Critical Thinking

Picture Books Get Kids Talking -and Thinking

Imagine this: you’re reading a picture book to a rapt audience, be it one child or a large group. They’re engaged and enthused, interacting with the text, the art and you.  It’s a wonderfully satisfying experience for both reader and audience. But is there more going on than meets the eye? Is the delight of sharing a picture book also an opportunity to foster social and emotional growth, laying the foundation for critical thinking skills?

Get to the “Why”

The answer: a resounding “yes”! Sharing and discussing picture books provides an opportunity for pre-readers to develop their powers of observation as well as their ability to articulate their thoughts and reactions. In an environment where children are reassured that their opinions are valid and valued, they feel safe expressing their thoughts. The unique fusion of art and text in a well-crafted picture book can encourage children to express why they feel as they do and to critically examine the images they see and the words they read.

How Pictures Work

Molly Bang’s influential classic Picture This: How Pictures Work (Chronicle Books, 2000) may be intended for adults but presents simple concepts that can help even young children look at images critically.

Photo by Marybeth Kozikowski

By showing a triangle positioned two ways, Ms. Bang demonstrates how different positioning of the same shape conveys stability or movement. A triangle, shown sitting flat along one side, suggests stability. The same triangle, now tilted on one corner, pointing upward at a 45-degree angle, conveys movement or action.

Photo by Marybeth Kozikowski

Varying the size of an object changes our perception of it. Using the same triangle, but making it smaller among other shapes around it, makes it appear more vulnerable than when the triangle is much larger among the same shapes.

Photo by Marybeth Kozikowski

Bang observes that pointed shapes (such as a jagged mountain peak) tend to make us feel scared, unlike rounded shapes (rolling hills) which make us feel secure and comforted.

 Start a Discussion

I recently led a discussion of Barbara Lehman’s Rainstorm (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) with children in grades 2 and 3. With all of us sprawled out on the program room floor enjoying snacks, the children had insightful responses to my prompts:                                                                                           

-No words! How can you tell what’s happening? Or going to happen?

-Look at the size of the boy compared to the room and look at the items in it. What do you think the author is trying to say? 

-How would you describe the colors of the boy’s house? What do certain colors make you think of?

-It’s important to notice what’s in a picture, as well as what’s not in a picture: what is missing from the boy’s house (that’s in your own house)?

-What do the boy’s clothes say about him?

-Where would you have had the trunk lead to?

-How do the illustrations change when the boy goes outside? What do you think the author is trying to say with that change?

-What is the child in the striped shirt saying while pointing at the boy in the white shirt and tie? What do you think the boy in the white shirt is feeling and saying?

-What do the five pages with six small square pictures show? How do they tell the story differently than other pages with just one large illustration?      

Accessible and Fun

While picture books are not the only tool teachers, librarians, and caregivers can use to encourage children to express their ideas and foster independent thinking, they just may be the most fun (my bias is showing) and the most accessible. Even in a pandemic, with a public library card, books are available at no cost and for those with internet access, ebooks and read-aloud services like Tumblebooks and BookFlix are available whenever the reading bug bites.  


Bang, M. (2000). Picture This: How Pictures Work. Chronicle Books.

Pantaleo, S. (2017). Critical thinking and young children’s exploration of picture book artwork. Language and Education, 31(2),152-168.

Papen, U. (2020). Using picture books to develop critical visual literacy in primary schools: Challenges of a dialogic approach. Literacy UKLA, 54(1), 3-10. 

Stephenson, S. (2014, September 12). Visual Literacy Through Children’s Picture Books. Scholastic. Retrieved November 4, 2020 from . 

Vasquez, V.M., Janks, H., & Comber, B. (2019, July 6). Key aspects of critical literacy: An excerpt. National Council of Teachers of English.. Retrieved November 4, 2020 from

Marybeth Kozikowski is a member of the ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee and works as a Librarian II, Children’s Services at Sachem Public Library, Holbrook, NY. Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *