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Take a Close Look at the National Book Festival Poster Gallery!

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This post is by Stacie Moats of the Library of Congress.

Various figures reading in a tree on the 2013 National Book Festival Poster
2013 National Book Festival Poster by Suzy Lee

Animal leading a wagon train of books
2008 National Book Festival Poster by Jan Brett

Poster created for the 2006 Poster with flying letters
2006 National Book Festival Poster by Gennady Spirin

The Library of Congress National Book Festival poster gallery offers a visually rich opportunity for students of all ages to explore this annual literary event’s 20-year history through various artists’ representations. Select your favorite poster and engage students in close observation through a 30-second look.

This fun yet effective teaching strategy has been a favorite among museum educators for years – I first highlighted it on this blog in a post 10 years ago! Whether observing primary sources in a museum, in a classroom, or on a laptop at a distance, the 30-second look hooks students through a deceptively simple, timed task.

Why only 30 seconds? Researchers in museums have learned that visitors spend 30 seconds on average in front of works of art. This strategy challenges students to consider how many details they can visually recall from such a brief observation on their own, and how more time spent collaboratively comparing observations, reflections, and questions might enhance their understanding of a primary source.

30-Second Look

Challenge students to a 30-second look using a National Book Festival poster, ideally one with lots of details.

  • Project or distribute your selected poster, giving students only 30 seconds (timed!) to memorize as many details as possible without talking or taking notes.
  • After 30 seconds, immediately hide the image while students individually record observations for at least five minutes. Encourage students to write and draw what they recall seeing in the poster, as preferred.
  • Invite students to compare and discuss their observations collaboratively, in pairs or as a whole group. What conflicting or missing details do they discover, if any?
  • Observe the poster again as a class. How did students’ observations and perceptions differ? Why? What questions do they have about this poster?
  • Encourage students to consider how this activity applies to primary source analysis and to their everyday lives. What, if anything, did they learn from looking more closely? What about after discussing observations, reflections and ideas with others?

Adapt the activity as needed to accommodate both your teaching environment and your students. For example, younger students may need additional, specific prompts to guide discussion in pairs or as a whole group. For additional prompts, consider selecting questions from the Analyzing Photographs and Prints Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Primary Sources.

This strategy works with a variety of rich, visual objects, of course, and these Free-to-Use sets from the Library’s collections offer many options.

If you adapt this 30-second look strategy for use with your students, please let us know in the comments section how it went and which of the National Book Festival posters—or another image from the Library’s digital collections—you selected.

For information about past National Book Festivals, including the history and author videos, explore this program page:

For information about the 2021 National Book Festival, visit this page:

For information about the artist for this year’s poster, read this blog post:


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