The Art and Rhetoric of Picture Books

Picture books are often dismissed as a childish and simplistic genre; these are the books we read to children before they can read for themselves. However, as we will explore together in this writing course, if we can push beyond our assumptions, we will discover a genre steeped in complex visual rhetoric, the complex semiotic interplay between word and image, and a broad array of styles, approaches, motivations, and genre conventions.

For example, picture books, both fiction and non-fiction, can address scientific principles in creative ways in an attempt to educate, inform, and excite young children. Hidden inside many classic children’s texts are broad scientific concepts like climate change (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), engineering (The Three Little Pigs), life cycles (The Very Hungry Caterpillar), and environmentalism (The Lorax). Other newer texts, like Babies Love Quarks, are designed to help entice even the youngest children to love science, as a response to the STEM “crisis” in American education.

In this writing course, students will embrace the rhetorical challenges of reading picture books, both aloud and silently, while examining the ways the relationship between a written text, a visual illustration, an oral reading, and a physical page can complicate, intensify, undermine, or even contradict a book’s overall message. We will seek to understand these concepts even as we seek to apply this knowledge to other fields of study and professional contexts, such as research writing, formal presentations, and poster design. In honing our abilities to read, analyze, discuss, and create picture books, we will also hone our own skills when it comes to creating comprehensive visuals, talking about our area of expertise with non-experts, and conveying information through multimodal communication.

Students in this course will begin with analysis via an intensive look at a single picture book (chosen from a library of texts provided by Georgia Tech’s Serve-Learn-Sustain office). Students will analyze this text and practice reading it aloud while offering constructive criticism to their peers.

Next, students will propose their own non-fiction picture book project; a book based on the student’s own course of study or interest in the STEM fields. Students will conduct research in order to accurately portray their non-fiction topic of choice while also completing a study of the picture books that already deal in the themes and topics they are writing on. Finally, students will compose, illustrate, and create non-fiction picture books for a K-2 audience. This project will emphasize the interplay of visual and written communication, including the value of illustrations to clarifying complex concepts and the importance of audience awareness in composing texts. Students will also gain extensive experience in oral/non-verbal communication and interpretation of audience feedback in real time.

Students enrolled in this sections should plan to read and write extensively throughout the semester. They should plan to (as Miss Frizzle says in the Magic School Bus series) “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”