Picture Books Aren’t Just for Children

Discussion Post

Defining picture books is a tricky business once you start to try.  Do they need words and pictures?  What about just pictures?  What makes them different from comics?  Despite the difficulty of defining them, however, society at large seems to have a shared idea of what they are.  Part of that shared idea is that picture books are for children.  They are first to be shared by adults teaching children to read.  They are then to be used as beginner books for new readers.  Like most art forms associated with children, the reputation and prestige of picture books has suffered as a consequence.

Adults and older children often do not want to be seen reading picture books because of the assumptions that surround them. There is the assumption that pictures are less sophisticated than words.  The assumption that short works cannot be complex or deep.  The assumption that picture books do not have complex vocabulary.  The assumption that reading is all about vocabulary and one should never read “below grade level.”  These assumptions are all false.  Text is not inherently better than pictures and a short quote can say something more profound than an entire novel.  Plus, picture books often have quite complex vocabularies because they are meant to be read and shared.  And reading is not only about learning new words and sentence structures.  Reading is so much more!

Perhaps some artists are starting to challenge the idea that picture books are so simplistic only children would want to read them.  Lately, I have seen a few picture books that seem to me to be written more for adults than for children.  However, because we tend to think of picture books as primarily for children these books are typically shelved in the children’s section of every school, library, and bookstore.  Adults without small children are, quite simply, not going to come across them.  And, when they do, they are likely to be perplexed, much like readers of wordless picture books.  After all, if you are trying to teach your child to read, what do you do with a book with no words?

Rethinking the way we categorize and shelve books might help.  Simply placing some in other sections might begin to destigmatize them.  At the same time, however, we do not want to begin to assume all over again that more complex works are only for adults and not for children.  That is, there is no need to remove certain picture books from the children’s room and say that they are now for “sophisticated” readers only!  Rather, I propose that we begin dissociating children’s literature from assumptions of inferiority.  Cross-shelving books might help us to begin to do so, as it will suggest to consumers that these books are meant for all of us and are not supposed to be grown out of.

Some Picture Books Adults Might Like

The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas and Erin E. Stead

This book, with its dreamy illustrations, tells the story of a man delivers the messages in ocean bottles to the intended recipients.  The theme of loneliness and longing for a friend could appeal to children who have also felt isolated.  However, because the focus is on adults, older readers may be able to relate on a different level.  (Being a lonely single man at the age of 30 is different from not yet having found a friend at school.)


The Fog by Kyo Maclear and Kenard Pak

This is the kind of book adults like because its ambiguity is apparently supposed to make it deep.  A mysterious fog begins to cover an island and goes away only when a bird and a human work together.  Exactly what they do is unclear and may be allegorical.  Again, the type of book adults like, though the beautiful illustrations and the friendship between the bird and the girl may appeal to younger readers, as well.

The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski

This picture book has a lot of words and is probably not suitable for reading aloud at storytime.  Furthermore, it would be difficult to read aloud because each page begins with an introduction not related to the action of the book: an except of various stories the main character imagines in her head.  This narration might be confusing to younger children, but the book is about the magic of words and the power of story–just the type of thing book-loving adults (teachers, librarians, and parents) would want to buy.

30 thoughts on “Picture Books Aren’t Just for Children

    • Krysta says:

      We advocate reading all the time, but then have this weird habit of shaming people for their reading choices! But why not have people read what they enjoy?


  1. KatieLou says:

    I totally agree with you! There shouldnt be such age constrictions on books and if an adult wants to read an illustrated book they shouldn’t be judged for doing so.


  2. Carrie @ Cat on the Bookshelf says:

    There shouldn’t be “I’m too old to read” books. I haven’t really sought out picture books targeted at adults, but I became aware of that category since it’s an option for the Picture Book Reading Challenge. I’m going to go look for those titles. Thanks for the suggestions!


  3. Zoie says:

    I agree that teens and adults should read more picture books as well — I guess the way teens and adults get away with reading something similar to “picture books” in public are comics and/or graphic novels? 😆 Personally, I think picture books are valuable in their simplicity — telling a story with as few words as possible while still making it deep and insightful is actually much harder than it may seem for someone skimming through a picture book. Despite knowing this, I’m still guilty of not reading many picture books, so I’m excited to check out the books you’ve put on this list! 😋📚
    I enjoyed reading your post!


    • Krysta says:

      True! Graphic novels are great, though I’ve noticed some teachers and librarians don’t considered them “real” reading. There’s an assumption that the pictures make it too easy, but analyzing artwork is actually a skill you have to train just like analyzing text. It’s not necessarily easier to notice visual details!

      And that’s a great point! There’s skill needed to tell a story briefly. It’s not necessarily easier to write something just because that something is short!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Jonathan Scott Griffin says:

    Picture books are works of art and can be just as much of great literature as anything written by the great novelists. What’s amazing about picture books is not just the lessons they can teach and the fantastical stories they can tell, but also that the beautiful art that can accompany them, covering enumerable different art styles.


    • Krysta says:

      Quite true! We appreciate art–why not the art in picture books? And “reading” artwork does take analytical skill. It’s not necessarily easy to see everything that is happening in the pictures or to understand at first glance the interplay between pictures and text.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Cam @ Camillea Reads says:

    I love this post! It’s very insightful. I’ve always longed to have pictures in the books I’ve read. I think people shouldn’t downplay reading picture books because art is just as complex as the written word. I’ll try to get my hands on these titles ❤


    • Krysta says:

      That’s true! The illustrations are artwork in their own right! I often choose picture books based on the pictures, actually. If I find the artwork ugly, I don’t want to read the book.


  6. Zezee says:

    There is a stigma around adults reading picture books and I often get criticized for doing so, but I think the stories there are just as poignant. I prefer picture books with little or no words because it forces us to rely on visual cues, such as body language, to follow and understand the story and also let’s us focus and appreciate the art work. Picture books I’d recommend include The Only Child by Guojing (about the author growing up under the one-child policy in China during the 1980s), The Arrival by Shaun Tan (which is categorized as a graphic novel, but I recommend it for this anyway. It’s about a man seeking a safe place for his family to live), and The Journey by Francesca Sanna (about a family seeking a safe place).


    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, anything associated with children tends to be labelled as inferior art, for some reason. But I really love The Arrival so I’ll have to see if my library has your other suggestions!


  7. monniemoon says:

    This all very true. As a single adult with no kids, I still enjoy reading picture books. Sometime, when I read a picture book from my childhood, I feel like I understand it better now than I did when I was a kid. Strange… I mean, back then, I read for fun, and now when I read almost anything, I tend to find the meaning in what I read. I agree that picture books should probably be re-shelved differently than they are now.


    • Krysta says:

      That’s true! I do get something different out of reading picture books now. Sometimes I realize the stories are much sadder than I had thought when I was young!


  8. Richard Haiku says:

    I agree with you entirely. The ‘Reductio ad absurdum’ of this would be that therefore adults should not watch films and TV shows as these are moving images that have no writing! I think picture books that have a mix of story and learning elements are the most engaging. This is what I’m aiming for in my new series of children’s books, book one of which is available for free here: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/785290


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