Monday, January 09, 2012

A Great Book Will Always Remain a Great Book: Why Your Kid Will Never Outgrow Picture Books

Your Early Reader Needs Picture Books, Even if You Think They've Outgrown Them

There is an increasing trend to get kids into reading chapter books as early as possible. The publishing industry has responded to this trend by making picture books less sophisticated and with fewer words than they had in the past. I think this is a mistake. Picture books are a pivotal and significant part of a kid's growth and development as a reader. Kids need to be able to read picture books as long as they have a desire to. 

I recently came across a post on a blog called the "Homeschool Classroom" that discussed this issue, expressing that their child, at four, had reached a "reading wall." Here's the original post.

And here's a slightly edited version of my response:

Your boy is four years old. Picture books are OK. I repeat: picture books are OK. There are plenty of challenging picture books for even the most advanced reader. Try William Steig. Try William Joyce. Or Chris Van Allsberg. Yes, there are less words per page. But you'd be surprised--the vocabulary is not necessarily less sophisticated. The stories are often challenging and engaging. Compelling an early reader to read books he's not that interested in is not going to make them a better reader in the future. Let him choose his own books, even if they are what you consider to be below his reading level. Picture books are a very important and critical part of a kids early development as a reader. At four he needs picture books.

There are also some very excellent lavishly illustrated storybooks in the slimmer, picture book format. And no matter what the age level, I don't think it helps to make reading a compulsory act. Give him books that he likes and he will seek them out. Read him books that are maybe a little more sophisticated but that engage him--books that he may not be able to read on his own but that he can enjoy, like Doctor Dolittle or Peter Pan. These are nighttime reading. Bedtime stories. And read him his favorites--even if they're below his reading level--over and over again if that's what he wants. That's how you change a reluctant reader into an enthusiastic one!

I Missed My Picture Books

When I was eight years old, I moved from my home in Pennsylvania to California with my mother and brother. And I left behind my picture books. I had a wonderful collection of some of fantastic picture books, Babar, Maurice Sendak, Steig, classic fairytales illustrated by Dulac and some of the great illustrators of the past. At eight, I saw these as "baby books" and my mother asked if it was OK for my grandmother to sell them. I would get to keep the money. She sold the lot for $50, and my mother started a bank account for me. At the time, I thought this was a great idea. It wasn't long before I figured out what I'd done.

We no longer had any books in my house that I wanted to read. We had my older brother's Beverly Cleary and Judy Bloom books. I tried to read Ramona the Great which was supposed to be written for my age group, but I found it totally unsatisfying. I had always considered myself an enthusiastic reader, prided myself on my interest in reading, but there was nothing I wanted to read. Then I discovered comic books.

Comic books were picture books that I could buy myself. I could seek them out on my own, and buy them with my own money. At the time, the only thing I checked out from the library were hardbound collections of comics, like The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics and Origins of Marvel Comics and Flash Gordon. My parents thought: at least I was reading, but I think these comics were as sophisticated as any chapter book or young adult book. You see: when I was a kid, I liked fantasy, but there wasn't a Harry Potter. We had Roald Dahl, and later I'd discover Daniel Pinkwater, and John Dennis Fitzgerald's The Great Brain (not fantasy, but no less a great series). I loved a Wrinkle in Time, but didn't read it till much later. But we simply didn't have the wealth of young adult books, of truly engaging young adult books that we have now. Yes, there are too many vampire books, and the fantasy genre dominates, but they are books that kids want to read. And there are so many that are well written, and that have compelling characters, and that go so far beyond the The Hardy Boys and The Babysitter's Club in the sophistication of their content. But there has to be a transition point. Even when a kid's reading level is high enough for them to read a chapter book, or  even a young adult book, picture books can still be important. 

A Great Book Will Always Remain a Great Book

Maybe I was supposed to be too old for picture books, but I never stopped loving them. And I'm positive that even at eight, or nine, or even older, I would have still read them over and over, even if they were "baby books." These were, and remain important books for me. A great book is a great book, and if it's a truly great book, no matter how few words it has, no matter what age it was intended for, it should continue to be a great book, and kids shouldn't be compelled to abandon them. 

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