Notes on Creating a Visual Interpretive Analysis

Rebecca Platzner and Kay E. Vandergrift

Gender and Culture Syllabus

Visual Interpretive Analyses Page

Analysis of a Picture Book


A visual interpretive analysis is a tool that helps students begin to look closely and deeply at the way an illustration from a picture book creates meaning that enhances and extends story. The creation of one of these analyses on the www is a challenge both technically and in the creative response to and treatment of content. This page deals only with content; technical assistence will be provided elsewhere.

The word "interpretive" is particularly important to keep in mind as you create your visual interpretive analysis. If we agree that meaning is created as the result of a transaction between an individual reader and a text at a specific moment in time; and if we agree that a reader both brings meaning to and takes meaning from this transaction, then it follows that there will be many possible interpretations of any text or illustration. What you hope to create for your students is a guide to some of these many possibilities, not a report of the 'right' interpretation. By guiding others to see what we see, we offer them new possibilities, new ways of looking (ways of knowing) not only at one illustration but at the world around them.

Just as the book you are analyzing is a unique product of collaboration; so will your visual interpretive analysis be unique. Another person or group could create a very different analysis of the same book. If you look closely at the Kay Vandergrift, Cheryl Erenberg, Denise Agosto , and Rebecca Platzner analyses, for example, you will see that, although they share some characteristics, they also bear the imprints of their creator's individual perspectives and values. So, while you are welcome to model your analysis on the examples created before you, use them only as far as they are useful to you. If you have an idea or strategy that serves your purposes; by all means, use it!

To begin, choose a picture book about which you feel strongly. The book should not only interest you, but it should also be of high quality. In other words, you want to be sure that it merits the hours of attention and work that you will be devoting to its analysis. (Copyright law allows fair use, and we are assuming that one illustration from a book can be considered 'fair.') If your visual interpretive analysis is both positive and constructive, you will probably avoid problems from publishers, authors, and illustrators because they are usually glad that you think their work is worthy of scholarly consideration, that is, of sharing with other professionals who will teach the work and bring it to children.)

After you have chosen your book, you will need to pick one illustration on which to base your visual interpretive analysis. You may find yourself drawn to one illustration, or you may need to spend some time choosing among many possibilities. At this point, you are working to identify some of the book's important themes, artistic techniques, issues, symbols, and so on. Begin to look very carefully at what the author and illustrator are trying to convey and how they work together to create the book as an aesthetic whole. It may help to ask yourself whether the author's and illustrator's primary purpose is to tell a story, create a mood, convey a concept, teach the reader how to reason, or illustrate a young child's everyday experience. Begin to look at color and line. At characters' placement on the page. At what the text tells you that the illustration does not, and vise versa. Look at page layout. At the use of type. Look a the structure of the book. Look for illustrations that are different from the others or that work in pairs. Think about what drew you to this book in the first place. What response did you have? How did the author and illustrator contribute to that response?

After you get to know your book, decide what you think is very important for your students to understand about the way the illustrations work. What wonderful things have you discovered that you want to share? Choose an illustration that will let you say a lot about your book. Choose a powerful illustration and consider how everything you have discovered contributes to making it powerful.

(One practical consideration: It is easier to work with an illustration that fits on one page, not on two. It is difficult to scan a two-page spread, and losing half or part of an image is not desirable.)

Once you have committed to one illustration, you need to begin formulating the main question , the three to five "answers" that will structure your presentation, and the reasons (the explanations of) why all of these answers are correct. The main question works well if it is quite general, because it will allow you to take your students in a variety of directions as they explore your presentation. Consider the main questions on some of the visual interpretive analyses that have already been completed. Perhaps you can adopt or adapt one of the strategies the authors of these sites have used. Of course, you are encouraged to create your own strategy if that is easier.

Making the decisions involved in creating the question and answer structure of your visual interpretive analysis can take some time and work. You may need to let go of some of the discoveries you have made that you cannot fit into a reasonably focused presentation. If you find yourself with an unwieldy number of things that you want to show your students, consider putting some of them in a separate page "for further consideration."

For each correct answer to the main question, your student will link to a page that assures them that they have chosen one possibility and explains why. Students will quickly understand that all of the answers are correct, but the many possibilities reinforce the idea that there is no one correct interpretation of anything, that these analyses are among the many possible thoughtful interpretations, and that the students' own careful interpretations are equally valid. It is your job to explicate your reasons for your conclusions. You do this through your words and by showing them a 'thumbnail'--- a small portion of the illustration that focuses their attention on the aspect of the illustration that you are discussing.

At this point, if you are a visual learner, it may be useful for you to draw a map or flow chart to help you visualize the structure of your creation. You might draw and label a box for each page that you create or connect to, with arrows showing the various links.

Next, you will want to create links to other pages that you feel will enhance, extend, or deepen your students' understanding of the illustrations. Some of these may be links from your main page and others from further within your structure. You can create your own pages, link to visual interpretive analysis pages that others have created that are relevant to your discussion, or you can create links to sources of info on the world wide web. Links offer your student the opportunity to create meaning for themselves as they choose to follow their own pathways of interest within the structure of possibilities you have created for them. It is important to realize that the creation of these links may require a great deal of research and effort to find the precise information and to make it appropriate for your students. For instance, Eleanor includes comparisons with Eleanor Roosevelt's autobiography and discussions of gender roles at that period of U.S. history.

The interaction between text and illustration is one of the main ways picture books contribute to a reader's response. It will probably be important to create a link to the text that goes with your illustration if the text is not part of the page on which your illustration appears and thus available to your student as they view the main page. Line breaks and text layout can contribute to our experience of story, so consider carefully the way you want to present your text. Perhaps you want to use a font similar to that used in the book. Perhaps you want to break the lines in the same way they appear on the page. Perhaps the way the text is presented is so unique and important to understanding the story that you will need to scan the page.

Other appropriate links are suggested by your perspective on the book you have chosen and by the book itself. For example, it might be helpful in a discussion of how your illustrator uses line, to link to quotes from art textbooks that reveal more general theory about artists' use of line. Consideration of the original pictures that serve as sources of information for the creation of a biographical picture book, such as Eleanor, are of interest. A controversial book, like Nappy Hair begs links to further information about the controversy itself, as well as the issues that spur that controversy. For a visual interpretation of Tortillas and Lullabies, the collaborative process used by the author/illustrators and their membership in a women's artistic cooperative is of particular interest. Reviews of the book and biographical information about the author and illustrator are often enlightening, as are comments by an author or illustrator about their own work.

Although the process of creating a visual interpretive analysis may seem overwhelming at first, beware: Once you get the hang of it, it is really quite a bit of fun ,and you may find it difficult not to keep adding links as you find answers to your own questions. I can promise you, you will learn a great deal. Enjoy!


SCILS, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey