How Do I Choose Quality Picturebooks?

Picturebooks are currently experiencing somewhat of a renaissance. There are many talented writers and artists that have chosen to focus on this format and as a result, we have incredible writing and illustrations in many different forms and styles . There are illustrators like Oliver Jeffers, Christian Robinson and Suzy Lee that have distinct artistic voices that make beautiful books. There are also talented authors like board book author Belle Yang and the award-winning Sherman Alexie who just put out his first picture book. The choices for what to read with our children are large and the task of choosing what to actually purchase can be a bit daunting. Over the past few years, I have had the pleasure of doing the purchasing for our school’s library and I want to share some questions that help guide my thinking as I decide whether or not to include a book in our collection.

First, let’s start by looking at what picturebooks provide to early readers. Are they just a necessary step between board books and chapter books or are they something more?

Picturebooks serve a more important purpose than you might expect.

  • They are an important step to help children become lifelong readers. When you share a picturebook with a child, you are helping them to engage with the book before they are able to read the words.
  • This literally brings you and your child closer together as you are physically close whether they are on your lap or right next to you and you are focusing on the same task of interacting with a story.
  • While their attention is on the illustration, they are also hearing your words and making connections between the text and pictures. This helps them to learn that words convey meaning before they are aware of the text.

So, picturebooks are important, but how do we choose them?

The most important rule about sharing a book with a child is one that I learned many years ago the hard way:

Always read the book yourself first before sharing it with your child.

I mean always. I once read a book called The Clown of God to a group of kindergarten students at a VBS without reading it first (Spoiler alert: the clown dies while juggling) and after that experience I realized no matter what you think you know by the cover, you actually know nothing about a picturebook until you read it. If you don’t read the book first, you may find yourself having to explain difficult concepts that you are not quite prepared for.

But, as we are reading the book ahead of time, what should we be looking for?

  1. When reading through a picturebook, the most important question is: “does this author respect his audience?” There are plenty of authors that write picturebooks because they are popular and they it’s easy (it’s not) because there are much fewer words. All they need to do is string a few words together, make them rhyme and ensure there is a certain obvious moral lesson to be learned. As a general rule, these do not make good picturebooks. Some of the best children’s literature comes from authors that respect children and their abilities to understand abstract concepts and complex plots. Did you know that right before the Harry Potter books came out publishers had decided you could not write longer books for children any more. Maybe it could work for young adults, but children of this generation weren’t capable of staying focused that long so they didn’t want to publish books that were long and complex for children. We all know how that worked out. The truth is J.K. Rowling could have tried to edit her books down and she could have cut out some of the plot lines in order to simplify and design the series for an audience that can’t or won’t focus. Instead, she chose to stick with her vision, knowing that children wanted to be transported into magical worlds and having many different storylines and multi-layered characters would not be beyond children. She inspired a new generation of children, not only to read but to love reading.
  2. Are the pictures pleasant to look at? Is it clear that the illustrator put in the effort and thought necessary to create these illustrations? We come to the part where people say, “do not to judge a book by its cover”. To an extent that is true (see earlier anecdote about the Clown of God), but the same way that you want to make sure a writer did their best work with a picturebook, you want to make sure an illustrator took the time to make something beautiful. Remember the way that your child’s brain is working when looking at picturebooks is that they are literally using the pictures to make connections, solve problems and follow along with the plot. They are literally reading the illustrations. Some people look at illustrating for children and think bright primary colors are all that you need. However, this is not the case. Think of an example like “Where the Wild Thing Are.” It is a book that really uses its illustrations to guide the story and the art is incredibly detailed and clearly something that was worked on for a long time. The illustrator thought that the reader was worthy of their best work.
  3. Is the length appropriate for the age group? What about the vocabulary? Think of conversations that you have had with your child or the children in your care. Don’t get me wrong, even Dr. Seuss snuck in a few complex words to his books. But, this was purposeful with the intention of teaching some vocabulary (after all, one of Dr. Seuss’ great contributions to literature is creating readers that children enjoyed and moving the U.S. on from the Jane and Dick books). A few words that you get to explain and talk about are not a big deal, but if the book is about potty training and it is a chapter book, go ahead and move on. Clearly, there was very little thought put into the developmental stage the reader would be in when dealing with this issue.

If you keep these questions in mind ,the books you choose to share with your child you should feel more comfortable and you should be less overwhelmed when you go to Amazon or a bookstore and see all your choices. I leave you with one of my favorite quotes about reading in childhood. It comes from the movie You’ve Got Mail. I know it’s cheesy, but this quote, the lovely bookstore and this quick interaction in this scene (from 2:43-2:51) about the worth of a book make me love it so:

When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does. (Kathleen Kelly,  You’ve Got Mail)

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