Seminar activity Ideas 7: Using Picture Books to Teach Critical Theory

Seminar teaching


This is a fun and light-touch way to introduce students to some of the key elements in critical theory, demonstrating the insights that can be gained by reading a text from different perspectives. It also encourages students to engage with, and challenge, critical readings, using textual evidence.

Using a short shared text like a picture book, where images as well as words are open to analysis, can significantly increase students’ confidence in exploring theory more fully and applying it to more substantial texts. The English and Media Centre has introduced many teachers to this approach, using Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, a text which lends itself beautifully to postcolonial, psychoanalytic, feminist and structuralist readings. Other picture books which work particularly well include Burglar Bill by Allan and Janet Ahlberg, Not Now Bernard by David Mckee and Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins.

We have provided as a downloadable pdf file a set of critical position cards originally written for A level students. These are deliberately simple and broadbrush, highlighting a few key points about what it means to analyse texts through the lens of a particular critical theory. Depending on the abilities of your students and the aims of the module you are teaching, you may want to supplement or replace these with your own cards. However, as this is intended as a very first introduction to theory, it’s best to avoid becoming too specialised and esoteric.

There are significant advantages to introducing a range of theories at once, with different students adopting the role of feminist, structuralist, postcolonial or psychoanalytic critics to read the same text. This both highlights the role of the reader in constructing meaning and prevents students from making the mistake of associating one text with a particular theory. On the other hand, it is worth selecting critical perspectives which you know will illuminate the text you have chosen – and which students will have fun applying.

What to do

You will need:

  • Enough copies of a single picture book (for example Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are) for students to share one between two or three. It is important that all students read the same text.
  • Simplified critical position cards, with simplified summaries of a selection of key literary theories, such as those provided here as a downloadable pdf file. For the activity to work you will need at least three different critical perspectives.
  1. In pairs, give students a picture book to read and enjoy.
  2. Share general responses to the text, for example, what students like/dislike about the text, any memories they might have of reading the book as young children (which in itself may highlight interesting points about the ways in which the meaning of a text may change for a reader), the relationship between words and pictures and so on.
  3. Next allocate a critical position to each pair of students and tell them they are going to read the picture book again, this time through the lens of a particular theory.
  4. Ask students to talk about any new insights they have gained by approaching the book through this lens and consider also whether the book loses anything from being read from a specific critical perspective.
  5. Students take it in turns to feed back their discoveries, beginning by reading out the simplified critical position card and summarising their reading of the picture book. Examples of the sorts of things students might highlight Where the Wild Things areinclude the following:
  • Structuralism: the significance of the changing balance between text and image and its relationship to an interpretation of the story as a fantasy – a figment of Max’s imagination, oppositions.
  • Feminism: the role of the mother (and the absence of the father), the balance of power between mother and son, the role Max adopts with the ‘wild things’, the representation of the ‘wild things’ as gendered or genderless.
  • Postcolonial: the role Max adopts with the ‘wild things’, his colonising – and subsequent desertion – of the creatures, the behaviour of the ‘wild things’, the colour symbolism of Max’s clothing.
  • Psychoanalytic: what the ‘wild things’ might represent, Max’s relationship with his mother, the absence of the father, dream/reality distinctions, sublimation of desires into fantasy.
  1. As a whole group, spend some time ‘debriefing’ the activity:
  • Supporting students in recognising both the potential and the limitations of reading a text from a single critical perspective.
  • Discussing the ways in which some of these insights might be used as part of their own reading of the text.
  1. At undergraduate level, one might want to make the approach more sophisticated. For instance, in a course on feminism, one might ask different groups of students to research different strands of feminist critical debate and ask each one to comment on the text from their particular position.
  2. The next stage, of course, is to experiment and ‘play’ with reading a more challenging text from different critical positions. It can be helpful to take this in stages. We have provided as downloadable pdf files a story by Ernest Hemingway,  ‘Cat in the Rain’, which works well as a focus for this activity, and starting points for discussion. A critical positions activity on ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’ by Flannery O’Connor, is included in Text Reader Critic, a resource published by the English and Media Centre. This unit takes the approach one stage further by also helping students engage with a substantial piece of criticism on the text.

Activity contributed by Barbara Bleiman and Lucy Webster, of the English and Media Centre.