Picturebooks For Older Readers

Children’s literature continues to evolve as society evolves alongside our concept of ‘child’.

A Brief History Of Teenagers

The teenager is an idea from the 1950s. Before that you were a child, and then you were an adult. The transition was recognised earlier than the 1950s, but before the 1950s teenagers were not treated as a separate category. TV helped to bring about this change. Audiences were required to become far more visually literate, and did so. This challenged accepted wisdom that only young children enjoy and require visuals in their storytelling.

The Deficit Model Of Teenagers

Teenagers are largely defined by what they’re not, rather than what they are. Yet teenagers are required to behave differently from children. They have neither the rights and luxuries of childhood nor all the responsibilities and rights of adulthood.


Marketers continue to carve the population up as finely as possible in order to target their campaigns and sell more products. So today adolescents have their own label. The concept of tween came about only to exploit a particular social market. This is a marketing construct rather than a separate developmental stage.

Each form of storytelling has its own visual vocabulary. There is a very specific vocabulary in Japanese manga, for example.

The Medium Is The Massage

The medium is the massage (not message) — the medium ‘massages’ us towards new messages.

The Influence Of Children’s Book Awards

In the world of literature, the Children’s Book Council Of Australia (CBCA) and the awards they give out are a good way of seeing how children’s literature has changed in Australia. CBCA awards started in 1946. (Here is a PDF of all the winners since then.)

The CBCA distinguishes between novels and picture books. This mirrors what happens in the big awards overseas. Children’s book awards work on the assumption that picturebooks are for young readers and novels are for older readers.

It was only later that readers around years 3 and 4 began to be catered for separately. This age group is not quite ready for the full teenage novel, so there is now a category of novel for young readers and these are called chapter books.

In 1993 the CBCA started a children’s literature award for non-fiction. A lot of these look like picturebooks, especially those which teach history etc.

Around the turn of the 21st century, the CBCA created an award for the ‘early childhood’ book. The CBCA were rethinking the assumption that picturebooks are always for early readers. There are now three age categories. On top of that, picturebooks are divided by genres. A picturebook could hypothetically win various awards, not just a ‘picturebook’ award.

Separately, each Australian state has a children’s choice award, in which children select and vote for the books.

Anstey and Bull say that reading is an intellectual activity. Reading requires you to interpret codes that an author/illustrator have used to construct their communication. The reader interprets. This interpretation may be as simple as recognising the pattern of letters that make a word, scaled up to interpreting a sentence, then the pictures (bright/dark etc.). Interpretation can also require higher level reading skills: Is there a meaning behind the sequence of pictures across an entire book? This requires readers to understand visual motifs. An example of this kind of reading: Noticing and talking about variations in size across Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

Modern teenage readers are highly visually literate. Books for this age group must make use of visual vocabulary. Naturally, 15-year-olds don’t want to read Rosie’s Walk. They want something more complicated and they don’t want it in the form of a picturebook for young readers. Picturebooks for older readers are therefore quite different in nature, even when they come in picturebook format.

Features of Picturebooks For Older Readers

Stories come in various plot shapes. The most basic plot shape is linear. Stories for young readers are also often circular, but stories for older readers can work on several different diegetic levels, they can contain more than one plot (subplots), and can work with callback humour from other stories. The story may be branching in shape.

Stories for older readers leave more space for reader interpretation and extrapolation. Or there might be several different main characters, switching point of view.

The content and themes are different. Picturebooks for young readers often include: animals, bedtime, bathtime.

Picturebooks for older readers might be about homelessness, death, injustice and focus on social issues outside the safety of home.

Fictional characters need to exist at all points on the morality spectrum in order to allow expression of difficult themes.

Older readers have more experience both of life and of reading — they know there are bad people and good people and people in between. They understand some politics.

The key difference: Older readers do not passively receive a message. Older readers must become active in the interpretation of a text. This process is known as interanimation.

Examples Of Crossover Texts

The word ‘crossover’ text is sometimes given to books which appear to be one thing (e.g. a picturebook for young readers) but which actually function as something different.


Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is the classic Australian crossover text. Unlike some of Tan’s other work, which can be photorealistic, the illustrative style is caricatured. The boy’s head is not a normal human shape. This may say something about him in relation to other people. He looks different because he feels different.


The Drover’s Boy is a story in picturebook format by Ted Egan (an ‘Australian bush legend’), illustrated by Robert Ingpen. This is a story about drovers in the early days of European settlement.

It’s about death. Someone is killed on the first page. The main character moves on — they have to get a mob of cattle somewhere. But the main character cries, and men aren’t supposed to do this. The story has a song rhythm — not sung with a melody, more chanted. Ted Egan doesn’t play instruments (only a cardboard box) and he drums a rhythm on it as he chants. The illustrations look like old photographs which have been placed into an old album.

Robert Ingpen has a bigger reputation overseas than here in Australia. This story is historical and reflective.


The Rabbits, written by John Marsden and illustrated by Shaun Tan is about the colonisation of a country. You can read it as Australian. There is nothing that specifies Australia, though there are some strong correlations in the uniforms and flags that they use. There is one phrase which will be picked up as familiar in Australia. ‘…stole our children’. Illustrations feature straight lines and stiff collars, in contrast to the fluffy creatures in other picturebook format stories.


Wolvs in the Sitee is written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Anne Spudvilas.

Wild has has in more recent years been making stories for older readers. The spelling of the title invites you to make judgements about the boy. Clearly he’s frightened. There’s something about to happen. Wolves are coming. What are these wolves? The layout is very interesting, and the palette comprises very dark in browns and blacks. But these are not hard lines, in contrast to The Rabbits. It’s charcoal and slightly smudged. You can’t quite make out what’s written inside the pictures.

Roberto Innocenti is not an Australian author. He took a famous photo and people knew this photo long before Innocenti used it as a picture in one of his picturebooks. There are other pictures throughout which have more meaning if you have a historical understanding. Rose Blanche — if you know German history you’ll get the references of Rose Blanche. This is a good example of ‘quoting in an illustration’. This is a technique used by illustrators, but only older readers can interpret meaning.

Books are not always explicitly pedagogical.

What does pedagogical mean?

Pedagogical means there is a direct, specific, teaching intention.) Who Sank The Boat? makes you think a bit about addition.

Can’t You Sleep Little Bear? has the direct intention of getting the child ready for bed and understanding about the dark.

Texts for older readers may well have a pedagogical function, but there may be layers of meaning or multiple possibilities. There may even be contradictions. The purpose may be purely aesthetic – designed to be enjoyed as a piece of art.


The characters in picturebooks for older readers may be adults, not necessarily children.


The settings may be a different time or a different place, and tend to be much more grounded in reality, though not the familiar reality of the reader.


Storylines may not tidy up loose ends of the plot. They may end as lyrical short stories often end, leaving the reader to infer or create what happens next, perhaps after receiving clues from the symbolism, motifs and other non-plot related aspects.

The older readership still requires scaffolding (background information). It’s not assumed the reader knows everything about a topic. These stories present information, offering new, shocking, surprising, different ways of looking at it. Equity issues are common. Stories frequently explore the grey area between right and wrong.


Anstey, M and Bull, G. (2000) Reading the Visual: Written and illustrated children’s literature. Sydney, Harcourt

David Beagley, La Trobe University, lecture “Picturebooks For Older Readers”.


On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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