Why Picture Books Are Important by Sophie Blackall

by Dianne on November 13, 2014

Sophie Blackall cover

Why Picture Books Are Important by Sophie Blackall
Why are picture books important? Because they show us the world. When we’re very young we learn what it’s like to wake up on a snowy day, and how to count ducklings. We learn which animals have big ears, and which have sharp teeth and, as our imaginations unfurl, which may or may not have stolen a hat. As we learn about volcanoes and far away countries and how babies are made, we simultaneously discover unicorns and robots and dragons who love tacos. We learn what it’s like to be someone other than ourselves, and in the process, come to understand ourselves better. We fall in love with characters, and pore over every detail of their worlds. We hold our favorite books dear, and read them until we know them by heart. And when the time comes, we share them with our own children, which has to be one of the great joys in life.

Sharing Picture Books in Rwanda

Sharing Picture Books in Rwanda

Illustration is one of the oldest and most enduring forms of communication. Our ancestors drew on walls to record triumphs and tragedies, to leave messages and to tell stories. We have photography and film now to document reality, but drawing is magic. Take out a marker and begin to draw in a rowdy kindergarten class, and children will fall silent, mesmerized. You can draw something that doesn’t exist or something that hasn’t happened yet. Drawing transcends language; I have drawn my way out of an emergency in China (train departing! luggage locked behind gate!) I have drawn for children waiting to be seen in an overtaxed jungle clinic in the Congo (lumpy elephants and misshapen monkeys, which they were kind enough not to scoff at.) And earlier this year in Rwanda, put paper and crayons in the hands of children who never had the opportunity before, and realized, with utter fascination, that no matter where they live in the world, girls will draw girls and boys will draw cars.

Children gather from miles around to hear stories

Children gather from miles around to hear stories

I really understood the importance of picture books when I visited children who had never had them. The trip to Rwanda was with Save the Children, for their Children’s Book Initiative, which introduces books into classrooms. We travelled to schools where not only the children, but the teachers had never held a book, never turned the pages to discover a story unfold. Until recently they have learned to read from isolated sentences written in chalk on stone walls. One afternoon we visited an after-school book club. We drove up one of the thousand hills outside Kigali until the dirt road ran out. We hiked the rest of the way through maize fields and banana trees, overtaken by giggling children. When we reached the top, there were over a hundred children gathered on the hillside, some of whom had walked miles to hear a story. Volunteers and children took turns to read, taking care to show all the pictures. I had brought The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, and together in the hot afternoon sun on a hilltop in Africa, we imagined what it was like to wake up on a snowy day.

Sophie Blackall

Sophie Blackall

About Sophie Blackall
Sophie Blackall is a Brooklyn-based Australian artist who has illustrated over thirty books for children, including the Ezra Jack Keats Award-winning Ruby’s Wish, Meet Wild Boars, which won a Founder’s Award from the Society of Illustrators and a BCCB Blue Ribbon Award, Big Red Lollipop, which was a New York Times Top Ten Picture Book for 2010, Pecan Pie Baby, which won a Horn Book honor in 2011, and the New York Times bestselling series, Ivy and Bean. Her latest picture book is The Baby Tree.

Sophie is honored to have been working with Save the Children on their International Children’s Book Initiative, which has taken her to Rwanda and Bhutan. She has also collaborated with The Measles and Rubella Initiative – a partnership of UNICEF, The American Red Cross, WHO, CDC and the UN Foundation. She travelled with MRI to the Democratic Republic of Congo and India to visit communities affected by the measles epidemic, and produced a series of illustrations to promote the elimination of measles through immunization. Sophie is thrilled to join forces with Chronicle Books and MRI and AAP to advocate for measles prevention with the Fall 2014 Ivy and Bean vs. the Measles campaign. Visit her website at www.sophieblackall.com

Picture Book Month Daily Theme: Family

Curriculum Connections

Illustration is one of the oldest forms of communication. But its not easy!

Do not read the book, but look closely at the illustrations for The Baby Tree. Can the story be told only through pictures? What kind of details does Blackall include to help communicate? Have students guess what each illustration is communicating and then read the story and see if they were correct!

Give each student four sheets of paper. Inform them that you are going to ask four questions about themselves and they are only allowed to answer through illustration (no words or numbers). The only text that should appear on the paper is the question, which students will rewrite. Examples of questions can include:

  • Who lives in your house?
  • How did you celebrate your last birthday?
  • What is your favorite things to do when you get home from school?
  • What do you want to be when you grow up?

Give each student some time to illustrate their answers. Then, once illustrating is complete, students should share their drawings with the class. The class should try to interpret what the illustration is saying. Did the artist successfully communicate their answers?

Correlates to the Common Core Reading Standards: RL. K.7; RL.1.7; RL.2.7; Writing standards: W.K.2; Speaking and Listening standards SL.K.5, SL.1.5, SL.2.5</div>

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

:Donna November 13, 2014 at 12:11 am

Wow, Sophie, this actually brought tears to my eyes. The bittersweetness of it all. It makes me want to fill up a boat with a library’s worth and get it to the top of that mountain. Thank you for this. Just beautiful 🙂


Kelly Ramsdell Fineman November 13, 2014 at 10:38 am

This was so inspiring and powerful and moving. Thank you so much. Makes me extra glad that I donate to Books for Africa.


Joanne Roberts November 14, 2014 at 10:46 am

This post is astonishing and wonderful. Thank-you for your dedication to children and their enjoyment of life through picture books.


elahe kasmaei November 18, 2014 at 12:01 pm

thank you .



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