There are few more beautiful and enduring experiences than reading a picture book with a beloved child on your lap. Cuddling up at the end of the day with a toddler in footie pajamas, peacefully reading a favorite story for the sixth or seventh time, only to hear, “Read it again!” at the end, is not only heartwarming, but more valuable than it appears on the surface. Picture books are the literature of young children’s books, and they form a large part of our cultural literacy.
Picture books are created to be read aloud to a child, although they may be read again by an older child, as well. Board books, besides making excellent teethers, are created to safely teach children the rudiments of holding books, turning pages, moving from left to right, in addition to learning the concepts and simple stories contained within. Later on, beginning readers are especially written with controlled vocabulary and large, simple fonts in order to teach children to read. While one may occasionally find exceptional writing in beginning readers, by and large they tend to be didactic, with the story taking a back seat to the instruction.
Picture books, though, are stories. In all societies and throughout all ages, stories have been told to inculcate cultural values and to lead children into what it means to belong to the human family. They may be simple, domestic tales of daily life familiar to the child, or they may be set in fantastical worlds where children defeat terrifying beasts and return safely to their beds. Picture books can have complex language and advanced vocabulary, or they may have just a few perfectly chosen words on each page. Either way, they introduce little ones to the beauty and power of the written word.
Themes in the best children’s stories both explain the visible world to them and widen their horizons, without ever having to leave Mom’s lap. Many stories reassure kids that they are loved and safe, teach them that they should be kind to one another and share their toys, and reinforce life’s comforting routines and rhythms. In more exciting tales, risky situations are often acted out by animals to create a bit of distance, and even wild animals like bears are depicted as soft and bumbling. Other stories show scary scenarios—from the first day of school to being captured by pirates—with the young heroes finding confidence to gain control over their worlds. Books provide vehicles to practice succeeding in difficult situations before they happen. Imagine how much more difficult it would be to defeat those pirates if the child had not been sword-fighting in books for years!
Until the late Victorian age, children were treated as miniature adults in the western world, so there were no books for children, and even after that, the first books for kids were dreary, didactic tales written to promote good behavior. There are valid reasons that most of those screeds are only seen in university classes on the history of literature, while the nonsense poetry of Edward Lear is still popular today. It seems that a newly illustrated version of “The Owl and the Pussycat” comes out every few years. Even today, many cultures do not have books that we would consider picture books, but instead their books for young children have tiny little illustrations tucked into yards and yards of text. Some of the most popular picture books today help to develop a pint-sized sense of humor, from amusingly silly to screamingly funny, and like a Pixar movie, there are bits that will only be appreciated by the accompanying adult.
In order to do justice to this great form of literature and to have room for some title recommendations, I plan to treat several different types of picture books separately. My next article will be about classic picture books, including fairy tales and Caldecott winners. After that, I will discuss the phenomenon of the commercial picture book series—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Finally, as a librarian and children’s book selector, I get to see everything new that’s coming out, and I want to let parents in on some of the best new picture books that I’m reviewing and purchasing at our library so that they can make better use of their limited time on library visits. After all, it’s hard to make good decisions when you can’t find your five-year-old and the two-year-old is wrapped around your leg, since you’ve had to remove her from the stroller so that you could fill it with books. I’ve got your back.
Disclaimer: This series of articles, as indeed all of my articles, are written entirely on my own and do not reflect the opinions of my employer or anyone else.