A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books

A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books

A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books

A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books


Everything you want to know about picture books can be found in this simple and straightforward guide. After defining the picture book and describing its history and technological evolution, the author helps you better understand and appreciate picture books by describing how they're made-their anatomy, types of illustration, layouts, design elements, and typography-various types of picture books (genres, formats, styles), how picture books work (the art of the story), and how they relate to child development and literacy. Picture book reviews, building a collection, using picture books with various age groups, and issues such as multicultural literature, classics, and controversial titles are some of the other topics covered.


While teaching graduate library school students and discussing picture book art, I am often asked questions such as, “What is gouache?” “How does an illustrator do scratch board?” “How can I tell if this art is computer generated?” Though some students’ questions fall in the realm of innocent curiosity, at other times they are agonizing over an annotation assignment I give for every type of class I teach that involves picture books: “Include information in your annotation regarding the illustrations—tell me something about the art. Is it appropriate for and does it complement the text? Why or why not? Is this a picture book, a picture storybook, or an illustrated picture book?”

For the answers to all questions and concerns regarding picture book art, I direct them to Denise Matulka’s Web site on picture books. This fine site is a great source of information about types of media, art styles, and techniques. I am delighted to see her wealth of knowledge on picture books incorporated into a book that goes far beyond art techniques, types of media, and visual elements. Here we find a general historical overview of picture books; information on the publishing process, including a great glossary of terms; and a list of various awards given to picture books. The various types of picture books are described—from alphabet books to number books, concept books to toy books including board books, and multicultural to international picture books. There is even an inside look at how the cost of an average picture book is distributed (the author and illustrator only receive around 10 percent in royalties, and the publisher receives only around 50 percent of the price). Particularly enlightening is how the actual illustrations are processed and how this has changed over the years—from color separations in the 1970s to the computer-generated art or digitally enhanced illustrations that are the norm today.

Because early literacy is such a hot topic in libraries today, the author shares how the six early literacy skills children need to have in place before they arrive at school can be strengthened through the use of picture books. And as children’s literature enthusiasts know, picture books are not just “for kids anymore”: visual literacy is a skill that children of all ages (and adults) can acquire from the study and enjoyment of picture books.

It is difficult to find one set definition of a picture book—authorities on children’s literature have made a attempts, and Matulka includes many experts’ opinions. However, as a member of the 2008 Caldecott Committee that selected as its winner The Invention of Hugo Cabret—a book more than 500 pages long that alternates wordless double-page spreads with text—as the most distinguished American picture book for children published during the preceding year, I have found that even standard definitions from the past may need a contemporary twist; this is a new era for picture books and the creation of the art that accompanies the text.

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