Happy Cheetah Reading

The Winners of the Book Popularity Contest

I spent some time last year looking at picture books from American history. And it fascinated me, that there was a picture book that focused on Thomas Jefferson’s garden. It tied his garden in to growing the nation. There was a picture book about a giant cheese that was delivered to the White House while he was president. A picture about his library. There were several picture books about the Corps of Discovery that Jefferson sent out, that incredible Lewis and Clark expedition that made its way across the United States.

It makes sense that Jeopardy! Champion James Holzhauer said, “I have a strategy of reading children’s books to gain knowledge. . . . I was thinking, what is the place in the library I can go to to get books tailored to make things interesting for uninterested readers? Boom. The children’s section.”

It’s totally true. Beautiful, well-researched illustrations help set the events in time. Technobabble is kept to a minimum. There are often maps and charts and infographics to keep things clear.

I have thought a lot about picture books, as I’ve curated my collection of over 800 picture books.

There are times when I use a picture book to teach something. When the older boys and I were reading Whatever Happened to Penny Candy for school, it mentioned that, during the height of tulipomania, investors in Holland would pay the equivalent of 20 years’ salary for a single tulip bulb.

And we have a picture book for that: Hana in the Time of the Tulips, by Deborah Noyes, with the earnest illustrations of Bagram Ibatoulline. (Rembrandt makes an appearance, and most of the illustrations look like the Dutch Old Masters.)

But here’s the deal: I don’t always want to be teaching.

And this led to a slightly ridiculous problem.

When my boys were young, I put their picture books on shelves by height. Some shelves were just under a foot in height, which limited where the oversized books could live.

And it wasn’t until my fifth son that I really analyzed why I wanted to read some books more than others.

Want to know my brilliant realization?

Wait for it . . .

Wait for it . . .

I looked forward to reading the short fiction books, and hesitated reading the text-heavy nonfiction.

Aaaah! So obvious!

But though it sounds so simple on the page, it took me a long time to realize that I liked the quick accomplishment and dopamine rush when I read My Friend Rabbit. But I had to mentally psyche myself up for reading Thank You, Mr. Falker. The latter book is the delightful story of a teacher who took the time to work with a struggling reader. But it’s not a fun book, in the way that the story of Rabbit and Squirrel is fun.

My boys would cheer about the short, fun books, and sit quietly, but with less excitement, through the longer books.

When I finally realized this, it was a relief. I reorganized my shelves.

All picture books that emphasized poetry and literature went on a shelf.

All nonfiction set in the US — mostly biographies, but a few additional books, such as the building of the Statue of Liberty — went to another shelf.

I had a shelf for international books.

A shelf for science-related books.

And all the most fun, entertaining, child-pleasing books right at ground level, for the easiest access for the curious youngster.

There are books my boys haven’t heard yet. And that’s okay. I’m happy to have a range of books for them to explore.

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