Picture Books

Everybody knows that if you want your kids to grow up into intelligent, literate, critical thinking people, you have to read to them lots and lots, starting when they are very very young. And everybody knows that the thing to read to the very young is picture books. Lots and lots of picture books, with lots and lots of brightly colored illustrations, and a few words sprinkled in here and there.

Everybody knows this, right?

Now I have lots of logical reasons and trustworthy authority to back up the idea that certain sorts of literature are extremely beneficial to small children... but it suddenly occurred to me that I believe picture books are indispensable precisely because the folks who bring us Sesame Street say so. Not to say anything against the sundry wonderfulnesses of Sesame Street--I like Cookie Monster as well as the next girl--but if you think that Sesame Street is the key to becoming an excellent reader, I have a few Nigerian bank accounts I'd like to sell you.

This doesn't necessarily mean that my belief about the importance of picture books was wrong. It does, however, mean that I had the wrong reasons for believing it.

Just because silly people believe something doesn't make it false, but it certainly doesn't make it true, either.

Picture books may, in fact, be incredibly important--but I need a better reason.

So can you help me out here?

Why should I read picture books to my kids?


Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

Because pictures (particularly beautiful pictures - and there are many styles that are beautiful) enrich the child's world. They also provide a secondary way for the child to understand the story - they will understand the words but ALSO the pictures. It is a richer experience of story.

I will say that I think there are plenty of bad picture books. Either they have bad art, or make poor use of words. And I don't think that those enrich a child's story experience at all.

Stephanie S said...

Yeah, it also comes down to how you think we know things. Picture books come out of a Lockean epistemology. Even if you don't entirely agree with Locke, if you think that one of the ways we learn things is through sensory perception, picture books become important because of the opportunity for a child to link auditory and visual perceptions in their understanding and knowledge of whatever is being presented. There are, of course, lots of other explanations for the importance of picture books. I've just come to the realization that this is at the bottom of lots of them.

Elena said...

What's the role of rich visual experiences in the development of the well-trained mind?

If picture books provide rich visual experiences, then doesn't television provide even richer visual experiences?

How do we fit it all together?

(I'm suspecting that whatever the answer is, moderation has something to do with... but I'm not sure how even to go about looking for that golden mean...)

Elena said...

Thanks for making that connection for me, Stephanie.

Patti said...

I think there's something to be said for teaching your kids to "read" pictures as well as words--that these are skills that will translate when they watch TV and movies, and that learning to think critically about visual presentation is just as important as learning to criticize words and rhetorical presentation, especially in a world that is more and more dominated by the visual. That said, moderation is definitely key!

slowlane said...

I took a really good class on children's lit and one of the ideas they presented is that pictures help kids begin the fundamentals of reading... following from left to right, associating ideas with symbols, etc.

lasselanta said...

I see two reasons for keeping picture books around:
1. Fundamental literacy skills (as slowlane said above). Our society is hyper-literate, and kids start learning how to function in it long before they know anything about sounding out words. Picture books (at least when read with parents) help them learn to view pages in sequence, follow top to bottom and left to right, associate written words with spoken words, etc.
2. Enculturation. I think this has to do with storytelling as well as with recognition of symbolic/iconic ideas and images (it is a learned skill to identify the picture of something with the real something). We don't have a tradition of oral storytelling, and most American children's experience with stories comes through books. Unless we return to oral storytelling (which might be a great idea!), picture books seem to be filling a necessary role.
I'm sure Steve and Betsy B. would have interesting insights about this-- much of my thinking on the subject is based on Dr. B's "Literacy in Social Context" class my senior year.

Sylvia said...

Actually, I don't think they all have to be picture books. I remember when Nat was 3 or 4, I think, and I was reading him some Winnie the Pooh. We had a Disneyized Little Golden Book with color pictures, and we had the original A. A. Milne with very few pictures. I can't remember if I read from both of them, or offered them both, but I do remember his answer. He expressed a decided preference for the A. A. Milne version because it had "better words."

Laura said...

Diotima's ladder (Plato's Symposium) - one begins by loving the beauty of an object, then he moves to recognize the sameness and difference of objects compared with the first object. From here he learns that sameness and difference is not always connected with appearance, therefore he learns to love the beauty of the soul, and then on to the beauty of ideas. In the case of picture books, a 6 month old baby won't appreciate the beauty of Plato, so we start with something simple and beautiful with hopes that he will learn to love ideas rather than just physical beauty.
Aside from classical lit, my 1 year old adores books and will sit next to the shelf, pawing through one picture book after the other. She can enjoy the pictures, and soon she'll learn to read the pictures, and after that she'll learn to read the words. By the time I want her to learn to read words, she'll love literature so much already that she desires to learn (hence the reason my pre-schooler is reading and writing already - completely of his own desire and initiation). Picture books also teach vocabulary (when will we ever talk about Bears without books?) and language at a pace that suits the child - TV fails young children because it moves at its own speed, whereas parents can talk and discuss and turn pages at the child's need.