The Importance of Picture Books in Children's Literacy
When I read Peter Brunn’s post, “The Importance of Chapter Books in Children’s Literacy,” I was transported back to magical family read-aloud experiences from my own childhood…The Cricket in Times Square, James and the Giant Peach, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and on and on. I can’t say I like chapter books more than picture books, though. I love both. I had life-changing experiences with picture books and chapter books alike, and I hope for the same for my own children. I think each has its very important place along the spectrum of emerging and blossoming literacy.
That’s why I was troubled by this article in the New York Times about the decline of picture books. When I read that picture book sales are softening and offerings narrowing because parents, in the hope of boosting their children’s “academic achievement,” are pushing their four- and five-year-old children from picture books into chapter books, I felt profoundly sad.
As the article points out, in addition to offering incomparable opportunities for building reading comprehension and developing vocabulary, picture books have a particular way of developing a child’s critical thinking skills. The potential shortcomings of chapter books for very young children are especially plain to me when I flip through leveled (read: decodable) chapter books for very young children. They seem to be long on (what is a stretch to call) plot and short on rich language, sophistication, and subtlety
Having two family members in the five-and-under category affords me daily opportunities to witness the depth and power of picture books. The illustrations don’t have to be lush extravaganzas of eye-catching color, either. I’m thinking in particular of Virginia Lee Burton’s 1937 classic, Choo Choo: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away, with its angular, almost stark, black and white charcoal drawings. At one point in the story, Choo Choo’s bravado is waning along with her fuel supply when she comes to a fork in the tracks.
She had lost her way!/She did not have much coal or water left as she had lost her tender…./Finally she came to where the tracks divided.
“Mama, what does ‘divided’ mean?” my then-three-year-old asked.
Being himself an experienced train operator, he was confused by the contextual sentences that followed the word divided—“One track went one way and the other the other way”—which he interpreted, quite reasonably, to mean parallel tracks trafficked in opposite directions. Definitely a comprehension-confounding misunderstanding. I called his attention to the relevant part of the illustration, and in one synaptic flash, he understood. “Oh, it’s a switch!”
This illustration, in one fell swoop, communicated to him the meaning of the word, down to shade-of-meaning level, introduced him to the very sophisticated concept of moment-of-decision, and allowed him to bring his prior knowledge to the story, all in a way that would have been impossible with text alone. I’ve had more experiences like this with him than I can count.
Please share your experiences with picture books, the classics and the ones you think ought to be classics! (I have some voracious listeners at home who would appreciate your suggestions….) Buy them, check them out of the library, and most importantly, read them with your children.
[Image: Burton, Virginia Lee. Illustration of a train at a fork in the tracks. Choo Choo. By Virginia Lee Burton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937. 29 (est). Print.]
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