One-Minute Book Reviews

September 14, 2007

Do Children’s Books Need Pictures? Quote of the Day

Many people assume that books for young children need – or at least benefit from – pictures. But is it true? Canadian scholar Perry Nodelman writes that many parents and teachers think that children respond more readily to pictures than to words:

“Yet there is no irrefutable psychological or pedagogical reason that young children should be told the vast majority of their [stories] through combinations of words and pictures. Indeed, there is evidence that the presence of pictures in books may be pedagogically counterproductive; in a study of young children beginning to learn to read, the psychologist S. Jay Samuels confirmed his hypothesis ‘that when pictures and words are presented together, the pictures would function as distracting stimuli and interfere with the acquisition of reading responses’… and presumably, therefore, of the story information that texts convey. Given the opportunity, as were most children prior to the last century and as some modern children in developing countries still are, many young children find it possible to enjoy listening to or reading books without illustrations.”

Perry Nodelman in Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books (University of Georgia Press, 1988). Words About Pictures is an excellent reference book for critics, scholars and others and perhaps the best available study of the relationship between words and pictures in children’s picture books.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Maybe not, but there are no irrefutable psychological or pedagogical reasons that children’s books shouldn’t contain both pictures and words either…

    Comment by Woeful — September 14, 2007 @ 11:28 pm | Reply

  2. If I had children, I’d give them both types of books — with and without pictures — and see which they responded to best. Thanks so much for your comment.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — September 15, 2007 @ 8:17 pm | Reply

  3. When I first began reading at a very young age, I would only “read” or look through books that *had* pictures. Pictures put meaning to words you don’t know when you start out reading. This is so obvious that I question the qualifications of any “scholar” who thinks differently. As a matter of fact, I venture to say if primary books are devoid of pictures nowadays it might be the reason why so many kids can’t read. I’ll bet no one thought of that! (/sarcasm). Early education is a “button” of mine which I should have pre-warned you about, Janice. *smile* Educators seem to be stymied about why they can’t teach Johnny to read. I have a clue. First, the teacher needs to be qualified to teach all subjects to her young kids and know how to spell in order to teach. Hmmm.. what a concept. Secondly, more than 30 years ago schools must have gotten a manifesto that forbid teachers to teach “values” and concepts like “right” and “wrong” or the attributes and traits which build “character”. This manifesto probably also forbid teachers to teach the benefits of helping others which strengthens our own sense of self and builds confidence in our own abilities. If educators are serious about putting our society on the right track for building “pillars” of our communities again, they ought to start looking at the *teaching methods* in place during the 40’s and 50’s, a time when kids loved going to school, loved reading, writing, and arithmetic. (oops, I guess this really dates me, huh? No matter, I enjoy being an old dinosaur. Really.) Those methods really work.
    I apologize for this long comment, but the idea that “scholars” think pictures don’t go hand-in-hand with learning to read is ridiculous to me. Nothing could be more obvious. But again I’m confronted by the fact common sense doesn’t exist anymore.

    By the way, I taught my son to read *before* he went to kindergarten. How? By old primers that I got copies of long ago. And they had oodles of pictures in them. *grin* Thank you for revving me up for a new glorious day, Janice.

    Comment by janetleigh — September 21, 2007 @ 3:05 am | Reply

  4. Not sure our views differ on this, because I agree that pictures definitely can help to draw children in. It’s just that for me, a story needs to great, too. And I see so many books in which the publishers seem to be trying to compensate for a weak story with razzle-dazzle special effects (which drive up the price of the books and puts them out of the range of a lot of families).

    I love old primers, too. Apart from the pictures, some of them used simple rhyming poetry so effectively to impart basic concepts … and that trend, alas seems to be waning. Thanks so much for your comments (there’s no such thing as a “too long” comment for me).

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — September 21, 2007 @ 4:01 am | Reply

  5. Janice, I agree that some publishers try to compensate for a weak story with gimmickery and confetti popping out between the pages of dreadful books. I guess I should have been clearer by saying “in my day, we read great books and stories accompanied by good illustrations of the subject matter nicely placed and pleasant.” This is not a jab at you by any means, it’s that I’m not very good at “writing” as poetry is my forte, I think. (Maybe you’d be a better judge of that, actually. I invite you to my blog and to give me the harshest CC you can dish out. I’ll learn from it, I swear. Just click on my name.) I found it a little eerie that you brought up simple rhyming poetry as an effective way to impart basic concepts because it’s the rhyming of words that helps many children to learn songs. I’m sure you knew this, but maybe some of your readers weren’t aware of it. I’m sorry if I sounded harsh in my comments to you. I’m a rather straightforward, blunt talker and it bleeds over into my written word, I’m afraid. Please keep this in mind for future reference. I’m not quite sure if it’s a personality thing, or being raised-in-Minnesota thing. However, if you “saw” me talking, you’d “see” my perpetual smile. Plus, I usually make a notation of (/sarcasm) when writing.

    I love your One Minute Book Reviews, Janice. Not only do I learn something new, but it piques my curiosity to take a further look at an author you’ve highlighted in your blog here. Keep up the great work!

    Comment by janetleigh — September 21, 2007 @ 10:18 pm | Reply

  6. Janetleigh: Confetti? Really? Somehow I’ve been spared those. But I have seen — I’m not making this up — the picture-book equivalents of the old scratch-and-sniff ads (now replaced by scent strips) … Are the publishers confusing children’s books with, say, ads in Vanity Fair? And I never have a problem with bluntness, because I’m so direct myself. Love your site. Thanks so much for your comments, and I’ve enjoyed your site, too.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — September 21, 2007 @ 11:32 pm | Reply

  7. When our daughter was about 3 1/2, I began reading to her from non-illustrated books, but she quickly became disinterested. However, I am fairly certain she had been conditioned to respond to pictures in the telling of a story. From the time she was an infant, we read several picture books daily. When I tried switching to just the written word, she missed the illustrations and became restless (even when reading about her favorite subjects like puppies and horses).

    Editors will tell you that the best picture books tell the story 50% in words, 50% in pictures. They don’t want to see PB manuscripts with too much detail, for they eliminate the need for vivid illustrations. I find that the large chains put books with a lot of [unnecessary] bells and whistles on their shelves. For a quality story with rich text and beautiful images, visit an independent children’s bookseller.

    Comment by anonymom — April 28, 2008 @ 11:55 pm | Reply

  8. Yes, it’s a big mistake for picture-book authors to spell out too much. They have to leave room for the illustrators to cast their spell. I haven’t seen the “50-50” figure, but I’ve heard many editors make the point you made in similar terms that are less specific.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — April 29, 2008 @ 12:07 am | Reply

  9. There is no sweeter treat to tempt the imagination of a young reader than the combination of a great story with a great illustration! Of course, I might be a little prejudice on this matter.
    I agree that poorly written stories can be disguised with colorful artwork but there’s just no fooling a kid. After just one read (sometimes after one page) if a kid doesn’t like the story the pictures can’t save the book.
    TV, movies and even some animated Ebooks fill in the complete story leaving nothing to the imagination. But a good picture book just opens the door to the next scene in the reader’s mind.

    Comment by shenaniganbooks — August 28, 2010 @ 1:46 pm | Reply

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