Picture literacy is crucial in the run-up to the official launch of the Year of Reading in September, argues an authority on children's literature.
Margaret Meek, emeritus professor at London University's Institute of Education, believes that children's understanding of the subtle layers of meaning in picture books is much more sophisticated than that of adults.
"Most of us who share books with children have some catching up to do in this area," she said. "We must make time for picture books in literacy hours and seek books that adults and children can enjoy together.
"Literacy alone isn't enough, it's what people do with reading and writing that counts, and understanding what pictures and sounds are doing in a story is part of that." Professor Meek is one of three judges of the Kurt Maschler Award for picture books, one of the most prestigious awards in children's publishing. It goes to the author and illustrator of "a work of imagination in which illustration and text extend and enhance each other". A place on the shortlist is highly coveted.
The 1997 award has just been presented to William Mayne and Jonathan Heale for Lady Muck, a tale in lilting pigspeak (or pigsqueak?) of Boark and Sowk, two greedy pigs who dream of riches, but gobble up their truffle investments (Heinemann Pounds 9.99).
"Mayne makes language play into art and still makes it play," Professor Meek said in the judges' report. "It's challenging but not difficult. Children will have no trouble getting the irony. And Jonathan Heale's woodcuts are fabulous. "
Kurt Maschler Award
Winner: Lady Muck by William Mayne, illustrated by Jonathan Heale (Heinemann).
Shortlisted: The Swan's Stories by Brian Alderson, illustrated by Chris Riddell (Walker); Thud! by Nick Butterworth (Collins); The Sorcerer's Apprentice byTed Dewan (Doubleday); Walk with a Wolf by Janni Howker, illustrated by Sarah Fox-Davies (Walker); Ginger by Charlotte Voake (Walker)