Picture books

Recently, I read an article in the New York Times about how publishers are scaling back on picture books. Apparently there's a trend for parents to push chapter books on their young kids, resulting in a decline in picture book sales. Wow, really?  Good quality picture books are among our favorite possessions. For a few years, when the boys were small, we built up a collection, because we had to have our own home library since English-language libraries were so hard to find, living abroad. This collection is like an old, trusted friend, always there to retreat to, to pore over by oneself or to enjoy with an older sibling or parent.

My best friend Laura, who is a children's librarian (and keeps a library blog which is chock full of resources), is like a fairy godmother: when the boys were small, she gave us picture books for birthdays and Christmas. Every book she gave us became a family treasure. Books such as:

A Story for Bear, by Dennis Haseley

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or Tree of Cranes, by Allen Say, who grew up in both Japan and the U.S. and has written many wonderful books. His spare prose and lush, gorgeous pictures depict stories that my children can really relate to. 

I myself love books by Elsa Beskow, a Swedish author writing during the early twentieth century, because her illustrations are incredible and detailed and depict the natural world so beautifully. In fact we always have her book, Around the Year, open on our kitchen bookshelf. This is October's charming watercolor:

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Picture books are moving. I remember my four year old son crying quietly into his pillow from the image of a big lonely bear carrying books one by one back to his den in A Story for Bear. Somehow the quiet prose and the lovely picture had touched his little boy heart. 

Picture books make kids feel less alone by capturing a universal childhood experience, feeling, or memory so evocatively. They are quick enough to enjoy at any time and are a great way to match – or change – the mood of the moment. Other favorites are:

A Quiet Place by Douglas Wood

The Old Woman who Named Things, by Cynthia Rylant

The Day the Babies Crawled Away, by Peggy Rathmann

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willem

and a lovely book for my children, who probably, inevitably, sometimes wonder exactly where home might be:

All the Places to Love, by Patricia MacLachlan.

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Every time I read this to my children I myself feel moved nearly to tears. (And I must also note that I love that the children in this book are born in their grandparents' farmhouse, in such an incidental way that it normalizes home birth, which I think is pretty cool).

Picture books help with transitions: a move, a new sibling, a death, a family change. Oh My Baby, Little One, by Kathi Appelt, deals with the weighty issue of separation and is still a favorite in our house. Picture books really helped my children prepare for their move to Japan five years ago, as I wrote in this guest post on The Traveler's Library.

And I'm in love with Japanese picture books. Here is an old classic, Chiri to Chiriri, about two girls exploring their town by bicycle. The pictures transport us from adventure to adventure.

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At one point they wander into a yarn and thread shop. This is one of my favorite illustrations. I wish I could go there too!

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Another favorite Japanese author is Hayashi Akiko. I've mentioned a book she wrote, in my post about free-range kids – it's about a five year old girl's first errand. She's also written many other beautifully illustrated books about small things. Here is a little collection of her illustrations.

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This is one of our favorite books now, about a little girl and her little sister.

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The slow pace of her books fits childhood exactly – things that may seem small to us loom large in the mind of a child. 

This site lists more reasons not to rush your children out of picture books. Pictures help tell your child about things he may not have experienced yet – the beach, an airplane ride, a meal with a family from a different culture. They help build a bridge between your child's comprehension and his imagination. But, in my opinion, they don't have the overpowering visual effect that a movie or tv show might. This allows imagination to fill the space. Picture books allow time and room for dreaming. And they provide a shared experience we can take with us, parent and child together, even after we lift our heads from the page. Our favorite books have become part of our common vocabulary and family lore because we have all read them together.

I'm not averse to chapter books for younger kids – I am actually one of those parents who read Stuart Little to her four year old (because he really loved the story, and looked forward to it every night). However, now I wonder if perhaps he loved it because it has the cadence and feeling of a picture book? It has a simple story, lovely prose, a few evocative illustrations. We have other favorites which I think are good for the younger set. My Father's Dragon is a wonderful and sweet adventure story which is as good in its Japanese translation as it is in English.  But to categorically look down on picture books just because a child should be "beyond" them is, I think, the wrong approach. (And, this post making the rounds, by one woman who was quoted in the Times article, makes me wonder about the story behind the story.)

According to Laura, picture books also do hone some fairly sophisticated skills. When things aren't fully spelled out for us literally and concretely, we develop the ability to comprehend and interpret and make connections. These are big skills for little ones.  As Laura says, "I try to explain it in terms of poetry: it's about quality, not quantity. Reading and understanding a short poem can be more taxing than reading a long and simple chapter book. Ditto for picture books. Some of our best living artists, in my opinion, are illustrating picture books. Too many people aren't aware of their work. Not to mention how visually sophisticated they can be – so often the text and pictures complement or contradict each other in very subtle ways!" As examples of the way that text and illustrations can play off one another, try looking for some of the humorous books she has given us, such as Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School, by Mark Teague, and the Traction Man picture books, by Mini Grey. My kids like How I Spent My Summer Vacation and The Secret Shortcut, also by Mark Teague. Sometimes you don't even need words at all. We all enjoy poring over David Wiesner's books, such as Sector 7; you could just lose yourself in his rich illustrations!

If raising a book lover is important to you, you might enjoy this clever little poster Laura showed me, too. And here's another wonderfully informative post which summarizes the many reasons to keep on reading picture books.

What are your favorite children's books? Do you remember any favorites from childhood? What books do your children turn to over and over again?

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43 thoughts on “Picture books

  1. Frugal Kiwi

    It would be very sad indeed not to have great picture books. My current fave is A Diary of a Wombat. Beautifully illustrated and funny in only a few words per page. I don’t have them with me, but my favorites as a child were a book about a family of bears and the four seasons and one about a hedgehog in a garden. I still love to see them when I visit.

    Reply
  2. Christine - Origami Mommy

    I meant to mention Diary of a Wombat – another great book which my friend recommended! The hallmark of a good quality, clever, rich picture book is kids asking to read it over and over – this one fits the bill. I would love to know the titles of the childhood books you mention.

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  3. MarthaAndMe

    I saved all of my picture books from when I was a child and my children enjoyed them. I’ve saved all of theirs as well. There are so many I love. Anything by Robert McCloskey. The Carl books, the Angus books. A book I read as a child and have never been able to find as an adult called The Small Smalls.

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  4. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart

    My fav book as a kid was The Monster at The End of This Book (with Grover). Little did I know it was essentially the story of my life. (smirk)
    It makes me sad to see any books on the decline. It seems to me the artistry and simple stories in picture books would be important.

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  5. Sheryl

    It’s sad that picture books are waning. Many times as a child, the pictures captivated me more than any words could. There’s simply no substitute for those type of powerful illustrations.

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  6. Jennifer Margulis

    I agree with you so much Christine. Picture books are SO IMPORTANT and it is so sad that publishers are scaling back. Some of our family’s favorites are out of print now.
    One is called EDWARD THE EMU, about an emu who wants to change into a different animal at the zoo and he tried being all sorts of other animals until he realizes that being an Emu is really his calling (obvious morals in that story).
    Another is FANNY MCFANCY (I think this is the name) about the best-dressed crane around who is invited to a party and has nothing to wear.
    We also really love the book called ZEN TIES and ZEN SHORTS by Jon J Muth. He is such an amazing illustrator and I find myself thinking about his books all the time. They really help make me feel more Zen and more connected. Has your family ever read those?
    Another wonderful book by Russell Hoban is THE LITTLE BRUTE FAMILY, about a family where everyone is unhappy and they eat sticks and stones until one day one of the Brutes finds a wandering good feeling and he brings it home in his pocket.
    I read about that book in Holly Hobbie’s wonderful illustrated autobiography, which I also highly recommend!

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  7. Christine - Origami Mommy

    Yes – we’ve read Zen Shorts, and we own The Three Questions which is by Jon J Muth also (and probably given to me by my friend!) and it’s simply beautiful and like his other books, stays with you long after you’ve read it. I’m so enjoying reading about all these favorite books in these comments, and I keep noticing more books on our bookshelves that I want to share!

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  8. Alexandra

    I saw the NYT article too and it made me so sad. What a loss if publishers decide to stop publishing picture books because sales are down! The experience of hearing a story, and hearing a story while admiring images, is so very different for a child. I agree with you, Christine, wholeheartedly. What’s more, the experience of a picture book and a chapter book is different. As I remember, my children would sit on my lap and touch the picture book. I was even able to read books that I loved as a child, Mike Mulligan and the Steam-Shovel, for instance. How my kids would laugh at the monkeys in Caps for Sale, another story from my childhood. And, then there was Curious George and Ferdinand. Often picture books teach a lesson, you know, and this would be lost if the art of writing a successful picture book no longer is abandoned. More recently, I have admired books with incredible illustrations by an illustrator whose name has slipped my mind: dazzling illustrations with bright colors. How sad if that were to be lost! I am sure it develops a totally different side of a child, the creative side, don’t you think?

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  9. Kris

    I am such a huge fan of picture books. I’m sad that my kids are no longer willing to sit and listen to me read aloud. (Alright, so they’re teens now – who can blame them??)
    I honestly don’t remember any picture books from my own childhood, though I recall those easy readers like
    The Fire Cat. New favorites from when my kids were young: ‘Roxaboxen’ and ‘Weslandia’ – they both encourage creativity, which I love.

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  10. MyKidsEatSquid

    I’ve held on to quite a few of my favorite picture books (although I lost a few in a basement flood:( As a kid, I loved The Peanut Butter Colony a Where the Wild Things Are type of book about a child escaping to–you guessed it–a peanut butter colony (can you guess what my favorite kind of sandwich was?). There’s another story that I can’t recall the title, but the first line is “Nicolas was a bunny, he lived in a hollow tree.”
    My kids’ favorites are Chocolatina, Fanny’s Dream, Zin, Zin Zin a Violin… I could go on. So sad to think that picture books are following out of favor.

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  11. Vera Marie Badertscher

    Not what you usually think of as a picture book, but my favorite were the Winnie the Pooh books, and I was sad when for a time all you could get were the Disney illustrations instead of the original Sheperd (SP?) drawings. I just bought a set with the original pictures for my great-grandson to be. His mom asked for a gift of our fav book with a note to Dustin about why we loved it. My son gave him a Pat the Bunny book–tactile is important when they start on books, I think.

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  12. Sarah Buttenwieser

    We really did just get our fifteen year old Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late (ahem, night owl teenager, ahem) & he loved it. But I too was jarred by that article & the many, many picture books we love. I blogged about this too, with more books to cherish & a plea to sit down & read S-L-O-W. http://ow.ly/2S8MK
    Great post here.

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  13. Francesca

    I’m really surprised by the decline in the sales of picture books, as I’m sure young children favor them! We also have our own little collection of picture books, and some date back to my husband’s or my own childhood. Thank you for your recommendations, the Japanese illustrations are beautiful. I’ll check out the Swedish author you mention.

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  14. Ruth Pennebaker

    What a lovely, thoughtful post, Christine. I kind of skipped over the original article in the NYT, but you made me realize what a loss there would be without these picture books. Thanks for making me think about it.

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  15. Sheri Bell-Rehwoldt

    Love picture books, which is why I wrote one! If you love art, it’s hard to not love picture books. I’ll be sad if publishers decide they’re not worth publishing. But hopefully, with upcoming changes in print technology, those of us wanting to write one will be able to afford to print them ourselves. πŸ˜‰
    Sheri Bell-Rehwoldt
    author, You Think It’s Easy Being the Tooth Fairy?

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  16. Alisa Bowman

    I love picture books and we read them all the time. I don’t think my daughter would want a book without pictures at this point. I love the classics: little engine that could, frederick, etc.

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  17. ana @ i made it so

    this is such a thoughtful, wonderful post. it’s obvious you love books, and appreciate all kinds of books. that’s sad about publishers and picture books, i had no idea. i think there’s so much value in books with pictures.
    i have never heard of elsa beskow, i will have to look for her work. that illustration is beautiful, i’d like to see more.
    thanks for all the titles and author recommendations, and for taking the time to share this. (the poster is cute, too! so very true.)
    ~ana

    Reply
  18. Christine - Origami Mommy

    I checked out some of these book suggestions, and got Weslandia for D. When it came in the mail, he was so happy, because he’d read it in Japanese and loved it, and read it during his semester in the U.S. and loved it then too. But this was all at school so I didn’t realize. Now he has his very own copy and he’s a happy little boy.

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  19. Aleacia

    I’m glad I came across this post. I recently just blogged about how I’ve decided to start reading a few chapters a night to my daughter (she’s 2) but we always make time to read picture books throughout the day and before reading a chapter or two at night. The rebuttal link claimed that library stats haven’t gone down so maybe it’s not that people don’t want the books but they are just so costly in some instances and chapter books can be as little as half the price. I would love to fill our shelves with all the lovely books out there but sadly we would be broke, thank goodness for the public library, we go twice a week. I love Leo Lionni, and the way Mo Willems writing gets my daughter engaged in the story is fantastic (she always ends up telling the pigeon he CAN drive the bus!)
    There are a couple of reasons I started reading chapter books to my DD, it’s pretty much just a “see what happens” kind of thing, I’m interested in seeing if she retains what has been read the previous nights, I’ve also been reading books that have been made into movies in hopes she will recognize that we have read the story and maybe even be able to tell me what’s next or to pick out what’s missing, and also wondering if not having pictures to distract her she will start recognizing words. I’m definitely not trying to force anything on her and hoping that people who read chapter books to their kids don’t get generalized into a group of crazies, I really adore picture books.
    Thanks for this post and the list of the picture books, I can’t wait to put them all on our library list!

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  20. ana @ i made it so

    you’re welcome. there have been quite a few rebuttals surfacing, all raising interesting points. and i checked our local library… no luck yet, but i’ll keep looking πŸ™‚ thanks christine.

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  21. Andrea, saving for college

    It is a pity that publishers are scaling back at picture books, yet their primary focus is to respond to the shifts in demand. I wouldn’t blame parents for pushing chapter books (I am a guilty parent myself), but in today’s world filled with DSs, Wiis, Tv, Computer games it’s a big achievement when your child reads anything! More and more kids have problems with reading which affects their entire academic progress. I used chapter books to get my son “hooked” on reading, because I could read a couple of chapters and then suddenly “feel so tired”, so he would anxiously grab a book out of my hands to read on. Being familiar with the main characters, knowing their story encourages kids to read sequels. But as long as they are reading – anything will do.

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  22. emily

    Not to bust in on your comment, but I was excited to see another Western Massachusetts person commenting here on Origami Mommy. Sarah, your column is in my google reader and I enjoy it immensely!
    Emily

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  23. emily

    Christine,
    All the Places to Love is one of my all time favorite picture books. It is my favorite gift to give when a friend has a second child. My voice quivers and my eyes fill a bit with tears each time I reach the end – even if I read it two times in a row (Yes! I tested it). I was just talking about this very NYT article this past weekend. Wonderful post!
    Emily

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  24. Christine - Origami Mommy

    Yes, I saw that in the last post I linked to; and, indeed, it’s easy to lump all parents together and generalize a phenomenon as something more widespread and insidious than it really is. I think as long as the value of picture books continues to be recognized the way you obviously do, then it’s not the same situation at all as the article describes. I’ve heard several parents talk about their children being distracted by the pictures when they are reading, but I rather like that, myself – I think of it all as part of the process of enjoying a book and interpreting what it has to say to us. How wonderful you’re able to go to the library twice a week!

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  25. Christine - Origami Mommy

    Interestingly, this is how we got our older son hooked on chapter books (and he is an utterly voracious reader now)…by reading the first chapter or two, and then leaving it….soon I’d see him reading it himself. And we do usually try to find books that are part of a series, so the fun can last.

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  26. Aleacia

    I noticed you added David Wiesner to your list of author/illustrators, he’s fantastic, I was just about to recommend him. We also enjoy Jerry Pinkney’s illustrations, especially The Lion & the Mouse. Going to the library today to check out All the Places to Love πŸ™‚

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  27. emily

    Oh, the illustrations! And when he carves his sister’s name in the barn? I’m tearing up now just thinking of it!
    Patricia Maclachlan lives nearby and it appears she was inspired by our local landscape. We’re [read: I’m] hoping that one day we can go to a reading and, perhaps, have her sign our book.

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  28. Casey

    As an adult, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! is one of my favorite picture books and I buy it for every one of my new parent friends, along with Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go (love Goldbug!).
    Does anyone else remember the picture book about a girl and her brother who imagine their room is a ship and they travel the high seas? Maybe with rhyming text? I remember the illustrations were gorgeous but can’t recall the book to save my life.

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  29. Christine - Origami Mommy

    Oh – how interesting she lives around there! The landscape she portrays looked so familiar and I wondered why. I hope you get to meet her someday.
    We also just read What You Know First – another moving book by MacLachlan, simple on the surface, but it’s very poignant and raised lots of questions here.

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  30. Cristina Ortega

    Imagine my joy to hear all these wonderful comments in favor of storybooks and really not a surprise at all!
    I am an author of two children’s books. Both are bilingual:
    “The Eyes of the Weaver” and “The Key to Grandpa’s House.”
    My stories are true family stories and come from my Hispanic background.
    My brother is the illustrator of the 2nd book. When reading and speaking to children in schools and libraries we proudly point out how much this sister and brother enjoyed working together!
    My third manuscript, a story about my mother, was rejected because the press is scaling back on children’s books, which cost more to print.
    Finding this discussion on picture books has sparked a “fight” in me!

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  31. Ms Muffin

    Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog.
    I wanted to comment on this post already a while ago … but somehow never did.
    I have to say I LOVE picture books. I even buy them for myself – if I do so however I usually only do that second hand. Unfortunately picture books are really expensive overhere. I do not know why that is but to buy good – there are MANY low quality ones out there, too – ones you have to spend ALOT more than you would if you were buying thick paperback adult books. In a way I find that sad as I think that each child should have many picture books. I think children need books to learn to love them. Luckily most libraries carry a good selection of picture books as well. I love going with my kids to the library!!!
    I am wondering – here in Germany they had a programm a while ago (I think they have discontinued it again sadly) where small children would receive picture books for free at the pediatrician or local library. I have heard about such things existing in Great Britain. I LOVE the idea. I think it is especially important for those kids that otherwise would not get any books at all. I have read seriously shoking statistics about how many children have never looked at a book before they start school. I could not believe that there would be ONE, but there were MANY. NEVER LOOKED at a book!!! SO SAD. I was wondering if they have something like that program in Japan? And is it common for kids to join libraries over there?

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  32. Hannah

    Lots of thoughts about this, but I’ll just say … I, too, love All the Places to Love! To me it’s a hidden gem — I don’t recall seeing it on any lists, but when I randomly pulled it from the library shelf and brought it home, I found it indescribably beautiful.

    Reply
  33. Debt Advice

    This book starts so well, rich in humor, character, and a strong sense of place. And captured me from the first few pages. I could not wait to keep reading. I reward myself with it every night.

    Reply

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