Developing verbal & visual literacy skills─murals & children’s picture books

Visit some art-minded cities in the Pacific Northwest (hint─Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington) and you’re likely to look up during one of your walks through the cities to see some awesome art on building walls. Mural art is growing in popularity (some world-famous murals can be found in Mexico, New York, Philadelphia, Belfast, Derry, Los Angeles, Nicaragua, Cuba and India). Two artists making a difference in the Pacific Northwest are the Z House Story illustrators, Jon Stommel and Travis Czekalski. They’re making their mark ─ literally ─on the landscapes of city buildings.

Though they live now in Portland, they moved to the Pacific Northwest just a few years ago from the Midwest. I met them in Indiana shortly after I moved from Oregon to follow a job change. So I feel a certain kinship – we literally switched places, them to Oregon and me to Indiana.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, it doesn’t matter where we live. I can send manuscripts of my children’s stories to Jon and Travis and they can send me back completed illustrations. And now that they’re living in the Pacific Northwest, they easily portray the scenes of the “Oregon Z House,” the setting of the first five stories in the Z House series. So I don’t have to explain how green the landscapes are and what the mountains look like. A win all around.

Jon and Travis attended the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio. They graduated with BFAs and began working together to bring their shared vision to art projects in the genre of murals and public art.They have collaborated on painting wall murals for restaurants (4 Mellow Mushroom Restaurants), libraries (Columbus Metropolitan Library), schools (Sacramento Elementary School), government buildings (Ohio Environmental Protection Agency), and several nonprofit community organization offices in Ohio, Oregon and Washington. And they’ve been winning awards. In summer 2012 they took first place in the Clark County Mural Society’s Summer of Murals Program (Vancouver) for a mural honoring the Chinook Native American Tribe.They recently finished painting the wall for the Clark County Mural Society 2013 summer competition (theme Vancouver Farmers Market) and again their mural took first place.This summer they painted a mural celebrating bicycling in Vancouver.

Their biggest project has been 10 murals completed for the grand opening of a new downtown Target in Portland (City Target PDX). Each canvas measures 7 feet by 8 feet and has images inspired by the five districts in the city.  Following an open call for the community to submit instagram images of local images the artists could include in the paintings, Jon and Travis selected several peoples’ instagram submissions for imagery in the final paintings. It took 13 long days for Jon and Travis to paint the 10 murals! Now they’re displayed inside the new Target building. Some of my favorite murals are highlighted at the end of this blog. If you want to see all of themand Jon and Travis’ other outstanding workcheck out their website, Rather Severe: <>

Since 2011, Jon and Travis have been working with me to illustrate my children’s picture books.There are three out in book stores now, and they’re currently working on the fourth. And yes, the fifth is coming.         

So why am I writing about Jon and Travis? First, this is a tribute to Jon and Travis because I truly treasure my working relationship with these two highly talented artists. Second, this is a tribute to the many illustrators who make books come alive for children with their art work. Clearly, artwork is such a vital part of children’s picture books that picture gets in the title of the genre. All this is leading to a questionis there a best mix of pictures (illustrations) and words in books to foster the development of children’s literacy?     

A couple of weeks ago I visited the local public library with the goal to look at children’s books for the “words-to-pictures” mix. A row of award-winning books positioned on top of the stacks in the children’s section caught my eye ─ because they had won prestigious awards and because of their appealing art work. As I leafed through them, some were books telling stories solely or primarily through illustrations ─ some had no words, some had very few words. I’ve been thinking about this since my visit to the library. How is a parent best to read to the child art only or art-heavy books? Do parents try to interpret what the pictures are depicting to the child, putting their own words to the story told through the illustrations? Is the child best to figure this out on his/her own? And is this a good thing in either case?

To inform myself more about these questions, I consulted Perry Nodelman’s book, Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books (The University of Georgia Press, 1988). Nodelman includes an interesting analysis of “wordless picture books” on pages 184-192.  He notes that “the mere existence of such books [‘books with no words except their titles’] disturbs some adults, who fear that these books will encourage illiteracy ─that, like television, they encourage a visual orientation at the expense of a verbal one.” Nodelman  dismisses the TV worry by noting, “Television is a highly verbal medium whose pictures by themselves communicate next to nothing ─ a fact easily discerned by anybody who makes the experiment of watching television with the sound turned off …. In fact, television is like most picture books a medium dependent upon the interrelationship of words and pictures.” (185-186)

Then Nodelman offers several views on the question of “how well pictures by themselves can depict events that we can recognize as stories.” (185) 

  • One view is that children are ‘prewired’ to see plots in pictures but not in writing. An opposing view is that children are just as prewired to see plots in picture books with words.  (186)
  • Another is that when children tell in their own words the stories that only pictures suggest to them (‘translating visual experiences into verbal ones’), this practice likely aids in the development of literacy. (186).
  • A related view is that the “vagueness” of wordless picture books is a plus because they allow children to come up with their own interpretation of the pictures, and this helps develop creativity in children. (190)
  • A concern is that “if we encourage children to misuse wordless books in their attempts to find stories in them by ignoring details the pictures actually do show, then these books will indeed be the threat to literacy that some commentators believe them to be.” (190-191) The worry is that unless the child is really looking carefully at the details of the artwork (e.g., searching for clues among “apparently disparate bits of information,” such as clues about mood and atmosphere, meanings of gestures and facial expressions, meaning of dress and furniture, significance of the relationships among figures and shapes), the child may be making up stories that are not informed by the art and, therefore, will be missing out on important cognitive development that builds “visual story-making competence.” (190).
  • Another concern is that the stories suggested by pictures alone can be told by many different children in many different ways since there are no words to focus attention on “meaningful or important narrative details.” (186)  An implication is children are not able to learn new information about different cultures then, etc., due to their own limited experiences.
  • A final concern is that storytelling resulting from translating visual only experiences into verbal ones will not be as rich because “wordless picture books can easily depict actions [but] not so easily communicate feelings or meanings.” (190)

With these views in mind, I’m coming down on the side of both/and: 1) both verbal and visual information will help children develop verbal literacy, and 2) developing visual literacy is important as well (helping the developing reader learn how to decode visual information).

No doubt, different children’s picture book writers and publishers of children’s books have their own desired formula for words-to-illustrations (or scenes needed to tell the story). For me, the preferred formula is art work on every page. I don’t believe I can tell the Z House Stories well without lots of great illustrations. And for that, I have Jon and Travis to thank.

But I’m wondering what they think about all thiswhat they think about when they do art work for children’s books vs. telling stories through pictures (murals) on building walls. In the second part of this blog, I’ll be talking with them to share their views. 

 Some favorite murals from the Target project … 



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