Why Kids' Picture Books are Good for Both Emerging Readers, Readers that Emerged Long Ago
Parents, kids: art, words — the sum is greater than the parts
Earlier this fall, Oct. 7, to be precise, I thought I would relax with The New York Times. A story on parents steering their young children away from picture books and into chapter books was not the bedtime story I was looking for: "Picture Books No Longer A Staple for Children" the headline announced with accounts of picture books languishing on bookstore shelves, publishers scaling back on new titles and parents seeing chapter books as the path to future success.
The Times quoted Dara La Porte, the children department's manager at Washington D.C.'s famed Politics and Prose bookstore: "It's a terrible pressure parents are feeling — that somehow, I shouldn't let my child have this picture book because she won't get into Harvard."
At least, I learned, my treasured Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak are safe — for now.
Bless our mother for shrugging off peer pressure when my older brother and I were deep — really deep — into comic books. My brother ended up a chaired professor of Education and Human Development and Professor of Psychology at — you guessed it — Harvard's Graduate School of Education and Harvard Medical School. His response to the article was to send me two presentations for elementary school teachers. In each, a picture book was the basis for discussions of sophisticated cultural and moral issues.
For the past two months, I have been talking about this latest cultural devolution with artists, musicians, teachers, parents and with my childhood heroines — community public librarians.
"IMAGINATION, CREATIVITY, VISUAL LEARNING," they all cried.
Faith Boyle, the Director of Youth Services at the West Orange Public Library (WOPL) and I have been having an ongoing dialogue. She's been talking to her fellow librarians, too. Emily Chornomaz, the WOPL teen librarian reports that the book world blogosphere has been weighing in on this Times report and the consensus is picture books for emerging readers — YES.
A library patron felt so strongly when she overhead Faith and Emily chatting on the topic, that she wrote out a great list of reasons why picture books "rule."
Here is a sum-up of some of the many insights Faith shared with me: Most picture books geared for the post pre-school set have more sophisticated vocabulary, story lines and complex issues than emerging reader chapter books. The pictures help the reader puzzle out meanings and nuance.
Picture books are fun. And take it from a long time secondary school teacher — me — lessons that are fun are lessons remembered.
Many of us are visual learners and always will be.
Picture books deeply engage our senses. They are designed to be read either silently or aloud. Many emerging readers like to read aloud to themselves, their siblings, or to the parents who read to them.
Faith gave me a picture book to look at, "Frederick" with words and illustrations by Leo Lionni. First published in 1967, Faith reported that it's on a current Oprah Winfrey list of recommended children's books. It garnered many prestigious awards too: an American Library Association (ALA) Notable Children's Book, a New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year and it was a Caldecott Honor Book.
Faith told me the story. Frederick is a field mouse. While his fellow mice gathered food, he gathered beautiful colors and words to see all the mice through the cold of winter.
"A metaphor for art," I said, checking the book out.
And that is why I loved my picture books throughout childhood and love them now. They marry beautiful art by remarkable artists to wonderful words.
P.S.: Faith took me over to the librarian's desk in the Children's Room. Hanging behind the desk is a wondrous original art work by David McPhail, one of the illustrations for the picture book "Mud is Cake" by Pam Muñoz Ryan. It is pictured here, along with two pages from the book, but go the library and spend some time with both McPhail's work and the art by children on exhibit, too.
Next week, Arts Beat is gathering recommendations and memories of favorite children's picture books. E-mail me or add a comment to today's column to contribute.
Hear Faith Boyle read at the WOPL "Winter Wonderland Story Telling" at 11 a.m. this morning or on Wednesday evening. Dec. 15. at 7 p.m.