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Why Picture Books Matter (Mat Tobin)

Why Picturebooks matter

to read the original and fully illustrated version of this blog entry, click here:


This blog was born out of two events: a Mocksted visit to my previous school and a rereading of Judith Graham’sPictures on the Page for my very first seminar at Oxford Brookes’ School of Education. What I share here are my own thoughts but I cannot deny that they have been steered by Graham’s. Published back in ’91 her words still ring true and her text should be considered as the first stepping stone into understanding the power of picturebooks. I’d like to share the Mocksted incident first as it might ring true for many teachers who have had to tackle with those who don’t ‘get’ picturebooks and may not be applicable to those who read this blog but have nothing to do with state education. If that’s you, then please feel free to start at Accessibility.

A straw upon the camel’s back.

We had decided, as an Academy, to have a Mocksted. Our Head had moved on and we wanted to see where the gaps were before we received the soon-to-happen phone call.  As part of the SMT, I’d already taken part in several Mocksteds and found them useful: asking experts who inspect on a regular basis to offer guidance makes a lot of sense.

The Inspectors were polite and offered clear advice but one comment was made that got my back up. I was sat at the conference table in the Head’s office with the Inspectors, Executive Head, Acting Head and Heads from other schools in the partnership and our own SMT when the Lead Inspector said:

“Reading throughout the school was generally good but poor in Year 6 where some pupils were reading books that were too short.”

Being the English Coordinator, and Assistant Head, I asked what he meant.

“I saw a boy in Year 6 reading a picturebook. He should be reading something thicker.”

The rest of my SMT could see me getting angry (I never get angry) and one of them had begun to firmly kick me under the table to stop me speaking but I felt duty-bound to correct him. His comment became a reason for me leaving the school and moving into Higher Education. It is my hope that I can stop other training teachers thinking the same way he did.

I explained that the child was probably reading Anthony Browne’sVoices in the Park since it was part of our Anthony Browne Week (our precursor to World Book Day involving each yeargroup from Nursery to Year 6) in which critical thinking and talk around the texts had been a central to the planning. By the way, Mary Roche’s Developing Children’s Critical Thinkingthrough Picturebooks is a wonderful text for anyone who wants to adopt a critical thinking approach to the teaching of reading through picturebooks.

The Inspector did not back down and said that the child would not become a better reader through reading picture books. I asked him if he had picked up the book and read it or if he had read anything by Anthony Browne or even Shaun Tan because no matter how ‘thin’ the book was, the ideas they explored were greater than many novels. The Executive Head subtly steered the discussion on and I was left seething.


I have spent my entire teaching career championing the importance of picture-books in education: from Pre-School all the way up to Year 6 and beyond. I have worked hard at dissolving the myth that picturebooks are only for younger children. It’s an understandable mistake to make; they don’t have many words and the pictures can appear simplistic. Here’s an example (click here ).


Taken from Browne’s The Tunnel, it shows an illustration of a young girl fleeing through a wood. A quick glance shows her caught in mid-run wearing a red coat and, fearfully, casting her gaze behind back – possibly to check that she is not being followed. There are no words. Not because it’s a book for early readers who are yet to handle decoding but because the picture is doing all the talking. The picture could be read as simply as that, it’s what almost every reader will be able to pick up from the scene but there are greater things afoot: things that novels cannot do but picturebooks can.

We learn early on in the book The Tunnel that Rose (the young girl) has a fascination for fairy tales. When she goes through the tunnel to save her older brother, Jack, she finds herself in a world in which many fairy tale tropes related to danger are projected. Even the least-skilled observer could spot the cottage in the background which might contain a witch but would they notice that the curtains are pulled aside leaving the shape of a witch’s hat in its space? Yes, Browne did this on purpose; it’s a nod to his version of Hansel and Gretel.


How about the clothed bear in the tree to the far left, or the boar’s head beneath it? In fact, the boar’s head and the wolf in the tree just behind Rose are both duplicates of Victorian artist, Walter Crane’s work.


There are other things hidden in the woods including a reference to Dali but I think the point I wanted to make has been made. What might appear simple and easy is, with the best picturebooks, very complex: the pictures are often doing far more than we might give them credit for. There are things going on within them that affect our reading and interpretation of the text in a way far deeper than the superficial level that many perceive picturebooks to be working at. These images of wolves, witch’s houses, boars and bears are Rose’s fears come to life. She is running through the forest of her mind. Whatever you think, it cannot be denied that the picture now asks for a deeper response that goes beyond what a novel could without losing its senses.

Pictures can bring greater comprehension to what is written and can often illustrate far more of what is going on than words can. Here they allow us an insight into Rose’s thoughts and feelings in a more immediate and metaphorical manner to the text: they become a powerfully accessible introduction to symbolism.
The same can be said of  images from Browne’s Voices in the Park. We don’t need to read a single word to know that the youngster in the image is looking back with a sense of longing. Yet there is a conflict of interest as the broad and firm arm of the adult with him steers him onwards. Her red hat is a dominant colour in the scene and a repeating image to be found at the top of the gate-columns as well as her neck-scarf and shadow. Is he off to a happy place? Perhaps, but look at the path ahead and you’ll see troubled waters (literally).


Like the previous image, the picture is saying a lot more than we first may have given it credit for. You missed the watery pathway, right? It’s okay, so did I and I’ve read this book dozens of times. That’s what’s wonderful about picturebooks: they encourage us to return over and over again in the hope that we find new meaning with each reading.

Are picture books written for children with weaker imaginations? No, of course not. Are they only for younger children? I hope I’ve convinced you differently. Yes, books with pictures can open minds and experiences to children with limited imagination. Pictures can also help readers tackle unfamiliar words by supporting them to use clues from the picture to identify unfamiliar words. Pictures are also easier symbols to read than letters and words – we start reading them years before we do the latter. They are simpler to decode because it is easier for us to see what they represent. But this is not their only function.

I’m often asked by students and parents to elaborate on what I mean when I say ‘it’s not a quality picturebook’ or even ‘it’s not a picturebook’. In answer, I always call on Maurice Sendak who said: ‘I wanted at all costs to avoid the serious pitfall of illustrating with pictures what the author has already illustrated with words’. A great picturebook is one in which the words and the pictures work together to tell the story but they never say the same thing. Here is an example from Pat Hutchins’ Rosie’s Walk. I use this because it was the very first picturebook shared with me as a student and it illustrated brilliantly how, when reading a picturebook, you don’t just enter one world, but two.


The text tells us that Rosie the hen is going for a walk, but the picture? Well, that tells a different story doesn’t it.

Reader Rewards

I have spent years battling teachers and parents who see reading schemes as the premier reading tool in school. Although I have seen real progress in early readers who read using fully decodable texts, I also see how little attention those readers pay to the accompanying image. That’s because they know that the story is told just as well through the words: there is no symbiotic, fruitful relationship. A deep and meaningful reader-response experience which is so abundant in quality picture books is absent from any scheme and that’s fine. That’s not their function. The reward of reading these schemes comes from mastering the art of decoding print off the page.

Great picturebooks ask the reader to think, question, delve into worlds and ideas that may often be beyond the realms of their experience and imagination. They encourage the reader to think and build meaning, to play and imagine, to reflect and enrich. They are the first steps into exploring our place in the world whilst discovering the lives of others. Why wait until you’re a fluent reader devouring novels to get to that point when picturebooks offer you a way in much, much earlier?

Wednesday lunch Time Seminar Series

Beginning on 27th November 2013, the School of Education will be hosting a weekly lunchtime research seminar on Wednesdays, 12-1pm, in the Glasgow Room. The intention of the seminar series is to provide an informal space for discussion and dialogue in which staff can present and share on-going research activities. This is a free and open platform for discussing research, and colleagues are encouraged to bring any research items to the meeting, from raising initial exploratory questions, to seeking advice about developing conceptual ideas, to on-going methodological questions, to fully-formed research presentations. Each session will begin with a short (10-25 minute) presentation from a member of academic staff, followed by discussion. Feel free to bring your lunch!

More information here.

Funded Research Scholarship, School of Education, Oxford Brookes University

The School of Education at Oxford Brookes Universty is looking for strong candidates to apply for one three-year, full-time PhD studentship. The studentship is intended for a candidate who will pursue a PhD project that falls broadly within one of the School’s key thematic research areas:

Learning, Identity and Culture
Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment
Childhood, Families and Community
Educational Purposes, Ethics and Beliefs
Partnership, Policy and Leadership

The closing date for applications is 17.00 on Monday 25th November 2013, with interviews being held during the week of 9th December 2013. The start date for the studentship is January 2014.

Further Details

Call for Papers – Annual Research Conference

School of Education
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Call for Papers
Annual Research Conference
What Counts as Educational Research :
What could it be and what is it for?

Friday July 12th 2013
9 – 4 pm

We are expecting a range of presentations from those who might be just setting out on their research journey (and are therefore still in dilemma over ‘what’ and ‘how’) as well as those who will be experienced (and able to share final outcomes and recommendations of a rigorous study or well justified ‘thought’ piece).

If you have any queries about whether your paper would be appropriate or not please contact one of the conference committee.

The conference committee also welcomes symposia from research groups (that is a collection of short papers taking juxtaposed views on a particular issue).

All paper presentations should be 20 mins (with up to 10 minutes for Q & A).
Symposiums should last a total of 1 hour.

Please send in a document with the following information (below) if you intend to present.

It is intended that all papers presented will be collated as a collection and published through the SoE.

Deadline for submission : June 10th (to be emailed to Christine Gahan

Further Information

Funded Research Scholarship, School of Education, Oxford Brookes University

The School of Education at Oxford Brookes Universty is looking for strong candidates to apply for one three-year, full-time PhD studentship. The studentship is intended for a candidate who will pursue a PhD project that falls broadly within one of the School’s key thematic research areas:
Learning, Identity and Culture
Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment
Childhood, Families and Community
Educational Purposes, Ethics and Beliefs
Partnership, Policy and Leadership
The closing date for applications is 17.00 on Monday 4th March 2013, with interviews being held during the week of 25th March 2013.

For further details, please see the further information.

The SoE Doing Research “Drop-In”

We propose to launch an SoE ‘Doing Research Drop-In. This would, in the first instance, run as a ‘drop in and chat’ opportunity open to any academic colleagues in the SoE. It is intended to offer advice/share in discussion on any matter pertaining to research activity ranging from scholarship and academic writing to research project management and knowledge exchange partnership. It is open to all academic staff in the SoE.

The drop-in might for example seek to work as an academic brokerage as well as provide support for colleagues interested in joining or forming an academic writing group. The reasons for visiting the drop-in might include; a wish to get specific in-put into a set of ideas or interests for a particular project, feedback for a piece of writing; information about an aspect(s) of research; and more generally simply a desire to talk and think about personal or professional development in relation to research, writing and scholarship.

There should hopefully be no reason for colleagues to feel alone or bemused about options for developing their own personal research plan and scholarship. It would be useful if you have some specific topic or issue to discuss that you email before hand indicating what it is so that some preparation might be organised by the member of the drop-in group before the conversation.

We propose to run a pilot this semester. In the first instance, the drop-in is to run once a fortnight as the SoE Doing Research Drop-In. The team will comprise: Professors Steve Rayner, Graham Butt, Deb McGregor, Simon Catling, Mary Fuller, Marlene Morrison.

The venue is will be D4/104 [the room next to mine above the PGR Study Room. The proposed schedule/rota [this may be subject to change] for this semester/term is as follows:

November 06th 1100-1200 Steve Rayner
November 06th 1200-1300 Deb McGregor
November 13th 1100-1200 Marlene Morrison
November 13th 1200-1300 Graham Butt
November 27th 1100-1200 Simon Catling
November 27th 1200-1300 Mary Fuller
December 11th 1100-1200 Deb McGregor
December 11th 1200-1300 Graham Butt

SoE Research Conference (update)

Dear colleague,

We now have a full programme for the School of Education Research conference on Friday 13 July, with a keynote address from Professor Mary James, President of BERA, shorter presentations in parallel sessions from staff and students from the School of Education and beyond, and opportunities to meet with research group colleagues. If you would like to attend and have not already signed up, please contact Kathryn Colson ( or Susannah Wright ( by Monday 2 July at the latest so we can order you food and drink.

The conference is to be held at Harcourt Hill. We very much hope that you will be able to attend.

Best wishes

The conference organising committee – Liz Browne, Simon Catling, Susannah Wright.

School of Education Research Conference

Dear colleague,

We would like to remind you about the School of Education research conference, to be held at Harcourt Hill on Friday 13 July 2012. Professor Mary James, President of the British Educational Research Association, will give a keynote address. There will also be plenty of opportunities to hear about each others’ research through papers in parallel sessions, and to discuss educational research activities within and beyond the school.

Thank you very much to all who have already registered and/or submitted an abstract. If you have not already done so, please could you reply to Susannah Wright ( by Friday 8 June to register your interest in attending, and/or to submit an abstract for a paper or a poster on the attached form.

We very much hope that you will be able to attend.

Best wishes

The conference organising committee – Liz Browne, Simon Catling, Susannah Wright.

Abstract Proforma