Picture books might not look powerful. They’re small, thin, sometimes skinny softcovers that get lost on the shelf. Some of them have glitter on the cover. How can something with glitter be powerful?
I had trouble writing this post, because picture books are so powerful, in so many ways, that it became a long, flabby, meandering treatise on the wonder and magic of picture books. I wrote about how kids can see themselves in picture books, how kids can learn about people who live differently than they do, how kids’ emotions can be validated, how picture books transport readers to new worlds, and the power of sitting in a caring grownup’s lap to hear a story. I talked about how some people love picture books I don’t particularly care for, and vice versa, and how powerful those tiny stories are, that they can elicit such feelings in us, that we can say, “this spoke to me” about this very short stack of papers.
But you know all these things, right? You maybe even just skimmed the previous paragraph, as soon as I started listing reasons, because it was nothing new. So in the end, I’ll tell you about two ways picture books have been powerful for my own children.
In 2003, when my son Henry was three days old, I read him his first book, My Car by Byron Barton. He was only three days old, so I didn’t know yet that he would have preferred a book called something like My Car is a Winged Dragon from the Deepest Realms of Nefzalar. No matter. We’d figure that out eventually. Mostly I didn’t really know what to do with a baby once the diapering and feeding was done, so I read him a book.
And read him a lot more.
And so picture books are powerful because they have helped me parent my kids, because there is nothing that soothes a hurt feeling or heals a rotten day like curling up on the couch and reading a pile of books together.
Books are the currency to help them navigate this new world, and also the shared currency that reminds us, as a family, that we are facing the dragons of the world together.
And then, in a more practical sense, picture books help kids read. The process of watching someone learn to read is pretty amazing, watching them go from sounding out letters to recognizing words to happily tackling long complicated unknown words like “dumptruck.”
My daughter Ramona is in first grade, and has gone from knowing some words to reading board books on her own (My Car!) to choosing picture books that look interesting and giving them a try. Last week she picked up The Complete Adventures of Big Dog and Little Dog by Dav Pilkey. Ramona’s first word was “dog.” She has to pet every dog she sees, and if that’s not possible (like, we’re driving by in a car and I refuse to pull over and let her out to run after a Yorkie), she just screams about how cute the dog is. We have two dogs. One is little, and one is big. So she was pretty chuffed to find this book about a big dog and a little dog.
She read it. It’s a longish book, because it’s really five books in one. But she took her time, buoyed by her interest in reading, and mostly by her interest in dogs, and made it through. Then she read it to every person in the family. Then she read it to the dogs. Then, I guess feeling like there was still more to be done, she copied the entire book. She spent three days rewriting all the text.
Is there anything more powerful than that? A book you love so much that you copy it?
Plus, as she told me, “now I know how to spell ‘little.’”
In short: picture books are powerful because they know so much. They are us and we are them. It is the hugest privilege to write these things, and the greatest pleasure to be a reader of them.
Julie Falatko writes about misunderstood characters trying to find their place in the world. She is the author of Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book), illustrated by Tim Miller (Viking, 2016); the upcoming Snappsy the Alligator and his Best Friend Forever (Probably) (Viking, 2017); The Society of Underrepresented Animals, illustrated by Charles Santoso (Viking, 2018); The Great Indoors, illustrated by Ruth Chan (Disney-Hyperion, 2019) and Help Wanted: One Rooster (Viking, 2019).