Connecting to prior knowledge

What is a picture book?

Picture books have traditionally been seen as part of the early years of primary school. They are often used to engage and support young readers as they are learning to read. Many contemporary picture books are, however, multilayered and are often appropriate for different ages. This unit of work aims to stretch and develop the traditional concept so that, depending on the author, illustrator and complexity of themes, picture books can be for everyone.

Write the question ‘What is a picture book?’ on the whiteboard. Students find a partner and reflect on this question together. Then ask, ‘What makes a good picture book?’.

Students will be working with the same partner throughout this unit of work. This means that whenever they are involved in partner work they can go straight to their partner and begin. There is no discussion or uncertainty and they can immediately focus on the task at hand. This also supports students building on previously completed work and building the connections already made rather than starting again.

Students discuss then write down their ideas on what a picture book is and what a good picture book might be. It would be helpful for the teacher to have a number of different picture books in the classroom and hand them to students when they have finished taking notes from their discussion. Students can spend some time examining these picture books and adding more points of discussion to their lists.

Bring the class together and start a class list of attributes of picture books. These attributes could include: contain text and illustrations, are usually around 32 pages in length, etc.

Using the class list of attributes, the student pairs develop a definition of a picture book. Encourage a couple of the students to share their definitions with the class. Discuss these definitions and then, together, develop a class definition. Help students keep a formal academic tone by employing technical noun groups, as is typical in a definition.
(ACELT1610)   (EN3-7C)

Authors and illustrators

Shaun Tan is an award winning author and illustrator. He has published a number of picture books; some he has illustrated for other authors and some he has written and illustrated. Ask students if they have heard of Shaun Tan and if they have read any of his picture books or viewed his animated short film. As a class, explore Shaun Tan’s interactive website. Focus on two pages of the website specifically: ‘About me’ and ‘Picture books’.

Focus students in on the picture books written and illustrated by Shaun Tan. Draw attention to the title and the front covers of the picture books and briefly discuss. Develop two lists on the whiteboard.

  1. Shaun Tan’s picture books use rich illustrations, are dark and serious, focus on people, are playful, etc.
  2. Shaun Tan’s picture books are not bold, simplistic, basic, etc.

Jon Callow (1999) provides a framework for discussions about visual literacy:  

  • What’s happening in the images? What’s not happening in the images?
  • What is the relationship between the viewer, the image and the image maker? What is NOT the relationship between the viewer, the image and the image maker? 
  • Consider angles, framing, colour and demands and offers (gaze) of the participants
  • How is the image composed? How is the image NOT composed?
  • Consider reading paths and layout (e.g top half is ‘idealised’ and bottom half is ‘grounded’; left is ‘given’ and right is ‘new’)

(ACELT1609)   (EN3-8D)


Using the title, illustration and knowledge of the author, predict using the front cover. If possible use a document camera to view the front cover of The Red Tree. Students spend five minutes writing their reflections in their Reading Journals. Encourage students to note not only their first reactions to the front cover but then to study the illustration more closely, thinking about what they know about Shaun Tan as a writer and an illustrator. What clues is he giving the reader about the themes in the book? Use the visual literacy framework provided by Jon Callow (see above). 

The Reading Journals are for students to be able to to write and/or draw their thoughts, reactions and reflections of what they are reading. They are to be used to encourage and support students to think at a deeper level rather than write a summary of the plot. Students should also be encouraged to return to previous entries and revise their thinking.
(ACELT1608)   (EN3-8D)


Exploring the text in context of our community, school and ‘me’

As a class explore the illustrations carefully together. Guide students to look carefully at the boat. What can they tell from looking at the boat? Prompts:

  • What is the boat made of?
  • What words are written on the boat?
  • Guide students to the character in the boat. How can they describe her?

Allow students to spend more time adding to their journal entry and sharing their entry with their partner.

As a class, list on the whiteboard what they have noticed about the front cover: the shades of colours used, the main character, the boat, the water and the ripples on the water, the small red leaf. After the class discussion ask students to turn and discuss with their partner what they predict the picture book will be about. Record the predictions to refer to later in the unit.

Read Aloud

When reading The Red Tree to students, make sure they are close enough to see the illustrations. If possible you could use a document camera so they can see the detail in the illustrations.


Rich assessment task

Stop, think, reflect

Students use their Reading Journals to respond to and reflect on the first reading. Encourage students to think about what has been discussed over the last few days, including:

  • what they know about picture books,
  • Shaun Tan as an author and illustrator,
  • their predictions of the text.

(ACELT1795)   (EN3-5B)   (ACELT1613)   (EN3-8D)

Responding to the text

Exploring plot, setting, character and theme

The Red Tree is a story that encourages us to ask rather than answer questions. Questions that do not necessarily have answers because it is not about reaching conclusions but rather exploring ideas, feelings and themes.

Exploring plot

As a class, discuss and outline the traditional plot of a narrative. List what a narrative plot usually includes: an introduction, a complication or series of complications followed by the resolution. Sometimes narratives close with a coda or re-orientation. Discuss picture books and novels the class has shared that follow this traditional plot outline.

Return to The Red Tree and ask:

  • Does it have a plot?
  • Could it be described as a narrative?
  • Could it be described as a picture book?

After the discussion explain that Tan describes The Red Tree as having little story and minimal written text however, even with minimal words he is able to introduce a character, share with us parts of her day and then end with a hopeful resolution.

How does he achieve that? What role do the visual images play?
(ACELT1795)   (EN3-6B)


A red leaf appears on every page of the picture book, including the cover. If students haven’t already discovered this, go through and identify the red leaf on each page. Why would Tan deliberately place a red leaf on each page? Discuss how the red leaf can be seen as a symbol. Even though everything, at first glance, looks bleak and dark, the red leaf is there offering the reader hope. Discuss and research other symbols of hope from a range of cultural groups.

For example:

  • Red Cross is a symbol of hope for health.
  • White dove is a symbol of hope for peace.
  • The ginkgo tree is a symbol of hope in Asian art.
  • Anchors or crosses are symbols of hope in Christianity.
  • Green is a colour of hope, love and trust.

Students choose one of the symbols of hope and create an artistic design on a postcard-size piece of card. Laminate the card and display throughout the school, a little like the red leaf in the picture book. There could be one in each building or near each classroom, depending on the size of the school.
(ACELT1795)   (EN3-6B)

Exploring setting

The setting for the picture book The Red Tree is not described in any detail in the text. The illustrations provide the setting, however, the details are not easily recognisable. Tan has used a fantasy setting, using techniques found in surrealist paintings. Surrealism was developed as a 20th-century avant garde art movement to unlock the imagination and this is what Tan does in this picture book.

Do the students know any famous Surrealist artists and their art work? Investigate:

  • Salvador Dali’s ‘Persistence of Memory’
  • Rene Magritte’s ‘Son of Man’
  • Giorgio de Chirico’s ‘The Red Tower’
  • Max Ernst’s ‘The Elephant Celebes’
  • Yves Tanguy’s ‘Reply to Red’  

What techniques does Tan pick up in his picture book? Tan’s aim is to encourage questions and ideas rather than give simplistic answers.

Looking at the illustrations throughout the book, list the setting of each illustration. These may include a bedroom, a street corner, a beach and a concert hall. As a class make a list of everyday settings that could be developed, as Tan did, into fantasy settings. Students then choose one of these settings to develop into their own surreal, fantasy setting. Students may need to do some research on this art form to help their development of a surreal setting.
(ACELY1801)   (EN3-7C)

Exploring character

Using a document camera, view the images of the main character in The Red Tree. As a class, discuss what they know about her from the visuals and the words.

  • A young girl to show innocence,
  • The centre of each image to show importance,
  • Silent throughout the book to show introspection,
  • Eyes downcast to allow the reader to gaze until the last page where we see her eyes for the first time, etc.

Using the page that contains the text ‘or who you are meant to be’ ask students to think about the story. Discuss how Tan designs the text and the illustrations so that the reader is actively involved in making sense of the stories. Through the illustrations, Tan encourages readers to use their own imagination to make sense of the stories unfolding. Tan believes picture books are about playful inquiry and so deliberately leaves spaces for the reader, each reader will have a different story. Students use this page to think about the girl and what she is thinking she is meant to be.

Students role-walk as the young girl, thinking about her body language and what her body language communicates to others.

Developing on from this, students can hot seat the young girl to explore what may have led to her unhappy feelings.

Students individually, or in pairs, use photos and words from magazines and/or newspapers and develop a collage of the girl’s thoughts.
(ACELY1801)   (EN3-7C)

Exploring theme

Inferring the big idea or theme of a text or book.

Themes are more than a topic they are related to our emotions and beliefs around life. A plot of a text is what actually happens within the text, the main events of the text itself. A theme is a main idea or message.

As a class, revise the plot of The Red Tree, explored earlier in the unit. Then in groups of 3–4 ask students to list two or three themes from the book. As a class, discuss and list the themes developed in small groups.

Provide a Shaun Tan book for each small group to read and explore. Suggestions include The Rabbits (co-written with John Marsden), Memorial, The Lost Thing, and Tales from Outer Suburbia. Students discuss the picture book, illustrations and text and make a list of themes from their chosen picture book. Each group then shares the picture book and its themes with the class. Develop a class list of themes from Tan’s picture books as students are sharing.
(ACELY1801)   (EN3-7C)   (ACELA1502)   (EN3-8D)


Exploring more sophisticated multimodal representations

Sound and/or animation can add another dimension to the story being told. Explain to students that they will be listening to a musical adaption of The Red Tree and ask them if there are any sounds or musical instruments they think they may hear? As students watch and listen to the story, encourage them to write down their reflections in their Reading Journal.

The Lost thing, another of Tan’s picture books, has been made into an animation video. Watch the trailer here and purchase the short film here. The animation, just like his picture books, was designed to encourage curiosity and questioning. Some groups of students have studied this picture book more closely earlier in the unit. Encourage this group to share their insights and reflections on this story with the class.

As a class view the animation. Encourage students to use their Reading Journals while watching the animation to jot down thoughts and reflections.

  • What feelings did this animation invoke?
  • Why do you think that happened?
  • What are the themes running through the animation?
  • Are they similar to the themes we already have listed on Tan’s picture books?
  • Even though this is an animation, did you as the viewer need to finish or construct part of the story yourself as you have done with his picture books?

(ACELY1704)   (EN3-2A)


Rich assessment task

After watching the YouTube videos of readings of The Red Tree – some that included sounds, some that included music and some that were animated – students present a multimodal reading of the picture book.

The rich assessment task is for students to present a multimodal reading of the picture book. These multimodal readings can use some of the more sophisticated tools available in PowerPoint (e.g. adding voice narration, slide transitions and animation or making their own drawings), video capture (such as iMovie or Moviemaker) or apps such as Puppet Pals etc. 

Students in small groups of two or three video record a reading of The Red Tree using music and/or sound and/or animation. Students will be encouraged to focus on using sound or music to complement the story. Students should also be encouraged to take into account: the plot, the character and the themes within the story. Using the text, students can storyboard their project, practise and then create it. The finished multimodal presentation can then be presented to the class.
(ACELY1704)   (EN3-2A)   (ACELY1707)   (EN4-2A)   (ACELY1714)   (EN3-2A)

Examining text structure and organisation

Examining and responding to text

Reread The Red Tree with your students. Focus them on the written text. What did they notice about the text? Encourage students to look at and discuss the minimal nature of the text, the lack of punctuation and the importance of the phrasing used.

Look carefully at the first page of text, ‘sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to’. Discuss what Shaun Tan may be implying here. Tan writes and illustrates to leave space for the reader. Through both text and illustration he encourages the reader to question, ponder and think about their everyday lives. In doing this, Tan also encourages and supports the idea that each reader will bring their own understandings to the book and each understanding will be different. What one reader might see as ‘nothing to look forward to’ may be totally different to another. Ask students to spend ten to fifteen minutes writing their thoughts on these ten words in their Reading Journals. Encourage students to see that for some students the ‘nothing to look forward to’ may be getting out of bed and going to school, yet for another student it may be getting up and not being able to go to school. Students who would like to share their thoughts could read their reflection to the class or post on the class Padlet app.

Examining and responding to illustrations

Visual images are an integral part of a picture book. Visual images are also an integral part of a postmodern picture book. Postmodern picture books differ from illustrated books. Google ‘postmodern picture book’. Help students to understand the sociological concept of ‘postmodern’. Discuss other books that may fall into this genre. Discuss ‘postmodernism’ and how it departs from ‘modernism’, and previous art and literature movements. Artists and writers adopt postmodern techniques to be politically active and encourage the masses to think differently about matters that affect them.

Support students to discuss and analyse both the text and the illustrations so the themes can be drawn out and explored in-depth. Through noticing, analysing and discussing the images within a picture book, a greater enjoyment and a deeper understanding of the book occurs.

To understand The Red Tree in more depth, the illustrations need to be carefully examined. When exploring illustrations in picture books it is helpful to have a shared language to use. Jon Callow (1999, 2013) outlines a shared language that can be used when analysing the ways an illustrator works with and develops illustrations. This language helps to understand the illustration a little more and includes looking at and thinking about: angles, framing, colour and demand and offer techniques.


Using angles in an illustration enables the illustrator to convey a range of relationships between both characters and objects. When a character is looking down on something or someone a feeling of power is conveyed. When a character is looking up at another character or object then this can convey vulnerability. Ask student pairs to look for examples of this technique in The Red Tree.


The use of framing, as well as what the illustrator puts into or leaves out of, the frame, informs the reader/viewer about the social relationship between them and the character. A longer shot implies distance between the viewer and the character; a close up shot implies a more personal relationship. Ask student pairs to look for examples of this technique in The Red Tree.


Colour is a technique used by illustrators to create the mood and feeling around a particular setting or story. The colours of an illustration can convey a range of feelings, including happiness, sadness and anger. The type of media the illustrator uses also affects the readers/viewers’ feelings. Ask student pairs to look at the way colour works to make meaning. Do the feelings graduate in intensity or do they release the intensity?

Demand and offers

This technique focuses on the character in the illustration or image and whether or not the character is looking at the reader/viewer demanding their attention or whether they are looking away. If the character is not looking at the reader/viewer then this is seen as an offer rather than a demand. Ask student pairs to look for examples of this technique in The Red Tree.

Put the illustration ‘the world is a deaf machine’ up using the document camera or give students a copy of the book so they can view the illustration carefully. Discuss each of the techniques outlined: angles, framing, use of colour, and demand and offers. Discuss if and how these techniques influence the viewer.

  • What angles has Tan used in this illustration? Does his use of angles illustrate vulnerability?
  • Is this illustration framed? What does this imply about the reader’s relationship with the character?
  • What colours has Tan used in this illustration? What mood do these colours convey? Would different colours have changed the feel of this page?
  • Is the girl looking at another object or character? Is another object or character looking at her? Is she demanding our attention?

Examining text and image

Using a document camera, view the last page that contains the text ‘just as you imagined it would be’. In pairs ask students to sculpt each other as the girl at the beginning and the end of the book. How does she change? Then ask students to respond to this page by writing in their Reading Journals how this page makes them feel. Students reflect on and write about what the girl may be imagining and/or feeling.

Discuss the written text. There are seven words on the last page, yet they convey a happy ending to this story. What do they convey to you? Examine the illustration. Look at the angles, framing, colours and demand or offer techniques that have been used. What techniques has Tan used in this illustration to convey emotions to the reader/viewer? The illustration and the text work together to conclude this story.

Using written texts and illustrative text together can function in a number of ways: the illustrations can add to, contradict or multiply the meaning of accompanying words. Discuss how Tan’s work weaves between these design elements at various stages of the text.
(ACELY1701)   (EN2-10C)   (ACELA1511)   (EN3-7C)   (EN3-5B)

Examining grammar and vocabulary


Sharing our feelings can sometimes be difficult. Emotions can be hard to put into words, using metaphors is one way we can put our feelings into words.

A metaphor is a word or phrase comparing two things, usually using words that represent one thing to represent something else. A metaphor is usually a symbol of something rather than a literal interpretation. A metaphor does not contain the words ‘like’ or ‘as’. Well known examples of metaphors include ‘All the world’s a stage’ or he/she ‘is the light of my life’.

Shaun Tan uses the metaphor ‘the world is a deaf machine’ in this book. Discuss this metaphor as a class. Why is Tan comparing the world to a machine? Why is the machine deaf? What is he implying by using this metaphor?

Think about other metaphors that could be used to represent sadness/despair or happiness/hope. With a partner, students develop metaphors to describe one or more of these emotions. Share the metaphors as a class and discuss. Students, with their partner, edit and develop their metaphor and then illustrate and display.
(ACELY1701)   (EN3-5B)


Rich assessment task

Shaun Tan sees the picture book as a way to develop ‘playful inquiry’. He encourages the reader/viewer to use their imagination when reading to find meaning in the every day experiences that we all have, yet for many of us they usually go by unnoticed and are quickly forgotten.

Using the document camera, display the page ‘terrible fates are inevitable’. As a class, discuss the vocabulary of ‘fates’ and ‘inevitable’. Talk about the multiple meanings of ‘fate’ (in Greek mythology) and how fate can be both a noun and a verb. Ask students to suggest other word choices Tan could have used and consider if doing so would have altered the overall effect.  Focus students’ attention on Tan’s view of picture books being a way to playfully inquire into our everyday lives. Students then respond to this view, using examples from the page displayed in their Reading Journal. Alternatively students could create a playful image in pairs with an accompanying caption informed by their study of Tan’s work.

Have students think about the techniques used by Tan in the illustrations, the use of language, and the significance of both the six sided-dice and the red leaf and the use of these to encourage playful inquiry into our everyday lives.
(ACELY1701)   (EN3-5B)   (ACELA1504)   (EN3-3A)


The text of The Red Tree is poetic and can be read as a poem. Even though it doesn’t rhyme, it can still be poetry. In fact non-rhyming poetry, or free verse poetry doesn’t rhyme. Non-rhyming poetry tends to be a little more emotive and serious than other types of poetry. Non-rhyming poetry has little or no punctuation and is sometimes called free verse. It is called free verse because the metre, the basic rhyming structure of the poem or lines of the poem are not needed. Basically non-rhyming poetry has no fixed conventions apart from the fact that it usually focuses on emotive themes, like the text from The Red Tree. Copy the text from The Red Tree into a poem. Use Tan’s innovative punctuation style so students can see how it is set out. Read it together. Discuss how it is a text for a picture book but it could also be a poem.

Sometimes the day begins

with nothing to look forward to

and things go from bad to worse


overcomes you. . .

In their pairs students could experiment with a readers’ theatre of the text – thinking about using their voices, pause, inflection, etc. to convey the meaning.

It can sometimes be easier for students to discuss emotional issues using non-rhyming poetry. It enables the writer to focus on describing and examining feelings rather than on worrying about making sure the words rhyme and that the punctuation and grammar are correct. As a class read through some non-rhyming poems. Eloise Greenfield and Lorraine Wilson (see More Resources below) both write excellent non-rhyming poetry. Display and read a range of non-rhyming poems to your students. Discuss the imagery and feelings they create.

When supporting students to write non-rhyming poetry, it is always important to not only give them a number of examples but also to model the process, so that they understand explicitly how other writers go about it. In order to  demonstrate how to write a non-rhyming poem, you will need to be prepared. Have a theme and at least one verse of a poem you have written around that theme. It doesn’t have to be perfect. The point is to show the students how to write and create a poem and no one gets it right the first time.

Theme: Hope


is strong

positive and optimistic.

Hope gives me faith

in the future

in my self


in my world.

When modelling the process of poetry writing, it’s important to focus on word choice. Tan carefully chose each word in the text of The Red Tree, so it’s important to show students how important each word is. It is not a novel; every word chosen needs to help and support the overall meaning of the poem. Read through your poem with the students, changing and developing it as you go along. Editing is a very important part of the process. Each time we read it, we reflect and think of ways we can more clearly share our ideas and our emotions. Students may make suggestions while you are editing your poem, however it’s your poem, so you can take their suggestions on board or leave them.

Encourage students to choose a theme from the list developed by the class earlier in the unit. Using the theme chosen as a starting point, students develop their own non-rhyming poem around the theme.

Students discuss ways they could present their poem and who their audience will be. Students may publish their poem as a poster, a class poetry book, a picture book, a PowerPoint presentation, or a short animated video. Students will need to take into account both the text and the way their poem will be illustrated. They will need to take into account some of the techniques used by Tan; including angles, framing, colour, and demand and offer.
(ACELT1611)   (EN3-7C)   (ACELA1518)   (EN3-5B)


Rich assessment task

Book Trailer

A book trailer is just like a movie trailer but it is for a book. It is a short movie with the aim of encouraging others to read the book. A good book trailer doesn’t tell the audience everything about the book. In fact book trailers work best when they actually tease the audience a little. When they show a little about the book but they don’t tell the whole story. A good book trailer captures the mood and tone of a book.

There are a number of excellent websites where you can view book trailers developed by professionals and students. Watch an example of one created for The Red Tree. These websites also give you great tips on how to design your own book trailer. You can make simple book trailers by using PowerPoint, Photostory, Prezi or Powtoons.

Ask the student partners to develop a book trailer for The Red Tree using these guidelines.

  1. Know your book, so make sure you’ve read it a number of times and you know the themes of the book and the mood it creates.
  2. Write a script. The trailer needs to be between 30 seconds and two minutes. If you make it too long the viewer will lose interest. Edit your script, read it to each other to make sure it sounds right and it isn’t too long. Keep it simple and remember not to summarise book. You don’t want to tell them the ending. The main aim is to get them to read the book.
  3. Find free music or compose your own using Garage Band. Source images online, but be careful you do have to make sure that what you are using isn’t copyright. Creative Commons is a good share site.
  4. Storyboard your script, include the music, images and sounds you want to use.
  5. Shoot your book trailer and then carefully edit it.
  6. Present your book trailer to your friends, your class digital repository and put it on loop in the library.

For more detailed information on book trailers and to view some excellent examples, see: insideadogtristanbancks, readingagency.
(ACELT1618)   (EN3-2A)   (ACELT1798)   (EN3-2A)