Picture Books in the Classroom: Learning Rhetorical Analysis through Stories

Book with a story coming out from the pages full of color and a city landscape

One of the first challenges that any composition teacher faces is presenting rhetorical analysis as a skill that is both imaginatively engaging and academically useful. Nearly any student who gains admission to a college or university is an experienced reader—meaning they know what a book is and that all teachers believe they are essential to learning. Unfortunately, too many of our first year students have experienced reading, particularly critical reading, as a primarily passive exercise—exercise in the sense of a dread-inducing discipline forced upon them by all the fun-sucking adults in their lives. As Karen Kopelson rightly observes, “Many students slump into our classrooms, enthusiastic only that this is the last English course they’ll ever have to take and with a concomitant resentment that they have to take it at all” (116). Overcoming students’ dread is not an easy task. What’s harder is responding to some students’ open resistance to unfamiliar ideas or voices that seem to threaten or contradict everything they currently know or value. “As anyone who can remember her or his first uneasy encounters with particularly challenging new theories or theorists can attest, resistance serves to shield us from uncomfortable shifts or all-out upheavals in perception and understanding, shifts in perception which, if honored, force us to inhabit the world in fundamentally new and different ways” (Kopelson 119). This resistance may be predictable, but it doesn’t have to be the wall against which we beat our heads in the introductory college courses required for any academic discipline.

Rhetorical analysis is fundamental to a college student’s orientation precisely because it challenges whatever bad habits they might have developed in their earlier educational experiences. The skill itself reaches in two directions simultaneously: backwards to everything students have come to believe, assume, or suspect is true about authors’ intentions (namely to torture, if my son was right when he lamented that reading The Scarlet Letter could not have been more arduous a task if he had been required to read it in reverse), and forward toward all the things they have yet to discover. I have learned that the more I can nudge students into the posture they had as children, when books were objects of color and rhyme, hilarity or thrilling adventure, the more willing they are to engage with both delight and rigor those challenging texts that await their engagement.

The tools I have found to be quite effective for this introduction to formal rhetorical analysis are, surprisingly, picture books. The picture books in Ruth Heller’s World of Language series (Many Luscious Lollipops: a book about Adjectives; Merry-Go-Round: a book about Nouns; Up, Up and Away: a book about Adverbs; Behind the Mask: a book about Prepositions, and others) are ideal for this kind of intellectual work. Lyrically engaging, these books are also visually stunning. They teach the parts of speech in that sneaky, musical way that metered rhyme accomplishes so well. The great benefit of choosing these texts for students’ orientation to rhetorical analysis is that a careful study of these books for children allows college students to arrive on their own at the realization that no text is a simple, one-dimensional message devoid of opportunities for interpretation. I typically circulate the books, asking students to work in pairs to examine them one at a time. I tell them to read the text aloud, study the illustrations carefully, make notes about their first impressions, and then collaborate with their partner to apply the rhetorical triangle (author/audience/purpose) to generate a focused analysis. They realize very quickly that the books have not one but many target readers (parents, children, teachers, librarians, booksellers, etc.), all of whom have specific needs, interests, expectations, and potential barriers. Students enrolled in first-year composition courses also discover with very little prompting from me that Heller seems to be pursuing multiple goals with each book: to make the child laugh, to entertain the adult reading the book for the twenty-eighth time, to feed the reader’s imagination with frame-worthy illustrations, to bait the child’s appetite for investigation, to challenge or perhaps preclude the reader’s belief that “grammar” and all its associated components are dull. This kind of careful analysis primes college students to discuss the many assumptions that inform our choices as readers; the experiences that create barriers to understanding or doorways into worlds other people create; assumptions that inform writers’ choices regarding syntax, diction, literary allusion, and multimedia constructions. Once they’ve begun this kind of intellectual inquiry of something as non-threatening and delectable as a beautifully illustrated children’s book, they are more prepared for and less intimidated by the harder questions that they must learn to consider when producing their own texts or when grappling with literature written for adults: Has the author predicted her readers’ needs successfully? Whom might she have alienated with the choices she made? Whom might I alienate or exclude if I make specific choices in my own writing? What consequences do we suffer (as readers or writers) when we expect too much or too little or the wrong things from the people with whom we want most to communicate? On the best days, this activity is a productive response to whatever resistance students might carry into my classroom.

If I have baited their curiosity effectively, then parsing the language in these books becomes a process more akin to the careful turning of some strange, bright shell turned up on the beach than to dissection. Not all students bring wonder or thoughtfulness to such careful examination of the language, imagery, layout, white spaces, or pauses created by each page turn.  Some begrudge this task with bored disdain.  But many of them don’t. The students who do engage enthusiastically with this classroom activity (and the writing assignment that follows as homework), gain confidence in their own analytical abilities and a new understanding of both the textual complexity and the high stakes endeavor that is at the heart of all purposeful human communication.  When I shift their attention from children books to editorials, formal arguments, and scholarly essays, the tools of rhetorical analysis feel more comfortable in their hands.  As their teacher, I can say truthfully, “You know how to do this. You’ve already proven how capable you are.”

I believe picture books can be valuable tools in many of the other courses that populate our university curriculum, particularly those general education courses that draw diverse groups of students into engagement with subject matter, and often other people, that make them uncomfortable. Though not the primary content for the course, picture books are an effective catalyst. At a writing conference many years ago, I once witnessed Andrea Davis Pinkney dress down a skeptic who dismissed picture books as easier to create and artistically inferior to more serious literature composed for more mature readers. She deftly reminded him that books for children accomplish all of the same things that books for adult readers achieve but with fewer words and often greater clarity. The best children’s books are marvelously complex, wrestling with issues of race, gender identity, family dynamics, human pain, war, love, friendship, culture, and even death. So of course they are ripe for formal rhetorical analysis. For students who had the great benefit of exposure to good books in their formative years, this approach reminds them why they love to read and how much there is to discover in a story, an argument, or a poem. For students who did not have this kind of positive early exposure, picture books are an invitation to that pleasure and a great place to begin their critical inquiries.

Deborah Zarka Miller teaches creative writing, composition, and literature at Anderson University where she serves as chair of the English department and co-director for the university’s Honors Program.  She has published multiple articles in Faculty Focus, released a young adult novella, A Star for Robbins Chapel, and contributed short personal essays to several anthologies, including Home Again: Memoirs and Essays from Indiana. She holds a master of fine arts from Spalding University.


Kopelson, Karen. “Rhetoric on the Edge of Cunning; Or, the Performance of Neutrality (Re)Considered as a Composition Pedagogy for Student Resistance.” College Composition and Communication 55, no. 1 (2003): 115-46. Accessed June 29, 2021. doi:10.2307/3594203.