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Maria Salvadore

Reading Rockets' children's literature expert, Maria Salvadore, brings you into her world as she explores the best ways to use kids' books both inside — and outside — of the classroom.

Understanding images starts early

December 7, 2011

I enjoy reading, sharing, and sometimes just thinking about picture books. There's been a lot written about them lately; some people are even calling for their demise. But I know better. They help children understand their world.

I was reminded of the power of pictures when I read a recent blog by Joanne Meier, fellow Reading Rockets blogger. She wrote about "infographics" which are visual representations of information or data.

Adults use them all the time. I look at the weather online and in the newspaper — especially when bad weather is expected.

We quickly absorb information conveyed by images, almost in one fell swoop. It's just the opposite when reading words. Then we take in information little by little, having to put it together to gain meaning. (I think of the words that compose a sentence, the sentences that make a paragraph, etc.)

Words and image come together in "infographics" to create meaning quickly but in some depth.

A young child gains meaning from illustrations much as we all do (that is, of course, if adults bother to really look any more). What is conveyed? Meaning, certainly. (It's a cat, house, tree.) Mood, most likely. (It looks happy, sad, scary.) Attitude, perhaps. (What will children come away with, for example, if all scientists are depicted as male?)

Words and image come together in the picture books in many ways and in ways that are both traditional and unexpected. The range of styles and media used are as broad as any museum collection.

In picture books, words and illustration can be deceptively simple (Mo Willems' Elephant and Piggy books, for example) or lush and complex (such as Gennady Spirin's Firebird).

But together they create meaning for readers young and experienced. And that meaning is all the more significant (and fun) when shared between an adult and a child.

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"I'm wondering what to read next." — Matilda, Roald Dahl