Why Picture Books Matter

I read the saddest thing in The New York Times a few weeks ago. It was this headline: Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children. How can that be, I thought? Picture books are childhood: big and colorful, imaginative, full of whimsy and stories to tell, brimming with new information, funny, clever, and over much too soon.

But the article reports that booksellers are seeing a definite downturn in picture book sales. Blame the same pressure that is causing the Race to Nowhere syndrome. NYT writer Julie Bosman tells of parents pushing “big-kid” books on toddlers, out of fear that mere picture books will be a waste of their precious time—the time they need to constantly be moving toward the college that will guarantee their lifelong “success.”

Ms. Bosman notes that picture books are complex and sophisticated. I’d like to make that point, too. Picture books are to chapter books what poetry is to prose, in many ways. A good picture book is a perfect gem—a work of art that tells a story succinctly, with unforgettable beauty and charm.

I pick up a picture book almost every time I go to the library, and I’m fifty-two years old. When Stephanie was a little girl, we had a huge tote bag that we’d take to the library. Thirty to forty picture books was the average haul for us. We’d come home and spread them out on the carpet like shells we had collected at the seashore. Which one to read first? Which one to read next?

Here is a list of ten of my favorites:

1. The Honest-to-Goodness Truth. With a thoughtful story and the heavenly artwork of Giselle Potter, this book is one of the all-time best I’ve ever read.

2. Loud Emily. A rousing and hilarious adventure with illustrations that are wildly beautiful.

3. Saving Sweetness. A very witty tale of an orphan child, with pictures both funny and dear.

4. Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain. A magical book in every way.

5. Mouse at Night. I dare you not to enjoy this little guy.

6. How Emily Blair Got Her Fabulous Hair. A delightful celebration of, well, hair, with the best hair drawings you’ll ever see.

7. Geraldine’s Blanket. A tale of love with cuddly pictures that will make you want to cuddle whoever you’re reading it to.

8. Hazel’s Amazing Mother. It’s exciting and sweet at the same time, with adorable illustrations of daring feats of motherhood!

9. The Scrambled States of America. This is one of the most fun-filled books in the world: states with faces and lots of silly jokes.

10. The Paper Bag Princess. An antidote to Disney-Princess overload, with quirky drawings and humor to match.

In the Times article, Bosman mentions a parent who bemoans the fact that, if left to his own devices, her child would read only picture books. I don’t think that would be such a terrible thing. A great picture book has an intelligent message, a good story, fine language, and inspiring artwork. Picture books matter. Denying kids picture books is like denying them a part of life. Man cannot live by words alone.

If you can swing it, please visit your local book store and buy a big, colorful, imaginative picture book today. Let’s show those publishing companies that we’ll buy something other than the same old Seuss (not that he isn’t great!), or a TV-show tie-in book, or vampire teen-lit. Picture books matter.


20 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Laura Weldon said,

    They do, they do matter. Your list makes me want to head to the library right now, because as much as we love picture books we’ve only read one on your list. That one is Hazel’s Amazing Mother, also one of our favorites. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. 3

    Angela said,

    That’s horrifying! I think Miriam deserves some shiny new picture books all her own to add to the shelves- and bins-full we purchased or were gifted with the first two. And lucky me, I have $75 worth of bookstore gift cards burning a hole in my pocket. I wasn’t sure what I would buy with them … until now.

  3. 5

    Anne Dye said,

    Well said! I cannot imagine learning to read or helping my children to learn to read without pictures books!

  4. 7

    Karen said,

    Great list! I’ve only read a few of them (one, the Paper Bag Princess, is one of my all-time favorite books), it’s nice to have new books to be on the lookout for. A family favorite here is Ten Minutes Till Bedtime, with only about 5 words on each page and many, many subplots in the pictures. And, we love anything by Mo Willems, especially Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!

    How sad that today’s kids aren’t getting more exposure to picture books; let’s hope the pendulum swings back the other way soon!

  5. 9

    typhoidterri said,

    Might I also add “On the Night You Were Born” by Nancy Tillman. I admire authors who can also illustrate. One is a friend of mine named Gene Barretta who wrote “Now and Ben” about Ben Franklin. He’s also written books on DaVinci and Thomas Edison.

  6. 11

    Cristina said,

    I’ve been lax in my picture book buying. Thanks for giving me a new excuse to buy one. πŸ™‚
    I think one issue parents deal with these days is the artificial “standards” schools have put into place. I once heard a mother at our library tell her child to put a particular book back because it was “below her reading level.”

    On a more positive note, another homeschooler once told me how a scientist she knows will take out a children’s book first when she is learning about something new. Many of today’s picture books tackle some very sophisticated topics and try to put it in language that kids understand. I have to say, I squealed with delight recently when I found the book “Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci”. How wonderful that someone would write about this! How can a book that explains the Fibonacci sequence to kids be considered a “mere picture book”?

    Peace and Laughter!

    • 12

      sgaissert said,

      Thanks for commenting, Cristina. I’ve heard parents in the library say things like, “Put that back; you already have a book about a bunny.” And I also go to the children’s department when I want to learn about something or somebody new. I think the biographies written for children are great. And many of them are picture books, such as “You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer.”

  7. 13

    Ruby said,

    It would be a sorry day if picture books are no longer made. They are so beloved to us and our children. You have a lovely selection here. I am not familiar with them. Perhaps being an Aussie we have different favourites!
    Thanks for having me on the Homeschool Blog Carnival.
    Ruby (Homeschooler in Oz)

  8. 15

    Love your post! Makes one wonder if the parents did not have picture books growing up, so they have no favorites to cherish now, therefore don’t understand the pull or magic of a well-loved picture book to their own kids. To the bookstore!

    • 16

      sgaissert said,

      What a good “wonder,” Robin. That’s a distinct possibility. Those of us who loved going to the library as kids are more likely to take our kids there from a very young age, I suppose. Or to allow our kids to linger there as long as they’d like. Some kids with non-book-loving parents find the world of books on their own, but some don’t, I suppose.

      Thanks for the comment! And for the introduction to your blog. : )

  9. 17

    Jimmie said,

    Oh, what sad, sad news. I believe that picture books are appropriate for all ages — middle school, high school, even adults. Whatever happened to appreciating illustrations and ART?

  10. 19

    jboring said,

    As soon as you started listing your favorite picture books The Paperbag Princess came to my mind. I read that to my daughter all the time and love it to death! I’m glad it made it on to your list of favorite too. πŸ™‚
    Another great one by that same author is Stephanie’s Ponytail, if you haven’t read it you should check it out.

    • 20

      sgaissert said,

      Thank you! I will definitely look for Stephanie’s Ponytail. In fact, my daughter’s name is Stephanie and she used to wear a ponytail, so I’m sure I’ll like it. : )

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