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Beloved picture books

According to the New York Times, parents are starting to push their kids away from picture books at unusually early ages. “Picture books are for babies,” seems to be the message:

The economic downturn is certainly a major factor, but many in the industry see an additional reason for the slump. Parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books. Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.

Geez, No Child Left Behind really is the gift that keeps on giving. No matter that picture books are written with age-appropriate stories, draw young readers in with vivid pictures and smaller amounts of text per page, and actually have more complex and advanced vocabulary than those horrid staples of first-grade reading, the chapter book. (OK, not all chapter book series are horrid, but they are in general simplistic, low on rich vocabulary, and narrow in their range of topics.)

One of our favorites!

One of our favorites!

My kids are both well ahead of the reading curve, as measured by standardized tests. They are the kids that these parents want, apparently. Their relationship with picture books, however, is still a fond one. My son, 11, will still pick up a picture book when his 7-year-old sister brings it home from the library.

My daughter, who can read an adult-level medical text out loud with very few mistakes (she was obsessed for a while with human body science), still loves picture books. She spent years after being a toddler still going to the board books section of the library. She’d sit down on the comfy pillows and read book after book.

Why did she do this?

Well, partly to irk her mother, I’m sure!

But mostly because picture books don’t work within the limitations of other books. In picture books, there is no dividing line between realism and fantasy. In picture books, there’s no assumption that “kids wouldn’t be interested in this.” Picture books can be about anything. Some of our favorites:

I Went Walking

A simple, repetitive story about a girl who goes out walking, and as she sheds various articles of clothing she mentions all the animals she sees. At the end, all the animals are following her. It’s really about… nothing? But it’s a great story, engaging and musical and lovely. (I saw a friend who has a preschooler holding this book the other day, and I had a brief twinge of jealousy. We’ve outgrown that book. Oh, no!)

Olivia

If you have a little girl with a Very Big Personality, you understand Olivia. She has a book of 20 Loud Songs. She wears ridiculous outfits. She makes a spectacle of herself at school. Oh, and she’s a pig with enormous ears, so she’s got that going for her, too.

Tyger Voyage

All in rhyme, I resisted reading this one for a long time after it was given to us. The illustrations are gorgeous. The story is puzzling and beautiful.

Dahlia

Love, love, love this little book about a girl who is given a gorgeous doll by her doll-like great-aunt, and then she and the doll have adventures.

Dr Seuss

You know about him.

The Bunny Planet books

Each child has a bad day, and then has a visit to the Bunny Planet, where everything is perfect.

This was just off the top of my head. I could get specific titles if I just walked downstairs to my daughter’s room. You see, last year after she finally started to read other books (though she’d been able to read since she was 4!), I decided to clean out her bookshelves so she could fit some books that were actually at her reading level. You know, important books. Real books. Serious books. I got rid of the crappy books we’d somehow ended up with over the years, and put our favorite picture books up in her closet.

One by one, two by two, large thumps came from her room in the next few months. She’d climb up in her closet and start throwing down books.

“You put away Hop on Pop????” I’d hear her yell. “I need to be able to reach Farkle McBride, Mommy!”

So much for room on bookshelves.

Let’s face it: until you get up into the really meaty novels, the early chapter books are really limited. They limit themselves to characters like an early-grade kid (Junie B., Captain Underpants). They limit themselves to 1st-2nd grade vocabulary. They forget all about onomatopoeia. They can’t take place in foreign lands. They can’t take wild flights of imagination.

My daughter doesn’t like small type, probably because she has inherited her mother’s weak eyes. So though she can read anything, what she chooses to read must have large-ish words. And that rules out Harry Potter. And rules in all the wonderful, wild, and weird picture books that she still loves.

I have actually been somewhat happy about this. Despite the fact that I know she can read more challenging books, we haven’t run into the problem we did with our son. When he started reading voraciously (going on 7 years old), he suddenly read through everything. He read every single Wizard of Oz. Zipped through Harry Potter. E.B.White? Done. Dick King-Smith? He was past that level in a month. Suddenly, we had to try to find appropriate reading material for a 7-year-old who’d read everything and wasn’t ready for scary young adult fare.

Picture books solve a lot of problems, and create none. I say, let your kids read and reread them as long as they want. There are worlds there for them to explore, beautiful illustrations for them to lose themselves in.

Everything they need to stimulate those high test scores. And those happy minds.

Posted in Culture, Education.


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