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Children's Literature

Children's Literature in Education

What is Children’s Literature?


Well, it's picture books, chapter books and novels, graphic novels, magazines, comics, and any other text written for children! Looking back, most of us can say that we have a favourite piece of children’s lit, a favourite childhood read, whether that was Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or Charlotte’s Web. We all have books that bring up warm memories and a sense of nostalgia. Books that we remember fondly, and that have stayed with us. Clearly books have an impact on us! They change us. They inspire us. They comfort us. They become a part of us and our lives. We grow up and share them with our children.

Which leads me to my next topic: who reads children’s lit? As I have just said, parents read books to their children, children read recreationally and for school, and outside of that, educators, in both formal and informal teaching fields, read a lot of children’s literature. Educators of course use books as teaching tools. If you reflect on your own practice, it's pretty likely you will agree! But why? Why are children’s books such important additions to our educational toolkits? While it's true that literacy and language arts are key features of modern educational models, our dependency on children’s lit is much deeper than a simple curriculum connection. In the following paragraphs we will explore the WHY of children’s literature in education. 


Children's Literature & Education


Beginning from an early age, children are exposed to picture books and board books, as they are a common instrument in education. Parents and educators alike use them to teach about colours, animals, numbers and letters, family, science, and life in general. They are an accessible resource that cover a wide variety of topics, making them very useful and easy to integrate. They include bright and engaging illustrations, fun stories, and some even have interactive elements that captivate the minds of young readers. From Tap the Magic Tree to Mix it Up, children can experience life, and learn about it through books.


Children's Literature & Moral Development 


Another example of a very popular educational topic that we utilize books for, is moral education. Simply put, picture books have lessons, and teach children morals, values, and desired behaviours. From the Lorax and the Giving Tree, to the Bad Seed and Stick and Stone, picture books can teach us about everything from stewardship to kindness. In fact, research has shown that because children’s literature is such a common educational medium, they have become an integral part of how children learn about the world in which they live. They are a popular form of media, and they pass on knowledge about societal norms and values, and provide part of the foundation upon which we base our actions and decisions as human beings (Bland, 2014; Burke & Cutter-Mackenzie, 2010; Caruso, 2014; Rainbow, 2014; Wason-Ellam, 2010). 

Interestingly, it is not just their story lines and text that pass on these messages, but their visual information as well. From the fonts and colours used, to the pictures and text placement, the visual portion of picture books plays a “dominant role in the development of character traits, interests, and emotions” (p. 196) of young children (Prior et al., 2012).


Multimodal Texts


This type of media, that presents information through both written words and pictures, is categorized as multimodal. Multimodal texts are characterized by the various modes through which they present information and can include spoken and written language, images and illustrations, symbols and actions, and much more. Multimodal texts like picture books present information in more than one way, and as such, can relay more than one message at a time. The message that is most clearly stated, and is usually the intended message of the author, is called the explicit message. This is the moral that the author purposefully portrayed in their book. However, there are often underlying hidden messages, called implicit messages, within texts, and children’s literature is no different. Implicit messages can come from language choices, pictures, symbols, etc. As a result, the images in a text can sometimes tell an entirely different story than the words used. To compound this phenomenon, researchers have found that because children are exposed to so much visual information as a result of the recent media explosion we have seen in the new technological age, they are better able to read and interpret images (Muthukrishnan & Kelley, 2017). Their visual literacy skills are highly developed in comparison to older generations. Thus, not only do we need to carefully consider the morals and explicit messaging found within the words and storylines of books, but we need to analyze and explore the messages present within the imagery as well. 

For example in the poster below, you will see that the explicit message is that pollution is bad. However, the implicit message is that pollution is a big big problem, it is so big that the individual child has no foreseeable way to fight it. We see that pollution is scary, it is bad for animals, we cannot contain it, and we don’t really know where it comes from besides some weird tubes. We don’t know who causes it, and we have no clue how to fight it. This is not a positive environmental message in any way, and in fact it leaves children with a sense of hopelessness and fear. So while the intention of the poster is environmental education, the outcome is not very helpful in that respect. 






                          (Wincies Inc., 2021).

A Mirror and a Window


With this in mind, an important consideration when reviewing both the texts and the book collections that we expose children to are their portrayals of identity; which identities are being held up and centered, which are being put down, and which are absent entirely. A great way to think about this concept is a metaphor that was coined by Emily Style in the 1980’s. Essentially, books should act as both mirrors and windows (Style, 1988). To expound upon this, a book that acts as a mirror is one in which a child can see themselves. They can relate to the identity of, and imagery surrounding the protagonist. They see the main characters as reflections of themself, and as a result their identity is validated. This leads to increased self-esteem, and the belief that their personal narrative is important and valued within society. Books that act as windows on the other hand, give children the opportunity to see into the lives of others. They teach children to value the personal narratives of people from different backgrounds, cultures, or of ethnicities. They help children to understand people of different genders, abilities, and religions. These types of books highlight both the differences and similarities between the reader and the main characters, and in doing so tell children that the personal narratives of others are just as important as their own. This leads to increases in understanding and knowledge of others, which improves empathy, and ultimately reduces otherness (Arizpe & Styles, 2015).




This is of course an essential facet of education. Teaching children empathy and understanding, not just tolerance, is crucial to the development of well adjusted individuals and an inclusive and compassionate society. With that said, it means that educators MUST pay careful attention to their classroom library and book selections. We must be deliberate and considerate in our use of picture books because we impact the worldviews and moral development of our students. The messages and morals presented in the children’s literature that we use as teaching tools require careful consideration as educators are in the unique position to influence many children throughout our careers. So, what should educators consider when using picture books for EE? Check out the next section to find out!



Arizpe, E., & Styles, M. (2015). Children Reading Picturebooks: Interpreting Visual Texts. Taylor & Francis Group. 

Bland, J. (2014). Ecocritical Sensitivity with Multimodal Texts in the EFL/ESL Literature Classroom. In R. Bartosch & S. Grimm (Eds.), Teaching Environments:

     Ecocritical Encounters (pp. 37-57). Peter Lang GmbH.

Burke, G., & Cutter-Mackenzie, A. (2010). What’s there, what if, what then, and what can we do? An immersive and embodied experience of environment and

    place through children’s literature. Environmental Education Research, 16(3-4), 311-330. 


Caruso, C. (2014). Scientific Encounters in Literature: How the ‘Two Cultures’ Can Profit from Each Other In and Outside of the Classroom. In R. Bartosch & S.

     Grimm (Eds.), Teaching Environments: Ecocritical Encounters (pp. 37-57). Peter Lang GmbH.

Muthukrishnan, R., & Kelley, J. E. (2017). Depictions of sustainability in children’s books. Environment, Development, and Sustainability, 19, 955-970.

Prior, L. A., Wilsson, A., & Martinez, M. (2012). Picture This: Visual Literacy as a Pathway to Character Understanding. The Reading Teacher, 66(3), 195-206. 


Rainbow, A. (2014). Pedagogy and the Power of the Ecoliterary Text. In R. Bartosch & S. Grimm (Eds.), Teaching Environments: Ecocritical Encounters (pp. 37-57).

     Peter Lang GmbH. 

Style, E. (1988). Curriculum as Window & Mirror. 

Wason-Ellam, L. (2010). Children’s literature as a springboard to place-based embodied learning. Environmental Education Research, 16(3), 279–294. 

Wincies Inc. (2021). Air Pollution Environmental Poster. The Incy Wincies.

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