Learning About Ourselves and Others: Developing Intercultural Understandings through Global Literature

Learning to Read and Compose Meaning in Art Using Picturebooks

Stacy Aghalarov

Illustrations are pictorial representations of meaning (Kiefer, 1995). The illustrations in picturebooks are more than pictures that accompany the written text; they are rich examples of meaningful texts that artists create using the elements of art and principles of design. Artists use these elements and principles to create pictorial meaning just as authors of written texts use words and grammar to create meaning.

In my art instruction, I regularly use picturebooks for a number of reasons. Picturebooks show that the art techniques, art elements, and principles of design are used in other places than the art room. Students begin to understand that what they are learning during art instruction is important and can be used in other contexts. For instance, if the reading teacher asks them to illustrate a story they have written, the students can (and do!) think beyond drawing about what they wrote. Often they add more details in their drawing than what they included in their written text. As students learn to read the illustrations in picturebooks, they see little details not mentioned in the written text which enriches their understandings of the story. I have also noticed that students who study illustrations in picturebooks create richer meanings in their artwork.

For an overview of our literacy community and school community, please see the first vignette in this issue, “Learning about Ourselves and Others through Global Literature.” In this vignette I share how I help children learn to represent meanings in art. I begin with how I use Molly Bang’s work to explore basic art concepts and then discuss how I help children think about how to represent emotions and feelings in their art. I also share how my work with the children supported the India study in the first grade classrooms.

Molly Bang’s Picture This: How Pictures Work

I like to begin by using Molly Bang’s (2000) Picture This: How Pictures Work with students. In this book Molly Bang walks readers through an in-depth process of how to use basic shapes and color to create certain feelings for the story of Little Red Riding Hood. This year I read this story, as Bang tells it through her art, to the students and we discussed how different shapes and colors made us feel as readers. For example, Molly Bang represents Little Red Riding Hood as a red triangle. When she adds the triangle to the forest scene, the trees do not look as scary because the triangle is too big compared to the black rectangular tree trunks. To make the woods really scary, Molly Bang makes a smaller red triangle against the looming dark forest. Some students reacted with, “Woah! I would not want to walk in that forest!”

After discussing the other decisions Molly Bang made to create the story, I asked the first graders to illustrate a scene that showed birds chasing something, using basic shapes and a limited choice of colors: red, purple, white, and black. They needed to decide what that “something” was and why the birds were chasing it. Students also needed to decide which colors to use and why they would use them. After the illustrations were completed, the students took them back to their classrooms where the teachers had them write stories about their illustrations.

The art and stories the children created were creative and thoughtful. I interviewed students about their art so I could understand their thinking and decision making. Below are some examples.

In Mary’s illustration birds are chasing a person because the person took their eggs. Mary wanted the trees to look scary, so she made some of them on a diagonal instead of vertical. Mary also explained that the purple and red triangles at the top represent thunder.

Figure 1. Mary’s illustration and description.

Anna titled her art “Birds Chasing a Black Cat”. In her story she wrote, “The birds were chasing a cat that was taking their fish. The birds are called winter birds. It is in the spooky woods.”

Figure 2. Anna’s illustration and description.

After Anna completed her illustration and story, I interviewed her about her work.

•Tell me about your story. The white birds are winter birds and they are chasing the black cat. The fish is red.
•What colors did you use and why those colors? I didn’t want to use the purple again, because I didn’t want things to be camouflaged. I used purple for the background because purple is kind of like a spooky woods!
•What shapes did you use and why those shapes? For the black cat, I used a little circly and a little point because it’s some nice, some mean. The fish is all the way nice so I used a round shape. The birds are angry and that’s why they’re pointy.
•Were you trying to make your picture scary? Yes.
•How did you make it look scary? The trees, I ripped some of them at the top so they look like they’re breaking. I wanted them to be black to make them more spooky.
•Other information. Some of the birds are aiming in the right direction, four of them will fly through the trees. The other five are aiming at the trees and their beaks will get stuck. It’s funny!

I was impressed with Anna’s illustration and how much detail she included beyond what her picture and story told. Her use of colors and shapes were intentional in creating a scary atmosphere. She even had a story for what happened next.

Exploring Emotions

After this introduction using Molly Bang, I used other books, particularly books by Mo Willems that showed characters and their change in emotions. At this same time the first grade teachers were reading global picturebooks that focused on helping the children think about who they were and their identities, of which emotions are an important part. The children used their understandings of how to represent emotions though art as they created personal responses to these books in their sketchbooks.

One of the books I used for emotions is The Day Leo Said I Hate You! (Harris, 2008), illustrated by Molly Bang. In this book Leo gets so angry because his mother responds “No!” to everything Leo does that he finally screams, “I hate you!” to her. In art class we talked about how Molly Bang showed that Leo was furious. The students pointed out things like small pointy eyes, large open mouth, diagonal eyebrows, and spiky almost “scribbly” hair. We also talked about how Bang drew an exaggerated head that was larger than the body and fiery speech coming out of the mouth. I asked the students to think of a time they were angry and furious with someone and draw how they looked. Then we talked about color and how our faces feel hot when we’re furious and they colored in their drawings. In their classrooms the teachers had the students write stories about why they were angry. Below are some examples.

 Figure 3. Marcus’s picture of a time he was angry.  Figure 4. Tony’s picture of a time he was angry.

Marcus wrote, “It made me mad because my mom did not buy me a toy but I did a good job at school. I got ten blues and some greens and no yellows [part of the school behavior program] and my mom was happy but she didn’t buy me a toy. And the next day she bought me a toy.” Marcus drew himself with a large open mouth, angled eyebrows, spiky hair and fiery speech. He also included small parallel lines around his fist to show he was moving it and drew himself on a diagonal.

Tony wrote, “When I was playing with my brother, my brother took my Lego Ninja toy. I was so not happy that he took my Lego Ninja and played with it.” In addition to spiky hair, diagonal eyes and eyebrows, fiery speech coming from his mouth, and moving his arms, Tony drew his mouth on a diagonal also, adding to the tension in his art.

Student Illustrated Books

To help them pull together their understandings of emotions, the first graders wrote their own stories in their reading class. They had the choice of making their characters animal or human but the main character had to show a change of emotions. Once the stories were written, students came to art class and illustrated their books, using the ideas we learned from the various illustrators. The students showed great pride in their stories and illustrations as they worked on their books. I again interviewed children to understand their thinking and decision making.

John’s book about a cow is below. The cow is sad because she isn’t at the farm but after she runs there she is happy. I interviewed John about his book after it was complete. His responses are below.

Figure 5. John’s book about a character that changes emotions.

Page 1

•How did you make the cow look like she was sad?
Tears and hands up to her eyes. Her mouth is open to look like she’s crying.
•Why did you place the bird on the horn of the cow?
Just wanted to place it there.
What is the mom feeling?
Happy because she has a smile on her face.

Page 2

•Who is in the barn window?
The girl farmer. She is waving at Anna.
•How did you make the cow look like she was running?
I drew her legs apart to look like she was running.
•Other information.
Anna is feeling a little happy and tired. The blue birds traveled with her, but the worm is different!!!

Page 3

•Who is the other cow?
Her friend who is feeling happy.
•How did you show the cows looking happy?
Big smile and their arms are up in the air.
•Other information.
There is a different worm on every page. The butterfly on page 3 is different than the butterfly on page 1. The farmer is still waving.

Heather’s story was about Adum the monkey, Alexis the rabbit, and Jessica the cat. Adum hid and scared Alexis and Jessica but in the end they were friends.

Figure 6. Heather’s book about a character that changes emotions.

Page 1

•Tell me about your animals.
Adum is the monkey, Alexis the rabbit, and Jessica is a cat. The bunny is brown and the cat is yellow.
•Other information.
The tree is far away and that’s why it’s small. I layered colored pencils on each page.

Page 2

•What are the lines around the bunny and cat? That shows they’re scared and jumping up.
•How did you make the bunny and cat look scared?
I turned their mouths down. Their eyes are really wide.
•Other information.
Adum’s body is behind the tree. He’s trying to scare them and he’s laughing. He’s mean! But then he’s nice. Now they’re close to the tree.

Page 3

•How did you make the bunny and cat look like they are happy?
I put their eyes just like a little curvy line. I turned their mouth back to normal.
•Other information.
Monkey is feeling happy because they’re all friends again. The monkey is up in sky because he’s holding onto invisible vines on page 1 and 3. He’s holding onto the tree in page 2.

First Graders’ Study of India

The work on art concepts I had been teaching all year was instrumental in the first graders’ study of India. Though many of the books on India that the teachers used their study were illustrated with photographs, I found some books to weave into my art instruction. That’s How I See Things (Rao & Shyam, 2007), for example, is the story of an artist who drew things and animals as he saw them, though his representations looked strange to others. The art in the book is rich with pattern and bright colors common in Indian culture. I read and discussed the book with the children and then had them draw animals, following the ideas, patterns, and art in the book. In the classrooms, the teachers built on the art concepts I had been teaching when they read books with art illustrations. In books such as Elephant Dance: A Journey to India (Heine, 2004), Monsoon (Krishnaswami, 2003), and Same, Same but Different (Kostecki-Shaw, 2011), for example, they and the children talked about how the artists used art concepts like color and line to represent meanings which enhanced the children’s understandings of the stories.


Using picturebooks in the art classroom improves the detail and meaning in students’ artwork. This also enhances the meaning students construct when they read both the art and written text in picturebooks.

I have learned the importance of interviewing students about their artwork to discover their thinking, reasoning, and decision making. I would not know certain details by looking at students’ artwork if I hadn’t interviewed them. Art also helps students think through their stories. Students often told me what was going to happen next after their illustration and story. They took great pride in telling me about their work and the meaning behind certain parts of the story.

Connecting literacy and the arts is important. The teachers talk about how the students’ writings are more creative and meaningful when they’re writing about their art. Students understand that art, like writing, is a means of communicating meaning.


Bang, M. (2000). Picture this: How pictures work. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.

Harris, R. (2008). The day Leo said I hate you! Illus. by M. Bang. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.

Heine, T. (2004). Elephant dance: A journey to India. Illus. by S. Moxley. Cambridge, MA: Barefoot Books.

Kiefer, B. (1995). The potential of picture books: From visual literacy to aesthetic understanding. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill.

Kostecki-Shaw, J.S. (2011). Same, same but different. New York: Henry Holt.

Krishnaswami, U. (2003). Monsoon. Illus. by J. Akib. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Rao, S., & Shyam, B. (2007). That’s how I see things. India: Tara Publishing.

Stacy Aghalarov teaches art at Pot Springs Elementary School in Maryland.

WOW Stories, Volume IV, Issue 5 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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