Claire Saxby is an award-winning and bestselling picture book author of books such as Big Red Kangaroo (2013) and Emu (2014), both illustrated by Graham Byrne. Her latest book Koala, illustrated by Julie Vivas, was released this month. She now reveals the importance of picture books on a child’s development.
By Claire Saxby.
The first books that a young child encounters are likely to be some version of a picture book. Earliest books may include cloth and bath books, concept and board books and picture story books. As well as being offered image, simple words and ideas, young children are being introduced to the fundamental structure of a book: which way the text is viewed. Pages are turned in a particular direction. Shapes form letters. Collections of letters form words. Collections of words form sentences. Sentences form stories. Images and words work together to offer layers of meaning. Themes. Cultural foundations. They’re all there. Working quietly with the wonder of sharing between a reader and a not-yet-reader.
Not every child will grow up to be a writer. Not even all of those who love reading and love writing and/or illustrating stories will end up as authors and/or illustrators. But everything they do in their life will be affected by their mastery of the ability to read and to write. The early school years focus on the mechanics of reading and writing. After that the focus shifts towards content. ‘How to read and write’ shifts to ‘What reading and writing can offer’. Of course it’s not that black and white, because reading and writing skills will continue to evolve throughout life. If we are lucky, we will never stop ‘gaining meaning from text’ and we will continue to improve our ability to say (and write) what we mean. Picture books are designed to continue to connect with children once they can read for themselves. Reading children find details in picture books that even their creators hadn’t realised were there!
Ask a child about animals and they’ll immediately tell you about lions, tigers, giraffes and elephants. Ask a child about Australian animals and they’ll often give the same answer. Lions, tigers, giraffes and elephants are wonderful animals and deserve a place in any world. So do kangaroos, emus, dingoes and koalas. Australia has so many animals found only here. Introducing a child to the animals native to the place they live allows the introduction of the world in which the animals live. They can connect the environment depicted on the page with the environment in which they live. When they understand their local world, they can begin to build an understanding of the larger world. This doesn’t mean they hold their world as the only ‘right’ one, but that they have a basis for understanding and valuing difference.
From this specific knowledge, readers can step out into the world. They begin to read more broadly and to develop critical reading skills. This foundation for lifelong learning helps readers to be able to choose where they access information, how to assess it for ‘truth’, how to form opinions and make good decisions.
Introducing a child to the animals native to the place they live allows the introduction of the world in which the animals live. They can connect the environment depicted on the page with the environment in which they live. When they understand their local world, they can begin to build an understanding of the larger world.
The ability to read critically, i.e. to assess the quality of written information, has lifelong implications for learning and wellbeing. It also has implications for long term health outcomes. In a previous life, I worked in community health. As well as being locally responsive to the needs of our particular community we were charged with offering information about making good health decisions for life. Research showed a connection between literacy and long term health. Poor literacy contributed to higher levels of chronic illness. We worked on a program to improve the connection between preschools (including long term childcare) and the first year of primary school. Our aim was to improve formal links between preschools and primary schools, so that preschools understood the ‘school readiness’ expectations of schools, and that schools valued the ‘pre-literacy’ focus of preschools. If we could help improve these links then we could potentially remove at least one barrier to literacy.
Anyone who has tried to create a picture book will tell you that they are hard to do well. Publishers agree and are very selective about the manuscripts they accept. They have to tell their story in 500 words (or less) and in 32 pages. Words and illustrations must combine to tell a story that is greater than the sum of the two parts. There must be space for the reader to bring their own experience. The book must find a place in a market crowded with local and international content. They must engage readers and those who purchase on their behalf (parents, family, friends, teachers and librarians). They must be able to be read with children and by children. They must contain enriching language and ideas, but be accessible emotionally and intellectually. Picture books have to engage and nurture, inform, inspire and captivate.
It’s very important to get it right.
Enjoy a sneak peek inside Koala
It's time to find your own way, Little Koala.
It is time for Little Koala to leave the protection of his mother. But many challenges and dangers lie ahead for him as he searches for his own home eucalypt and learns to be independent. During his search he encounters other territorial koalas, wanders through a bushfire-ravaged landscape and endures a night of storms. Koala is written by award-winning nonfiction picture book specialist Claire Saxby...
About the Contributor
Anastasia Hadjidemetri is the former editor of The Booktopian and star of Booktopia's weekly YouTube show, Booked with Anastasia. A big reader and lover of books, Anastasia relishes the opportunity to bring you all the latest news from the world of books.