Exploring & Experiencing the Art in Picturebooks

by Prisca Martens, Towson University

InvisibleFor the past several years I’ve been in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first grade classrooms exploring how helping children learn and experience the concepts and language of art that artists use to create illustrations in picturebooks relate to the children’s own reading, writing, and art. My co-researchers are Ray Martens and a number of classroom teachers who graciously invite us into their classrooms to learn and explore with them and their students. We are working together on this because of our mutual passion for picturebooks and our understanding that for children to experience the full richness the books offer, they need to read the art as well as the written text. Huck, Hepler, and Hickman (2003) describe picturebooks like this: “The picture storybook conveys its messages through two media, the art of illustrating and the art of writing… An illustration does not merely reflect the action on that page but shares in moving the story forward. At every level of narration the pictures should convey and enhance the meaning behind the story…” (pp. 240-243). When we started working together, only Ray (an artist/art educator) and Stacy Aghalarov (the school art teacher) had any background in art and over time they have helped the rest of us learn, grow, and think like artists.

A new book Ray and I have been reading in classrooms the last couple weeks is The Invisible Boy (Ludwig, 2013). The opening sentence of the book is “Can you see Brian, the invisible boy?” Looking at the art the children immediately see and point to him. Artist Patrice Barton has drawn everything on the page, the classroom, the children, and the teacher, in color, except for Brian who is drawn with faint pencil blacks and grays and is standing quietly. The story continues with no one noticing Brian. No one talks to him or invites him to play so he keeps to himself and draws. Then Justin, a new boy, arrives. When other children laugh at Justin’s chopsticks and Korean lunch, Brian, knowing how it feels to be left out, writes him a note. Justin thanks and talks to Brian and the more he and another boy interact with Brian, the more color Brian has until, at the end, he’s “not so invisible after all.”

In the process of talking about Ludwig’s story, we talk with the children about the choices Barton made in when/why to use color and contrast that with black/gray. The children immediately comment about how the color/lack of color relates to how Brian feels and how others perceive him. Our discussion of Barton’s thinking and choices validates for the children that art is a system for representing meaning. The richness of the art and written text working together really make a powerful impact on the children.

We ask the children to think about a time that they felt invisible and to draw/write about it, using contrast as Barton did. The children have no problem connecting with times they’ve felt “invisible”. Here are two examples from first grade.


The Invisible Boy made Mary think about the time she invited her friend Emily over to play but Mary’s sister ran off with Emily, leaving Mary alone. In her picture, Mary drew herself in pencil on the right calling, “Emily”. Emily, in the middle of the page, is responding “No” to Mary while Mary’s sister is telling Mary, “She’s mine.” Mary wrote, “I felt invisible when my sister played with my friend.”


Carrie’s memory of feeling invisible was also related to friends. In her picture, she drew herself in pencil in the background and three friends in color with their arms around each other in the center of the page. She wrote, “When Michaela and Brittany and Emily said, ‘You are not my BFF,’ it made me feel like I was invisible.”

These examples show that the children are learning to use art to represent and enhance the meanings they want to convey in rich and powerful ways. Over the next few weeks several of the teachers will invite us into their classrooms to experience how they helped their students read and understand the art and written text in particular books.


Huck, C., Kiefer, B., Hepler, S., & Hickman, J. (2003). Children’s literature in the elementary school. Columbus, OH: McGraw Hill.

Ludwig, T. (2013). The invisible boy. Illus. P. Barton. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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