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13. How descriptive picturebooks engaged children in knowledge about coal, oil, and gas

Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer (1959) is a professor in the German Department at the University of Tübingen, Germany. She has published widely on children’s literature and picturebooks. She is the editor of The Routledge companion to picturebooks (2018).

Jörg Meibauer (1953) is Professor emeritus of German language and linguistics at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. His latest book is Pragmatikerwerb und Kinderliteratur (Pragmatic acquisition and children’s literature) (2021, co-edited with Kristin Börjesson).

This chapter compares five historical picturebooks that deal with energy sources, such as coal, oil, and gas. It is shown that these descriptive picturebooks contain descriptive, explanatory, and even narrative elements. Thus, they aim at engaging children not only with respect to knowledge transmission but also emotionally. A main challenge for authors and readers is the creation of optimal coherence between visual and textual information which is at the heart of the genre.

Keywords: description, energy, explanation, narration, descriptive picturebook


Descriptive picturebooks have the task of conveying knowledge about the world in a truthful and comprehensible manner.1 Ideally, pictures and graphic representations of different kinds, e.g., diagrams, figures, and maps, support or elaborate the textual information. These types of instructive or even logical pictures enlarge the set of merely illustrative pictures children may already be acquainted with by looking at narrative picturebooks. Depending on the cognitive abilities of children, the information provided in descriptive picturebooks could be demanding due to the topic’s inherent complexity or a special vocabulary that is needed to understand the content.

This chapter focuses on the topic of energy with an emphasis on the exploitation of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and gas. To comprehend how these energy sources can be used to generate electrical energy is quite complex, since it demands an understanding of biological, chemical, and technological processes. Therefore, studying the strategies used by authors and illustrators in the transmission of knowledge about energy sources and their benefits for human society is a worthwhile enterprise which provides insight into how descriptive picturebooks deal with this topic over the course of time.

Our corpus consists of five historical picturebooks that were published between 1935 and 1968, i.e. in a time, when the exploitation of fossil fuels played an eminent role. The story book of oil (1935) by the US couple Maud and Miska Petersham is a prominent example of those descriptive picturebooks of the interwar period that intended to turn children into “active engineers of the future” (op de Beeck, 2010, p. 129). Almost in the same vein, The magic of coal (1945) by British author-illustrator Peggy M. Hart “gives a futuristic spin to the realities of working in the mines” (Reynolds, 2014, p. 203), while also providing factual information on how coal is produced. Finally, the Ladybird books The story of oil (1968) by W. D. Siddle and Robert Ayton, and The Public Services. Electricity (1966) and The Public Services. Gas (1967), both with texts by I. Havenhand and illustrations by John Berry, attest to the series-publishing of descriptive picturebooks in the United Kingdom that became a “predominant feature of the children’s book industry during the 1950s and 1960s” (Johnson & Alderson, 2014, p. 73).

Typically, these picturebooks not only explain the origins of these energy sources, the labor associated with them, and the gains for the society and everyday life, but also try to evoke the children’s emotions and empathy directed to the workers and managers in these fields. This is becoming apparent in the styles of illustrations that range from the realistic to the expressive as well as in the integration of narrative elements, as already suggested by typical titles like “The Story of X”.

In general, the picturebooks under investigation do not critically discuss ecological issues, such as the pollution of the environment or the exploitation of nature. Quite on the contrary, they provide a rather positive account of the advantages of these energy sources with respect to human progress. Although it might be interesting to analyse the potentially underlying ideological messages in these descriptive picturebooks, this chapter pursues a different goal by contributing to the current discussion of how a theory of children’s nonfiction might look like. Most recently, Joe Sutliff Sanders (2018) advocates “critical engagement” as a core issue of such a theory (p. 177). He focuses on the educational aspects of this literary genre by emphasizing its role in stimulating the critical attitude of the readers. Sanders thus hopes to change the appreciation of children’s nonfiction from a “literature of authority” to a “literature of questions” (p. 34). However, this approach does not seem to explain the specific aesthetic features of nonfiction for children and how it exactly differs from fictional texts.

In contrast to Sanders, who by and large concentrates on contemporary children’s nonfiction, we consult historical examples, since we contend that a proper theory of the genre needs to consider historical as well as present sources to get a grip of the development of the genre. Although Sanders vehemently argues against reading levels, we take the view that the accessibility of the books’ content for children, pending on their world knowledge and literacy capacities, cannot be ignored. Moreover, we maintain that the difficulties of conveying information in children’s nonfiction depend on the specific topics and their aesthetic mastery. In our view, a fully-fledged theory of children’s nonfiction has to consider these three aspects that are the prerequisites of any ideological criticism.

Considering this, we focus on the question of how information is conveyed to children by explaining how the construction of coherence between the text and the visuals in descriptive picturebooks is achieved, and to reflect on the relation between description, narration, and explanation as essential characteristics of this type of picturebook. In a way, descriptive picturebooks construct frames for the integration of knowledge which is supposed to be of interest for young readers.

Pictorial Information

This section focuses on the covers and the types of pictures. When comparing the cover design of the picturebooks in our corpus, two different strategies come to the fore. The covers either focalize the energy source, showing a dam, an oil refinery, a gas turbine, or a power plant, or they depict people, who profit from these energy sources, such as workers, researchers, or users. As for the latter case, we can distinguish two approaches: a single character or a group of characters, whether children or adults, is center stage, doing something in relation to energy sources, such as carrying a shovel or a bucket with coals. Other covers push the characters into the background, emphasizing the grandeur of energy devices.

As for the type of pictures, we rely on the distinction between informing, artistic, and entertaining pictures, as proposed by Bernd Weidenmann (1994). Informing pictures are prominent in instructional situations that serve the acquisition of knowledge and skills. It is important that any ambiguity of the pictorial representation is avoided so that readers can grasp the coded information in a precise and comprehensive manner. Artistic pictures, in contrast, emphasize aesthetic aspects and allow some vagueness triggering subjective interpretation. Finally, entertaining pictures aim at captivating attention and evoking emotions. It may happen that a delimitation of these types cannot be easily drawn, since individual pictures may mix elements of these types in a hybrid manner. Although these three types can be found in descriptive picturebooks, it is obvious that informing pictures are particularly typical for this picturebook genre.

In the parlance of Weidenmann (1994, p. 12, see Fig. 13.1), informing pictures are visual arguments, i.e. they constitute answers to questions. For instance, a picture showing a gas turbine gives an answer to the question how a gas turbine looks like. Visual arguments are connected to the criterion of adequacy, since they should encompass all relevant aspects and have to be finetuned to the needs of the recipients and the particular instructional setting. Within the realm of informing pictures, we further differentiate between representative (realistic) pictures and logical pictures. Since different types of maps exist, we would like to add maps as a subtype of informing pictures (see Goga & Kümmerling-Meibauer, 2017).

Figure 13.1

Types of pictures according to Weidenmann (1994). The bracketed category is our addition.

The label of representative picture refers to all pictures that depict something, such as a person, a thing, or an event (Peeck, 1994). For instance, a picture of a person shows a relation of similarity to the real person who is depicted. Logical pictures comprise all types of diagrams (e.g., Venn diagrams or isotype diagrams, see Walker, 2013) that stand in an iconic relation to aspects of reality (Schnotz, 1994). Often, they visualize connections between qualitative and quantitative aspects of a state or a city, for example demonstrating how religions are distributed over the inhabitants of Berlin. Finally, maps represent a part of the world while having also logical properties.

The descriptive picturebooks under investigation have drawings in full color or in black-and-white. The full-color drawing is the preferred mode of representation in our historical corpus. These drawings mainly belong to the category of representative picture. Many pictures depict diverse machines being used for the extraction and transportation of coal, oil, and gas, or things such as household items that are produced from coal or oil. Other pictures show people who handle energy sources in different ways. Sparing out complicated details, these pictures demonstrate the importance of energy for everyday life. This type of presentation dominates those descriptive picturebooks whose storyline follows a historical approach. Typically, they tell a story about the origin of energy sources and how mankind used them over the course of time. Basically, this approach represents coal, oil, and gas as age-old treasures that people can unearth and use for the purpose of modern life. Famous discoverers but also workers and researchers are portrayed as being engaged in lifting these treasures. A typical representative of this approach is The story book of oil by the Petershams. The first picture depicts a pre-historic setting which is populated by dinosaurs, while the accompanying text explains the origin of oil. The subsequent pictures cover a long time period from ancient times to the present and visualize the increasing facilities of mankind to produce oil and use it as an energy source.

In contrast, the illustrators use logical pictures in a cautious manner due to their abstract design. In order to avoid overloading the picture with too much information, they omit unnecessary details and use colors to distinguish different levels of representation, as in an illustration in The Public Services. Gas that visualizes the processing of gas. The red domain on the right part depicts the different by-products of coal, such as tar, Sulphur, and ammonia, as well as gas made from coal. The yellow domain shows how coal is delivered to the retorts, and how the gas is transported to the gasholder, factories, and homes. The arrows point to the causal and temporal order of these processes.

Some illustrations combine representative (realistic) and logical pictures. A telling example is “a modern ‘cat-cracker’ and how it works” in The story of oil (p. 17). The upper part shows a realistic depiction of the cat-cracker, while the lower part points to the functions of the cat-cracker by a cross-sectional diagram. The arrows in the diagram indicate the different directions of the chemical processes that happen inside the cat-cracker, while small black lines with bulges instead of arrows at one end connect the technical terms and the corresponding machine components.

Black-and-white drawings complement the full-color drawings. They are either printed on the flyleaves, as in the Ladybird books, or they alternate with full-color drawings, as in The magic of coal. These drawings are either representative pictures or logical pictures. An example for the latter is a cross-section black-and white drawing of a drilling tower which is printed on the flyleaf of The story of oil. Parts of this tower are designated so that children can learn the correct technical language. This strategy points to the idea that pictures may support the learning and understanding of new words.

Moreover, some picturebooks include maps which are printed on the front- and endpapers or amidst the main body of text. There are rather abstracts maps which show, for instance, the different gas boards in England (Havenhand, 1967, front- and endpapers) or world maps of “Oil-bearing areas and main areas of production” (Siddle, 1968, p. 51). The Public Services. Electricity, by contrast, shows a pictorial map that visualizes the deliverance of electricity from France to the UK via undersea cables. The power plants and the electricity lines are depicted as three-dimensional buildings and objects (p. 29).

As for the artistic style, there are artworks like the lithographs in The story book of oil and The magic of coal, alongside more realistic drawings that mimic photographs and abstract drawings, as in the Ladybird books.

Textual Information

While most literary scholars focus on the distinction between narration and description as focal issues in the analysis of nonfiction, narratologists and text linguists point to another distinctive feature: explanation (Herman, 2008). This trifurcation of text types seems to be particularly fruitful in relation to descriptive picturebooks. On closer consideration, these picturebooks contain text segments that describe the appearances of creatures, nature, objects, and machines, the living conditions of people in old times in comparison to our modern times, and the activities performed by humans when using tools and machines. Besides, there are also text passages that deviate from mere descriptions as they tell a story about the characters and objects involved. These stories are either short anecdotes implemented into the descriptive passages or longer narratives that embed the descriptive texts into a storyline.

Explanations aim at providing answers to why- and how-questions, for instance: How does electricity function? Or: Why are coal and oil so widely used sources of energy? It is evident that description is a precondition for any explanatory texts, as descriptions of a “sequentially ordered representation of things that happen in a sequence” (Herman, 2008, p. 454) as well as the “ascription of the properties to entities” (p. 452) are pertinent in order to understand the actions that happen in relation to these entities or sequential arrangements. To get a full picture of these underlying processes, explanations are helpful since they get to the bottom of things, thus providing (scientific) knowledge.

Perusing different descriptive picturebooks demonstrates how information is storied and how the interplay of description, narration and explanation make the information intelligible to children at large. The Public Services. Gas starts with the following text (p. 4) (see Table 13.1): The text begins with a descriptive sentence that describes what happens if one observes a coal fire. The author directly addresses the reader in order to draw her into the story. The second sentence provides an explanation for the “little spurts of flame”: They are gas flames which come out of the hot coal and burn. The next sentence, however, turns to the past and is the beginning of a story about William Murdoch who is regarded as the discoverer of gas as an energy source. The following sentences point to an observation Murdoch made and how this gave him the idea to perform an experiment.

Table 13.1

The combination of description, explanation, and narration (underlining added by the authors of the chapter)

When you look at a coal fire you sometimes see little spurts of flame.Description of an observational situation; the reader is addressed
These are really small jets of gas which come out of the hot coal and burn.Explanation of the observation
About two hundred years ago, a man called William Murdoch saw these gas flames.Narration: Introduction of a (historical) character
They gave him the ideas of making gas.Narration: The character’s thoughts
He put some coal in a copper kettle and heated it on a fire.Narration: Description of an experiment by the character
When gas came out of the spout, he lit it.Narration: Description of an experiment by the character
This made him think that he could use gas to light his house.Narration: What the character concludes from his experiments

The ensuing text describes the progress of gas lighting and the development of further machines, such as the gas-cooker and gas-fires. These descriptive passages refer to contemporary times, when large gasworks had been erected in towns. Arriving at this point, the text provides a quite complex explanation of how coal is manufactured in order to create gas, coke and so-called by-products, such as plastics and medicines. Later on, another story is told about the discovery of a huge gas field in the Sahara Desert (p. 16). The text goes on like that, blending descriptive, narrative, and explanatory sections.

Like the Ladybird book on gas, the other picturebooks in our corpus combine the text types of description, narration, and explanation. The boundaries between the three text types, however, are porous and variable. As The Public Services. Gas demonstrates, there is an area of overlap, in which description blends into explanation or narration, while narration seems to flow into description or explanation. These mixed modes emphasize that even the texts in descriptive picturebooks tend to swift between description, narration, and explanation. This blending of text types serves multiple functions: It introduces a sense of variety in order to entertain the reader and to avoid the impression of boredom, which may happen when a text merely consists of descriptive and/or explanatory passages. In addition, this variation may entice the reader’s curiosity, since she is invited to empathize with the characters introduced in the anecdotes and historical sections that belong to the text type of narration.

In relation to our corpus, we observe that description always precedes explanation, as description seems to be regarded as a precondition to understand the elaboration on the causes and reasons for the events and entities described. Sometimes authors appeal to the reader’s active participation by inviting her to do some experiments or tests. In ‘The Public Services’ electricity, the reader is asked to blow up a balloon, rub it on her pullover and then place the balloon on the wallpaper. The astonishing result is that the electric charge will make the balloon stay there (p. 8). Hence, the reader is learning by doing and potentially better prepared at understanding the ensuing explanation of how electricity works.

In this regard, narration can either function as a complement or extension to description, as these narrative inserts are usually followed by explanations. With respect to the amount of text that can be ascribed to the three text types, description and explanation have an equal share, while narration is less dominant, often having a subservient function.

Nevertheless, the anecdotes about famous people who have discovered new energy sources or explored new territories for the exploitation of coal, oil, and gas introduce another concept which is relevant for descriptive picturebooks, namely the close connection between providing information and individual characters. Thus, the reader is encouraged to realize that such a complex issue as energy cannot be fully grasped without considering the people behind it, whether scientists, workers in a coal mine or on the oil fields, machine drivers, and workers at factories and power plants, let alone electricians and people working in the public energy services. Representing these people and their specific capabilities and tasks introduce the child reader into the world of labor. Moreover, the reader can ascertain that many people need to cooperate in order to produce electricity and other means of energy. Another aspect in relation to the representation of individual characters consists in evoking emotional stances on behalf of the reader.

On closer consideration, one can recognize typical frames related to the presentation of energy sources. An overarching frame refers to the contrast between nature, civilization, and science – coal, oil, and gas can be found in nature, but people need to transform them in order to profit from these energy sources. A second relevant frame is the world of labor in connection to the manufacturing of the energy sources. Another one focuses on the household and the child’s everyday surrounding, thus emphasizing the impact of these energy sources on the amelioration of people’s everyday life conditions. Tightly connected with this frame is the idea to enlist and depict household items and machines that are produced of oil or only function by the usage of electricity, gas, and oil.

Apart from that, the picturebooks’ narratives follow two predominant scripts. First, the majority of them provides an historical overview, from pre-modern times to the present. Second, the script is based on everyday routines and observations, such as highlighting the significance of water for human life or referring to the experience of having a well-lit and warm home due to the availability of electricity. These two scripts are interlaced in the picturebooks, thus embedding the topic of energy into a broader context that encompasses historical, cultural, social, and economic aspects.

As for the level and the amount of factual explanation, this depends on the average age group targeted in the picturebooks. Although the grammatical structure of the texts seems to be quite simple with a preference for main clauses, the texts are distinguished by ample use of technical language. The terminology refers to the processes related to the manufacturing and processing of the energy sources as well as the description of the different types of machines which are necessary in the transfer and further processing of oil, coal, and gas. To make this vocabulary more accessible to young readers, the text is often complemented by schematic drawings and lists which pinpoint the respective items and entities. This strategy supports the acquisition of conceptual knowledge, since the technical terms can be related to conceptual classes, such as household items, machines, or vehicles of transportations. Notwithstanding, the demands on the readers are high, as they are asked to learn new words as well as to understand that these newly acquired technical terms are necessary in order to describe and explain the processes behind the production and usage of energy sources.

The authors occasionally use metaphors in order to facilitate the understanding of complicated processes. These metaphors point to essential properties and functions of energy sources, since electricity itself is invisible and coal represents a mighty treasure for mankind, because it provides heating and electricity and can be used for multiple purposes. In relation to the often-quoted term of “magic”, the discoverers, scientists, and workers in the factories are occasionally compared to “magicians”. This metaphor has two meanings: it implies that these people have replaced magicians and that they have “magical” power, since they are able to turn water, coal, gas, and oil into useful energy sources as well as to use these elements to create new materials such as plastic.

(IN-)Coherence of Text and Pictures

As the analysis of the descriptive picturebooks has demonstrated, text and pictures often complement each other in the sense that the illustration visualizes the meaning of textual information, whereas texts describe and explain what can be seen in the illustrations. This observation aligns with the category “complementary picturebook”, suggested by Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott (2001, p. 12). Though, applied to the analysis of fictional picturebooks, this category points to the fact that text and pictures fill each other’s gap. With respect to descriptive picturebooks, this category reveals another aspect: Pictures and text support each other as they make the meaning of specific information more explicit to the reader. Correspondingly, authors sometimes use expressions such as “like that in the picture” (Havenhand, 1967, p. 24) or “the illustration shows” (Havenhand, 1966, p. 6). These cross-references directly invite the reader to contemplate the illustration in order to understand the textual information.

Many picturebooks rely on a balance between both modes, providing equal space to text and illustrations. The Ladybird series, for instance, always places the text on the left page and the illustration on the right page. Other picturebooks, however, combine text and pictures in different ways, deviating from a uniform page design. Illustrations stretch on both pages of a doublespread with text sections at the margins, at the top or bottom of the pages. Other strategies consist in combining several illustrations on a doublespread, often with different artistic techniques such as photography and drawing. On these pages, the text is quite reduced in comparison to other doublespreads where the text has a dominant position.

What makes the reading procedure sometimes confusing is the mixture of a continuous text with interspersed short sentences that refer to the images. A case in point is a doublespread in The magic of coal. The main text points to a diagram which centers on what happens underground (available at https://www.bl.uk/childrens-books/articles/non-fiction-books-for-children). The diagram runs from the top of the left page in a zig-zag line to the bottom of the right page. Bold red lines point to specific sections of the diagram, complemented by technical terms, such as “The Haulage Engine” or “The Rippers”, whose meaning is explained with a short sentence, if needed. Additionally, twelve characters are depicted in the upper part of both pages. They represent different job positions in a coal mine, such as onsetter, loader, and beltman. This doublespread demands the ability to switch between the diagram, the characters, the main text, and the descriptions of the single parts in the diagram in order to understand the structure of the underground as well as the tasks of the twelve different jobs.

Although text and pictures generally match each other, the information provided by both modes is not always easily accessible. The Ladybird series, for instance, include illustrations that assemble objects, comparable to pictures in concept books. When just looking at these illustrations, it is not quite clear how the objects and machines are connected to the overarching topic of the picturebook. An image in The Public Services. Electricity depicts nine household items, such as a vacuum cleaner, a toaster, and a refrigerator. Only by reading the text, the reader may ascertain that these objects need electricity in order to function. A similar illustration in the book The story of oil is even more enigmatic, as it shows a water bowl, a radio, glasses, a screwdriver, and a ball pen. Only the text solves the mystery, as these are objects made of petrochemicals which are by-products of oil.


This chapter provided an overview on the strategies used by the authors and illustrators of five descriptive picturebooks in order to create a balance or even coherence between text and pictures. This conceptualization is far from self-evident and asks for different solutions which are dependent on the subject, the age of the addressed readers and the artistic techniques. Typically, this book genre combines three text types, description, narration, and explanation. A large number of descriptive picturebooks have fictional or narrative sections, thus building a connection to fictional picturebooks. Moreover, descriptive picturebooks use technical terms which are essential for the understanding of the presented subjects, thus introducing the child reader to technical language. Depending on the topic, descriptive picturebooks also include rather abstract illustrations and designs, such as diagrams, schemata, and lists as well as different text segments, such as headings, subtitles, short references, and single words printed in italics or bold letters. These strategies might facilitate the process of knowledge acquisition. Moreover, they demand a high cognitive competence, namely the facility to distinguish between these specific linguistic and visual patterns as well as to grasp their meaning.


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1A note on terminology: The notion “non-fiction” (see Sanders, 2018) is far too broad and, as a negative term, not very appealing (von Merveldt, 2018, p. 231f.). However, the notion “informational picturebook”, suggested by Nikola von Merveldt, seems to falsely suggest that narrative picturebooks do not contain information. Therefore, we prefer the notion “descriptive picturebook”, because description (as opposed to narration) is at the core of the picturebooks under investigation (see Meibauer, 2015).

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