Will it surprise you to learn that one of my favorite things to do at this time of year involves visiting the children’s section of my local bookstore? I love nothing more than settling in to peruse the newest picture books. Although my own children are long grown, I find great comfort and joy in the ability of so many authors to weave together beautiful prose and illustrations in order to create magical tales for children and, yes, adults alike!
There is something about a good story that evokes a sense of wonder, stirs the imagination, awakens deep feelings, and challenges us to expand our definition of who we are and how we relate to the world around us. A picture book is definitely worth a thousand words.
Many parents are so eager for their kids to get ahead that they ditch the picture books early on. Because chapter books contain more text and fewer pictures, many believe that the stories in chapter books are more complex. Actually, with rich vocabulary and challenging themes, picture books can be quite sophisticated. It is important not to rush little ones away from reading picture books for this genre provides a host of benefits for children of all ages.
First, we know that picture books are wonderful ways to introduce early literacy skills and since they are meant to be read aloud, children are able to hear language and begin to associate words with pictures. As they are introduced to new words, their vocabulary repertoire expands. Remember when your child picked the same bedtime story for the tenth evening in a row? Well, there has been some research suggesting that reading the same story over and over again increases a child’s vocabulary by 12%.
The rhythm and rhyme of certain books such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See or Chicka Chicka Boom Boom help children practice patterns, improve memorization skills and increase phonetic awareness. And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the ubiquitous Dr. Seuss whose fantastical characters and worlds, sharp and repetitive rhymes, and rolling tongue twisters give all of us permission to be silly and find joy in word play.
Picture books are not only for young children. Illustrations often require more advanced students to analyze context clues to make inferences about character’s emotions and interactions. Sometimes the illustrations alone suggest various subplots that are not communicated in the text. Additionally, many of the themes found within picture books provoke deep thinking, problem solving, and decision making as characters are faced with difficult dilemmas. In What Would You Do with an Idea? author Kobi Yamada tells the story of a young child with an idea – one he is initially reluctant to embrace. As his confidence in it grows, however, the idea is fed and nurtured until it transports him to place he had never imagined.
Remember Humpty Dumpty? Well, we know that Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. However, after the great fall, our friend Humpty is suddenly terrified of heights! Check out Dan Santa’s book, After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again).
Picture books have the capacity to build empathy and normalize feelings. Who among us can’t relate to Alexander and his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day? In this book, eleven-year old Alexander can’t seem to get a break. He wakes up with gum in his hair, has no dessert at lunch, and, what’s worse, the dentist finds a cavity! Children can certainly connect to Alexander whose day goes from bad to worse with one disaster after another.
Are you looking for an entry point to deeper conversations around culture, equity, and learning to appreciate multiple perspectives? In The Name Jar, Unhei, a new student from Korea, is nervous about classmates’ reactions to her name. Ultimately, she decides to tell the class that she will choose a new American name. Find out how she learns to appreciate her own name. Last Stop on Market Street tells the story of a grandmother who teaches her grandson to appreciate the world in a new way on their daily walk to and from the bus stop. Picture books can be effective resources to draw upon the cultural and linguistic diversity of our students, engaging reluctant learners and expanding knowledge of each other and the world.
Some of my personal favorites include:
Goodnight Moon: A truly timeless classic written in 1947 by Margaret Wise Brown, this book is written as a lullaby with slow and calming rhythms that lull a child to sleep. The bunny participates in a bedtime ritual of saying goodnight to all.
Where the Wild Things Are: A 1964 winner of the Caldecott Medal for the Most Distinguished Picture Book of the Year, 1964, you will join Max on his adventures as he sails away to the land where the wild things are.
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble: The tender tale of a young boy who finds a magic pebble and the madcap adventure that ensues as he tries to find his way home, the story of Sylvester is among my top 10!
Or this new gem!
Just Ask! Be Different, be Brave, Be You: Written by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and illustrated by award-winning artist Rafael Lopez, this lovely story helps children understand that whatever their circumstances, each is special in a good way.
As we approach winter break, I urge you to set aside some time to read aloud with your children. The benefit of spending time together in this way will be multi-faceted. In addition to setting the stage for life-long reading, you will help to increase your child’s attention span and develop her imagination. Reading aloud will strengthen his comprehension and assist in language development. Finally, read-aloud time is great one-on-one bonding time. Whatever your age, you will never be too old to share a picture book with family or loved ones!
Kathie Foster is superintendent of Robbinsville Schools.