Note: For helpful guidelines on selecting picture books with high complexity, as well as a free printable checklist, go HERE!
If you have found a true “tour de force” that you know your students will love sinking their teeth into, what comes next is the task of inciting wonder and curiosity. A well-written and illustrated book should do a good job of this on its own; however, we can certainly steer and structure their curiosities and discussions to meet specific content goals and learning objectives, can’t we?!
From a Common Core perspective, elementary students are expected to do a variation of the following (among other objectives):
Describe how a message is conveyed through key details. (Key Ideas and Details)
Identify the meaning of words and phrases. (Craft and Structure)
Describe how specific aspects of illustrations contribute to what is conveyed with words. (Integration of Knowledge and Ideas)
Read and comprehend grade appropriate literature independently and proficiently. (Range of Reading and Text Complexity)
An analysis of a picture book can easily and comprehensively address these standards, plus many more in the Language, Speaking and Listening, Writing, and even Foundational Skills stands, depending on how we design our lessons.
There are so many variations of picture book analyses, each uniquely designed to meet the rigor and content needs of students, the management and organizational needs of the teacher, and even the demands of state, district, or school expectations.
For example, why not use picture books in our upper elementary book clubs or literature circles? Given appropriate structure and expectations, independent student analysis of an illustrated text could easily provide high levels of rigor and engagement. Additionally, complex picture books can be analyzed with support staff, during whole or small group instruction, as a center activity, or utilizing cooperative learning structures.
Analysis expectations can be as structured and as rigorous as you need them to be. When I analyzed Ed Young’s Lon Po Po with 2nd graders, for example, I guided them through think alouds as we concentrated on its comparison with the classic version of Little Red Riding Hood, as well as more basic elements of plot, characterization, word choice, and illustrations. However, when I analyzed it years later with 4th graders, we conducted background research on Chinese culture to help provide context, and focused our student-led discussions on points of view, the setting of tone through color, figurative language, and structural format. The book remained consistent, but my instructional approach changed to meet the needs of my students.
It’s pretty common practice to focus on those comprehension skills and strategies, including the literary elements all works of fiction must have – characters, setting, plot, point of view, and theme. However, the beauty of picture books is that the best ones are comprehensive in their utilization of illustrations, text, words, and formatting to help tell the story. Yes, the pictures help the readers form understandings, but it’s often far more complex than that. If we need our students to become critical readers and thinkers, then why not engage them in texts and illustrations designed specifically for this purpose?
Picture books differ in terms of techniques used; however, below are some of the more common elements I like to focus on when analyzing with students of any age. (Note: they do not need to be discussed in any specific order.) I'll also pull examples to illustrate each category from David Macaulay's Black and White; however, the photos will not appear here in the order in which they appear in the book. I will also reuse images across examples in an effort to comply with Fair Use.
your dissection checklists
picture book analysis
cover Look closely at the book’s cover.
Discuss the title and ask for predictions. Complex books often utilize abstract or creative titles. The title can often be referenced back to as the story unfolds.
Focus on the cover illustrations and ask for clues. This is a great time to begin noting the illustrator’s techniques. Are the colors emphasizing a certain mood or tone? Is there movement or rhythm in the pictures that parallel any themes we are predicting?
David Macaulay’s Black and White is a deceptive little gem that encourages its readers to engage with the story (or stories?) on multiple, strategic levels. Four different stories, each intermingled and requiring information from the others to be understood, lead the reader on an entertaining journey full of questions and differing perspectives. Looking at the cover alone, the reader is already left with their first challenge, as the title is in juxtaposition with the colors, spanning the entire cover and presumably omitting an illustration. The back of the book, however, displays a cow with spots forming the shape of what appears to be a person pointing at the utter. Examinations of the title page and first double page spread could also coincide with cover page discussions, as they’re equally as engaging, especially with the additional “cover pages” in the first four quadrants. Having not read the story, the front and back covers, title page, and individual four story title pages on the first double spread can already yield a rich discussions on predictions at any age.
A look at the first few double page spreads of David Macaulay’s Blacks and White will reveal that each “story” utilizes different font techniques. Font, bold, cursive, block letters, colors, size, and text placement are used intentionally to distinguish the stories, create emphasis, and provide clues for understanding. The reader can derive meaning from the text in the same way that meaning is drawn from the words and images. If it changes throughout the story, as it does in Macaulay’s, it’s intentional and deserving of discussion!
text Pay attention to the actual text.
Discuss font and font size. Why were the chosen? Author's often play with font and font size to emphasize certain words, phrases, or ideas.
Discuss text placement. Anything significant about its location on the page? Like illustrations, an author and/or illustrator may use balance, movement, rhythm, emphasis, space, or pattern to help visually tell their story.
words Think about each word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph closely.
Discuss sentence structures, their types, and purposes. Does the author utilize any unique structures? Are they consistent or do they change? Fragments, run-ones, repetition, rhyme and verse, and stanzas are just a few used intentionally to convey certain messages.
Discuss word choice, including figurative language and literary techniques. Regardless of the content standards we’re expected to teach, students of all ages will benefit from exposure to and discussion of strong literary techniques. The implicit and abstract can be a bit tricky for younger readers, but they’ll surprise you with what they capture, won’t they?!
In Black and White, Macaulay keeps the stories fairly traditional in terms of sentence structure and word choice as the plot is heavily action driven. There are a few examples of figurative language; however, the literary technique is really evident when the stories begin the merge. Close examination is needed, for the words pack meaning individually, and for the merged story as a whole.
pictures Analyze each illustration alone, and in line with the text.
Discuss how the illustrations support the text. Focus on symbols, messages, and techniques. Are there any implicit clues embedded in the illustrations that help the readers better understand the story?
Focus on the colors, lines, shapes, textures, space, movement, balance, contrast, emphasis, and rhythm. Not all design elements will be used; however, the ones that are utilized will be intentional and worth discussing. Do the colors establish a certain tone? Do the jagged lines mirror the character’s emotions or journey? Is the illustrator using a certain shape repetitively to draw emphasis or symbolize an idea?
In Black and White in particular, Macaulay emphasizes the illustrations, relying heavily on them to both provide information and omit information, thereby requiring the readers to inspect and interact with he story carefully. Each individual story quadrant has clues imbedded in the illustration which connect it to the others; however, they each can be understood independently from the others, especially in the beginning. Additionally, many design elements are used to convey specific messages. Discussions on the illustrations in this book would be lengthy, but also packed with interpretations and discoveries.
format Consider the structure and sequence of the story.
Discuss the book’s format and why the author chose this storytelling technique. Is there anything unique about the sequence of events or how the story is presented?
Refer back to theme – ask how it is supported by the story’s structure. If the story is driven by action or suspense, is it evident in the structure? Does the author utilize flashbacks or foreshadowing?
It’s pretty clear that what makes Black and White so special is its format. The story, split into fourths, combined, then split again, creates intentional gaps that readers are invited to fill with their own meanings and perspectives. If analyzing this story with students, of any age, format would need to be central to discussion.
Picture book analysis is typically not as time consuming as novel analysis; however, if done intentionally, it can take some serious commitment, for it sure can be powerful!
Now, this is by no means a comprehensive list. Each book warrants its own unique analysis. However, these can serve as a pretty solid foundation on which to begin. And, because I’m a color-coding, checklist-following, poster-loving Type A, I have THREE FREE VERSIONS of these guidelines/checklists for you! Grab them below.