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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.

 The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away

“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.]

Kenni Smith spent 14 years as a Materials Developer at Center for the Collaborative Classroom.

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Comments (3)

I loved this blog post,

I loved this blog post, Kenni—I love the way you interweave vivid images and stories with complex, sophisticated, significant thinking. And I'm with you on loving picture books...

I love that my nieces give me an excuse to read and buy picture books on a regular basis.

I feel sad that I feel nervous about giving picture books to my older nieces—afraid of "insulting their intelligence," giving them a gift that is "too young."

I love the pace of picture books, the mood, the magic and hilarity of the illustrations, and the space to give depth and focus to an idea that is entirely different from what happens in chapter books.

I do worry about the picture books market—they've always seemed to be a labor of love—the generous outpouring of color and high-quality paper and child-resistant bindings. (Although I've noticed that almost without exception picture books are now printed in China and I wonder what will happen if we no longer have cheap labor and economic imbalance to exploit...)

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