Make Way for Art! How Picture Books Are Ideal for Building Visual Literacy in Digital Natives • By Natascha Biebow

Photo by Andrea
from Pexels

The readers of our picture books
are digital natives. 

They are driven by the visual.

Internet has completely revolutionised the way images serve communication.
currently upload and share 1.8 billion photos every single day. On Instagram
alone, 50 billion photos have been uploaded since 2010.

In fact,
90% of what we take in in the world is visual.


Surprising, even reading is visual: In
a study published in the Journal of
, researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center found
that when we look at a known word, our brain sees it like a picture, not a group of letters needing
to be processed. Neurons in a small brain area in the left side of the visual
cortex remember how the whole word looks — using what could be called a visual


Pictures are the new language. Yet
the focus in education is very much on reading and writing words, on verbal
literacy – not on art, not on interpreting and analysing images. But, now more
than ever, children need visual




“According to researchers,
educators, museum professionals, filmmakers, and artists, visual literacy can
improve creativity, critical thinking, educational achievement, empathy towards
others, and ability to decipher technology.” (source OpenEd)


If you’ve ever read a picture book
with a child, you’ll appreciate that they can read it long before they can read
the words. This is of course because visual learning is the precursor to verbal


Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

In his time at the Toledo Museum of
Art, Brian Kennedy did some research into visual literacy: “Nearly 30% of the
brain’s cortex is devoted to visual processing. More than the other human senses.
The optic nerve has over a million nerve fibers. Ninety percent of all the
information we take in from the world we take in visually. With so much of the
brain’s cortex devoted to visual processing, it is logical that visual literacy
is the key sensory literacy.” 


as important to be visually literate, to understand pictures and how they
affect us, as it is to be word-literate,” Kennedy says. “Being fluent in the language of
images gives us an advantage at school, at work, and at home.”


Photo by
from Pexels

what is visual literacy exactly and what does it have to do with picture books?
Or with teaching and valuing art and design for young children?


To be visually literate, a person should be able to ‘read’
and think critically about images. If you are visually literate, you should be
able to go from passively seeing an image to really LOOKING. This means being
able to interpret images meaningfully, by first looking at images, then
analysing them, and eventually situating them in terms of their cultural,
social and historical context.


Images can convey meaning with immediacy in a multiple
ways, and have increasingly become an essential tool for generating innovative
solutions in business, design, science and technology, among numerous other
fields. I previously blogged about using doodling
as a tool for my writing and business. Here is another really cool tool: The
Periodic Table of Visualization Methods
shows just how versatile images can
be in a myriad of contexts. 


"Towards A Periodic Table of Visualization Methods for Management"
R., Eppler M. (2007)

Being able to both understand images and convey meaning
through them are key skills that future generations of children will need more
than ever.


As picture book creators, we know just how powerful
images are. We know that how words and pictures work together in a picture book
creates something that is more than the sum of its parts.

It is ART. 

Art that tells a story. ART that communicates powerful messages and evokes beautiful things:

This powerful image from Small in the City by Sydney Smith shows a little girl looking for her lost cat, small in the city, just like her.  No words are needed to convey the emotion of this scene: the art with its use of colour, composition and fluid lines conveys the message beautifully.

In his book
Grand Canyon, Jason Chin paints in masterful realistic detail the majestical rock formations and the tiny creatures that live in the Grand Canyon so that readers everywhere can experience this beautiful place and its history. Chin's impactful artwork compositions, combining macro and the micro views, guide readers in making connections between the elements immediately visible and those observed through taking a closer look.


Benedict Blathwayt's stunning
watercolours are packed with so much detail for young readers to pore over! In
this spread from Green Light for Little Red Train the train speeds
through a mountain landscape, but it is all the delightful additional 'mini' stories that invite a closer look.

In this story about the boy Matisse, inspired by a lifetime surrounded by art in nature and at home, Hadley Hooper instantly creates a visual connection between the boy's world and the grown-up artist's famous (actual) paintings through her evocative, colourful, bold picture book artwork. From the Irridescence of Birds by Patricia McLaughlan and Hadley Hooper

No need for words in this instantly-recognizable scene. Mo Willems' inspired combination of photographs and comic-style illustrations conveys the simple joy of being reunited with a favourite toy. From Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins is a gem with its bold imagery and simplicity, yet clever complexity. Even the youngest of children can spot the joke in the images -- the wily fox is always one step behind the hen in this classic example of how the art speaks volumes.

This illustration from Chris Wormell's One Smart Fish, the story of a clever fish who dreams of walking on land, ends with this amazing image - such a lot of information about the story of evolution is conveyed in just one piece of art!


As Picture Book creators, we recognize the importance of including all kinds of
art and diverse imagery in picture books so that children everywhere can really
see themselves and their world reflected in the pictures they encounter in books.

From Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross


Tony Ross' vibrant, lively pencil drawings depict Susan experiencing all the emotions and enjoying all the activities every child loves - from painting, to go-karting to playing with Dad. The final image might surprise readers and encourages them to consider their assumptions and empathise with Susan, unique, just like every child. From Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

With beautiful textured paintings, Britta Teckentrup uses simple and bold imagery to pack in a heartfelt and universal message about belonging. From Under the Same Sky by Britta Teckentrup

Todd Parr's distinctive, simple, colourful images speak first, almost before the words - conveying powerful messaging in bold artwork. From The Family Book by Todd Parr


Evocative, imaginative and empowering artwork fills this beautiful book, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, empowering children to find a home in a world of books and dare to dream big.


So many different styles of ART with powerful visual messaging!

From an early age, picture books are perfect for
scaffolding children in order to extend their innate visual literacy. By
encouraging parents and teachers to value the visual art form that is picture
books, and engage in conversations that prompt children to really LOOK and
think critically about their pictures – even older children – could we be
helping to set them up with critical skills for a better future in our digital


Make way for art!



Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor

Natascha is the author of the award-winning The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons,
illustrated by Steven Salerno, winner of the Irma Black Award for
Excellence in Children's Books, and selected as a best STEM Book 2020.
Editor of numerous prize-winning books, she runs

Blue Elephant Storyshaping,
an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering
writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission, and is the Editorial Director for Five Quills.
She is Co-Regional
Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles.
Find her at







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