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Born and raised in Auckland, Jill Harris is a teacher and an author of children’s books. Harris...


The School Library

Sophisticated picture books


Desna Wallace, School Librarian at Fendalton Open Air School, talks about sophisticated picture books that deal with hard-to-tackle issues and how they can be used in schools

Picture books are becoming more and more sophisticated. They are full of visual appeal, clever text and powerful subject matter. There are many definitions and opinions as to what makes a picture book sophisticated but I believe it is about finding the picture book that grabs your attention, pulls you in to read it over and over again, devouring each morsel as you discover something new each time you read the book. It has many layers ripe for sophisticated reading.

Sophisticated picture books often deal with gritty concepts such as death and dying, loss and war. They are also very much about imagery and visual language but most of all about making connections. If we unpack a sophisticated picture book with our students there is always a mountain of conversation and interpretation. There is always a full-on buzz of excitement in the room.

The recent New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards were a great chance to showcase the book Old Hu-Hu by Kyle Mewburn. I put up school library display and teachers brought their classes in to read and view the finalist’s selection. Many teachers chose to read Old Hu-Hu (quite possibly because it was my favourite so centred strategically in the front). The subject deals with the death of old hu-hu and the overwhelming grief as a young hu-hu beetle deals with his loss. The illustrations are stunning with images not necessarily obvious with a first reading. We discover that Old Hu-hu is still around. He is in the knot of a tree or in the heart of his friends. Within a multicultural school, children discussed different ideas of what happens after death based on their own knowledge, religious beliefs or ideas. Making connections, as part of the comprehension strategies in teaching literacy is important. It is the connections that help bring books to life.

It was great to see Old Hu-Hu win the Picture Book and Best Book Sections of the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards last night.

Sophisticated picture books allow us to ask difficult questions. They enable us to think beyond what is in front of us. A look at Bob Graham’s book How to heal a broken wing on first reading is a beautiful picture book about a little boy finding an injured pigeon. He is the only one to care and the only one willing to make a difference. Take a look beneath the surface to what isn’t being said. Look at the images in the newspaper, the television news and especially the image of the bird falling through the sky between tall buildings. Images of the 9/11 events come to mind. This is subtle but powerful. Students can and do pick up on the clues in the illustrations and unwritten text and make connections. They read the book on another level opening the layers of story to reveal the deeper meanings.

There are so many ways to use sophisticated picture books and at all levels, primary through secondary. My own bookcase is full of them and I can spend hours re-reading them, laughing and yes, crying, with the characters. I especially love anything by Shaun Tan and Colin Thompson. Visit your local library and make connections today. You’ll love it.

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The Cover Story


Colleen Shipley, School Librarian at Marlborough Girls' College, talks about trends in YA book covers and how they entice their audience

Never judge a book by its cover, so the saying goes. But we do, don’t we! When surrounded by an array of books something is needed to compel us to select that particular novel for a closer look. Passionate readers with a few years behind them will quickly forgive a cover and look beyond, but the modern teen forced to read for college credits will always select their books by the cover. I speak from experience – when assisting the struggling reader with book selection I pass the book to them upside down and suggest they read the blurb. They always sneak a peek at the cover before doing so.

Some of our top NZ teen reads require a hard sell because of their nondescript covers. Titles that spring to mind include A handful of blue by Vince Ford; Coming Back by David Hill and Salt and Gool by Maurice Gee. The publishers have redeemed themselves with the last two titles when they republished them with covers to match the final of the trilogy, but I can’t afford to buy newly covered copies when the old ones still have lots of reading in them. The latest phenomenon to hit our teens, courtesy of the twilight craze, is the vampire novel.

We all know what a vampire novel looks like; the mysterious black background with red symbolism. I felt the market was saturated by twilight clones when the latest brainwave of Harper Collins hit my desk. Wuthering Heights (black background, single red rose, catchphrase “Love never dies”); Pride and Prejudice (black background, red roses, catchphrase “Love isn’t always at first sight”); Jane Eyre (black background, red candle, catch phrase “You can’t choose who you fall in love with.”) These modern covers have sparked a resurgence of interest in the romantic classics. I showed the new cover to a reader returning Pride and Prejudice with the BBC Elizabeth and Darcy on the cover. Her face betrayed the fact that although she had enjoyed the story she wished she had read the copy with the black and red cover.

Incidentally we bought our first copy of Twilight in 2004. The original cover features an insipid looking female character with a disproportionately large head. Not surprisingly little interest was taken in the book until 2008 when movie trailers appeared and the book was republished with its signature cover.

Yes we do judge books by their covers and when the publishers get it right benefits are reaped by readers and authors.

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School librarian Angela Soutar recommends The Anzac Parade, by Glenda Kane, illustrated by Lisa Allen


This is a picture book which starts gently and with sensitivity and then packs a strong emotional punch. It appears to take place after the Anzac Parade has gone and a boy and an old man linger at the Auckland War Memorial. We are not told whether they are related and at the end the old man ‘shuffles off to the RSA’ for a beer and leaves the boy behind alone.

The art work portrays the innocence of a young boy, and the age, sadness and disillusionment of a former soldier with some present day memorials . This contrasts with softer drawings of memories of former comrades, mementoes, World War 2 scenes and the Battle of Crete.

Autumn leaves are also used throughout to enhance the feeling of fallen comrades.

The text is mostly in rhyme and the language is sometimes advanced or from another age;- straggler, valiance, bereft, he bought it.

There are puzzling inconsistencies in the use of the contrast of the past and the present, there is one picture of the boy without shoes and the remainder with shoes, sometimes the boy looks 6 years old and sometimes 10, and it wouldn’t have hurt the rhyme to be accurate about how many years it has been since the battle.

However the book is very well produced [I wish so many more picture books could be as sturdy as this one] and it presents a strong viewpoint that is honest and reflects how many returned veterans came to think once they were back home.

Because of the explanations needed I would recommend it for year 3 or 4 children upwards and to be very valuable as an emotional tool when used alongside some of the excellent Australian and New Zealand non-fiction books available about World War 1 and 2.

Angela Soutar is the school librarian at Sunnynook Primary School in Auckland

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Level 4, Stephenson & Turner House, 156 Victoria St, Te Aro,
Wellington 6011, New Zealand