I am sure that most of us can easily recall our earliest reading experiences, snuggling up in bed with a parent at the end of the day to read a favourite picture book. Or when all of a sudden, the illustrations of a most cherished children’s book suddenly spring to mind, sparking many joyful memories. Many of us consider picture books as the first books that made us fall in love with reading.
As writer and illustrator of a series of children’s books, called Alexander’s Questions, I am often asked, which I consider to be more important: the story or the illustrations? In my opinion, both the story and illustrations in a picture book carry equal weight and work alongside each other to enrich the reader’s experience.
Where as the narrative sets the scene, describes the characters and sets out the story line, the illustrations bring the story to life and serves as a visual guide to the reader. In fact, the illustrations serve as the gateway to the story, inviting the reader in and enticing him or her through colourful visual clues to engage with the story. Through the illustrations, the child becomes more than a listener or reader, but an active participant in the reading experience. The picture book now becomes a feast for the senses, with the child engaging not only on an audial and visual level but also having the option of pointing at and even touching the illustrations.
The job of the illustrations is multifold. Illustrations clarify and elaborate on the text as well as offering important background knowledge and contextual clues to what is happening in the story, helping the child to read between the lines and to find meaning that may not be specifically stated in the text. Viewing and interpreting the visual information, while hearing the words, help children to understand the meaning of the words.
Illustrations shown alongside text, offer invaluable tools to help kids, who are in the early stages of developing their reading skills, build understanding, fluency, vocabulary and other fundamental literacy skills. Small children often love repeating passages of their favourite children’s books and then proceed to make up their own rhymes or stories.
A picture book with beautiful, vibrant and engaging illustrations do not only spark joy, enrich the reading experience and encourage a child to read, but can also serve as a wonderful tool to explore difficult subjects such as death, fear, grief and anxiety.
Young children do not always know what they are feeling and how to name their emotions. However, through engaging with the illustrations, the child can explore the emotions and feelings of the characters, by evaluating their body language and facial expressions as described by the accompanying text and depicted in the illustrations. With the guidance of a parent or teacher, the child can now be helped to name the feelings expressed by the characters and subsequently also gain understanding of their own emotions and how to name them.
When reading with my own children, I was often amazed how snuggling up with a picture book in bed at the end of the day, was not only a bonding and peaceful way to end the day, but could also provide a welcome glimpse into my child’s inner world. Children do not always respond well to ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions and the illustration can serve as a welcome third person through which to gently explore a child’s understanding of the story and characters.
For example, when reading a picture book together about a bear that lost his way in a dark wood, you may ask ‘I wonder how the bear felt when he was lost in the dark wood?’ or ‘how do you think the bear will feel when he finds his house again?’ In this way, the child can safely explore his or her own feelings through the story and the characters in the illustration and learn, with your help, how to put names to these feelings. Additionally, by associating with and relating to the characters in the story, the child will learn to empathise with others, an important tool in becoming an emotionally intelligent individual with empathy for themselves and the world around them. Such precious moments together will leave the child feeling heard; learning that it is safe to express feelings, which in turn leads to healthy attachment and bonding with the parent. The ability to safely voice emotions is a valuable tool in times of stress and a skill that will be carried forward into adulthood and ultimately into parenthood.
In short, reading a picture book together with vibrant, engaging illustrations is not only bonding, fun and a feast for the senses, but also helps to establish fundamental literacy skills, empathy, emotional intelligence and other essential life skills. I believe that early childhood experiences, such as reading a picture book together, are irreplaceable building blocks in forming positive relationships, and in helping children to develop into emotionally intelligent individuals with empathy for themselves and the world around them.