Teaching Idea

Seeing Books Differently Through Art

Jason Lyons and Tara Carpenter


Two visual arts educators discuss how analyzing and emulating picture books can provide complementary experiences in reading and visual arts for elementary and middle school students. They include a lesson plan they developed and use, along with examples of elementary and secondary student work.

Studies have shown that using visual materials strategically can make reading experiences more valuable for elementary as well as secondary students (Hibbing & Rankin-Erickson, 2003). Children often decide which books to read based on how much they like the illustrations, preferring to read stories with interesting and exciting visuals. Images can add another dimension to the story as readers of all levels meet new characters and dive into various adventures.

Jason Lyons is currently a middle school art teacher. Tara Carpenter is an art education professor with extensive experience in elementary education. Together we generated a lesson that seamlessly integrates language arts and visual arts, which can be adapted to many different age groups. Our goal is to help students have a more in-depth experience with texts while developing artistic skills and style.

This article will first share our integrated lesson, then give two case studies: one of an elementary student and another of a middle school student. The final portion of the paper will discuss how we as teachers put the lesson into practice.

Lesson Plan: Becoming an Illustrator

National and State Standards

  • Utah Core Standards, Language Arts Elementary, Reading Literature, Standard 2: "Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas."
  • National Core Arts Standards, Creating, Anchor Standard 3: "Refine and complete artistic work."

We intentionally chose standards that could be applied at every grade level K-8 so that this lesson plan can be adapted to fit the needs of many different age groups.

Learning Outcomes

  • Students will be able to identify a main theme with supporting details in a text.
  • Students will be able to analyze an illustration, describing how it relates to the text and inferring which methods the artist used to create the image.
  • Students will create an image that emulates a professional illustrator's method and style.
  • Students will be able to write a new prequel, sequel, or other extension to the story, using the story theme as a starting point.
  • Students will create an original image that effectively illustrates their new story section, utilizing the original illustrator's method and style.

Procedures (Lesson may be split over several periods, and some work may be assigned as homework.)

1. Introduce students to illustration.

  • Engage the students by doing a walk-through of an illustrated text. One we've used successfully is The Secret Knowledge of Grown-Ups (Wisniewski, 1998). 
  • As you look at the images and read selected pages, involve the students with a question: "How does seeing these pictures change the way you read the words?"

2. Invite students to select their own text

  • Instruct students to select an illustrated book. We advise pre-selecting a range of works that are appropriate for current reading levels and feature imagery that would work well for the art-making portion of the lesson.
  • Have students read their selected books thoroughly, searching for themes and important supporting details. Have them select images from the story that correspond with these parts of the book.

3. Have students emulate an illustration to practice specific art-making techniques.

  • Help students infer how the artist could have created the image. Ask guiding questions: What kind of medium do you think the artist used? How was it applied? What techniques might have been used? Discuss these questions with students individually, clarifying where needed.
  • Next have students create an emulation of their chosen page, using the techniques and mediums they believe the artist incorporated. The following day, ask students to briefly explain their pictures, including why this particular part of the story is important to its theme.

4. Ask students to write an extension to the story and create a new illustration.

  • Have the students consider the following questions: In the story you picked, what do you think should happen afterward? What might have happened before?  What might another character have been doing during the story? If you could change one part of the story, what would it be? 
  • Have the students write an extension to their story based on one of these questions (or one of their own). It may be helpful for students to brainstorm ideas with partners.
  • After revising their writing, have students create an illustration for their new text. Because this is a new image, we suggest having them sketch out their ideas first, trying out different poses or scenes. When students are ready, have them create their illustration, again striving to stay true to the original illustrator's style and methods.

5. Presentations

  • Have students present their final pieces to the class, sharing their new story extension.
  • Ask them to include how they emulated the author's and illustrator's styles.

Case Studies

Elementary: Emily

Emily is a fifth grade student. For this project, she selected The Paper Bag Princess (Munsch & Martchenko, 1980) as her text. This book is about a princess who is going to marry a "practically perfect" prince. A dragon comes and destroys her kingdom and her clothes, kidnapping her prince as well. She dresses in a paper bag and goes off to rescue her prince. The princess defeats the dragon by persuading him to prove he can accomplish various amazing feats, and in the process wearing him out. After the dragon falls asleep, she rescues the prince, who is disgusted with how she looks and tells her to come back when she is dressed like a princess. She decides not to marry him after all, calling him out for being ungrateful.

Emily emulated this page on which the princess has challenged the dragon to fly around the world. Emily noticed the way the colors blended without visible brushstrokes and decided that the artist must have used watercolors. She also noticed how the illustrator used black lines, placed close to one another to create the illusion of shadow. This was an excellent opportunity to discuss hatching as a technique to shade images and to show depth. Emily's attempts to match skin tones presented an opportunity to learn more about watercolor paints. To lighten tones in watercolors, more water must be added. This idea can seem counter-intuitive for students who are accustomed to mixing white to make lighter colors in opaque media. Emily was able to experiment with adding different amounts of water to create the colors that she needed.

For her extension, Emily decided to add to the end of the story. After the princess decides to forego marrying the prince, she becomes a monster hunter, fighting off other threatening beasts. In Emily's new image, the princess has challenged a giant winged flying snake to wrap his tongue around the whole world. In her image, shown above, Emily continued to build on her skills with ink and watercolor, applying her newly learned techniques of hatching and adding more water to match lighter tones.

Secondary: Cole

Cole is a seventh grade student. For this project he decided to revisit a classic text, The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Though this book was below Cole's reading level, it was still appropriate for the project because the lesson was directed at finding themes and analyzing images rather than developing vocabulary or fluency.

This book discusses the importance of protecting nature and the danger of  corporate greed. In the story the "Once-ler" is continually warned that killing the trees will result in a devastating cycle in which all of the environment's organisms will die out or leave. Eventually all of the animals are forced to leave, and all that remains is the dark polluted town. This story is relayed to a young boy with the hope that he will make better decisions than his predecessors, and he is entrusted with the last truffula tree seed.

Cole decided to emulate the page where the Lorax is pleading with the Once-ler to be careful in his decisions to cut down trees, recognizing that this is the central theme of the story. He noticed that the drawings are simplistic with thin dark lines filled in with blocks of color. With the materials we had available, he decided to use pencil first to plan out his imagery and later added blocks of color with colored pencils. He also noticed the vibrant color scheme in the earlier parts of the book, and used that to guide his color choices.

For his extension, Cole decided to change the meaning of the entire book, playing with the theme in a humorous and somewhat ironic way. The change was driven by this question: "What if the Lorax didn't care about trees?" In his adaptation, the Lorax decides to allow the Once-lers to cut down as many trees as they want, and in return he is given half of the corporation's revenue. The Lorax and the main Once-ler become incredibly rich, but the animals and all of the forest become completely desolate with no hope of returning.

Cole's drawing shows that he has started to get a better sense of control with the materials he used, and small improvements were made. The coloring of the second drawing is less muddy and looks more deliberate than that of the first. Also a better sense of value can be seen, especially between the first and second Lorax figures. The first Lorax is excessively dark, whereas the second is more thoughtfully shaded, allowing the reader to see the details of the face more clearly.

Theory in Practice

Complementary Experiences in Visual and Language Arts

Visual art is a vital part of state and national learning standards for K-12, and we feel that arts integration can create more versatile and interesting lessons. However, when creating integrated lessons teachers must ensure that the art and other areas are mutually supportive. Ideally the art content should contribute to improving or teaching students art-making methods and engaging them in creative visual problem solving with that method.

We selected standards for this lesson that could be applied at multiple age levels and that would enable visual arts and language experiences to authentically expand understanding of each other. Students have to read the text in depth, sometimes revisiting it many times, as they determine themes and details. Analyzing illustrations further deepens understanding of the text along with teaching visual arts techniques. Emulating an illustration requires increased understanding of artistic style as well as practice with techniques. By writing and illustrating an extension of the story, students display their understanding of the original text while engaging in creative problem solving and further applying the visual arts strategies they have learned.

Value of Advance Preparation

One of the best ways to help students engage in art-making is to work through the project alongside them. We show students the process in a step-by-step demonstration, working through a planned emulation and extension of our own during class. We talk about our thought process, demonstrating how we analyze the images to discern media, and how we prepare to do our own illustration.

We have found it important to practice walking through demonstrations before teaching lessons to our classes. We practice both the process and the explanation. Practicing the process allows us to discover possible difficulties that may occur and to determine how to avoid or work through them. This rehearsal also allows us to discover the areas of instruction that need to be improved and the vocabulary that must be taught when explaining concepts to the students. We've also found that our instruction on this lesson has naturally improved as we've taught it additional times.

Explicit Discussion of the Learning Process

Discussing explicitly with students what they are learning is critical. During and after a project, we help the students discuss what they made and why they made it. This need for discussion can be summed up by Aldous Huxley's (1946) assertion for the importance of language:

Language permits its users to pay attention to things, persons and events, even when the things and persons are absent and the events are not taking place. Language gives definition to our memories and, by translating experiences into symbols, converts the immediacy of craving or abhorrence, or hatred or love, into fixed principles of feeling and conduct.

Discussing our students' artwork enables our students (and us) to summarize what is being taught. This brings key elements of instruction to their attention, reminds them of what they have learned, and gives them an opportunity to teach the class how they have applied the new concepts. While teaching this lesson, we frequently walk around the room, discussing students' work and helping them work through creative challenges. In this way our students receive individualized feedback throughout the process. As a post-lesson assessment, students give brief presentations, summarizing the original story and then explaining their process in creating an extension and new image for it. This gives them an opportunity to share what they have learned as a result of the project.


We've seen interesting artistic and literary results from this lesson. From the visual side, the children we have worked with on this project have enjoyed the emulation portion of the lesson more than we could have predicted. Students seemed to feel more secure in trying out new media and/or new styles when they had something to work from. Many have commented, "I didn't think I could draw this well!" and have been excited by how good their image looked. This practice with the media and success in image-making gave them greater confidence as they created their own illustration. 

From the writing side, we've been excited by the thoughtfulness, humor, and play that we've seen as students experiment with the text. They noticed different writing styles and tried out the voices of the authors they were emulating. Students who are more hesitant about writing have been able to engage with this project in creative ways. Our students have been able to really see books differently through art.

Jason Lyons is currently an art teacher at Oak Canyon Junior High. He is graduating from Brigham Young University in art education next April.

Tara Carpenter is an assistant teaching professor of art education at Brigham Young University with extensive experience in elementary education. Her ceramic and mixed-media art has been exhibited locally and nationally.


Hibbing, A. N., & Rankin-Erickson, J. L. (2003). A picture is worth a thousand words: Using visual images to imprcomprehension for middle school struggling readers. The Reading Teacher56(8), 758-771.

Huxley, A. (1946). Brave new world. New York, NY: Harper & Bros.

Munsch, R., & Martchenko, M. (1980). The paper bag princess. Toronto, CA: Annick Press.

National Visual Art Standards. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.nationalartsstandards.org/

Suess, D. (1971). The Lorax. New York, NY: Random House.

Utah Education Network. (n.d.). Utah Core Standards UEN. Retrieved from http://www.uen.org/core/

Wisniewski, D. (1998). The secret knowledge of grown-ups. New York, NY: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard.