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Looking together: visual storytelling in The Thinking Train stories

October 09, 2019 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

How do the visual elements in our picture book series, The Thinking Train influence reading experience and meaning-making? Each story in the now 20-book series is fully illustrated; both the images and the words engage the readers, and the interplay of word and image bring the stories together. In our previous post we looked at how these stories support language and thinking development, now we focus on the visual elements in the books. We show you some reading and viewing strategies that will help you open up the meaning potential of the stories even more.

The physical reality of picture books

One of the most important aspects of a picture book is its physical presence. When children are watching films on television, in the cinema or on a tablet/laptop, they have no control over the speed of the story. The focus points are decided for them, and because of the quick changes on screen, the time they have to observe details is also out of their control. With a picture book, they decide the pace and the direction of the experience, stopping to take in a spread or flicking back to look for details on a previous page.

The reading path

When children are reading a picture book, they can decide if they want to start by browsing the book or if they want to follow the conventional reading path in Western culture, and read the book from left to right. Once they start reading the story from beginning to end, they will see double pages with full-page illustrations and a font called 'leggimi!', which is easy to read. When readers engage in reading these pages, they have more choice as the reading pathway is not necessarily linear and sequential as in comic books or textual narratives.

So what influences our interaction with these picture book pages? We will look at some simple characteristic of visual narratives to help you interact with these stories more consciously and help your students interacting with them. In this analytical viewing process we turn to the semiotic approach (Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996; Jewitt and Oyama, 1990) to inform our points of exploration.

What's going on in the picture?

When we look at a double-page, we can quickly establish the theme of the scene. The first thing we notice are the people in the picture, or in other words, the participants. These participants will be in some kind of interaction with each other, and the space around and between them will shape our understanding of their environment. In each double page, you will see that there is some kind of connection between the participants and some kind of relationship between the different parts of the environment, which is expressed through colours, lines or shapes.

→ Viewing tip: Before you start reading the story, spend some time observing the scene and ask students some questions:

  • How many people are there?
  • Are they talking to each other?
  • Are they friends?
  • Where are they?
A problem for Prince Percy
Double page from the reader "A problem for Prince Percy" written by Herbert Puchta and Günter Gerngross. Illustrated by Andrea A

Narrative structures

The people (and other participants, such as animals) in the scenes usually interact with each other. This is represented by the line, which can be a real line or arrow, some physical movement, or the invisible eyeline of the participants' gazes. In the illustration above, Prince Percy is still looking back at his parents, but he is heading to the right, into an unknown space. This direction is shown by the road sign, the movement of his horse, his body position and the bird on the tower.

→ Viewing tip: Look for lines (vectors) to establish relationships in the scenes, to show directions and to understand communication between people.

Interacting with images

There are three important ways in which images establish relationships with their viewers: contact, point of view and distance. Contact is usually established when the people in the picture look directly at the viewer. Point of view influences the nature of our involvement with a picture: are you at the same level, are you looking down or looking up at the depicted scene? Finally, distance manipulates how we see people: when we are close to them, we focus on their inner thoughts and emotions, there is a certain level of intimacy. When we see people from a distance, we see them in their social contexts, interacting with other people.

 I can't sleep
Double page from the reader "I can't sleep" written by Herbert Puchta and Gavin Biggs. Illustrated by Francesca Assirelli. © Hel


 I can't sleep
Double page from the reader "I can't sleep" written by Herbert Puchta and Gavin Biggs. Illustrated by Francesca Assirelli. © Hel

In these images first we can see the sister and brother talking to each other, and then, as we zoom in on the little girl close-up, we focus on her feelings.

→ Viewing tip: When you see people in a long- or medium-shot, focus on their interactions with each other and their environment. When the size of frame changes into a close-up, talk about they feel and how you feel about them.

Meaning in the composition

Where people and objects are placed within the double page is also significant. Two linguist-semioticians, Kress and van Leeuwen pointed out that in our Western tradition, because of the reading path we are used to, the given, familiar information is usually placed on the left side of the image, and the new piece of information is on the right side. This is how books invite the reader to turn the page and maintain curiosity.

Apart from this feature, another important factor is framing, which either seperates or brings different people and objects closer to each other within the picture. Sometimes these frames are strong and indicate separate events in a narrative like in the example from Paul learns to plan below- When frames are less definite, they simply show disconnection between people.

Paul learns to plan
Double page from the reader "Paul learns to plan" written by Herbert Puchta and Gavin Biggs. Illustrated by Vanessa Lovegrove. ©

Another important way to describe images is salience, or which parts of a picture are more noticeable or significant. This can be achieved by several visual techniques, such as colour, size, place in the composition, saturation, focus or psychology (the human face is more noticeable).

For example, the size of a character can change within a narrative, and it can suggest shifts in the character's role or feelings.

The bully
Double page from the reader "The bully" written by Herbert Puchta and Günter Gerngross. Illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini. © Helb
Looking together: visual storytelling in The Thinking Train stories - the bully 2
Double page from the reader "The bully" written by Herbert Puchta and Günter Gerngross. Illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini. © Helb

Look at these two examples from the reader The bully. In the first we see Charlie, the class bully in a red shirt. He looks twice the size of the other children, as he acts differently and he wants to dominate the others. As his relationship and feelings change during the story, he becomes part of the group, makes friends, and it is represented in his relative size to the others.

→ Viewing tip: Pay attention to salient elements in the double pages, and ask questions about them:

  • What's the first thing you notice in the picture?
  • How is this thing/person different?
  • Does the size or colour of this thing/person change during the story?

These are just some of the ways visuals make meaning within the story. In this post we focused on the social semiotic analysis of visual elements in the narratives. Next time we will discuss how images and texts interplay in the books.

Click to find out more about The Thinking Train series.