Careful with those Picture Books

In our coursework, we have learned what to look for in a quality picture book. Children’s Literature, Briefly, indicates the way in which illustrations tell a story can be through:

  • establishing a setting
  • defining and developing characters
  • reinforcing the written text
  • providing a differing viewpoint
  • extending or developing the plot
  • providing interesting asides
  • establishing mood (Young et al., 2020, pp. 41-46)

The first thing that Donner did in 2021 IASL session was show and read her book The Day the Lines Changed: An Inspiring Story about a Line, a Pandemic and How Change Shapes us All. In it, a family and people are represented by lines and they change as the pandemic affects the world (See Image 1).

Image 1
Donner reading from her books The Day the Lines Changed
More identifying features is not necessarily better

When she started reading her picture book with a bunch of lines, initially I was unimpressed for a few reasons. First – they are just lines. Secondly – where are the faces of the unseen victims? Where are the representations of people of color, who died from COVID at high percentages than their white counterparts? My own biases and concerns created a filter that affected my impression of this work. However, when Donner followed up her reading of a portion of her book about lines with the statement, “it is easier to distance yourself from a character the less it looks like you…the more realistic a character becomes, the less you can relate to it personally” (Donner, 2021)” I stopped immediately and checked my first impression. Note: this is why it is essential to seek to improve oneself and challenge oneself and why it is important to attend session, lectures, watch TED talks, read articlesand books, etc.. So, what does she mean by this?

Donner explained this statement by first drawing a circle as a head, then eyes, and then a smile (See Image 2). She said that as soon as she adds more defining features, the representation becomes more exclusive. This means that if she were to draw pigtails and bows, those features would lessen the amount of people who would relate to the image. This deeply challenged my bias against her book, The Day the Lines Changed. What I saw as a missed opportunity for representing people, was actually doing the opposite. Donner is being as inclusive as possible by omitting, other than shape and color, any identifying features.

Image 2
Donner explaining how defining features limit
Donner, 2021

In the next portion of the session, Donner delved into cognitive psychology and addresses Theory of Mind. She addressed the struggles of children in deducing information and points in certain picture books in addition to counterfactual reasoning.

It was a fascinating session and challenged my thoughts on picture books and will for a long time to come. I plan to further investigate the connection between cognitive psychology and children’s books. See below for her latest publication in the Journal of Visual Literacy.

Further Reading

The impact of theory of mind barriers in interpreting illustrations used in primary school early readers: four brief case studies of false-belief scenarios.

Written by Kelley Donner

Published in the Journal of Visual Literacy.


Donner, K. (2021, July 12-16). (Mis)understanding picture books. [Conference session]. IASL 2021 Annual Conference, Denton, TX, United States.

Young, T., Bryan, G., Jacobs, J., & Tunnell, M. (2020). Children’s literature, briefly. Pearson Education, Inc.

Vision over Small Things

In 2010, I had the pleasure and honor of opening a new middle school in my district. I would be the first choir director of this school and would build its program. After two years, our first principal got a job as Assistant Superintendent for Student Engagement. Our new incoming principal, before the end of that year, sent a survey to the staff asking for our opinion as to the needs of the school or changes we would like to see. When we met him for the first time in the Fall, his observations of the survey were sobering. The feedback given by the staff, outlining changes they would like to see, were specific in nature, but did not address an overall vision of what the school and students in it could achieve. Later, he did something that would become an annual tradition during his tenure at our school. He read a book called, The Spyglass : A Book about Faith, by Richard Paul Evans. In this book, a king rules over a kingdom that is in ruin. A man comes to the kingdom and after having been given room and board in the palace, offers the king the spyglass. Through the spyglass, the king sees a bountiful and flourishing kingdom. This represents what the kingdom could be. The lesson of this gorgeously illustrated picture book, is that in order to achieve success or bountifulness, there must first be a vision.

In the brief, yet powerful IASL session, “Achieving transformational change in the school library,” Green states that if one wants powerful, meaningful change, a few things need to be realized:

  1. There are two types of changes
    1. First-order changes – small improvements but do not change the “system’s core”
    2. Second-order changes – “transformational” and are “deep and meaningful changes” in the system.

2. Change takes time – When one comes up with their vision, it may not take one, two or three years. It may be a goal and vision of one’s career

3. Try to align the library’s vision with the vision and strategic planning of the school, and/ or district. (Green, 2021)

When my new principal polled the staff about changes they would like to see, I suspect the responses he saw were “first-order” changes. For the staff, the annual reading of The Spyglass: A Book about Faith, was powerful. It demonstrated that in order to exact change, there has to be a vision shared with the community, in our case, teachers. This is powerful for current and future librarians, because as Green points out, it is likely that not everyone will support the changes you want. But if you share your vision and that vision aligns with their vision, insofar as the students are concerned, that will make your case more compelling and cooperative. That consequently, will help your vision become a reality.

This year will likely be my last year as a choir director before becoming a school librarian. In these last weeks of summer, it is easy to think of my beginning of the year to-do lists. It is easy to focus on second-order changes – how do we want to arrange seats, how should we go about “giving” music to students? However, through the lens presented by Green, I recognize the difference between these little changes and transformational changes. I am excited to spend ample time considering my second-order changes in addition to my first-order changes. What is my vision for this year and beyond? These reflections, musings, and short and long term goals will be the real precursor to change.

Green, L. (2021, July 12-16). Achieving transformational change in the school library. [Conference session]. IASL 2021 Annual Conference, Denton, Texas, United States.