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Slow Down and Enjoy Picture Books

A recently published New York Times article, “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children,” is causing an uproar in the children’s book world.  According to reporter Julie Bosman, booksellers are selling fewer picture books than ever, and not just because of the economic downturn. “Parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books,” she reports. One bookseller noted that parents are now buying their four-year-olds “Stuart Little” while classic picture books languish on the shelf. 

Some of this could be linked to standardized testing, but it may also be due to the pressure parents feel to accelerate their children’s learning at an ever faster rate.
Those of us who love picture books lament this trend. Even if your four-year-old is enjoying “Stuart Little,” what is he missing by jumping to chapter books three or four years ahead of schedule? What great picture books are going unread?  

It’s easy to underestimate the complexity of a great picture book. The interplay between text and illustration, the visual literacy skills built up through repeated readings, the sequencing, alphabet recognition, expanded vocabulary, and the joy found in great storytelling – I could go on and on, but here are just a few suggestions.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit” by Beatrix Potter may be more than a century old, but the story of a naughty child/rabbit who gets his comeuppance still resonates with preschoolers. In addition to offering lively illustrations and a compelling story complete with a breathless chase, Potter never writes down to children. When Peter collapses in tears after Mr. MacGregor almost catches him in the garden, Potter writes that the sparrows “implored him to exert himself.” Thanks to the plot and the expressive illustrations, even a preschooler will understand the meaning.
The Chicken Thief” by Bèatrice Rodriguez is new this year but sure to become a favorite. A group of farm animals are enjoying a picnic on the grass when Fox jumps out of the bushes, grabs Hen and makes off with her. The animals pursue the pair through woods, over mountains, to the sea, and even to an underground cave, while the chicken, clutched tightly in Fox’s arms, seems oddly resigned to her fate – even happy! The parallel stories are wittily told without words, demanding close attention to tease out the story. Encouraging children to tell you what’s happening is a great way to increase vocabulary and strengthen narrative skills.
The Red Book” by Barbara Lehman is another wordless book that rewards careful perusal of each page. Spare illustrations show a child on the way to school finding a red book sticking out of a snow bank. The red book is filled with maps that show another child finding another red book, and soon the two go in search of each other. Watch your young readers as they explore the thin line between fantasy and reality and speculate about what happens after the last page is turned.
Millions of Cats” by Wanda Gag is another classic example of strong storytelling, rhythmic language, and a thought-provoking story about survival of the fittest. Any child who misses the chant, “Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats” has been deprived of one of the joys of childhood.