Picture books: bringing together the world and the word

Thejaswi Shivanand

In the picture book Pishi and Me1, the central character is a child who loves to go on walks with his aunt. The world of the child comes alive in many ways in the book from the space the child occupies at that point in their life. The height of the child, for instance – looking up, looking down, looking at an angle – shows the way children orient themselves in the direction of the person, object, or view of the world they are engaging with in that moment in time (Figure 1). The child points, identifies, relates, abstracts the world of daily experience and relationships. In Freire’s terms2, the child is “reading the world” long before beginning to “read the word”. However, significant adults in a child’s life often restrict their understanding of reading to decoding and reading text. An expanded view of literacy and reading is essential to sensitively approach the question of a child learning to engage with text and the role picture books play in that context.

Figure 1: Illustration from Pishi & Me (2018) showing a child’s perspective of the world.

Picture books can play a critical role in bridging the visual world of the child, brilliantly captured by the illustrator Rajiv Eipe in Pishi and Me, to a new world of symbolic representation in text. In this article, we will explore some strategies and features of picture books that support their role in bringing the world and the word together.

Reading expanded
In an insightful speech3 to a group of teachers, the Swiss literacy researcher, Denise Von Stockar presented an accessible view of reading. The arguments revolve around the multiple angles in which the act of reading involves the world of the child. Reading is listening – the child listens to lullabies, songs, and stories much before they begin reading text. Introduction to language happens at a very early stage as opposed to familiarity with print and script. Reading is seeing – the child can visually process the world, recognize shapes and forms, orient and point to familiar objects, corners, people – much before they begin reading text. Reading is speaking – the child learns at a very early age to recognize and associate specific sounds with specific features of the world around them. In this process, the child learns the existence of discrete words, each of which are abstract yet specific associations of objects and sounds.

This is when a child can be introduced to board books with durable pages and bold images with a focus point on each page. The child can recognize and point to familiar features in the book or prompt the adult as only a child can to provide the appropriate sound associations for the visual cues in the book. The tactile experience of holding a book, turning the pages, sometimes even chewing on the book, and throwing it around, makes engagement with the book a multimodal experience.

As the child grows older, they also learn to express internal states of being and emotion in their simplest word forms. Older children are also able to share narrative in speech and can share wild or staid stories of their own imagination. Picture books with simple, linear, or complex narratives, with or without words, can be introduced to children to familiarize them with the orientation of the book, pictures, and directionality of print4 (which is different depending on the language), even if they are not yet familiar with the myriad complexities surrounding decoding the symbolic richness in script. However, the engagement with picture books is not only related to reading the script but also to the child expressing internal states of meaning-making and emotional landscapes while narrating the sequence of images. Picture books are rich sources of narrative building with complex, multiple layers of storytelling happening in the images itself that a child can decode without decoding the script also present on the page.

Reading is writing – the earliest forms of expression other than speech are often scribbles and doodles that a child makes on sand, mud, paper using various available instruments ranging from sticks, to pencils, to crayons. This is not the script used to symbolize individual alphasyllables, or logographs, or words, but more whole worlds of visual storytelling that bring in world building or narrative drama in one fell swoop.

In a print-rich environment with many easily accessible picture books, whether at home or in early preschools or later in schools, picture book-rich rooms and libraries can play a significant role in encouraging emergent literacy. Here, the availability of print in the environment orients the child to develop familiarity with the format of printed books, the conventions around orienting and reading narratives in pictures, and inevitably, inexorably towards script-specific concepts of words and their symbolic subunits, most familiarly letters in the Indian context.

Picture books expanded
Children actively engage with their world and explore picture books as they do the rest of the world. How do picture books lend themselves to rich exploration by children?

Picture books written for children have a storied history that dates to the late 18th and early 19th century in Europe, evolving and morphing into currently recognizable forms by the early 20th century. Early books were mostly pop-up or similar novelty books, or illustrated books with images supporting the text, while the picture books of today are defined by the equal and often divided partnership between text and illustration in parallel storytelling. The blend between text and image creates a magical world that presents itself in simple or complex, often deep ways where children find their way around discovering new corners or finding familiar spots. The idea of picture books acting as ‘windows’, ‘mirrors’, and ‘sliding doors’ is not a new one.5

How do these opportunities for windows and mirrors, which offer us glimpses to the world-building in the child, get reflected in the form of the picture book? As discussed in the example that opened this article, Pishi and Me, a child is often the central character in a picture book with the illustrations often presenting the story from the child’s perspective. Another excellent example is the boy observing ants in Busy Ants by Pulak Biswas6 (Figure 2). However, the child need not be the focus of perspective but can occupy other frames of action as in Where’s that Cat?7 by Manjula Padmanabhan, where the moving autorickshaw guides the reader through the narrative frame in the illustration, or movement of the rabbit in Eric Rohmann’s The Flight of the Rabbit8. Sometimes, pages densely populated with illustrations, for instance, intended to show a diverse city in Deepa Balsavar’s Nani’s Walk to the Park9, can be navigated with a clearly identifiable character such as the grandmother in a distinctive ajrakh sari on each page guiding movement across the page (Figure 3). These devices help in drawing the child’s attention across the page and to the next, carrying the story forward.

Figure 2: Frame from Busy Ants (1987) illustrating a child’s involvement with their world.

Figure 3: Find nani in an ajrakh sari in this busy marketplace (Nani’s Walk in the Park, 2018)

Humour in the form of slapstick action often finds a space for engagement in picture books. The characters in Anushka Ravishankar’s Catch That Crocodile10, another classic illustrated by Pulak Biswas, plays with the placement, size and movement of the text along with incongruous movements by characters, outsized objects like giant syringes and visually rich, cinematic action sequences (Figure 4 a and b). Ashok Rajagopalan’s Gajapati Kulapati11 series is a great favourite with children due to the extra dose of action experienced by the central character, an elephant. Animal characters figure significantly in many picture books.

Figure 4 a: Doctor Dutta attempting to tranquelize the crocodile.

Figure 4 b: Wrestler Bhayanak Singh attempting to subdue the crocodile (Catch that Crocodile 1999)

A steady pace in the story generated through momentum is important in sustaining engagement from the child. Text can also be used effectively in this case. Sameer’s House12 uses repetitive, cumulative, pyramid-like build-up of text in each successive page for excellent engagement in activities such as read alouds as children would get into repeating familiar text build rhythmically and systematically (Figure 5). This clever design in the book uses the potential for such repetition to reinforce ideas on scale in geography and astronomy. A placeholder of Sameer’s House is also used to indicate location in the illustrations as the scale of space grows larger with progessive pages. A similar pattern can be seen in several books including The Sea in a Bucket13.

Figure 5: Pages from Sameer’s House (2006) showing the sequential build-up in the interplay of text and illustrations to engage children.

While examples suggested earlier appear to focus on entertaining characters or storylines, or clever design principles, engagement through effective storytelling can bring in further emotional connect, self-reflection (‘mirror’) and new learning (‘window’). A book can be a window for some, a mirror for others, a mix of both for some – depending on the individual contexts and conditioning of the children. A girl from the Bakarwal community may find fictional Sadiq’s desire to stitch in Sadiq wants to Stitch14 as a relatable tale, while a boy from the same community might find it a new experience. A child where stitching is part of the community, but from a different geography might find Sadiq’s story both a mirror to their way of life and a window to a new community and landscape.

Picture books hold death, loss, gender, and disability easily among their pages in a manner where children can relate to as they try to do in their day when they encounter these facts of life and living. Gone Grandmother15 by Chatura Rao and Krishna Bala Shenoi, explores a child’s meaning-making process of losing her grandparent in a gentle, humorous manner and yet located firmly in the child’s world as shown by the ideas that spring out of her in the illustrations (Figure 6). Allen Say’s Emma’s Rug16 explores a child’s deep attachment to objects in their world and the impact of loss on their emotional engagement with the world and the illustrations find a way to convincingly convey Emma’s emotions. Raviraj Shetty and Deepa Balsavar’s Our Library17 finds a welcoming space for a diverse group of disabled children within a library where there is a careful attempt in depicting disability with accuracy, care, and love.

Figure 6: Nina making sense of losing her grandmother (Gone Grandmother, 2016).

Wordless picture books always find a special place in children’s libraries as they pave the way to open fantasy and reality alike, in ways that text can sometimes constrain. Footpath Flowers18 has a young child who goes on a walk with the parent, gathers flowers and shares love with everyone she connects with on the walk (Figure 7). Aaron Becker’s fantasy Journey19 has two children embark on an adventure in a world created and powered by a red crayon. In each of these cases, the storytelling is entirely done by illustrations, but there is an underlying script that keeps the story going, which a child can tap as the cleverly designed books guide them in linear and non-linear ways to old haunts and new crannies.

Figure 7: A child sharing flowers with a dead sparrow and a sleeping man in Footpath Flowers (2016).

Reading journeys as a cultural enterprise
Readers are not created in a world only filled with books. Readers are nurtured by communities of other readers. Significant adults such as grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, older siblings, and cousins, tell stories and sing lullabies when children are young. Other adults, more of the above plus educators in classrooms and libraries, other mentors, are important in different stages of the child’s life and can all play a role in bringing picture books to children.

Since picture books are designed to engage the child in the act of reading in a complex way, the adults in their life can help in curation, reading aloud, reading together, gamification, sharing their responses and thoughts, asking questions and offering a space to listen to responses to books, reading, and meaning-making around books. While for several children picture books can act as refuges from the complexities of the world, a caring adult who shares in the joy of reading can always make the refuge less confusing and more accepting with their presence. Communities of readers grow as many young readers experience their individual reading journeys into adulthood, ready to nurture the next generation of readers to bring them to picture books and other books as they grow older.

In India, we must address the question of creating communities of readers since reading for pleasure or meaning making, either individually or with adults, is not a culturally widespread activity due to historical and sociological reasons. Access to books for a vast population, which continues to be underserved, is necessary, even as the number, diversity, and quality of picture books is slowly growing across the country. Also, picture books are often expensive, and while efforts have been in place for several years to reduce the price of books, parents do not easily buy them for children even when priced low. A wide network of libraries across the country with spaces and collections for children can fill this gap as well as provide the space and programmes for making reading for pleasure, learning, and life skills a cultural enterprise reaching all than where it is currently.

Are picture books the future?
Picture books are for all ages, adults and children alike enjoy them. In this article, we briefly foray into the many ways of children reading the world and the word through the picture book. An increasingly digital world with screen time occupying significantly more time in young children’s lives with hassled adults handing over cell phones to calm children, where YouTube has penetrated remote parts of the country on hand-held devices even before the first picture books, what is the future of picture books?

Creators of picture books are essentially storytellers, so long as there are creators for this basic human trait, there will be picture books. So long as people participate in economic activities around sustaining the creation of picture books, they will continue to exist. And so long as there are communities of readers who love and nurture reading, picture books will continue to be read and be around. And so long as human beings engage with the physical world around them and value reading the word, we will find a space for picture books in their lives. In an increasingly digital world, communities of readers are coming together around physical and mobile libraries and picture books continue to weave their magic in bringing up children to relate and process the complexities of the world around them and faraway.


  1. Gupta, Timira & Eipe, Rajiv. (2018). Pishi and Me. Pratham Books, Bangalore.
  2. Freire, Paulo & Machado, Donaldo. (1987). The importance of the act of reading. In Freire, P. & Machado, D. Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. Routledge, London.
  3. Von Stockar, Denise. (2006). The Importance of Literacy and Books in Children’s Development: Intellectual, Affective and Social Dimensions. Retrieved from, http://www.ibby.org/awards-activities/activities/ibby-yamada-fund/ibby-yamada-2006-rwanda/the-importance-of-literacy-and-books-in-childrens-development/
  4. Matulka, D. I. (2008). A picture book primer: understanding and using picture books. Libraries Unlimited, Westport.
  5. Bishop, Rudine S. (1990). Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Glass Doors. In Prosak-Beres, L. et al. (Ed.). Collected Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom. Christopher-Gordon Publishers, Boston.
  6. Biswas, Pulak. (1987). Busy Ants. National Book Trust, New Delhi.
  7. Padmanabhan, Manjula. (2009). Where’s that Cat? Tulika Books, Chennai.
  8. Rohmann, Eric. (2002). My Friend Rabbit. Roaring Brook Press, New York.
  9. Balsavar, Deepa. (2018). Nani’s Walk to the Park. Pratham Books, Bangalore.
  10. Ravishankar, Anushka. & Biswas, Pulak. (1999). Catch That Crocodile! Tara Books, Chennai.
  11. Rajagopalan, Ashok. (2010). Gajapati Kulapati. Tulika Books, Chennai.
  12. Balsavar, Deepa; Hari, Deepa, & Sabnani, Nina. (2006). Sameer’s House. Tulika Books, Chennai.
  13. Balsavar, Deepa & Rajwade, Priti. (2013). The Sea in a Bucket. Eklavya, Bhopal.
  14. Nainy, Mamta & Wadia, Niloufer. (2020). Sadiq wants to Stitch. Karadi Tales, Chennai.
  15. Rao, Chatura & Shenoi, Krishna Bala. (2016). Gone Grandmother. Tulika Books, Chennai.
  16. Say, Allen. (1996). Emma’s Rug. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.
  17. Shetty, Ravira j & Balsavar, Deepa. (2023). Our Library. Pratham Books, Bangalore.
  18. Lawson, Jo Arno & Smith, Sydney. (2016). Footpath Flowers. Walker Books, London.
  19. Becker, Aaron. (2013). Journey. Candlewick Press, Somerville.

The author is a library educator at Champaca Children’s Library, Bengaluru. He works with library-focussed organizations across India to support the growth of communities of readers. He is grateful to Jane Sahi and Usha Mukunda for many conversations over the years on the topic of this article. He can be reached at thejaswi.champaca@gmail.com.

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