The importance of pictures to young readers
Published on: 13 July 2023
Pizazz author-illustrator Sophy Henn reminds us how wonderfully pictures enhance books for readers of all ages.
You're never too old for pictures
I am sure I am not alone in being rather heartbroken when I overhear parents/carers telling their kids that certain books are too young for them because they have pictures in. I have never found pictures to be too young for me and I am, well, really old.
Before we learn to speak and read, pictures are all we have to make sense of the world. Then they go on to help us learn that words also have meaning. They are our touchstone of understanding and communication, recognised and understood by all. Pictures give us all, whatever our age, a foothold into learning, understanding or experiencing something in a very fulsome way, whether on their own or accompanied by words.
They inspire creativity in the viewer, enhance social/emotional learning and much more besides. And so the notion that they are somehow lesser than words when it comes to books seems incredibly strange to me, and clearly unfounded. Quentin Blake so rightly points out that most are born with the ability to read pictures, an instinctive visual literacy, but many lose this skill over time as we neglect it. We see it as unimportant, frivolous even. And what a great pity that is, especially when you consider the world we live in now and how visual it has become, with many of us communicating and recording our lives in videos and pictures. One would have thought it more important than ever to be proficient in this area, and yet still the notion remains that pictures in books are something you should grow out of.
This is, of course, nonsense.
Picture books, illustrated fiction and graphic novels need to stop being regarded as a phase in a reader’s journey.
Making the story explode off the page
I cannot imagine a situation when pictures would detract from a story, but can think of many instances of the right images being paired with the right words and making the story explode off the page. The magic that happens when words and pictures combine to become so much more than the sum of their parts, to convey often very complex messages, emotions, moments in a way that can hit the spot with anyone from two years old to one hundred and two!
Though I must confess I am biased as I came to this job via pictures; that is my natural habitat. And maybe that is why I still fill my books with them, even though my word count has steadily risen over the years. But the two are so entangled in my head I don’t think I could (or would want to) create a book without images. Especially when I get so many wonderful teachers and parents messaging me about how their kids or pupils have found their way into reading via one of my books, how the pictures gave them the support they needed to tackle a fuller text. Pictures are not the enemy when it comes to creating established readers. Make a friend of them and they can encourage the most unsure, reluctant or hesitant to start their independent journey into the world of books, and then they can become a friend for life.
I have loved creating the Pizazz series with more and more comic strips in each book as the series has developed. Not just watching her superhero confidence grow in the text, but seeing it in her body language, expression and ultimately, her awesome new costume! Giving the reader all the extra asides in the illustrations and then thrilling at their recognition of them. So much so that I am now working on a graphic novel series – I’m upping my picture count this time!
And I am clearly in great company as it is an absolute joy to see visual storytelling becoming more and more abundant for all ages.
Illustrated fiction, graphic novels, visual diaries, collaborations, solo creations – they are everywhere and for everyone.
It feels like there is a renewed appreciation for visual storytelling, with younger readers leading the charge, and with that has come a new playfulness within the medium. I am so excited to see where it leads us and who knows, maybe one day I’ll write an article about why books have words.
The Pizazz series by Sophy Henn is out now.