Careful with those Picture Books

In our coursework, we have learned what to look for in a quality picture book. Children’s Literature, Briefly, indicates the way in which illustrations tell a story can be through:

  • establishing a setting
  • defining and developing characters
  • reinforcing the written text
  • providing a differing viewpoint
  • extending or developing the plot
  • providing interesting asides
  • establishing mood (Young et al., 2020, pp. 41-46)

But are there other issues to consider? What about the cognitive capacity of the young reader (pre-school to elementary school)? While pictures books can be enjoyed and learned from by all, their primary audience is very young. In the session, “(Mis)understanding picture books,” Donner shares how careful and deliberate parents, educators and writers need to be when choosing or writing a picture book for young people.

The first thing that Donner does in her session is show and read her book The Day the Lines Changed: An Inspiring Story about a Line, a Pandemic and How Change Shapes us All. In it, a family and people are represented by lines and they change as the pandemic affects the world (See Image 1).

Image 1
Donner reading from her books The Day the Lines Changed

More identifying features is not necessarily better

When she started reading her picture book with a bunch of lines, initially I was unimpressed for a few reasons. First – they are just lines. Secondly – where are the faces of the unseen victims? Where are the representations of people of color, who died from COVID at high percentages than their white counterparts? My own biases and concerns created a filter that affected my impression of this work. However, when Donner followed up her reading of a portion of her book about lines with the statement, “it is easier to distance yourself from a character the less it looks like you…the more realistic a character becomes, the less you can relate to it personally” (Donner, 2021)” I stopped immediately and checked my first impression. Note: this is why it is essential to seek to improve oneself and challenge oneself and why it is important to attend session, lectures, watch TED talks, read articles, and books, etc.. So, what does she mean by this?

Donner explains this statement by first drawing a circle as a head, then eyes, and then a smile (See Image 2). She says that as soon as she adds more defining features, the representation becomes more exclusive. This means that if she were to draw pigtails and bows, those features would lessen the amount of people who would relate to the image. This deeply challenged my bias against her book, The Day the Lines Changed. What I saw as a missed opportunity for representing people, was actually doing the opposite. Donner is being as inclusive as possible by omitting, other than shape and color, any identifying features.

See Image 2
Donner explaining how defining features limit
Donner, 2021

In the next portion of the session, Donner delves into cognitive psychology and addresses Theory of Mind. She addresses the struggles of children in deducing information and points in certain picture books. She addresses counterfactual reasoning.

It was a fascinating session and challenged my thoughts on picture books and will for a long time to come. I plan to further investigate the connection between cognitive psychology and children’s books. See below for her latest publication in the Journal of Visual Literacy.

Further Reading

The impact of theory of mind barriers in interpreting illustrations used in primary school early readers: four brief case studies of false-belief scenarios.

Written by Kelley Donner

Published in the Journal of Visual Literacy.


Donner, K. (2021, July 12-16). (Mis)understanding picture books. [Conference session]. IASL 2021 Annual Conference, Denton, TX, United States.

Young, T., Bryan, G., Jacobs, J., & Tunnell, M. (2020). Children’s literature, briefly. Pearson Education, Inc.

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