More than a thousand words: A salute to the genius of picture books

22nd September 2016 at 17:21

Subject Genius, Stefan Kucharczyk, More than a thousand words: A salute to the genius of picture books

If you believe the old cliché, then a picture says more than a thousand words. By that logic, the value of a picture book - a wordless or basic narrative with illustrations – must equate to the word power of a Tolstoyesque epic. Choose the right one off the shelf and you’ll find that logic to be true!

Gone are the days where picture books are mere ‘training books’ for children too young to read ‘proper’ texts. While classics such as The Cat in the Hat and Dear Zoo were staples of many of our childhoods (Dudley Zoo: I’m still waiting for my pet giraffe to arrive…just saying), a new breed of picture books has sloughed off the ‘baby book’ status and the genre has evolved into something much more cunning.

Spanning the surreal world of Anthony Browne, the absorbing realities of Shaun Tan to the gritty, unsettling tales of Armin Greder, picture book aficionados of all ages are quite frankly spoiled for choice with the rich range now in print.  

In the primary classroom, these books are a gift providing excellent starting points for discussion, P4C and drama, inspiration for artwork and opportunities for emotive writing. The plots with many layers of interpretation make them accessible for readers of all abilities; for children with EAL needs or who are new to English, the visuals help them access the deeper layers of text even though they might not be able to read it. 

Above all else, they are short – quite a contrast from having to blast through a 200 page class reader before the children are in a position to write. As space in the timetable feels evermore squeezed, short, snappy picture books are beginning to change the way teachers are thinking about literacy. They are the super bantamweight boxer, socking a right hook to the chin of their lengthier, more sluggish rivals.

So, please stand to attention and let us salute the picture book with five lesser-known literary treasures that will change the way you teach English.

Little Beauty by Anthony Browne (Walker Books, 2009)

This may be a story about a gorilla, but this is no ordinary primate. Living in a special scientific facility, this great ape has fast food on demand, a comfortable arm chair, and a TV. Although he seems to have it all, he lives a lonely life until he forms a bond with an unlikely companion: Beauty the kitten.

Whilst seemingly a simple tale, this story examines the true nature of friendship, regret, compassion and loneliness. This fantastic book also throws up moral questions about animal treatment and scientific ethics. A gorilla and a cat may be the stars of the show, but this is a book about being human.    

Click here to find TES teaching resources for Little Beauty.

Subject Genius, Stefan Kucharczyk, More than a thousand words: A salute to the genius of picture books

The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan (Lothian, 2001)

There are so many fantastic Shaun Tan books that it was hard to know which one to put on the podium (The Arrival and The Red Tree are two gems). The Lost Thing, however, is a stylish and moving illustrated book that is guaranteed to enchant and pique the interest of any curious reader.

One morning, oddball Shaun finds a thing on the beach. Everyone else is completely oblivious but he is fascinated. As he considers what to do with the thing, the story explores themes of responsibility, fitting in and accepting difference. Ideal for Key stage 1.

Click here to find TES teaching resources for The Lost Thing.


I am Thomas by Libby Gleeson & Armin Greder (Allen & Unwin, 2011)

Gritty, mysterious picture books are the specialty of Libby Gleeson and Armin Greder and I Am Thomas is no different. Thomas is a boy who refuses to become part of the crowd. Bombarded by invitations to conform, this book is about finding the strength to follow your own path in life.

Perfect for upper Key Stage 2, this is the ideal tool for talking about the pressures of adolescence. It is also excellent way of getting young readers to reflect on a vital question: who are you?

Click here to find TES teaching resources for I am Thomas.


A Child’s Garden by Michael Foreman (Walker Books, 2010)

In a land torn apart by conflict, where can a lonely child find comfort? One day, an unnamed boy discovers his hope: a small flower growing amidst the ruin. Through nurture and love, the plant grows into a symbol of optimism and of peace.

Michael Foreman is a master storyteller and this simple tale is an excellent way of exploring characters and perspective. What does the plant become so important to the people of the village? Why do some want to destroy it? It could add an unusual dimension to a topic on growing plants.

Click here to find TES teaching resources for A Child’s Garden.


The Black Dog by Levi Pinfold (Templar, 2011)

Deep in the heart of the snowy woods live the Hope family. Idyllic? Maybe, but something is definitely out of place in this picture of rural tranquillity. Something is out there in the woods…or is it just their imaginations? This spooky, suspenseful tale asks us to question how our imagination works and how it can play tricks on us.

If you want to unleash the darker side of your class’ imaginations and have some fun with the things that go bump in the night, then the opportunities this book provides are limitless. Spooky, quirky fun, ideal for winter! 

Click here to find TES teaching resources for The Black Dog.



Stefan Kucharczyk is a primary school teacher and a creative writing consultant based in Leeds.