Happy Cheetah Reading

In Defense of Picture Books

Picture books aren’t quite the same as board books. Board books are short. They have few words per page, and minimal plots (if any). And the crazy thing about board books? My boys have all enjoyed them well past the recommended age range.

I would have expected board books to grow old by age two. Maybe age three.
But even though they also listened to picture books — and, in the case of some of my boys, all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books — by age three, the board books continued to hold an appeal at least through age four.

So if board books appeal for a surprisingly long time, even for children who can understand and appreciate more sophisticated books, think how long picture books might appeal to children.

Picture books — those beautifully illustrated, carefully plotted books.

The Decline of Picture Books

Back in 2010, the New York Times ran an article titled “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children.” It quotes Dara La Porte, the manager of the children’s section of a bookstore:

“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 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.”

So let’s talk about this for a bit.

The basic myth here is that picture books are less academically worthy than chapter books.

Let’s look at this really, from several different angles.

Picture Books and Vocabulary

Some picture books have 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.

And because picture books are mostly designed for parents to read to children, they are often linguistically complex — or 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, in order 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.’”

Picture Books and Sentence Structure

Think about the beginning of that simple early reader The Cat in the Hat.

If it were 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 simple sentence structure, though it is still a pleasure to read because of the rhythm and rhyme.

But in general, picture books do not rely on oddly restricted sentence structure. They may employ repetition.

But they sound like proper speech.

This helps children start to develop an ear, to know intuitively, about good writing.

Picture Books and Storytelling

By high school, most parents expect their children to have some experience of literary analysis.

But if you are an eager parent, you can introduce concepts like main character, plot, climax, and such in 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.

But even picture books that are not quite so perfect as McCloskey’s, they are easy to grasp.

And storytelling is important in marketing, in interpersonal relationships . . . in life!

So, Basically . . .

Let your children enjoy picture books! They’re good for children!

And just like you can let a four-year-old still enjoy board books, you can let a ten-year-old still enjoy picture books. The good ones are intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying. And that doesn’t end at age six.

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