Learning Setting from Picture Books

Setting can be a powerful ally to the writer because it can help establish the mood of a story. It can also add to a story's believability. Readers can enter an entirely new world and completely let go of their disbelief for the duration of the tale. My daughter says that a good setting helps create story earmuffs—it allows one to tune out distractions and stay safely muffled in a different world!

Due to their unique combination of words and illustrations, picture books can be a great tool for studying the influence of setting within a story. One such picture book I would recommend is Aaron Becker's marvelous wordless picture book, Journey (published by Candlewick Press, 2013). The book opens in a modern urban setting and then changes to a beautifully rendered fantastical world of imagination.

Whimsical tree with stone path leading to tunnel through tree. Sunlight on left side of tree. Moon and dark skies on right side.

The change in setting is accompanied by a change in mood, as well as action. This shift actually drives the plot. Such a huge visual contrast between the story's two settings provides a wonderful opportunity to discuss the power of setting with your children. Here are some questions to spark a discussion:

  • How does the setting direct or frame the story? Or, how does the story change as the setting changes?
  • How does Becker use color to increase the effectiveness of setting?
  • Writers use point-of-view, such as first- and third-person shifts, to influence a reader, but an illustrator can change point-of-view by changing the artistic perspective from page to page (sometimes close-up, sometimes far-away—sometimes looking up at objects or sometimes looking down). Where does Becker do this? Does it change the reader's response or feeling? Add tension?
  • Find the places where Becker uses tremendous detail in his setting and find the places where he uses almost no detail. Are both effective? Is the contrast effective? How would you accomplish this in writing?

After studying the book (or another of your choice), have your children write a paragraph or two describing one or both of Becker's settings (or making up a setting of their own). If your child is uncomfortable with writing on his/her own, engage in partnership writing with them—each of you coming up with a descriptive phrase about one of the two settings and taking turns writing down each phrase or sentence. Continue going back and forth until you run out of descriptions. See if you can vary the details in your sentences or phrases (some long and descriptive, some short and sparse) like Becker does in his images.

~ Tracy

*Note from Rita and Moira: 
Let kids write in bits & pieces by composing one phrase or sentence on a sticky note and putting that note on each page. Writing single sentences on sticky notes is less intimidating for the writer who struggles!

For more ideas on deep comprehension teaching strategies, head to our shop and pick up a copy of our book Trees in the Forest: Growing Readers & Writers through Deep Comprehension.

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