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