What is a picture book?

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University of Koblenz – Landau

Campus Koblenz

English Department

IFA Children’s Literature & Area Studies

Dr. I. Martin

Presentation: Insa Pflaum

WS 2003 / 2004

Picture Books

What is a picture book?


A picture book is any book in which the message depends upon pictures as much or more than text. The pictures must be accurate and synchronized with any text, but they extend the text, giving the reader information or interpreting the text in a way that would not be possible from the words alone. A storyline is not required; books such as ABC, counting and concept books often do not have a storyline. Wordless picture books usually do tell a story, but they have no text.
Perry Nodelman: “A picture books contains three stories: the story of the words, the story told by the pictures, and the story that comes from combining the other two. A successful combination of text and picture works so well that pictures seem almost inseperable from the text.”
Rosemary Wells: “I got my hand over the pictures as I read the words. The text was dry. But when I picked up my hand and read it again, the words came alive! That’s where the story was – in the two together.”


  • 32 pages in length is standard (though it can be 24 - 48 pages)

  • Illustrations are present on every page

  • Illustrations integrate with the narrative to bring story to a satisfying conclusion

  • Word count is generally less than 500 words. Although picture books can have over 2000 words or have none at all (wordless picture books)

A picture story book is one type of picture book. It tells a narrative story which is conveyed through both illustrations and text. Pictures and text are equally important and the total format reflects the meaning of the story.

An illustrated book includes pictures, but they are merely extensions of text. The pictures may enrich the story but are not necessary for its interpretation. Illustrated books are usually transition or junior books, although some adult books include illustrations. Nonfiction books for children, which once might have only a few black and while illustrations, are now often objects of great beauty with many colorful illustrations.

A decorated book includes small pictures or designs, often at the beginning or end of a chapter. These decorations have some connection with the story, but they simply serve to make the book more appealing. They do not usually enrich or extend the story.

Art in picture books:

A picture book conveys its message through a series of sequential images. We are exposed to the verbal story (the text) a little at a time, remembering and associating its elements as we read or hear them, but we see each picture first as a whole, then notice individual details that make up the whole. Unlike many other media, we can turn back and forth through a book at our own pace.

The design serves to build a relationship between the text and the illustrations to deliver the story.

Elements of design in picture books:

Borders are like frames used to enclose text or illustrations. They can be simple lines or elaborate and detailed artwork that provides additional information about the story. Borders as with panels and vignettes, provide balance and variety in picture books.

Story elements in picture books:

  • The theme should float naturally to the surface and not be forced upon the reader.

  • Narrative should have a logical sequence of events that encourages the reader to turn pages.

  • The characters should be believable and realistic, even if it is a fairy tale or myth.

  • Dialogue between characters should be natural and carefully used. Description and dialogue should work together as well as narrative and illustrations.

The educational value of stories:

  • Help children relate new things to what they know already

  • Help children to look at real life from different viewpoints and imagine what it feels like to be someone else

  • Can link to other subjects the child is learning about in school

  • Children can indentify with the characters

  • Are interesting and enjoyable, and can be fun

Stories for language teaching:

  • Can be told with pictures and gestures to help children understand

  • Help children enjoy learning English

  • Introduce new language in context

  • Help children become aware of the structures of the language

Author: Eric Carle

Eric Carle is acclaimed and beloved as the creator of brilliantly illustrated and innovatively designed picture books for very young children. His best-known work, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, has eaten its way into the hearts of millions of children all over the world and has been translated into more than 30 languages and sold over eighteen million copies. Since the Caterpillar was published in 1969, Eric Carle has illustrated more than seventy books, many best sellers, most of which he also wrote.

Born in Syracuse, New York, in 1929, Eric Carle moved with his parents to Germany when he was six years old; he was educated there, and graduated from the prestigious art school, the Akademie der bildenden Künste, in Stuttgart. But his dream was always to return to America, the land of his happiest childhood memories. So, in 1952, with a fine portfolio in hand and forty dollars in his pocket, he arrived in New York. Soon he found a job as a graphic designer in the promotion department of The New York Times. Later, he was the art director of an advertising agency for many years.

One day, respected educator and author, Bill Martin Jr, called to ask Carle to illustrate a story he had written. Martin’s eye had been caught by a striking picture of a red lobster that Carle had created for an advertisement. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? was the result of their collaboration. It is still a favorite with children everywhere. This was the beginning of Eric Carle’s true career. Soon Carle was writing his own stories, too. His first wholly original book was 1,2,3 to the Zoo, followed soon afterward by the celebrated classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Eric Carle’s art is distinctive and instantly recognizable. His art work is created in collage technique, using hand-painted papers, which he cuts and layers to form bright and cheerful images.

The secret of Eric Carle’s books’ appeal lies in his intuitive understanding of and respect for children, who sense in him instinctively someone who shares their most cherished thoughts and emotions.

The themes of his stories are usually drawn from his extensive knowledge and love of nature - an interest shared by most small children. Besides being beautiful and entertaining, his books always offer the child the opportunity to learn something about the world around them. It is his concern for children, for their feelings and their inquisitiveness, for their creativity and their intellectual growth that, in addition to his beautiful artwork, makes the reading of his books such a stimulating and lasting experience.

Carle says: “With many of my books I attempt to bridge the gap between the home and school. To me home represents, or should represent; warmth, security, toys, holding hands, being held. School is a strange and new place for a child. Will it be a happy place? There are new people, a teacher, classmates - will they be friendly? I believe the passage from home to school is the second biggest trauma of childhood; the first is, of course, being born. Indeed, in both cases we leave a place of warmth and protection for one that is unknown. The unknown often brings fear with it. In my books I try to counteract this fear, to replace it with a positive message. I believe that children are naturally creative and eager to learn. I want to show them that learning is really both fascinating and fun.”

The very hungry caterpillar

A little egg lies on a leaf. One Sunday morning the warm sun comes up and –pop! - out of the egg comes a tiny and very hungry caterpillar.

He looks for some food.

On Monday he eats (through) one apple. But he is still hungry.

On Tuesday he eats (through) two pears, but he is still hungry.

On Wednesday he eats (through) three plums, but he is still hungry.

On Thursday he eats (through) four strawberries, but he is still hungry.

On Friday he eats (through) five oranges, but he is still hungry.

On Saturday he eats (through) all of this food/ these pieces.

That night he has a stomachache!

The next day is Sunday again.

The caterpillar eats through one green leaf and feels much better.

(Now he isn’t hungry any more and he isn’t a little caterpillar any more.)

Now he is a big, fat caterpillar.

He builds a small house – a cocoon – around himself. After two weeks he eats a hole in the cocoon and - he is a beautiful butterfly!
Author: A.A. Milne

A.A. Milne was born in London, England, in 1882. Though he studied maths at Trinity College at Cambridge University, he wanted to be a writer. So he began his writing career there at the College.

He married Dorothy Selincourt in 1913, and they became the parents of Christopher Robin Milne in 1920. It was Dorothy that suggested to her husband to write children's stories about their son's toy animals. These were a bear, a kangoroo, a pig, a donkey and a tiger.

When We Were Very Young, in which Winnie-the-Pooh made his first appearance, was published in 1924.  Winnie-the-Pooh followed, in 1926. 

In 1927, Now We Are Six was published, and then the last of the Pooh books,

The House At Pooh Corner, came in 1928.

When he was 70 years old he suffered a stroke from which he did not fully recover. On the 31st of January 1956 Alan Alexander died aged 74 years.

Not only Christopher Robin himself, with his stuffed bear Winnie-the-Pooh and their constant companion Piglet, but also Kanga and Roo, Eeyore the donkey, the kittenish Tigger, Rabbit, and Owl are beloved by both children and adults.

Winnie the Pooh

One Two Winnie the Pooh 

One, two Winnie the Pooh;

Three, four, shut the door;
Five, six, pick up sticks;
Seven, eight, lay them straight;
Nine, ten, remember when? Eleven, twelve, dig and delve;
Thirteen, fourteen, Roo's cavorting;
Fifteen, sixteen, someone's missing;
Seventeen, eighteen, Kanga's waiting;
Nineteen, twenty, my tummy's empty. 


Gaffal, A.: Storytime, Teacher’ Guide (2003); Braunschweig, Westermann Schulbuchverlag GmbH





Picture Books:

The Very Hungry Caterpillar written by Eric Carle

Ten In The Bed written by Penny Dale

Frog And Toad Are Friends written by Arnold Lobel

Pooh’s Pumpkin written by Isabel Gaines
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