March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

“I Want a Real Picture of a Dinosaur” | Consider the Source

The title of this essay came to me from one of my students, who was passing along a comment made by one of her middle-graders. It gave me  an idea. Here’s the background: this semester I am teaching an online course, “Nonfiction for the Common Core,” to MLIS students at Rutgers University. We spend one early week on visual literacy, considering images, rendered or photographed, in nonfiction books. While many future children’s librarians have learned about the interplay of art, text, and design in picture books, few have thought about how the same elements work in nonfiction. It’s important to train their eyes to see the decisions that go into every piece of art used in a nonfiction title, and how those images flow with the text.

To begin, I ask my students to read the essay Matt Tavares wrote for The Horn Book (March/April, 2011). In that article, Tavares outlines the choices and the research involved in illustrating nonfiction. Following a discussion about the essay, my students examine the visual narratives of various series and trade nonfiction books and consider the decisions that were made about the images on each page and spread. As a final exercise, each person posts an image to share with the class, explains what he or she sees in it, and opens up the discussion/viewing/analysis to the other students. One participant selected a vivid rendering of a T-Rex and Triceratops running as their world was erupting into chaos. She asked whether that was a plausible scene, and mentioned a patron’s expressed annoyance at having to look at drawings of dinosaurs–rather than photos.

Her question made me think of a great little game you might try in your library. Each week pin up a picture and hold a contest and challenge students to tell you what’s wrong–or right–with the image. In other words, they would have to examine a painting, drawing, or photo and find sources to establish that it is, or is not, plausible.

This is as pure Common Core as you can get–it would require students to study the picture’s details, provide evidence to support or contest the particulars, and present an argument. The images could range from those speculative dinosaurs running from a scene blazing with erupting volcanoes to a genre painting of the first Thanksgiving to a screen capture of the latest cat video gone viral. Indeed, it won’t even be necessary to have explored every picture yourself. As your classroom investigators get better at examining images and mining evidence, they may discover things you never noticed.

Way back when I was a child watching black-and-white TV, channel 13 (WNET) in New York televised a program in which an object was brought out and a panel of experts tried to determine what it was, who made it, and in what era it was produced. The show was about expertise and seeing into the past. And that is what I imagine this visual detective game could be–a way to sharpen the eyes and insights of your students, one image at a time. A weekly challenge with or without rounds, grade pitted against grade, and leading up to a grand prize, now that’s a game I’d love to play.

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Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

Facts Matter: Information Literacy for the Real World
Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.


  1. Love this! Actually have experienced an example of this, kind of, that a NJ public librarian pointed out to me in a recent nonfiction picture book . I work for a national book wholesaler. The Librarian pointed this out just after an author meet & greet function we sponsored with the publisher.
    The scene in question was of the New York City World Fair in one of the picture book’s spread’s-and it was quite something!
    The scene was supposed to be take place at the 1939-1940 NYC World’s fair in Queens. HOWEVER-the scene depicted the Unisphere from the 1964-65 World’s Fair (still standing!), and not the original Trylon, Perisphere and Helicline from 1939-1940 fair (sadly long gone) that was actually there for the time frame of the story! Oops….

    • marc aronson says:

      great example, my wife grew up near the 64 World’s Fair, and I recall going there and to Shea Stadium right next to it — so especially glad that the student saw the difference. Young people are observant, we need to use that, and pictures present an ideal opportunity.