Assignments and Study Guide on Contemporary American Picture Books

by Dr. Tina L. Hanlon

Associate Professor of English
Ferrum College

Ferrum, VA  24088

See the bottom of this page for secondary sources and guidelines for other teachers using this study guide.
(Other lesson plans and study guides on Appalachian literature are available in AppLit.)

American Literature II, Spring 2001

Class Assignments on Contemporary American Picture Books:

Previous Class:  Take home one picture book from a particular American cultural tradition, or the category of fantasy/satire.

Read for 4/24:  The book(s) you take home and the picture books on reserve (listed below).

First Day in Class:

• Bring notes based on the book you studied.

• Class will discuss these books together (all on reserve in the library):  

Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are, 1963  
David Weisner, Free Fall, 1988 (Caldecott Honor 1989)  
Rachel Isadora, City Seen from A to Z, 1983
Barry Moser, Polly Vaughn, 1992
Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, 1992
Dr. Seuss, The Lorax, 1971

Collections in our library also of interest:
From Sea to Shining Sea: A Treasury of American Folklore and Folk Songs, ed. Amy L. Cohn. NY: Scholastic, 1993. Illustrations by 15 award-winning children’s book artists
The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales by Virginia Hamilton and Leo and Diane Dillon, 1985
Grandfather Tales by Richard Chase (on reserve):  Appalachian folktales (only a few illustrations); see also Chase's Jack Tales.

• Compare notes with others in your group.  Trade with someone and read each other’s books, or, if the text is too long, tell each other the story of your book to your group and look through the illustrations together.

• As time allows, look at other books in your category.

• Make some notes on interesting features of books in your category.  Include consideration of:

• Relationship between words and illustrations
• Cultural or social values conveyed by the book
• Culturally specific content, and/or
• Contemporary literary/artistic techniques represented in the book

• Your group reports to the class briefly on most interesting aspects of your books.

• Take home at least one other book.  

Second Day in Class:

• Discuss postmodern techniques in picture books as well as other literature.

• Discuss Donald Barthelme, “The School,” 2219-21 as an example of postmodern absurdist adult fiction.

• Finish discussing picture books from various cultural traditions.

• Look at books from other categories, as time allows, and take one or more home if you wish.

Writing Assignments:

• Your comments, notes, and responses to picture books you have read should appear in your journal.

• You should have made enough notes on several books so that you can review for the final exam.
Most of the books we examine in class will be available later in the Ferrum library or Dr. Hanlon’s office.

On the final exam you will be asked to write a short essay about contemporary American picture books. The essay can focus on the combination of words and pictures in picture books, the nature of folktales, or aspects of contemporary American culture reflected in picture books. Since members of the class have read different books, you should plan your essay before the exam period, based on the books you have read.  You may be required to write about some of the picture books on reserve as well.


The modern picture book in England and America has been strongly influenced by English artists who produced high quality illustrated books in the late nineteenth century:  Randolph Caldecott, Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway; and in the early twentieth century:  L. Leslie Brooke and Beatrix Potter (author/illustrator of Peter Rabbit and other animal tales). Another type of influence came through popular culture since the eighteenth century: popularity of chapbooks (cheaply produced books sold by peddlers, containing all kinds of literature for adults and later for children), development of the market in toys and games, growth in popularity of caricatures/cartoons and comic strips/books since the nineteenth century. Film and other media have influenced picture books since the twentieth century.

The Caldecott Medal was established in 1938 by the American Library Association to recognize the illustrator of the most distinguished picture book published in America each year. Runners up are given Honor awards. Picture books occasionally win the Newbery Medal or Honors, given by the ALA each year to the most distinguished American children’s books.  The annual Coretta Scott King Awards recognize African-American authors and illustrators. Maurice Sendak was the first American to win the Hans Christian Andersen award, an international award given every two years to an author and illustrator for their body of work.

Landmarks in American Picture Books:

General Questions on Picture Books and Folktales:

1. How do words and pictures interact in picture books?  Look for examples in which elements of character, plot, setting, or point of view that are not revealed in words are portrayed through pictures. What details or scenes from the text has the illustrator chosen not to depict?  What is the difference between perceiving various details through words and through pictures?  How is the flow of the story (or progression of concepts or impressions if it is not a narrative) affected by the placement of pictures?  In picture books with a substantial story line, are the pictures or the words the first to indicate what is happening in the plot, or do they work together at about the same pace?

2. Of what significance is the size or shape of picture books?  Maurice Sendak’s tiny Nutshell Library has been very popular with young children for decades. Large formats are also common in picture books (e.g., Dr. Seuss, Madeline books).  Do horizontal or vertical formats work better for certain types of texts?  Should editions be published and sold that vary from the original size and shape?  Do you know of other books for which size, shape, structure, or format are especially important?

3.  How is action conveyed in picture books? Do different individuals, including children of different ages, read books and the actions they depict differently from the usual left to right and top to bottom? Perry Nodelman (in Words about Pictures) observes that action usually progresses from left to right, and pictures in which characters face left, or the picture is oriented toward the left, often indicate some interruption or obstacle in the action.

4.  Does amount of white space, use of borders or no borders, placement of text (in boxes, superimposed on pictures, placed in different parts of pages), variations in size of pictures or words, or use of pictures overflowing outlined borders contribute to the meaning of the book?

5.  How is perspective conveyed or varied in pictures as well as text? Do we get a child’s-eye view, or animal’s-eye view in some pictures? If the illustrator shows certain characters looking straight out at us from the page, what is the significance of their gazing at us?

6.  Through most of the twentieth century, many adults in America, including publishers, booksellers, and teachers, treated picture books as if they are only for children, and mainly for preschool and primary grade children. How do the picture books you are reading affect your view of this question? Do some of these books contain sophisticated content that children would not be likely to understand? How do we know what children perceive when they look at books?

7.  What do you see as the essential ingredients of a “true picture book”? How does the function of the illustrations, and their relationship to the text, differ in illustrated books (longer books with illustrations of selected scenes) as compared to picture books? What do you think of Sendak’s 1970 comment that it is “offensive” and “insane” to publish illustrated versions of adult novels?

8.  How do wordless books convey character, setting, point of view, tone, theme or plot? Are wordless picture books just for very young children? Why has the author chosen to put words on some pages and not others in picture books such as David Wiesner’s Tuesday?

9.  What difference does it make for an artist to illustrate a text written by someone else, and his or her own text? (Sendak and many others have done both.)

10.  Does it matter to you whether the author or illustrator of a tale from a particular cultural tradition is a native member of that culture? Pay attention to whether the books give background on the author or illustrator and their research, on the origins of the stories, or on the art work.

11.  The legends and folktales retold in many picture books are derived from ancient oral traditions; in some cases, such as Native American tales, they were told in languages that had no written forms. In what ways do they seem different from “literary” stories that were composed in written form by individual authors?

12.  Do the folktales contain the types of well-developed individual characters we find in other story traditions? How do the characters function in these tales?

13.  Myths and folktales are not “realistic” stories about nature or about life in a particular culture. But they do reflect “realities” of life that were important to the people who told the tales. One modern view of “myth” is that it means “true story,” and in addition, “a story that is a most precious possession because it is sacred, exemplary, significant.” What are some of the concerns or realities of life and belief that we learn about from reading tales originating in different cultural traditions? In what sense are the tales exemplary (representative), significant, or true?

14.  Modern analysis of folktales involves tracing common motifs or themes found in tales from around the world. Do any of these folktales contain motifs or themes that you see in other folktales, legends, fairy tales, myths or stories that you are familiar with? Notice how often people, events, and objects occur in three’s in folktales from around the world. Some other examples of very common folk motifs are sibling rivalry, parent-child conflict, wicked stepmothers, a quest or journey, tests of the hero’s abilities or character traits, help from magical characters and objects, trickster characters who use their wits to overcome obstacles, old or poor characters who need help and often offer a reward in return, transformation of people into animals or objects, rewards for deserving characters (often involving money and/or marriage).

15.  Often in myths and folktales magic and supernatural elements and creatures reflect basic human fears and desires. How do magic and the supernatural function in the tales you have read?

16.  Every culture has its own creation “myths.” Another type of folktale found in cultures around the world is called “pourquoi” stories (pourquoi is French for why). These are usually tales that account for some phenomenon in nature, or how the present world came to be what it is. If you have read these types of tales, do you see characteristics that you are familiar with from Genesis or other creation stories you may be familiar with? What views of human life, and of the relationships between supernatural powers and humanity, are reflected in these tales? In what ways are human emotions connected with the forces of nature in any of these tales?

17.  What views of male-female relations, family relations, and community relations are reflected in any of these tales? What attitudes toward animals, the earth and nature are represented in the tales?

18.  Do the books you have read contain culturally specific content? That is, do they contain material that is specific to a particular cultural tradition? How much significance is there in the cultural or ethnic background of the characters or setting?

19.  Some contemporary picture books incorporate postmodern techniques like those found in other postmodern art and literature. These include various experimental literary and artistic techniques such as multiple and shifting points of view, exploration of the unconscious mind and different ways of viewing reality, magic realism, parody and blending of previous literary or artistic styles and stories, blending of influences from different media (such as film, comic books, painting, folk literature, etc.), drawing attention to the artificiality of fiction and art (metafiction), questioning or satirizing or violating our usual expectations about the form and nature of books, fiction, art, etc. Do you see any of these techniques in the picture books you have read?

Contemporary American Picture Books

Note:  Many other picture books could be added to each of these groups and different categories can be added to suit the focus of your class.  For example, there should be a section on Hispanic picture books and other regional traditions could be added, such as picture books about the Southwest U.S.  Some categories overlap.  For example, Cherokee tales and some African-American stories such as From Miss Ida’s Porch and John Henry also belong to the Appalachian region. More stories of contemporary life should be included to avoid biased assumptions that the cultures of these ethnic or regional groups are interesting only for folktales or historical stories rooted in the past. For many more examples of Appalachian tales and parallel tales from other cultures, see AppLit's Annotated Index of Folktales. For folktales focusing on strong women, see Feminist Collections of Folktales.



Links above are to AppLit's Annotated Index of Folktales.  See other bibliographies in AppLit as well. The Cherokee tales in the Native American list below are also Appalachian, and From Miss Ida's Front Porch, by Belton and Cooper, in the African-American list above.


Native American


Contemporary Pop Culture, Satire and Fantasy

Magic Realism and Transformations in Picture Books
Magic realism is “a blending of realistic details and techniques with the superstitions, myths, and fabulous orality associated until recently more with tribal and Third World cultures than with literary traditions of the West.” (The American Tradition in Literature, McGraw-Hill, 1999). These are examples of magic transformations in realistic settings.

Examples of Other Works of American Literature that May be Studied in Relation to Folklore and Picture Books

Picture Book Adaptations of American Literary Classics are increasingly available.  For example, the Poetry for Young People Series reprints illustrated selections, mainly from nineteenth-century poets such as Poe, Whitman, and Emily Dickinson.

Most of the following are stories often reprinted in American literature anthologies, or successful novels that are readily available.

Isabel Allende writes about South American family history. The House of Spirits (1985) contains magic realism. “And of Clay Are We Created” is from The Stories of Eva Luna (1991; compare to “The Golem” and other tales of creation and death)

Donald Barthelme experimented with many postmodern techniques and folktale retellings in short stories such as “The School” (1976) and novels such as Snow White (1967).

L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900 (classic American fantasy with fairy tale motifs)

Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine (1984 novel about three generations of Chippewas)

Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate (1993 Latin American novel & film, transformation story using magic realism)

Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Poacher” (in Xanadu. edited by Jane Yolen, 1993; “Sleeping Beauty” from the point of view of a peasant intruder)

Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951, compare to transformation tales)

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987, good example of African American magic realism)

Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People” (1955, compare to trickster tales)

Anne Sexton, Transformations (1971 poems based on traditional fairy tales)

Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote many stories in Yiddish and English about Jewish immigrants, using traditional storytelling techniques, including “Gimpel the Fool” (1953)

Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club (1989 novel about Chinese-American mothers and daughters)

Alice Walker, “Everyday Use” (1973 short story, illustrates struggle between African-American family/folk traditions and modern ambitions)

Eudora Welty, The Robber Bridegroom (1970 novel using tall tale motifs)

Jane Yolen, Briar Rose (1992 novel about young woman solving mystery of her grandmother’s early life in Holocaust, interwoven with a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” influenced by the Holocaust). See also other stories in the Fairy Tale Series.

Secondary Sources for Teachers and Students Doing Research on Picture Books and American Folktale Adaptations

See also Appalachian Folktales: Background Resources on Folktales in AppLit.

Ammon, Bette and Gale Sherman. Worth A Thousand Words: An Annotated Guide to Picture Books for Older Readers. Libraries Unlimited, 1996.

Benedict, Susan and Lenore Carlisle, eds. Beyond Words: Picture Books for Older Readers and Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992.

Cummings, Pat, comp. & ed. Talking With Artists. NY: Bradbury Press; Vol. 1, 1992; vol. 2, 1995.

Dooley, Patricia, ed. The First Steps: Best of the Early Children’s Lit. Association Quarterly. Purdue U: ChLA Publications, 1984. Includes articles on picture books and folktales.

Doonan, Jane. Looking at Pictures in Picture Books. Stroud, Glos., UK: Thimble Press, 1993.

Dragons in Children's Literature: Annotated Bibliographies by Tina L. Hanlon

Elleman, Barbara. “Evaluating Illustration.” Journal of Children’s Literature 24 (Spr. 1998): 20-27.

Hade, Daniel D. “Why Teach with Children’s Literature?” Journal of Children’s Literature 25 (Spr. 1999): 6-7.

Hanlon, Tina L. “Magic Realism in Picture Book Transformations.” Modern Language Association Convention, Chicago, Dec. 28, 1999.

Hanlon, Tina L. and Judy A. Teaford. AppLit: Resources for Readers and Teachers of Appalachian Literature for Children and Young Adults. .

Hanlon, Tina L. and Judy A. Teaford. “Never Too Old for Picture Books.” Virginia English Bulletin 26 (Fall 1996): 7-20.

Hearn, Michael Patrick. “More or Less Than Meets the Eye.” Rev. of We Are All In The Dumps With Jack and Guy, by Maurice Sendak, The Sweetest Fig, by Chris Van Allsburg, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, by Nancy Willard and Leo and Diane Dillon. Teaching and Learning Literature with Children and Young Adults 3.1 (1994): 39-44.

Hearn, Michael Patrick, C. Trinkett, & N. B. Clark, eds. Myth, Magic, and Mystery: One Hundred Years of American Children’s Book Illustration. Boulder, CO: Roberts Rhinehart, 1996.

Hurst, Carol Otis. “Picture Books for Older Kids.” Teaching K-8. 25.7 (1995): 82-83.

Jones, Steven Swann. The Fairy Tale: The Magic Mirror of Imagination. New York: Twayne, 1995.

Kingman, Lee, ed. Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books, 1956-1965. Boston: Horn Book, 1965.

Lukens, Rebecca J. A Critical Handbook of Children’s Literature 5th ed. NY: HarperCollins, 1995.

Lurie, Alison. Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: Why Kids Love the Books They Do. NY: Avon, 1990.

McCarthy, William Bernard, ed. Jack in Two Worlds: Contemporary North American Tales and Their Tellers. Chapel Hill: U of NC Press, 1994.

Marantz, Sylvia S. Picture Books for Looking and Learning: Awakening Visual Perceptions Through the Art of Children’s Books. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1992.

Moebius, William. “Introduction to Picturebook Codes.” Word and Image 2 (1986): 141-58.

Neumeyer, Peter. “Children’s Literature in the English Department.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 12 (1987): 146-50.

Nodelman, Perry. Words about Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books. Athens: U of Georgia Press, 1988. (very important study of picture book analysis)

Schwartz, Elaine G. “Thinking Globally, Acting Locally: Fostering Ecological Literacy through Children’s Picture-Books.” Journal of Children’s Literature 21 (1995): 49-56.

Schwarcz, Joseph H. and Chava Schwarcz. The Picture Book Comes of Age: Looking at Childhood Through the Art of Illustration. Chicago: American Library Association, 1991.

Sendak, Maurice. Caldecott & Company: Notes on Books & Pictures. Toronto: Harper & Collins, 1988.

Stewig, J. W. Looking at Picture Books. Fort Atkinson, WI: Highsmith, 1995.

Stott, Jon. “Will the Real Dragon Stand Up? Convention and Parody in Children’s Stories.” Children’s Literature in Education 21 (1990). 219-28.

Vandergrift, Kay. Illustration and the Art of the Picture Book. Rutgers University, 1995. (this also links to other web pages on illustrators and picture books)

Watson, Victor and Morag Styles, ed. Talking Pictures: Pictorial Texts and Young Readers. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996. See especially "Inside the Tunnel: A Radical Kind of Reading—Picture Books, Pupils and Post-Modernism" by Morag Styles.

Guidelines for Other Teachers Using this Study Guide

Grade Levels:  College sophomore American literature courses; can be adapted for lower grades or as a unit in upper-level literature courses.

Time Frame:  At least two 75-minute class

Other lesson plans, study guides, bibliographies and essays on Appalachian literature and picture books are available in AppLit.

This page's last update: September 15, 2003

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