What is a Picturebook?

 “A picturebook is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historic document; and foremost, an experience for a [reader / beholder].  As an art form it hinges on the interdependence of pictures and words, on the simultaneous display of two facing pages, and on the drama of the turning page.” (Barbara Bader, 1976:1)

A picturebook uses both pictures and words to create meaning, for the pictures show and the words tell, and these are two different modes of communication. The reader reads both the pictures – its visual text – and the words – its verbal text – and it is for this reason that the American illustrator Uri Shulevitz wrote, that a picturebook ‘could not be read over the radio and be understood fully’ (1985:15). The visual text is essential to the understanding of the message: it clarifies, complements, extends or sometimes even takes the place of the verbal text.

‘Storybook’, ‘RealBook’ … these are all labels used in English language education which refer to picturebooks. ‘Picture book’, ‘picture-book’ and ‘picturebook’ are all ways of writing this word, but using the compound form – picturebook – reflects the very nature of this very special artefact, one that brings pictures and words together to create meaning. 

Picturebooks introduce children to English in a natural and authentic way as the language is not sequenced or graded. Picturebooks provide a meaningful context for language use and expose children to rich, authentic language.  It is this fusion of the best in trade publishing with Primary English Language Teaching pedagogy that makes picturebooks an innovative and enriching experience in the classroom.

Picturebooks are different to ‘illustrated books’ because in ‘illustrated books’ the illustrations are not necessary for their interpretation. They are also different to a ‘reader’ as the written language in a ‘reader’ is selected and graded and created specifically for learning purposes.  The language is adapted and curtailed, usually following a reading programme or scheme. ‘Illustrated books’ and (illustrated) ‘readers’ have pictures, but the words are more important.



Bader, B. (1976). American picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to The Beast Within. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Shulevitz, U. (1985). Writing with pictures: How to write and illustrate children’s books. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications