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4. Ideology in nonfiction picturebooks: Verbal and visual strategies in books about sculptures

Petros Panaou (1973) is Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Georgia, where he teaches children’s literature and literacy courses. He is the current editor of Bookbird. His scholarship focuses on global and multicultural children’s literature.

Angela Yannicopoulou (1964) is Professor of Children’s Literature at National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece. She has published papers and books on picturebook research.

This critical reading of two nonfiction picturebooks about the Statue of Liberty and Cycladic Figurines shows that these books employ both verbal and visual strategies to establish second-order semiotic symbols as per Barthes’ terminology. It observes that the manner in which nonfiction picturebooks communicate information is instrumental in their support of specific ideologies and concludes that the very same strategies that support factual truthfulness also convincingly support ideology.

Keywords: nonfiction picturebook, ideology, sculptures, visual strategies, verbal strategies

Ideology and Nonfiction Picturebooks

Even though the precursor of the picturebook was a nonfiction text – Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1657) – nonfiction picturebooks have received little attention from scholars compared to literary picturebooks. Several important aspects of nonfiction picturebooks, including their relationship with ideology, are yet to be fully explored.

Examining the ideology of children’s literature texts is a relatively recent field. The study of ideology began in the 1970s and initially focused on gender, race, and class stereotypes (Dixon, 1977). It was not until 1988 that the first studies on broader theoretical issues of ideology in children’s literature began to appear (see Hollindale, 1988; Stephens, 1992). The same path was followed in the case of nonfiction children’s books, the study of ideology taking again the form of a call to avoid stereotypes (Cianciolo, 2000, pp. 10–13; Dowd, 1992, p. 49) and to demand that nonfiction books reflected the multicultural societies in which they were being published (Garcia & Pugh, 1991).

Nonfiction covers a wide range of diverse topics, but ideology is discussed mainly in relation to books that deal with social science subjects, including books that seem to be self-contradicting; such as books of advice for girls about sports that limit rather than liberate girls (Heinecken, 2016), books that explain the process of human reproduction in ways that perpetuate sexist stereotypes (Liang et al, 2016), or picturebooks on different religions that reproduce stereotypes while purporting to advocate for tolerance and diversity (von Glasenapp, 2017).

In some cases, recognizing that a book conveys true or fictional information has ideological dimensions. In the case of And Tango Makes Three (Richardson & Parnell, 2005), an informational book according to McCallum & Stephens (2011), emphasizing the veracity of the story about two real-life male penguins who create a nontraditional family was particularly important in the rhetoric for same-sex couples’ parenthood rights. In a book that reports the zookeeper’s observations, the positive ideological stance toward nontraditional families is mainly communicated through the illustrations.

In nonfiction picturebooks, ideology is communicated both through verbal text and illustration (Bredekamp, Dunkel & Schneider, 2015). For example, in several Christopher Columbus biographies, illustrations tend to “shape reader response by conferring importance and approval on the imperial enterprise” (Desai, 2014, p. 186), even by presenting Columbus taller than the Natives. Ideologically, the avoidance of white male bias is considered important, not only in the verbal text but also in the illustrations (Horning, 2010, pp. 28–29); in the process of representing information visually, illustrators take on “an active, interpretive role” (von Merveldt, 2018, p. 23).

Scholars have begun to recognize the role of book creators in mediating scientific knowledge, emphasizing their part in interpreting the information they provide. After all, even the simplest information needs to be selected, organized, and textually and visually interpreted in order to be transmitted (Zins, 2007). These kinds of choices will inevitably be influenced by, and express ideology (Nodelman & Reimer, 2003, pp. 128–129). Reality can never be perceived objectively and without preconceptions (Anderson, 1989).

In an article appropriately titled “Non-fiction for children: Does it really exist?” Nodelman purports that a discussion about nonfiction children’s books is connected to the philosophical question about whether reality is knowable. He postulates that, even if we assume there is an objective world, separate from our perception and unaffected by prejudices or other distortions, it is impossible for humans to know it. For Nodelman, as for Maria-Laure Ryan (1997) who has proclaimed the doctrine of panfictionality, nonfiction texts are fictitious; they carry the author’s subjective notions about reality.

Nevertheless, children as early as preschool (Sharkawy, 2009) believe that nonfiction books communicate facts that are diachronically true and unchangeable. This belief, or the metanarrative (Lyotard, 1984), that objective facts exist independent of the narratives about them (Coats, 2018, p. 394), persists and is valid even among adults. Metanarratives are “implicit and usually invisible ideologies, systems and assumptions which operate globally in a society to order knowledge and experience” (Stephens & McCallum, 1998, p. 3).

This is why, unlike fiction, nonfiction is deemed to convey accurate knowledge. Indeed, the quest for truth still seems to be a focal point for nonfiction books. A dichotomy is thus cultivated between the two categories of books; one concerned with the validity of reality and the other dominated by the imaginary. The term nonfiction itself highlights this dichotomy, as it focuses on the contrast between non-fiction and fiction, which is fictional or untrue.

Various descriptions of nonfiction underscore the ambition to present the truthful, factual state of the world: “The term nonfiction describes books of information and fact about any topic” (Galda, Cullinan & Sipe, 2010, p. 304); “Nonfiction is writing about reality (real people, places, events, ideas, feelings, things) in which nothing is made up” (Colman, 2007, p. 260); “The key distinction between fiction and nonfiction is that in nonfiction, nothing is intentionally made up” (Coats, 2018, p. 278). Nodelman and Reimer (2003, p. 138) acknowledge the author and illustrator’s subjectivity in the construction of knowledge, while also recognizing the general assumption that “Nonfiction informational texts [are] about the way things are.”

Even though the combining of fictional and informational elements tends to be the norm in contemporary nonfiction picturebooks (von Merveldt, 2018, p. 232), most nonfiction books seem to implicitly assume that knowledge is independent of the way it is presented. And the more credible the knowledge provided in the book seems to be, the more likely it is to be passively accepted by readers, who might not recognize the ideological significance of the mode of presentation and the choices that have been made.

Critical literacy proponents argue that “it is more important to look at a book’s relationship with inquiry rather than its relationship with accuracy” (Sanders, 2015, p. 391). When the authoritative voice in a text is not “seamless” (Kincheloe, 2001) it encourages the reader to approach the text critically. Several strategies can infuse doubts in the reader, resulting in texts that are open to inquiry and critical engagement (Sanders, 2018). Hedges, for example, are linguistic elements like perhaps, it seems, to a certain extent, which indicate that the referential information may not be entirely reliable. Another proposed strategy is the presence of a visible author, who humanizes the information and functions as someone with whom the reader can argue (Zarnowski, 2003, p. 51). A third strategy, called necromancer, infuses a text with what Bakhtin called polyphony by allowing the presence of opposing views and voices in the text (Sanders, 2018).

Reading nonfiction books critically can reveal the presence of ideology. Questioning the absolute truth and objectivity of the presented information therein tends to reveal mechanisms through which ideology contributes to the construction and communication of scientific knowledge. The following section explores the verbal and visual strategies through which ideology is embedded in two nonfiction picturebooks, as well as their relation to perceived reliability and truthfulness.

Investigating Ideology in Nonfiction Picturebooks about Sculptures

Nonfiction picturebooks “tend to relate facts from certain viewpoints, becoming slanted or partial versions of the truth” (Nodelman & Reimer, 2003, p. 129). Even more so, as nonfiction picturebooks about sculptures refer to issues of national heritage and national symbolism, they inevitably position themselves in relation to issues of identity, the nation, and communal self-perception in relation to “others.” Their analysis is bound to illuminate the strategies through which textual and visual texts concurrently embody ideological positions and establish the validity of the knowledge they provide. Do these books attempt to persuade the reader about the truth of both their informational content and their ideology? Or do they foreground the contrast between factual objectivity and their own subjectivity and ideology? Finally, do they in any way challenge all of the above by engaging the reader in critical inquiry?

We employ critical content analysis to examine the visual and textual strategies that carry ideology in two contemporary nonfiction picturebooks, one from the United States and one from Greece (in Greek and in English): Her right foot (2017) and Άνθρωπος ή βιολίIs it a man or a violin? (2013).

Her right foot: A picturebook about the Statue of Liberty

Her right foot refers to the Statue of Liberty in New York, providing information about the statue’s construction and its history, while also exploring its symbolism (see Fig. 4.1). As the title communicates, the book focuses on an important detail: Lady Liberty’s right foot, which upon close inspection seems to be raised and in motion. The book argues that Lady Liberty is moving forward to meet and welcome newly arriving immigrants. It is evident that Her right foot actively espouses an ideological positive stance towards immigrants.

Figure 4.1

Her right foot (2017), by Dave Eggers and Shawn Harris, Chronicle Books.

The ideological stance of the book is confirmed by the context within which it came to be published. The idea for the picturebook came about after the author, Dave Eggers, had published an opinion piece in The Guardian titled “The Statue of Liberty was built to welcome immigrants – that welcome must not end” (2016, July 4). In fact, a slightly manipulated version of the same photo that was used in The Guardian is published in the picturebook as well. The Guardian article was published on the fourth of July – the day on which Americans celebrate their nation’s independence – in 2016, when Donald Trump was running a xenophobic and hate-inciting presidential campaign. This is how it concluded: “If we ever forget who we are or why we’re here, if we ever forget the meaning of America, we need only look at the woman’s feet.” The nonfiction picturebook version that followed strives to make this same point, but it uses different textual and visual strategies.

The ideological stance of the picturebook is inherent in the selection of the Statue of Liberty, a diachronic symbol of America, as its subject. The message that America has always been a place of acceptance is directly communicated by the depiction of historical arrivals of diverse immigrants at the site of the statue (Norwegians, Glaswegians, Nepalis, Syrians, Liberians, and others), using a wide spectrum of transportation means, from 15th century boats to 21st century airplanes. Also, the illustrations consistently support the idea of a multicultural American society by including people of various races, religions, and ethnicities.

At the symbolic level, even the illustration techniques can be perceived as supportive of acceptance and multiculturalism. The use of collage, a technique that by definition brings diverse images together to form an aesthetically pleasing composition, is reminiscent of the beauty that can be found in diversity.

Her right foot consists of three parts: The first part is a historical overview of the construction, transportation, and placement of the statue, which was a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States. Throughout this first section and beyond, the fact that the statue “migrated” from France to the United States is constantly foregrounded. As an effect, Lady Liberty is presented as an immigrant protector of all other immigrants. Later in the book, the text explicitly states: “After all, the Statue of Liberty is an immigrant, too. And this is why she’s moving. This is why she’s striding.”

In the accompanying illustration, the image shows an airplane window and a contemporary immigrant sitting next to it, looking down at the Statue of Liberty. The woman is wearing a hijab and is holding a baby in her arms. This Muslim, Virgin-Mary-like mother and her child should be welcomed. This is perhaps the instance in which the book most directly opposes xenophobic, antimuslim ideologies in contemporary United States. The mother and child’s distance from the statue, which looks quite small from high above and is depicted as a rough sketch, combined with the cold blue colors that dominate and the mother’s reserved facial expression, seem to imply that this might not be the case once the plane lands in New York; these new immigrants should, but might not be, welcomed by the current American administration.

In the second part, the reader is directed to observe the statue’s right foot and to notice what other viewers depicted in the book are also noticing: the statue is on the move.

The third part poses successive questions and provides answers, explaining that the reason she is on the move is to welcome immigrants and refugees; it should be noted that this last idea is an inference, but it is nevertheless stated as a fact. The narrator addresses the reader in the second person, cites numerical figures – measurable, indisputable facts – and wonders why “we” Americans do not notice and talk about this important element. He gradually guides the reader to conclude that the statue is on the move in order to meet and welcome new immigrants. While the visible author could be used as a strategy that infuses doubt and opens the text to critical engagement (Sanders, 2018), the author–reader “discussion” here simulates an adult–child conversation, not allowing for different possible interpretations; for instance, the statue might be on the move as it is escaping from the chains she has just broken.

The text ends with a wordless page, featuring two immigrants standing on a ship’s bow and looking at the Statue of Liberty. This is the first thing they see as they approach their new home. Their body language communicates awe, and as we the readers identify with their point of view (we are looking at the statue over their shoulders) we are encouraged to adopt the same stance.

Peritextual elements come to reinforce the idea that this is a factual book, citing sources and proposing further readings. The appendix includes large photos, being observed by cartoonish tourists. The contrast between the photos’ realism and the observers’ fictionality highlights the truth of what is being presented in the photographs. The photos include a close-up of Liberty’s lifted right foot, the plaque with Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the statue (“Give me your tired. Your poor…”), and the statue from an angle that emphasizes its forward stride. As other scholars have asserted, choices made in the peritext – what is included, excluded, or emphasized – can communicate ideology (Desai, 2014, p. 186).

The statue is not personified, but it is at times treated by the narrator as if it were a real person, with her own life story and free will. She is an immigrant, moving to welcome other immigrants. The overt narrator, a technique that normally casts doubt to the objectivity of the information (Sanders, 2018), has a different function here, bringing about the opposite effect: actively involving the reader in the receiving and accepting of the presented knowledge, especially during the question-and-answer parts. This nonfiction picturebook evidently carries an explicit ideology, transforming the Statue of Liberty into, according to Barthes’ terminology, a myth, a second-order semiotic symbol that becomes synonymous to the acceptance of immigrants.

Is it a man or a violin: A book about the Cycladic Figurines

The picturebook Is it a man or a violin is about the Cycladic Figurines, which are artifacts from an ancient civilization in the Cycladic island complex (3rd millennium B.C.). Created by a nautical people who had developed commerce and the arts, they are made of marble and in various sizes. They usually represent female figures with crossed arms and long necks. Because of the lack of written accounts, scholars can only speculate about many aspects of the Cyclidic art, including the function or symbolism of the figurines (see Fig. 4.2).

Figure 4.2

Is it a man or a violin (2013), by Marina Plati, Eleni Markou and Xara Marantidou, Museum of Cycladic Art & Kaleidoscope Publications.

Is it a man or a violin is “expository” (Coats, 2018) or “descriptive” (Meibauer, 2015). Its content is organized in different units, from the materials and tools that were used to make them, to the different types of figurines, to modern art’s kinship to them. Similar to the book title, most of the unit titles are posed as questions pointing to the gaps in our knowledge about the statues and the element of uncertainty regarding the correct answers to these questions. Τhe chapter called “What were these figurines after all?” lists different possibilities rather than providing singular, definitive answers. This could be seen as a hedges strategy that can infuse doubt and make texts vulnerable to critical engagement (Sanders, 2018).

As is often the case with contemporary nonfiction picturebooks, this publication strives to be visually attractive and aesthetically pleasing (Giblin, 2000; Carter, 2000). It mainly features beautiful photos of the figurines, as well as works by contemporary artists who were inspired by them. This is a common strategy in nonfiction, as photography is a means of reinforcing the factuality of what is mentioned in the text. The photographic claim to accuracy “disguises the photographer’s choice of what to shoot from where, what focus and film type to use, and what sort of cropping to perform” (Nodelman & Reimer, 2003, p. 129).

It is notable that, even though the Cycladic Idols are considered a part of Greek cultural heritage, the book consistently avoids presenting them as an object of national pride. Nowhere in the text is there a reference to Greece or Greeks. The civilization that created the figurines is simply mentioned as Cycladic, the place as the Cycladic island complex, and the culture as that of islanders. Even the maps that show the historical space are limited to the specific islands and the area around them and make no mention of modern borders or nations. In no case is the Cycladic civilization in the book highlighted as evidence of the superiority of the Greek nation.

The book highlights the Cycladic Figurines’ relationship with abstract art and its European creators, such as Picasso, Modigliani, Giacometti, Coper, and Moore, among others. It also highlights the idols’ kinship to African and Oceanic masks. In this manner, the Cycladic Figurines are interpreted as world heritage and part of the global creative imagination; their culture belongs to everyone. This approach transforms an archeological finding to a bridge that connects all people, across time and space. Through “A modern eye on Cycladic sculpture” as the book subtitle states, this nonfiction picturebook attempts to bring the world together under a common creative culture.

Is it a man or a violin supports the above-mentioned ideological stance through various visual and verbal strategies: the most important of which is the nonfiction format itself. Authored in an informative style, it uses several expressive modes that communicate credibility. The absence of a narrator, for instance, conceals the existence of a person who is communicating this information to us (Hesse & Bradway, 2009, p. 3). Photography is used in a way that makes the comparisons between Cycladic and modern art seem natural – one such example is the placement of a photo of a violin-shaped idol right next to the photo of a work by Hans Coper on page 23. Other strategies that enhance both the book’s factual and ideological credibility are the fore-fronting of the book creators’ scientific expertise and the scientific community’s approval, as well as the use of academic sources. In this sense, even the text’s reluctance to make bold claims about aspects that still remain speculation (the hedges strategy mentioned earlier) seems to be merely adding to the book’s ambition for “nonfictive truthfulness.”

It seems that the same strategies that are used to convey objectivity, also function as a means of convincingly carrying ideology. Nonfiction picturebooks that cultivate a sense of truthfulness regarding (historical) facts, at the same instance manage to communicate truthfulness regarding the ideology they convey. And even when the authors use hedges (Sanders, 2018) to signal a tentative assessment of the information about the Cycladic civilization, no doubt is cast on the statues’ similarity to modern art, a crucial point in the construction of the book’s ideology.

This nonfiction picturebook transfers an implicit ideological message as it transforms the Cycladic sculptures into, according to Barthes’ terminology, a myth, a second-order semiotic symbol of common cultural heritage. From now on, when readers see the Cycladic Figurines, they will view them not as a sign of local/ national identity or superiority, but as global heritage.

Final Thoughts

The textual and visual means that are used in nonfiction picturebooks to communicate knowledge can never be void of ideology. Nonfiction picturebooks about statues that are national or global heritage or symbols, like the Cycladic Figurines and the Statue of Liberty, carry ideology. These books are particularly ideological, as they strive to create second-order semiotic symbols, urging the reader to view the statues as carriers of second-order meanings: The Statue of Liberty becomes a symbol of openness toward immigrants; the Cycladic Idols become a symbol of global humanity and cultural heritage.

It would be legitimate to interpret both sculptures in ways opposite to those offered by the books; the Statue of Liberty could be perceived to symbolize America as a nationalistically proud beacon of liberty that shines across the world, and the Cycladic Idols as a symbol of Greek national pride and cultural superiority. That they are presented in these specific books as meaning only one thing emphasizes the point that these nonfiction picturebooks are making an argument, choosing an ideological position.

Nonfiction picturebooks are created within geographical, cultural, historical, and ideological contexts, and these contexts inform both topic and content choices. Books that deal with objects of national symbolism and heritage, in particular, cannot but deal with ideologies of national identity and multiculturalism, intentionally/consciously or not.

These picturebooks can even function as direct responses to specific historical circumstances. Her right foot, for instance, came about as direct resistance to Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric by projecting the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of American society’s multicultural identity and openness to immigrants. As explained earlier, the very idea for the picturebook came from a Guardian opinion piece (Eggers, 2016, July 4). Additionally, the author confirms in an online open letter that he started working on the picturebook at a time when the 2016 election “was nearing and anti-immigrant sentiment was becoming louder and more pervasive” (Eggers, 2017, September 1).

The manner in which the content of nonfiction picturebooks is communicated to the reader is instrumental in their support of specific ideologies. Most interestingly, the same strategies that support factual truthfulness, also convincingly support ideology. Choosing to use photographs; citing sources, historical evidence, and quantitative data; establishing the authors’ credibility; and avoiding a first-person narration are all strategies used to establish both the nonfiction picturebooks’ factual accuracy and, by extension, the validity of their ideology. It is almost as if ideology appropriates the structural elements of nonfiction to establish itself as self-evident reality. Even when the two nonfiction picturebooks we examined employ strategies that engage critical literacy by casting doubt on the text’s reliability (through wording that denotes ambivalence or by featuring a visible author) the main ideological premises of the texts are never challenged.


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