If you’re a person that doesn’t necessarily gravitate towards literature, then this lyric, as it stands, would be appropriate for the sake of this post. However, if you love yourself some kid lit and tear up a little at the sight of a beautifully illustrated text (you know who you are), then maybe this lyric is irrelevant, in which case I would say “In every element of fun, there is a job that must be done.”
Regardless, picture books are powerful, aren’t they? They have the capacity to draw readers, young and old, into the depths of their pages, which although few in number, are often thick with vibrancy and imagery. Whether a child is 5 or 15, picture books can have an impact, especially when used intentionally.
A picture book can be read as a read aloud at dismissal. It can coincide with a novel as a partner text. It can be used to illustrate a character trait or teach a moral. It can be checked out in a library and read in the car. It can be incorporated into a lesson on Westward Expansion or cause and effect. It can be also be analyzed for its literary value.
In this article, I’ll be digging deeper into the selection process of picture books for their literary value. Whether selecting a book to be analyzed in the classroom or a quality book to be read with your 4th grader before bed, these selection guidelines will hopefully help steer you in the direction of rich language, complex themes, and sophisticated illustrations.
Not every picture book merits analysis, primarily considering the author’s purpose for writing. There are many, however, regardless of whether they won an award or made a best seller list, that were written to be discussed, dissected, and appreciated on a creative level. These books can and should be used often and with intention.
When selecting novels to read with our students, whether for book clubs/literature circles or read alouds, we’re careful to look at text complexity for literary elements and techniques, selecting those with appropriate rigor and content; however, we can apply those same selection criteria to picture books. If designed and approached intentionally, there’s value in these texts for all ages. Additionally, Common Core puts a strong emphasis on text complexity, as it should. Utilizing these complexity guidelines and teaching them to our students can help us become more intentional teachers, and our students more discerning readers.
The following guidelines are what I use when filtering through picture books to analyze with students. As we know, a book may not have strength in each category to be a sturdy, complex read. While the books fitting these descriptions can easily be quick or independent reads, they each possess complexities worthy of digging a bit deeper into their depths. To help illustrate the guidelines, I'll provide examples using John Scieszka and Lane Smith's classic, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (or SCM for short).
Note: 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.
picture book selection
Text Complexity in Picture Books: 5 Guidelines to Help You Select a Tour de Force
theme Look at the central theme, topic, or idea.
Is it complex or abstract? It’s about finding that balance for our students. If we’re analyzing the book together, the level of complexity can be higher than if our students are analyzing it without teacher support.
Would it promote discussion? Higher complexity leads to higher level questions. The discussions that a 2nd grade class would have are different than those of a 5th grade, but a complex text can be adapted to meet the needs of multiple grade levels simply though discussion content.
Is it relatable? The theme, topic, or idea may not be directly relatable; however, there should be some element within the text for students to connect with, be it the characters or their motivations, for example.
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is a goofy, post-modern collection of parodies on classic tales. One theme, although not traditional, can be argued to be the manipulation of the norm in an effort to engage the reader as as active participant in the story. One of the main goals of the text is to challenge the reader's expectations, which begins from the first few pages - the introduction, the title page, and the table of contents. This requires the reader to have an understanding of each of the tales in order to fully grasp the intricacies of the story and appreciate each fractured tale for its own nonsensical humor. If this were being read in a classroom setting, familiarity with each of the tales would need to be established prior to reading. Can the story be read and appreciated if students don't know who Rumpelstiltskin is? Sure. However, the discussions and connections would be far richer if they did!
illustrations Look closely at the illustrations.
Are they sophisticated? Illustrations, as a body of art, can be subjective in terms of sophistication. However, complexity within picture books involves intentional use of complex illustrations, just as it does complex themes. They can be as simple as black lines utilizing negative space, but is there a purpose served? Can they yield discussion?
Are they essential to the understanding of the story? Intentional, complex illustrations are essential to the reader’s overall understanding of the story. Through implicit messages imbedded in the artwork, an illustrator who sought sophistication will weave his/her storytelling in with the author’s to create a total multi-disciplinary experience.
Does the illustrator utilize intentional techniques to help tell a visual story? An illustrators use of various elements and principals of design, such as line, shape, form, value, color, texture, space, pattern, movement, balance, contrast, unity, emphasis, and rhythm, will help determine the complexity much like the author’s use of literary elements and techniques. You'll be able to spot it when it's good, regardless of your artistic eye (or lack thereof)!
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales has illustrations that match the text in complexity and sophistication. Where the words bring attention to nonsense, chaos, and a disruption of expectation, so do the illustrations. The text itself is included in the illustrations, both working together to create multiple visual narratives. Space is also distorted, as words and images both clash and fall off the page. The elements of design - line, shape, form, value, color, texture, space, pattern, movement, balance, contrast, unity, emphasis, and rhythm - are all carefully played with on a playground of familiar characters in unfamiliar situations. In other words, SCM nails it!
structure Consider the format and structure of the text.
Is the structure, format, or sequence unconventional? Complex picture books often have untraditional structures. Use of flashbacks, foreshadowing, differing perspectives and points of view, omission of words or illustrations, multiple plot lines, and reader engagement are all examples of structures that authors of picture books utilize to construct complex stories.
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is comprised of multiple fractured and parodied tales that are woven into one fragmented story narrated by an unreliable (and sneaky) narrator, Jack. Certainly unconventional, SCM abandons a linear chronology and, as a construction of texts, diverts from the traditional. The narrative discontinuity within the structure questions conventions and meanings, right alongside the theme, text, and illustrations. The structure is used as a means to further engage the reader in questioning and forming new understandings.
language Focus on the words.
Is there figurative language or strong use of literary techniques? Descriptive language that extends beyond adjectives and “juicy words” has the power to enhance a reader’s experience with the story, regardless of the reader’s age.
Are there implicit messages with various levels of meaning? Whether we’re able to draw attention to these techniques with our students or not, they open the imagination to new worlds of interpretation.
Perhaps one of the most significant techniques that is employed in The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is self- referentiality. Attention is drawn to the text as text itself, breaking the "fourth wall" as a work of metafiction. This supports the theme of engaging the reader as an active participant in the narrative, while also interrupting reader expectations. Other literary techniques are woven throughout, each helping to produce multiple layers of meaning. They're not only fun to catch and analyze, theyre also fun to look at!
characters Picture books need strong characterization!
Are the characters dynamic? Do they have depth? Whether through anthropomorphism (non-human beings with human traits), parallel characters, or even symbolic archetypes, the characters in complex picture books are layered in their emotions, words, and actions.
Are the characters’ points of view evident? Complex picture books also utilize different and strong points of view that are both explicitly and implicitly conveyed through their illustrations and actions as they are through their words.
Is there dialogue? Dialogue certainly doesn’t need to exist for a picture book to be complex, but it is an important tool, both internal dialogue and external, in helping students connect with and understand the characters.
The characterization in The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is intentionally vague with little character development occurring, for the narrative assumes the reader is both drawing on background knowledge and creating new understandings. The characters come and go quickly and don't appear when they should, making them unreliable and further supporting the main idea that these are, in fact, "fairly stupid tales"!
Hopefully these guidelines help you find some gems to read with your little humans! What are your favorite picture books to dig into? Tell me about them in the comments below!
Oh yes, and feel free to download my Picture Book Selection Guide if you’d like! You can display this near your classroom library for your upper elementary students (if it meets their needs) or tuck it away for your own personal use. CLICK ON THE IMAGE BELOW!
Whether your state follows the CCSS or not, their website provides additional resources on text complexity and selection that are worth taking a look at: