Teaching Advanced Visual Literacy

…people now unblushingly use the term ‘visual literacy’ when a few decades ago the concept, never mind the term, was undreamed of. Such an enormous shift in our ways of understanding the world and ourselves will undoubtedly have had an impact upon a form of text like the picturebook that self-consciously exploits the pictorial as a way of making meaning.

Children born into the first years of the twenty-first century are likely to possess a richer and more deft understanding of visual imagery and its modes of deployment than any other generation in the history of humankind. Their world is saturated with images, moving and still, alone and in all manner of hybrid combinations with texts and sounds. This is the world in which they must function. Competence with images is now a prerequisite of competence in life. Increasingly such competence will be part of the context that young children bring to their readings of picturebooks.

— from David Lewis, Reading Contemporary Picturebooks


I don’t know how many authors and illustrators know this, but in my experience there are a lot of teachers out there who send their students into libraries to ask for wordless picture books. Often these are used for writing exercises where the kids write the plot of the books, but once in a while you’d get a creative soul who understands that visual storytelling is the great unifier.

SLJ, review of Journey


With a child audience you should never assume any level of literacy. But it is a great mistake to think that an unlettered audience is necessarily an unperceptive one, or that their visual reactions are crude or undeveloped. I suspect that children are at their most perceptive in this way before they start to read, and that after they have acquired this thrilling and prestitious skills their visual awareness tends to drop a little. … Our job as illustrators probably starts from that wonderful moment when a baby gets hold of a book and suddenly realises that the image on one page connects with the one overleaf … What we are after is to build on this excitement.

— Shirley Hughes in a Woodfield Lecture in 1983



Questions To Promote Visual Literacy from The Book Chook

Storytelling through (almost) just photography

This wordless, richly animated short fantasy adventure film is nine minutes of pure, unadulterated joy from io9

My favourite short film is Madame Tutli Putli. It would make rich (if slightly disturbing) material for a study in visual literacy.


Interanimation = when the words and a pictures in a picturebook work together on a page to ‘interanimate’ each other.

(Margaret Meek)


  • Words can make pictures into rich narrative resources — but only because they communicate so differently from pictures that they change the meaning of pictures. For the same reason, also, pictures can change the narrative thrust of words.
  • The balance is never entirely symmetrical.
  • What the words do to the pictures is not the same as what the pictures do to the words.
  • The words in a picturebook tend to draw attention to parts of the pictures that the reader should attend to. Pictures can communicate much to us, but only if words focus them.
  • The pictures proved the words with a specificity they would otherwise lack: colour, shape and form.
  • An image can only live and have meaning as part of the picturebook when informed — or limited — by the words.
  • Good picturebooks as a whole are a richer experience than the sum of their parts.
  • There is a synergy about picturebooks that ensures that if a reader wants the whole experience, pictures and words must be taken together. This is true even when the language makes perfect sense on its own.
  • Perhaps all picturebooks exhibit the interanimation of words and pictures, but not all do it the same way.
  • There is currently a lack of terminology/concepts to describe all the different ways in which picturebooks interanimate.


A disturbing Danish novel followed by a picturebook about a cake.

Kate De Goldi discusses children’s literature with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand Saturday Morning

Nothing by Janne Teller (pronounced ya-na)

What a tragic tale this is. It comes with an endorsement by David Almond. Teller is German Danish and lives between Scandinavia and the USA. What the Scandinavians bring to literature are well-stocked minds for starters, and also a preoccupation with the existential.

This book has gone viral in European world. She wrote it in 2000. Does it have a target audience? This is one defining feature of YA fiction in Europe. They tend to approach a book as a book rather than targeting a particular age. That said, De Goldi recommends for the first time in her life, thinking about the sensibility of your teenager before you give it to them. It’s very dark, and not in ways that she has ever come across before in a YA novel.

When Pierre-Anthon realizes there is no meaning to life, the seventh-grader leaves his classroom, climbs a tree, and stays there. His classmates cannot make him come down, not even by pelting him with rocks. So to prove to Pierre-Anthon that life has meaning, the children decide to give up things of importance. The pile starts with the superficial—a fishing rod, a new pair of shoes. But as the sacrifices become more extreme, the students grow increasingly desperate to get Pierre-Anthon down, to justify their belief in meaning.

Goodreads description

Realism is slightly suspended in this book, kind of like a fable.

Much of the disturbance comes from not knowing what’s going to happen. It starts off in fairytale benign fashion and it gets to a point where you think, ‘Oh my goodness, no!’

For all that, it’s a really interesting book, with a good translation into English. Although the acts are confronting, the reader is not manipulated by the way it’s written. It’s just a laying-out of what happens next. It’s asking us to confront the business of living, and at 14 that’s when one first becomes aware of aloneness in the world, and wonders what it’s all about. This story simply won’t shrink from that. There’s no happy ending. They go off to their new schools and the reader feels they’ll have to work around this one year in their young lives for the rest of their lives.

Read with care and discuss afterwards.


A Great Cake by Tina Matthews

The third book from this author – a trade picturebook with much else going on, the sort of book we get when we first go to school. It has all the charm and genius of a perfectly shaped story, where repetition beds in the comfort and delight of the reader. One thing changes at the end which slightly tweaks the story. The pictures are glorious, as well-crafted as the story is.