Guide to Picture Books

 millions of cats

What are Picture Books?

The phrase "picture book" is commonly used to describe a book, most often written for children,in which the content, whether a story, an alphabet, or a nursery rhyme, to name just a few possibilities, is conveyed through the use of words and pictures in combination or through pictures alone. A picture book differs from an illustrated book in that the pictures it contains form an essential part of the structure of the book. Illustrations are supplements to a work that can stand on its own. Due to physical factors in the bookbinding process, picture books are conventionally 32 pages long.

Picture books, thus defined, are a relatively new form of book, originating in the early twentieth century. Wanda Gag is widely considered to be a major innovator in the development of picture books. The formula for illustrated books had been to show text on the left page and pictures on the right page, side-by-side, without combining them.  In Millions of Cats, Gag mixed up the order of the pages of pictures and text, combined pictures and text and stretched pictures onto more than one page.  Her ideas paved the way for modern authors/illustrators like Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, and Eric Carle.

Types of Picture Books

Board Books
Board books are meant for the youngest readers. Board books have  cardboard pages to withstand wear and tear from little fingers and mouths.
Age:  Birth-2 years
Examples: Yummy Yucky by Leslie Patricelli, Wemberly's Ice-cream Star by Kevin Henkes,  What's On My Head  by  Margaret Miller.

Concept Books
Concept books introduce children to a theme such as  the alphabet, counting, colors or shapes.  They sometimes tell a story or can be as simple as “A is for Apple.” There are more complex concept books like the "Miss Bindergarten" series where each sentence uses a letter of the alphabet to tell a story about being in Kindergarten.
Age: suggested for  ages 2-8
Examples: Freight Train by Donald Crews, Shapes, Shapes, Shapes by Tana Hoban, Planting a Rainbow by Lois Ehlert, 

Easy Readers
Easy Reader books are also known as Beginning Readers or Early Readers.  They use a limited vocabulary and are structured as chapter books. Text blocks are bigger and the images included function more as illustrations than as essential elements in the story.  Some representative Easy Reader imprints are I Can Read, Ready to Read, and Easy-to-Read.
Age: 4-8 years and novice readers
Examples: The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss,  Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel, There Is a Bird on Your Head by Mo Willems                     

Non-fiction picture books introduce children to new subjects in a simple way.
Age: 3-12 years
Examples: A Million Dots by Andrew Clements, Bring on the Birds by Susan Stockdale, Wangari's Trees of Peace by Jeanette Winter

The stories are told completely by the pictures. Making up stories to go with the pictures is a perfect pre-literacy activity.
Age: 2-12 years
Examples: The Snowman by Raymond Briggs, Flotsam by David Wiesner,  Do You Want To Be My Friend? by Eric Carle.

How do picture books help a child read?

The experience of reading with a child creates a bond. Sharing a story hones a child's social skills and demonstrates the value the adult places on stories and reading. Research shows that children should  be involved in the process of reading a book.  The person reading to them should allow the child to talk about things in the book by asking the child questions and helping them to describe what they see.  The website for the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, has good suggestions on how to involve your child while reading picture books with them. 

Reading picture books with a child develops a number of the crucial building blocks of  literacy .

Choosing a Picture Book

A child is more likely to become a reader if he reads (or has read to him) books that address his passions and concerns. Ask a librarian to help you find something thematically appropriate.

Reading Level
As children begin to read on their own, caregivers can use knowledge about their reading levels to help choose materials for them that will yield the most satisfaction. A book  that has more white space, larger type, fewer words and fewer sentences per page is more appropriate for novice readers.  As readers become more skilled, they can navigate denser text blocks.

The five-finger rule is a quick way to learn your child's reading level. Have them follow these steps:

A. No fingers raised - the book is probably not challenging enough BUT, please note:  Children often get great comfort and satisfaction from being able to read an entire "easy" book by themselves.  

B. If the child has 5  fingers raised – the book is probably too difficult and is likely to cause frustration.

C. Somewhere in the middle (1-4 fingers) is usually the best choice. The goal is exposure to new words.

Finally, make sure the child can understand what she reads. "Reading" the words without comprehension of the sentences  is of no benefit.


Web sites

Enoch Pratt Free Library's Kids' Buzz Recommendations

Association for Library Services to Children’s Notable Children’s Books

Caldecott Award

Coretta Scott King Award (illustrator)

Children’s Picture Book Database at Miami University

Picturing Books

Helping Books


Baltuck, Naomi.  Storytime Stretchers: Tongue Twisters, Choruses, Games, and Charades.

Horning, Kathleen T.  From Cover To Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books.

Silvey, Anita. 100 Best Books for Children.

Ask Us

For more information about Picture Books please e-mail the Children's Department via Ask-A-Librarian, call us at (410)-396-5402 or write us at:

Children's Department
Enoch Pratt Free Library
400 Cathedral Street
Baltimore, MD 21201