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Connecting Picture Books to the Art Museum

November is National Family Literacy Month, a time to celebrate multiple generations coming together to learn. While we often associate literacy with reading, visual literacy is also an important skill that families can develop together. The museum is a wonderful place for family learning and developing visual literacy—it happens when families walk through the galleries, look closely at works of art, ask questions, participate in activities, and share stories and memories with one another.

In honor of National Literacy Month, we celebrate picture books, valuable tools for family literacy and an artform that has a natural connection to museums. Children’s picture books use words and images to tell stories. Young children and other individuals developing their literacy skills can use the illustrations in a picture book as a key to understanding narratives, making them rich and complex.

When paired with a close reading of a work of art, picture books can serve as tools to help families work through complex ideas and imagine the unknown. Reading Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach (1991) supports a close look at Georgia O’Keeffe’s The Shelton with Sunspots, N.Y. by providing an opportunity to visualize different perspectives. Both artists are reflecting on the rapid development of New York City and the presence of towering skyscrapers in the 1920s and ’30s. O’Keeffe’s painting explores this idea by providing a view from the ground up, while Ringgold’s illustrations express what it might look like to see the city skyline from above.

Try these strategies to prepare you and your family for learning with picture books before and during your next museum visit.

  • Select books that introduce new or complex ideas about art, such as an artist’s biography or works on artistic processes, new perspectives, or diverse cultures.

  • Spend time looking closely at the illustrations, and make connections between the words and pictures. Ask questions that help readers find details in the pictures that relate to the story.

  • Identify the title as well as the author and illustrator of the book you’ve chosen. Define the roles of writer and artist and talk about how each contributes to the telling of the story.

  • Use the Art Institute’s collections pages to find works of art on view that connect to the theme or storyline of your picture book. Ask connecting questions between the book and the artwork.

  • Discuss the medium or style used by the book’s illustrator. Do the same for the artwork you are viewing.
  • Ask open-ended questions that have many possible answers. Multiple interpretations are always possible when looking at art.

Celebrate National Family Literacy Month with us! Visit the Family Room, located in the Modern Wing, and explore our wide-ranging selection of picture books—including board books for toddlers and books available in multiple languages and braille. Reread a beloved book or discover a new favorite. If you are looking for ideas to prepare for a museum visit, contact Family Programs at

While visiting the Family Room, create a unique story of your own using the Art Institute’s newest digital interactive JourneyMaker. JourneyMaker invites you and your family to tell a museum tale never heard before. Beginning with themes such as Superheroes, Time Travelers, or Strange and Wild Creatures, select works of art in the museum’s collection that bring your story to life. Then, travel into the galleries to explore those artworks together, guided by creative ideas and activities. With thousands of possible combinations, you’ll never tell the same story twice.

—Melissa Tanner, Family Programs Educator

Image credit:

Georgia O'Keeffe, The Shelton with Sunspots, N.Y., 1926. Gift of Leigh B. Block. © 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.