As I have visited through the years with schoolchildren, parents, teachers and librarians, most of the people I have met, children and adults, love picture books. And yes, I do mean that they love books in a way that is emotional. I can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices when they talk about a character, a story, or an illustration, or when they recite a favorite line from a poem. They love the words and the art and the way these two elements complement each other and move the reader to feel and know and understand. The adults appreciate the books for their educational value, as well.
Except for books whose primary purpose is to teach reading, a picture book contains a range of reading levels. In writing these books, authors are not restricted to a graded vocabulary list. They are free to be artistic, to use words that contribute to the mood, the tone, the clarity, plot, characterization and other requirements of the craft.
Illustrators vary the mood, the tone, the space, the light, and other requirements of the artist’s craft to tell the story that the author has told. Children, once they can read, look back and forth, from text to art, or from art to text, and back again, over and over. They notice the details in the illustrations—observe, analyze, interpret, and draw conclusions, all important skills for success in education.
Picture books, no less than other kinds of literature, provide nourishment for the mind, the spirit, the emotions and even the body (we know now that laughter can be healing). These books provide a variety of gifts -- story, lyricism, humor, information and much more, thereby helping children, as they grow, to live fuller, deeper lives.
Reading should not be a chore that children are forced to do. The books that are chosen for them should be engaging. During every child’s school life, there will be required reading assignments that are not to his or her taste. For children who have not been saturated with engaging books and therefore have not developed strong skills in deciphering words, such assignments are doubly difficult.
A love for books can be developed long before the age of five or six. Babies, even before they can interpret language, are entranced by its sounds, because language is music. We can hear the melody in a conversation, as a voice goes up and down. We can hear and feel rhythm when the voice stops and starts, moves fast or slow, or when a syllable is held or pronounced in staccato. A baby, sharing a parent’s lap with a book, listening to the music of language being “sung” by a voice he or she knows and loves, has begun the process of reading.
A later stage consists of parent and child (or parents and children) reading aloud together, sometimes taking turns reading to each other, using their voices in a way that emphasizes the meaning and the music of language.
Throughout this process, there is movement: clapping to the beat, rocking to the beat, swaying gently and moving the arms to a smooth, flowing rhythm, imitating the characters in the illustrations, waving hello or goodbye, pouting, laughing loudly, and so forth, with the child choosing some of the visuals to imitate. It’s fun for the parent and the child, an additional way to cement their relationship and create happy memories that the child will never forget.
I believe that if children fall in love with books at an early age, they will graduate to older books when the time is right for them, just as they mature in other ways. The job that picture books can do, with the help of parents and other adults, will make a great contribution to children’s success in academia and in all aspects of their lives.
© 2010 Eloise Greenfield