What do you look for when selecting print texts for your high school students to teach them about visual literacy? Appropriate themes, complexity of ideas, rich and beautiful illustrations, evidence of depth and layers of meaning, a variety of text type. The books in the list below meet each of those requirements with the added bonus of all being by Australian authors and illustrators.
‘I am Vampyre. Feared. Despised. I live in darkness. I long for light.’ The protagonist of this picture book seeks to break away from the expectations his vampire family have placed on him: to act as a predator, to kill. Vampyre visually explores the dichotomy between dark and light; the melancholy images convey hope, anguish, and represents the protagonist as a sweet, childlike character. In his essay, Dmetri Kakmi focuses particularly on the illustrations; he analyses a number of double-page spreads and unpacks the symbolism employed, as well as comments on the way the book’s artwork was inspired by Romanticism.
How should you read a text like The Lost Thing? Gary Crew suggests the reader must have the skills to ‘negotiate the significance of the complex interplay between print and visual text.’ The Lost Thing requires a great deal of time spent exploring each double-page spread, searching for all the visual clues Shaun Tan loves to include for his readers to discover. The Lost Thing is filled with allusions to other works of art, cryptic symbols and text hidden in the artworks, and details upon details that create a strange, cynical world in which kindness finds a way to exist.
In her essay on Fox, Robyn Sheahan Bright says of the illustrations: ‘Some double-page spreads are crowded with painful action; others depict empty space that aches with emotion. [Ron Brooks] has employed the artist’s innate understanding of “woundedness”‘. In partnership with the well-loved writer, Margaret Wild, Brooks, the award-winning illustrator, has challenged the limitations placed on the picture book form through innovative design. His illustrations engage with sophisticated themes through allegory, they depict powerful emotions with insight, and they add depth of meaning to the narrative.
This is the first graphic novel in the Ubby’s Underdogs trilogy by Indigenous illustrator, Brenton McKenna. In The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon, readers are introduced to 1940s Broome when Sai Fong, a Chinese girl, arrives there with her uncle and embarks on a series of adventures with Ubby, an Aboriginal girl, and the rest of the Underdogs. ‘Reading’ the illustrations is essential to understanding the narrative of this graphic novel. Through his artwork, McKenna blends Aboriginal and Chinese mythology to create a story about dragons, magic and multiculturalism.
This one is already a favourite book of so many teachers – deservedly so! Though all of Shaun Tan’s work is rich in visual narrative, The Arrival in particular champions visual storytelling: it is a wordless graphic novel, meaning the entire plot, all character development, and the representation of themes and concerns is conveyed through silent images only. This is the book that establishes Shaun Tan as the master of detail. His illustrations, which tell a tale about a man who travels to a strange new country to try to make a home for his family, are imbued with meaning and emotion: confusion, fear, joy. There is a disturbing feeling of tension and sadness, but it ends with generosity, kindness and hope.
Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton are the dream team that have taken the world of children’s books by storm. In Just Macbeth! they have turned Shakespeare’s tragedy into a disgusting, hilarious, absurd tale of ‘murder, madness and Wizz Fizz!’. Denton’s illustrations have two main functions: first, to complement, and in some cases, advance the narrative (such as when the characters travel through time) and second, to break away from the main story. Students can read the text, or they can read the images, which are often depicted as non-linear narratives, sending students flipping forwards and backwards to follow the story. It’s a wonderful – and fun – book to introduce students to non-traditional storytelling structures.