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Review of  Reading Visual Narratives

Reviewer: Daniel Lees Fryer
Book Title: Reading Visual Narratives
Book Author: Clare Painter James R. Martin Len Unsworth
Publisher: Equinox Publishing Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): Ling & Literature
Issue Number: 24.2565

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Children’s picture books may be designed to delight and entertain young readers (and adults), but they are also a key site for apprenticeship into and sensitization to literacy, literature, and social values. In ‘Reading Visual Narratives: Image Analysis of Children’s Picture Books,’ Claire Painter, J. R. Martin, and Len Unsworth explore, through the lens of social semiotics, how such books construct meanings and help scaffold learning through combinations of visual and verbal resources.

‘Reading Visual Narratives’ is divided into five main chapters, and includes a Preface, an acknowledgments section, a reference list, a picture-books bibliography, and an index. Chapter 1, “Reading the Visual in Children’s Picture Books,” starts by discussing the pedagogic and social significance of these books. Painter et al. argue that developing analytic tools for understanding the visual and verbal meaning-making resources in children’s picture books will provide valuable insights for “literacy educators and children’s literature specialists” (p. 2).

The book takes a social-semiotic and multimodal discourse analysis (MDA) approach based on systemic-functional theory, with the dual aim of: 1) understanding how individual picture books make meaning; and 2) extending current social-semiotic accounts of the visual mode, both intra- and intersemiotically. The authors note, in this introductory chapter, how their work draws upon and extends that of Kress and van Leeuwen (1996, 2006), particularly in terms of visual narrative and visual resources for negotiating emotional engagement with the reader.

Additionally, Chapter 1 includes a review of previous work on children’s picture books, from a variety of theoretical and educationally oriented perspectives, including Nodelman’s (1988) ‘Words about Pictures.’ The chapter also includes a short introduction to systemic-functional theory. This introduction is based on Halliday (1978), Halliday and Matthiessen (2004), Martin and Rose (2007), and Kress and van Leeuwen (2006), among others. Within this theoretical framework, Painter et al. highlight ideational, interpersonal, and textual meanings, the systemic-functional notion of system, and the visualization of system networks.

The final section of Chapter 1 describes the material for the study, a corpus of 73 “critically well-regarded” (p. 11) children’s picture books. The books have varying proportions of words (verbiage) to images, and are aimed at a wide range of age groups and reading abilities. All of the books are English-language editions, and they span a publication period from 1902 (the 1902 edition of Beatrix Potter’s ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’) to 2008 (Anthony Browne’s ‘Little Beauty’). Examples from many of these picture books are reproduced throughout the book.

Chapter 2, “Enacting Social Relations,” examines the visual encoding of interpersonal meanings in children’s picture books. The chapter begins by briefly presenting Kress and van Leeuwen’s (2006) proposed systems for construing relations between readers/viewers and represented participants or other visual elements, i.e., the systems of SOCIAL DISTANCE, INVOLVEMENT, POWER, CONTACT, and MODALITY (Systems are represented by small caps in Painter et al., standard notation in many systemic-functional works; block caps are used for the purposes of this review. Note also that square brackets are used here and in Painter et al. to indicate options or features within a system.). The authors then propose a number of complementary or alternative systems to account for the interpersonal visual meanings relevant to children’s picture books. These include FOCALIZATION, AFFECT, PATHOS, AMBIENCE, and GRADUATION.

FOCALIZATION considers point of view, and whether viewers are positioned as having [contact] with represented participants (usually through the outward gaze of a character in a book) or whether viewers take on an observer role ([observe], minus the gaze) (cf. Kress and van Leeuwen’s (2006) ‘demand’ and ‘offer’). Further simultaneous options concern how the reader’s point of view is managed as either [mediated], i.e., as seen vicariously through the eyes of a character, or as [unmediated], i.e., without being positioned as a character. More delicate options are available that include variations in the types of gaze ([direct] or [invited]) and mediation ([inscribed] or [inferred]). The system of AFFECT, i.e., the depiction of characters’ feelings, is based on three basic styles of character depiction: minimalist, generic, and naturalistic. These drawing styles engender varying levels of reader engagement (or PATHOS), from [appreciative] (minimalist) and [empathic] (generic) to [personalizing] (naturalistic), allowing different feelings or affect to be read through a combination of facial expressions and bodily postures. AMBIENCE accounts for the emotional mood created by the use of color. Of particular note here are the simultaneous subsystems of VIBRANCY, WARMTH, and FAMILIARITY, which provide various options for differing levels of saturation, the graded use of [warm] and [cool] colors, and the degree to which color differentiation encodes what is naturalistic or somehow [removed] from reality. For GRADUATION, i.e., the upscaling or downscaling of evaluative meanings (p. 44), the authors emphasize the need for further investigation, but tentatively discuss how [quantification] can be scaled [up] or [down] according to [number], [mass/amount], and/or [extent].

The chapter concludes with a visual interpersonal analysis of Raymond Briggs’s (1994) ‘The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman.’ The authors provide a descriptive analysis (pp. 46-49) and a table that summarizes, page-by-page and system-by-system, the various interpersonal instantiations and their realizations (pp. 50-52).

Chapter 3, “Construing Representations,” explores visual ideational meanings in children’s picture books. Based on Kress and van Leeuwen’s (2006) categories of represented participants, processes, and circumstances, Painter et al. investigate visual ideational meanings through the proposed systems of CHARACTER MANIFESTATION and APPEARANCE, CHARACTER RELATIONS, and INTER-EVENT and INTER-CIRCUMSTANCE relations, in order to account for narrative sequences in children’s picture books. CHARACTER MANIFESTATION and APPEARANCE deal with the ways in which characters (or participants) are introduced into and tracked across visual narratives, and the ways in which variations in character attributes, such as [descriptive detail], [symbolic attributes], and clothing and accessories ([garment/accessory]), are accounted for. The system of CHARACTER RELATIONS deals with how images invite various comparisons of characters and their attributes, for example, through the juxtaposition of two or more similarly shaped or similarly sized characters ([comparison: configurational] or [co-classification]). INTER-EVENT relations account for how narrative events relate to each other in successive or simultaneous images as “activity sequences” (Barthes 1977, in Painter et al., p. 73) through expansion ([unfolding]) and [projection], including options such as [projection: real/imagined], or [unfolding: succession: +/-cause] and [+/-fulfilled]. The system also accounts for how the pace of a narrative is maintained or varied at different points according to differing lengths of activity sequences. INTER-CIRCUMSTANCE deals with variations in context, by either maintaining or varying the degree of contextualization in a sequence of images. The [change context] option, for example, “generally serves to help stage the story” (p. 82), and Painter et al. note the importance in children’s picture books of the [change context: home] option as providing a safe and familiar location ([home: in]) on the one hand, and a space for greater insecurity and potential excitement ([home: out]) on the other (cf. Nodelman and Reimer 2003).

The chapter concludes with an analysis of the visual ideational meanings in Gary Crew and Gregory Rogers’s (1992) ‘Lucy’s Bay.’ As in the previous chapter, Painter et al. discuss selected instantiations and realizations, and provide a page-by-page, system-by-system summary of the visual ideational choices made in this picture book. Several images from ‘Lucy’s Bay’ are included as examples.

Chapter 4, “Composing Visual Space,” deals with visual textual meanings in children’s picture books, i.e., the ways in which ideational and interpersonal meanings relate to each other. The chapter examines visual textual meanings through three systems: INTERMODAL INTEGRATION, FRAMING, and FOCUS. INTERMODAL INTEGRATION, as the term suggests, deals with the arrangement and location of both visual and verbal components. The verbiage here, however, is treated “purely as a visual unit” (p. 92; cf. Chapter 5), and its relation to the image is categorized as either [integrated] or [complementary]. Suboptions of [complementary] include issues of axis ([facing] or [descending]), weight (a continuum between [image privileged] and [verbiage privileged]), and placement ([adjacent] or [interpolating: verbiage medial/image medial]). Similarly, for [integrated], the main suboptions are [projected] and [expanded], each of which is an entry condition to further levels of delicacy, such as [projected: meaning: locution/idea], realized by verbiage appearing in speech or thought bubbles, respectively. The basic choices for FRAMING are [bound] or [unbound] images, with further suboptions available for each. For example, [bound: framed: experiential frame] is realized by a framing device that is also an experiential part of the image, such as a climbing frame in Anthony Browne’s (1998) ‘Voices in the Park’ (Painter et al., p. 108); [unbound: decontextualized: individuated/localized] distinguishes between an image with participants and no depicted context (i.e. a white-space background; [individuated]) and one with minimal setting or symbolic attributes ([localized]). For the FOCUS system, Painter et al. introduce the concept of “focus group” to define visual elements that constitute “a pulse of information” (p. 109). They further state that “any picture book layout, framed by the page edges, constitutes a major focus group with a particular compositional pattern,” which “may itself encompass further focus groups of varying prominence” (p. 109-110). The FOCUS system attempts to account for these different levels of compositional patterns by basically treating them as either [iterating] or [centrifocal], i.e., as repeated [scattered/aligned] or balanced on or around an occupied or unoccupied center point. Further suboptions of [centrifocal] are available, i.e., [centered] and [polarized], both of which are entry conditions to suboptions of increasing delicacy.

Chapter 4 ends with an analysis of the visual textual meanings in ‘Possum Magic’ by Mem Fox and Julie Vivas (1989/2004 editions). Painter et al. provide a descriptive analysis of selected instantiations and realizations, noting shifts in textual meanings at different generic stages of the story. The section also includes a table that summarizes and compares the main FOCUS choices in the two editions of the book. Several schematic diagrams illustrating these choices are provided.

Chapter 5, “Intermodality: Image and Verbiage,” proposes ways in which the image analyses of the previous chapters might fruitfully be combined with verbal analyses in order to study the contributions and interplay of the two semiotics in children’s picture books. Painter et al. compare their descriptions of visual meaning systems with the verbal meaning systems provided by Halliday and Matthiessen (2004) and Martin and Rose (2007), proposing “commitment” (i.e. the degree of meaning contributed by specific choices) and “coupling” (i.e. the co-patterning of realizations from two or more systems) as ways of facilitating comparison of the two semiotics.

The penultimate section of the chapter provides an analysis of verbal-visual instantiation in Libby Hathorn and Gregory Rogers’s (1994) ‘Way Home.’ Examples are given of the ways in which certain visual and verbal interpersonal, ideational, and textual meanings converge and diverge throughout the book, and of how these convergences and divergences invite readers “to empathise with Shane’s [the homeless protagonist’s] situation while simultaneously [keeping them] at a safe distance from it” (p. 149).

The authors conclude by reiterating that children’s picture books “are not only enjoyable for young readers, but offer a very important ‘training’ in becoming sensitised in how to read narrative texts (including monomodal ones) in ways that are educationally valued” (p. 156).


Painter et al.’s systemic-functional approach to describing the meaning-making resources of children’s picture books is interesting and impressive. Much of their work builds on ‘Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design’ (Kress and van Leeuwen 2006), and the authors carefully construct their arguments around those of Kress and van Leeuwen (2006), variously adopting, adapting, and challenging key concepts from that book, while adding new insights relevant to the study of visual-verbal narratives.

Painter et al.’s analyses are so rich that a book review of this kind may not do justice to the concepts and examples they discuss. The visual detail and descriptive power of system networks, for example, cannot be easily captured in such a “verbal” review, and their carefully constructed systems, along with example instantiations and realizations, are undoubtedly one of the book’s major strengths. In each chapter, the reader is introduced to a series of meaning systems and then guided through the various levels of delicacy within each system, with the description of each new feature or option accompanied by varied examples of its realization. Indeed, these system networks reveal some potentially interesting theoretical insights, one of which is support for the general observation that non-verbal semiotics may have more fluid categories than language (p. 10). Although this may be a matter of representation (cf. discussion of MODALITY: VALUE as scaled or categorical in Martin & White 2005: 15-16), visual interpersonal meaning systems in particular, e.g., AMBIENCE and PATHOS, are frequently scaled rather than categorical, and quantification features and certain CHARACTER APPEARANCE features are presented, by double brackets, as both alternative and simultaneous options.

With regard to system networks, there seem to be some minor discrepancies in notation. In the CHARACTER APPEARANCE system (p. 64), for example, the potentially simultaneous options of [descriptive detail], [symbolic attribute], and [garment/accessory] have been marked as categorical alternatives, where only one of the three can be selected. Similarly, some instantiations have been marked with slashes rather than colons, and vice versa, where I suspect it was not intended, e.g., in Table 3.7 (pp. 88-89), where [reappear/immediate: …] suggests that [reappear] and [immediate] are two simultaneous options at the same level of delicacy (I assume a colon should have been used). However, these are minor points. Of greater concern, perhaps, is the fact that all the figures in Painter et al. are in black and white (or graytone), at least in the edition I have reviewed. This is a drawback in general, since the use of colors in picture books is referred to at various points throughout the book, but is most unfortunate in the section on AMBIENCE. I hope this can be rectified in future editions, or in an e-book edition, if one is planned.

The back cover notes that this book should be of interest to researchers in MDA, systemic-functional theory, and children’s literature and literacy. I agree, while also adding that, despite the book’s focus on children’s picture books, many of the insights provided in ‘Reading Visual Narratives’ could be applied to similar visual-verbal narrative forms, such as comics and graphic novels, magazines, and webpages, to name a few. Researchers and educators interested in these and similar visual-verbal narratives would be well advised to read Painter et al.’s book. The integrated approach of Chapter 5 is particularly useful in this regard, with its discussion of commitment and coupling, and its identification of key narrative domains. Indeed, the latter may also be relevant for examining intersemiosis with other semiotic modes, e.g., sound (see van Leeuwen 1999).

Overall, ‘Reading Visual Narratives’ is an important contribution to the field of social semiotics, in general, and to the study of visual-verbal narratives in children’s picture books, in particular. Painter et al. have produced a work that is (almost) as fascinating as the material upon which it is based.


Halliday, M. A. K. 1978. Language as social semiotic: the social interpretation of language and meaning. London: Arnold.

Halliday, M. A. K. and C. M. I. M. Matthiessen. 2004. Introduction to functional grammar. 3rd edition. London: Arnold.

Kress, Gunther and Theo van Leeuwen. 1996/2006. Reading images: the grammar of visual design. 1st/2nd edition. Abingdon: Routledge.

Martin, J. R. & David Rose. 2007. Working with discourse: meaning beyond the clause. 2nd edition. London: Continuum.

Martin, J. R. & P. R. R. White. 2005. The language of evaluation: appraisal in English. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nodelman, Perry and Mavis Reimer. 2003. The pleasures of children’s literature. 3rd edition. Boston, Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon.

Leeuwen, Theo van. 1999. Speech, music, sound. London: Macmillan.
Daniel Lees Fryer is a PhD researcher at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and an assistant professor at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences (HiOA), Norway. His research interests include systemic-functional grammar and social semiotics, academic literacies, and scientific discourse. He holds courses and workshops in academic writing for staff and students at HiOA and at the University of Oslo, Norway, and occasional courses in systemic-functional theory.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781845531980
Pages: 202
Prices: U.K. £ 55
U.S. $ 95