24 February 2014

Don't Judge a Book By Its Pictures

One plea I would make to parents, and teachers, is to continue to read picture books to and with kids long past the age when you think they should be reading "harder" books.  I get disheartened when I see third, second and even first graders pass over great picture books because they want to read, or have been told they should be reading, chapter books.  If I had it my way, chapter books would be banned until third grade at the earliest so kids could have a couple of extra years to soak up some of the wonderful books that are out there for them.

There is a misconception that picture books are "easy" and just for little kids.  Many teachers believe that students need to read chapter books to build stamina.  But there are picture books being published by amazing authors and illustrators that are sophisticated and complex.  Some are very text heavy, despite the 28-32 page, illustrated format.  Others may have simpler text, but the layers of meaning in the simple lines require a level of comprehension far beyond what is needed to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants, or other "brain break" books.

A few weeks ago, Isaac thought he would simplify our bedtime reading by pulling a picture book off the shelf.  The first one he picked was ridiculously easy for him, but it was by Mo Willems so I did not argue.  Since that book only took about five minutes to read, I sent him back for another.  This time he brought back Dear Mrs. Larue: Letters from Obedience School by Mark Teague.  Little did Isaac know what he was in for.

This book is a brilliant picture book that is great for teaching letter writing, point of view and persuasion, among other concepts. Ike Larue is a badly behaved dog who has been sent to obedience school by his overwhelmed owner.  Upon arrival, he begins a series of letters, postcards and other missives to lament his imprisonment, insist upon his innocence and beg to be allowed to return home.  What makes the book so multi-faceted is that Teague is telling two stories, one in words and one in pictures -- what Ike says is not necessarily what Ike does.  So the reader has to interpret what really happened  and what is actually the truth.

Isaac thought he was getting off easy by picking picture books to read that evening before bed.  But even though Dear Mrs. Larue took more effort than he was planning to put into his reading that night, he ended up really liking the book and tried to find the sequel in the library the next morning.

Kids really do love picture books, even if they think they are too old for them.  When my older students have an opportunity to read to younger students, they have a great time finding a picture book to share.  There are authors who are writing picture books, fiction and nonfiction, that are as complex as they are beautiful.  And even if the child chooses a picture book that is below their reading level, it's okay.  Their brains may need the break.  They will snack on the pictures and maybe even some rhyming text, then come back to the novels when they are ready for something more substantial and fulfilling.  Kids' reading diets need to be varied to keep them interested.  Not every meal needs to be four courses of gourmet options.  Cheese and crackers will suffice now and then, and afterwards the haute cuisine will seem that much better.

So keep the picture books around longer than you think you need to.  And read them.  Please.  For the kids.


  1. I wish everyone felt this way! I often have students who will check out a picture book and a chapter book from my classroom library.

  2. Thanks! This is probably my biggest soapbox. There are so many great books that kids and adults are passing by.