The picturebook is a storytelling medium that presents its text in both verbal and visual language. According to Barbara Bader (1976), a picturebook is words and illustrations in a total design, “an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historic document; and foremost, an experience for a [reader / beholder]. As an art form it hinges on the interdependence of pictures and words, on the simultaneous display of two facing pages, and on the drama of the turning page” (ibid., p.1). 

Examples of award-winning picturebooks. From left to right: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1963), The Rabbits by James Marsden and Shaun Tan (2010) and The Rock from the Sky by Jon Klassen (2021).


The interaction  between words and pictures

The reader creates the meaning in the picturebook through both images and words. The pictures show and the words tell, which are two different modes of communication. Schwarcz  (1982) states that picturebooks are a “lively complex phenomenon” (ibid.,  p.14). They are texts  which  are  composite  in  nature;  they  usually  rely  for  their  effects  upon  an  interplay  or  interdependence  of  pictures  and  words,  which can take many different forms. Therefore, in picturebooks, multimodality goes one step further. They are also characterized by their intermodality, since both modes - verbal and visual - interact. Picturebook specialists use different terms to explain this. Lawrence Sipe (1998) refers to “synergy” as the relationship  between  words  and  pictures in a picturebook, where the  total  effect  depends  not  only  on  the  union  of  both  but  also  on  the  interaction  between them.  Lewis coined the term “interanimation” to  capture  how  each  element  works  on  the  other. He  states  how  “the  words  are  pulled  through  the  pictures  and  the  pictures  are  brought  into  focus  by  the  words”  (Lewis, 2001, p. 28).  Moreover, many picturebooks contain intertextual and interpictorial references to other works of art and incorporate visual codes that are typical of related multimedia art forms, such as artists’ books, comics, and movies (Kümmerling-Meibauer, 2017). Reading picturebooks demands specific linguistic, aesthetic and cognitive skills from the readers in order to grasp the complexity and sophistication of its intermodality.

Examples of intertextuality in the illustrations of Voices in The Park, by Anthony Brown (1999).

The  visual  and  verbal different relationships  range  from  picturebooks  without  words,  books  in  which  the  pictures  more  or  less  simply  illustrate  what  is  told  by  the  text  or  those  in  which  the  words  merely  verbalize  what  is  shown  in  the  pictures,  up  to  sophisticated  forms   of  narrative interaction between text and picture. According to Maria Nikolajeva and Carol Scott (2001), there is a system of seven different image-text relations. On one extreme we find  parallel storytelling  where  words  and pictures tell more or less the same story. On the other extreme, there are cases with an interdependent, ironic or contradictory interaction where words and pictures tell different information. In between these two extremes we can find consonant, symmetrical, complementary, enhancement and counterpoint relations.

Example of interdependent relation between words and pictures in a double spread from Lilly Takes a Walk, by Satoshi Kitamura (1987).


Picturebook categories 

The Routledge Companion to Picturebooks (Kümmerling-Meibauer, 2018) classifies picturebooks in the following categories, that have crossing boundaries and might overlap:

  • Early-concept books and concept books (p.149) show pictures of common, everyday objects of the child’s surroundings (balls, shoes, bananas, chairs). They are specifically for children 12-18 months and come in a handy format, are made of thick cardboard, plastic, wood, or cloth and have less than ten pages. 
  • Wimmelbooks (p.158) are non-directive wordless picturebooks. From the  German verb wimmeln, which translates as ‘to teem’ or ‘to swarm’. They offer experience of dynamic wealth and a somewhat messy overabundance of visual material. 
  • ABC books (p.169) play with the ludic relations between letter and image, taking a huge variety of forms and addressing a large public, normally following the alphabetic order to inspire illustrations. 
  • Pop-up and movable books (p. 180) have moving parts within their printed pages. They include illustrations and text that can be rotated, lifted, pushed or pulled from side to side. In the case of pop-ups, structures arise from the flat surface in three-dimensional form when a page is turned. 
  • Wordless picturebooks (p.191) tell stories only through images (visual text) leaving words out (verbal text).  
  • Postmodern picturebooks (p. 201) are a complex and evolving genre which challenges narrative conventions and aspects of society. With a playful, parodic, and ironic multifaceted text, they blur boundaries between high and popular culture, promote the position of the marginalized, create uncertainty, and generally provide a space for resistance. 
  • Crossover picturebooks (p. 207) transcend the traditional boundaries between child and adult readers. They have existed for centuries, but the term was adopted when J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books gave this literature a high profile.  
  • Picturebooks for adults (p. 220) are art works in which the perspective, the addressee, the topics, the verbal and/or visual language, indicate that they are published exclusively for adults. They cross boundaries to other mediums and genres. Graphic novels and comics are relevant in its corpus. 
  • Informational picturebooks (p.231) are ʻnonfiction’ literature. They select, organize, and interpret facts and figures using verbal and visual codes making information accessible to the interested layperson, engaging readers intellectually and emotionally. 
  • Poetry in picturebooks (p. 246) category is self descriptive. For example, illustrated nursery rhymes and rhyming alphabet books, poetry picturebooks written and illustrated by children themselves. 
  • Multilingual picturebooks (p.260) merge the visual with complete text in two or more languages (bilingual) or terms and phrases in two or more languages interspersed throughout the text (interlingual). Translated picturebooks, or separate versions in different languages, can be also considered in this category.
  • Digital picturebooks (p.270) refer to a wide range of texts delivered electronically. From e-picturebooks (electronic picturebooks) to texts with a high level of animation and interaction. They transgress the boundaries of books, games and films and add some level of interactivity: highlight or bookmark, consult dictionaries, connect to other readers in real time. Even may offer an audio version, adding music or sound effects of turning pages.  They belong to digital culture

Picture book or picturebook?

The use of picturebook as one word subscribes to a recent trend in research to emphasize the peculiarities of the picturebook as a unique art form. The use of one-word version, follows the suggestions by renowned researchers in the field, according to The Routledge Companion to Picturebooks (2018). 

There  is  often  confusion  about  the selection of  the  picturebook literary corpus. The controversy about what is and what is not a picturebook is still mirrored in its diverse spellings. English  dictionaries clearly  state  that  the  concept is  written  in two  words (picture  book), which evokes the association of a book that includes illustrations (e.g., illustrated children’s novel, a story collection with images, a coloring book or a picturebook). However, scholars working in the field of picturebook research suggest writing the term as one word in order to emphasize the inseparable unit of pictures and text.

Picturebook’s research 

During the last half of the century, a  significant  number  of  academic  volumes  have  addressed  essential  features  of  picturebooks: the frequently used examples of it in current research are: How picturebooks work (2001), Children's picturebooks: the art of visual storytelling (2012), Learning from picturebooks: perspectives from child development and literacy studies (2015), and The Routledge Companion to Picturebooks (2018). 

Current disciplines dealing with picturebooks are children’s literature research, literary didactics, art history, media studies, linguistics, education, developmental psychology, and picture theory. Besides, the increasing interest in this art form has led to the emergence of picturebook research as a special field within the broader discipline of children’s literature research. 

Book cover of Children's Picturebooks: the Art of Visual Storytelling (Salisbury & Styles, 2012).


Scholarly investigations go further than researching the history of the picturebook and the complex relationship  between  text  and  images. Scholars are currently focusing on reader-response theory, the impact of picturebooks on language acquisition and visual and literary literacies, as well as observing the significance of reading picturebook stories aloud  for  the  child’s  linguistic  and  cognitive  development. These approaches highlight the experience of children reading picturebooks. 



Literature references: 

Bader, B. (1976). American picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to The Beast Within. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Kümmerling-Meibauer, B., Meibauer, J., Nachtigäller, K., & Rohlfing, K.J. (Eds.). (2015). Learning from Picturebooks: Perspectives from child development and literacy studies (1st ed.). Routledge. 

Kümmerling-Meibauer, B. (2018). The Routledge Companion to Picturebooks. Routledge.

Lewis, D. (2001). Reading Contemporary Picturebooks: Picturing Text (1st ed.). Routledge. 

Nikolajeva, M., & Scott, C. (2001). How Picturebooks Work (1st ed.). Routledge. 

O’Sullivan, E. (2010). More than the sum of its parts? Synergy and picturebook 
Translation. Écrire et traduire pour les enfants: voix, images et mots = Writing and 
translating for children : voices, images and texts, 133-148.

Salisbury, M., & Styles, M. (2012). Children's picturebooks: the Art of Visual Storytelling. London, Laurence King Publishing.

Schwarcz, J.H. (1982). Ways of the illustrator: Visual communication in children's literature. Chicago: American Library Association.

Sipe, L.  (1998). How Picture Books Work: A Semiotically Framed Theory of 
Text-Picture Relationships. Children's Literature in Education, 29(2), 97-108.

Picturebooks mentioned:

Browne, A. (1999). Voices In The Park. London: Corgi Childrens. 

Kitamura, S. (1987). Lily Takes a Walk. New York: Dutton.

Klassen, J. (2021). The Rock from the Sky. Somerville: Candlewick Press.

Marsden, J. & Shaun, T. (2010). The Rabbits. Sydney: Lothian.

Sendak M. (1963). Where the Wild Things Are. New York: Harper & Row.