Notes for the Analysis of a

Picture Book

Kay E. Vandergrift

Gender and Culture Syllabus

Visual Interpretive Analyses Page

Creation of a Visual Interpretive Analysis

  • There is no one right answer to whether or not your book "works".

  • Your task is to convince others that your way of viewing the book is one valid way of looking at it.

  • Give evidence to convince others of your point of view. In other words, don't just tell us, convince us.

  • It is not enough to say that it is beautiful or significant, you must tell us what makes it so.

  • You may want to begin with yourself and your own impressions, then move on to discuss what the author and illustrator did to make the book work for you as a reader.

  • Avoid absolutes like "all children should read this book."

  • Keep in mind, you are writing a review, not a book report.

  • There is no need to retell the story, readers should get a sense of the story from your critical comments. In other words, don't retell the story and then comment; do your best to integrate the story with your commentary.

  • You may begin with a sentence or two to set your reader up with a summary of the story, but mostly you want to help the reader get a sense of what your book IS--what is it about?--maybe a particular element such as setting is the dominant element, for example.

  • You are looking for literary value, not the ability to supplement the curriculum or a good moral.

  • You will probably want to include some discussion of literary elements important to your book, such as characterization, point of view, plot, setting, mood/tone, symbol.

  • When you are discussing the language, use quotes as evidence.

  • Look sympathetically--for example, it is the nature of folktales to use stereotypes.

  • Believability of animal characters is important to discuss only if it is unusual.

  • Be sure to include the illustrator in your citation.

  • Help your readers visualize what they haven't seen.

  • When you say the illustrator chose soft colors or bold colors, don't forget to tell what specific colors.

  • Describe the overall visual quality of the book, including format and bookmaking elements that may be important.

  • Ask yourself "what stands out?"-- Line, color, shape, perspective, medium, layout, etc..

  • Again, if you say that the use of color creates a somber mood, tell us how.

  • If blue equals a sense of tranquility and sadness, explain how so and what specific hue or saturation of blue is used.

  • Don't forget to discuss how text & illustration work together to create an aesthetic whole.

  • Try not to restate the obvious--the size and shape of book, the layout of the pages, the type font may be important, but leading and margins probably are not unless they are unusual.

  • Describe the illustration, don't just report the effect, as in "the illustrations capture the essence of . . ."

  • Deal with the book on its own terms, not on your preconceived terms.

  • Review what is there, not what you would have done differently.

  • Maintain respect for the creation and creators even as you make negative critical comments.

  • A review is not a checklist--what you stress in your analysis will depend on the elements of book you choose.

Where to Start:

Some Ideas for beginning the Analysis of a Picture Book Assignment

If you are having trouble knowing where to start, it may help you to try reading your book in some different ways, jotting down anything you notice after each experience. I've added some questions that may be helpful, but don't get stuck by them. Some ways of reading or questions may not yield any results for you or your book, others may. You might just try the different ways of reading and ignore the questions at first.

1. Read the book straight through.

What strikes you as most important?* Try to answer the question: "What IS this book?" --try for a simple phrase like 'a poetic tribute to friendship', 'a straightforward tale of death and mourning', 'a wild romp through the first week of school' (It's OK if you can't do it yet or you are not satisfied, this is just a first try.)

2. Read only the text, ignoring the illustrations.

Can the text stand alone? Do you notice any patterns of story, of language? Is there a climax, a main character? What literary element stands out in the composition, if any?

3. Read only the illustrations, ignoring the text.

Now what happens? Do the illustrations tell the story by themselves? What is missing, if anything, without the words? How would the story be different if it were told only by the illustrations? What do the illustrations tell you--about character and setting, for example-- that you cannot tell from text alone? Do the illustrations change the meaning of the text?

4. Read aloud, listening to the sound of the text.

Is there rhythm or rhyme? Is the language poetic, spare, humorous? What adjective comes to mind to describe your text? Is it easy or difficult to read aloud? How does the language enhance or detract from the aesthetic whole? Is there repetition of certain phrases or sounds? What effect does this have?

5. Read to notice where the text breaks.

Would your experience of the story, of the language be different if the lines were broken in different places? What effects are the result of the choices that were made? Do line breaks slow you down? Move you to turn the page? Have a certain pattern? Are there some pages with more text than others? Some pages with no text? How does this affect your experience of the story? Do text breaks direct readers to assume a certain pace in their reading?

6. Read to notice the illustrator's choices.

Exactly what does the illustrator chose to depict in relation to the text on each page? Does the illustration take place before, during, or after the events in the text?Do the illustrations comment on a character's situation? Do the illustrations give us a character's perspective on events, or are we granted an omnipotent view of characters and events?

7.Read the colors.

What colors does the illustrator use? Are there various hues, saturations, tones of the same color? Do the colors change with changes during the story? Are certain colors associated with certain characters or events? Do you find contrasting or harmonious use of color? How does color complement, expand, enhance story?

8. Read for the page layout.

Where are illustration and text placed on the page? To what effect? Is there a consistent pattern or is there variation? Why? Is there any significance in the choice of typefont?

These ideas may get you started. However, they are not a checklist. Your book may beg consideration of line, of texture, of comparison to a story about which it is a spoof, of subtlety or directness or playfulness of language, of character development, of mood, of. . . .

*If you are immediately aware of one aspect of a book, read the book for that particular quality--you are probably on to something important.

Consider the Following

Narrative Level

What does it say?

Simple, understandable level.

Physical conflict in plot.

Does it make you want to turn the page?

Does it employ any tricks to make you turn the page?

Interpretive Level

Does it ring true?

Do you care?

More than physical, becomes physical and psychological

Does the work have integrity--not manipulating

Is there validity and consistency in the author's created world

Residual Level

A residue of meaning

"Hey, this is a really important book"

Transcends simple story--usual personal and idiosyncratic

Created January 4, 1999 and is continuously revised
SCILS, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey