A guest post from Shelley Ann Jackson

Even though reading a picture book might seem complex because it involves interpreting information in both pictures and illustrations, it should be as easy as reading any other type of story. The author, illustrator and designer will have used many techniques to aid your narrative journey through the picture book, as clear communication is their primary goal. Let’s look at the three most recent Klaus Flugge award winners, Pierre’s New Hair by Joseph Namara Hollis (2022), Gustavo the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago (2021), and When Sadness Comes to Call by Eva Eland (2020), to talk about some of these techniques.

Left to right, top to bottom

Because of the tradition in Western cultures of reading left to right and top to bottom, this is also the way we read pictures. Anyone accustomed to reading will do this automatically, and young children will quickly learn through reading with others. This means that characters moving left to right naturally feel that they are moving forwards or making progress.

While characters moving right to left are often backtracking, not making progress, or in the case of this double-page spread from When Sadness Comes to Call, hindering the motion of another character.

As with the two above spreads, when an image spans both pages, we’ll read it as one moment, and read any text on the left page first, then the right. But when there are multiple images and blocks of text, generally speaking, we’ll read these starting on the left page, top to bottom, then the right page, top to bottom.

However, we also need to consider…

Visual Hierarchy

What we look at first on a page also depends somewhat on design decisions. Visual elements such as colour, contrast, shape and size can change our natural inclination to start reading in the upper left. An intense colour or area of high visual contrast will attract our attention first so that we will look to it immediately. Faces also attract the reader, as humans naturally look to faces for information.

On this page from Pierre’s New Hair, for example, my eyes go first to the intense orangey-pink shape that is Pierre, then travel to the right to his face in the mirror. Next, my eyes circle back around to the upper left to read the text. After that, I linger on the…

Background Elements

Often, illustrators include narrative elements within the images that aren’t absolutely essential to the story. These are usually lighter in tone, smaller in scale, or less colourful than the more important elements. But they can add to the mood or give us some insight into the characters. In the same example above, you can see that the main story text is bold and large compared to the text within the illustration, so it is clear which is more important. But the secondary text gives us additional information about the world in which Pierre lives and insight into his motivation for wanting great hair. Plus, it makes us laugh! Sometimes there will be entire secondary narratives weaved throughout a story in the background elements, so it’s rewarding to take your time and explore each page.

The Dance Between Image and Text

A good picture book won’t explain everything in the text. Instead, the reader will need to look at the pictures to understand part of the story. Take a look at this spread from Gustavo the Shy Ghost to see how the text sets up the situation, but we must ‘read’ the pictures to see how Gustavo reacts when he sees the other monsters.

This relationship can be even more sophisticated with contradictions between text and pictures, ambiguity leading to multiple interpretations, or comedic irony, like in this example where Gustavo finds Alma ‘the prettiest monster in town’, but in fact, she is invisible. So clever!

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