Picture books often get the underserved label as easy books. They are often considered as lesser than chapter books everyone so desperately wants their child to read as soon as possible.
I can only assume they have never read Beatrix Potter or A.A. Milne. Their vocabulary is anything but simple.
However, picture books aren’t quite the same as for board books. Board books are short, with few words per page, and minimal plots (if any). Yet, surprisingly, my boys have all enjoyed them well past the recommended age range.
I would have expected board books to grow old by age two or perhaps three.
Yet even though they also listened to picture books, the board books continued to hold an appeal at least through age four, despite their love of listening to Laura Ingalls Wilder at the age of three.
So if board books appeal for such a surprisingly long time, even for children who can understand and appreciate more sophisticated books, think how long picture books might hold their appeal.
The Decline of Picture Books
Back in 2010, the New York Times ran an article titled “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children.” In it, Dara La Porte, the manager of the children’s section of a bookstore, says:
“I see children pick up picture books, and then the parents say, ‘You can do better than this, you can do more than this.’ It’s terrible pressure parents are feeling — that somehow, I shouldn’t let my child have this picture book because she won’t get into Harvard.”
So let’s talk about this for a bit. The essential myth here is that picture books are less academically worthy than chapter books. Not to mention the pride a parent feels when they can brag how their 6-year-old just finished Swiss Family Robinson.
However, let’s examine this idea from several different angles.
Picture Books and Rich Vocabulary
Some picture books have a limited vocabulary. Just like some beginning reader chapter books have limited vocabulary, but interestingly enough, a 2016 article pointed out that kids’ books use more rare words than adult television.
Although that term was not defined (does it mean picture books? Chapter books? Any book below a Young Adult rank?), it would seem that reading children’s books, whether picture or chapter, is better for vocabulary acquisition than the standard sitcom.
Since picture books are mostly designed for parents to read to children, they are often linguistically complex. At a minimum, they are at least not less complex than beginning chapter books.
When parents read to children, they can explain what they’re reading. Parents usually read fluently, giving emphasis on certain words, and allowing the full sentence to be heard in context.
When parents read aloud, children can connect the words and the illustrations. If children have questions, they can ask them on the spot, or request the book again, to gain additional comprehension.
The NYT article said this in a slightly different way:
“Literacy experts are quick to say that picture books are not for dummies. Publishers praise the picture book for the particular way it can develop a child’s critical thinking skills.
“‘To some degree, picture books force an analog way of thinking,’ said Karen Lotz, the publisher of Candlewick Press in Somerville, Mass. ‘From picture to picture, as the reader interacts with the book, their imagination is filling in the missing themes.’
“Many parents overlook the fact that chapter books, even though they have more text, full paragraphs, and fewer pictures, are not necessarily more complex.
“‘Some of the vocabulary in a picture book is much more challenging than in a chapter book,’ said Kris Vreeland, . . . ‘The words themselves, and the concepts, can be very sophisticated in a picture book.’”
The benefit of a picture book is that an adult reads it to a child. The adult reads with inflection and intonation. We bring the words on the page to life in a way that allows a child to use their imagination, which is quickly becoming a lost art. However, picture books still offer more.
Picture Books and Sentence Structure
Think about the beginning of that simple, early reader, The Cat in the Hat.
Written in prose, it would read like this: “The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold, wet day. I sat there with Sally. We sat there, we two. And I said, “How I wish we had something to do! Too wet to go out, and too cold to play ball. So we sat in the house. We did nothing at all.”
This is quite a simple sentence structure, though it is still a pleasure to read because of the rhythm and rhyme. Fortunately, picture books do not rely on an oddly restricted sentence structure. They may employ repetition, but they sound like proper speech.
Hearing the cadence of well-written sentences helps children start to develop an intuitive ear for well-written works.
Start your students reading with thirty stories with Happy Cheetah Reading, a research-driven program for beginning readers.
Picture Books and Storytelling
By high school, most parents expect their children to have some experience with literary analysis. However, if you are an eager parent, you can introduce concepts like the main character, plot, and climax with a simple picture book, rather than in a sprawling novel of 250 pages.
How do the great masters of the picture book manage to create something greater than the sum of the parts?
Robert McCloskey tells what seems to be the simple story of One Morning in Maine, and manages to explore the fear of growing older — and losing teeth — by interweaving that rite of passage in among missing feathers, digging for clams, replacing spark plugs, and enjoying ice cream.
Yet even picture books that are not quite as perfect as McCloskey’s are still easy to grasp. Storytelling is essential in marketing, in interpersonal relationships, and in life!
Let Your Children Enjoy Picture Books
It’s not just okay for your children to enjoy picture books, it’s necessary. Picture books build vocabulary, develop storytelling skills, ignite critical thinking, and train the ear for writing well.
Let a four-year-old continue enjoying board books, and let a ten-year-old enjoy picture books. The good ones are intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying, which doesn’t end at age six.