about a theme encourages talking about books and sharing stories. If you’re not sure where to begin to find a suitable picture book, pop into your school or local library. Children’s Books Ireland have reading guides across age groups and genres. They also suggest how to read more books by Irish authors, illustrators and publishers. You’ll be amazed to discover just how varied the world of children’s books is here in Ireland and worldwide.

2. Books can inspire art activities.

Ah, where would we be without Pinterest? By typing in a picture book name and the phrase art activities into the search bar, you gain instant access to a universe of art ideas. Whether it’s making your own Very Hungry Caterpillar (Eric Carle) from an egg box carton or baking a Chocolate Cake (Michael Rosen and our own Kevin Waldron); the options for engaging in a picture book story using 2D and 3D art are endless. Jump in and have fun!

3. Books can make dramatists of us all.

We all know that children have extraordinary imaginations that explode when they engage in play. With a few plush toys and action figures, any story can be retold. This is a great activity to do in pods, with children taking turns reading/directing, using their toys to act out the roles, and creating voices. Each group can then take turns showing their little production to their friends. For inspiration on how to do this, the wonderful Branar Theatre are currently sharing a digital screening of Oliver Jeffers’ How to Catch a Star until December 10th. They have partnered with 24 venues across Ireland to give children an opportunity to experience this well-loved story in a whole new way.

4. Reading picture groups with older age groups

The quality of storytelling and content in modern picture books allows huge scope for learning in all age groups. These books can be a medium through which students can talk about big and complicated issues in a safe and simple way. Examples include I speak like a river (Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith), which offers insights into what it is like to grow up with a stutter, and Walk on the Water (Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson, Nikkolas Smith) which is a breath-taking portrayal of the first West Africans to arrive in America as slaves.

5. Books can help with developing communication and empathy skills.

The pictures in illustrated books create a pause in the story which allows children time to interpret the art. Reading ‘big book’ versions of picture books can be like curating a visit to an art gallery, where everyone’s imagination can be included in whole class discussions to encourage class cohesiveness.

If you’re wondering how to facilitate this as a teacher, it’s a good idea to begin with closed questions like: What do you see? What are they doing?

Then move to more open-ended questions to allow for more personal insights. Why do you think they’re doing that? What would you do if you were them?

In my work in Siamsa Tíre, The National Folk Theatre of Ireland, we use storytelling to pass our folk traditions on to the younger generations. Our recent children’s art exhibition A Way Home/Slí Abhaile featured the art of 20 illustrators (all Irish or living in Ireland) to tell a modern version of the story of Samhain/Halloween.

We invited groups of children from local schools to see the exhibition and found that their ability to read pictures to tell a story encouraged idea formation and communication with the art. By saying what they saw, by encouraging them to watch for clues in the illustrations, they were able to make inferences about the characters in the story. They were able to take on the perspective of others. And they were able to share their own ideas too.

Picture books are a gateway to learning. They contribute to social, emotional, and personal development while also tying into the curriculum. By using picture books as an educational support, we allow children the chance to see books as more than literacy tools. They can become portals into other areas of creativity and learning.