Monday, November 7, 2016

The Power of the Picture Book: Melissa Guerrette

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Melissa Guerrette


Let's Make Memories, Baby!


Lately my life has been consumed by everything baby. My younger sister is expecting her first baby, and “Baby M” will be my first niece. I spent most of last weekend positioned behind my sewing machine beneath yards and yards of mint and coral fabric. Sometime while I was pinning the umpteenth yard of material to make ruffles for her crib skirt, the break from the dull roar of the sewing machine let me overhear my sister from where she was situated in the middle of the floor in the next room. She was following directions to construct the baby’s first bookcase.


“Chicka, chicka, boom, boom! Will there be enough room?” Kristin recited, followed by a few more hammer taps.

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The rhythm and cadence of her voice struck me as she spoke this very familiar line from our past. In that instant, I was once again curled up on the couch in our childhood home with Kristin and her twin sister Carrie, their 3-year old selves tucked right up beside me turning the bright and bold pages of Chicka, Chicka, Boom, Boom together. And most certainly, nearby would have been a stack of other favorite picture books, too.

“...up the coconut tree,” I finished.

Kristin went on to talk aloud to Baby M, telling her about the bookcase she was making and all the picture books she will read.

Listening to my little sister, now 30, telling her baby about favorite picture books illustrates just one of the many, many reasons why picture books are powerful. Picture books, shared among readers--in families and in classroom communities--foster connections, evoke feelings, and become memories.

My parents are responsible for our appreciation for picture books, having stocked our shelves abundantly and promoting the love of reading. Whether it was the silliness of Robert Munsch’s I Have to Go Pee!, the solemnity of The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, the tongue-in-cheek intentions of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, or the strange satisfaction that in The Napping House *nobody* was sleeping, we grew up reading picture books together again and again and again. It mattered little if the reader was a parent, a babysitter, or me--the oldest--reading to my six-year younger sisters.


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The role of picture books in togetherness and making memories has sustained over time and across settings. My nephews, Ethan (8) and Austin (4), have not only shared old favorites like Caps for Sale and The Polar Express time and time again, but the boys are known to request repeated readings of their own new favorites, like Wolfie the Bunny and Goodnight Already. The time spent with my nephews gathered close and a picture book across our laps has resulted in some of my favorite memories together. Ethan and I lost it once when Austin was trying with all his might to interject something into our conversation and finally, channelling Dot (Wolfie the Bunny), resigned, “Ah, skip it!” When Austin is working hard to assert his independence, I’ll sometimes say, “I can do it myself,” ala Little Red Henry. I can’t stifle my laughter when he wrinkles his brow and says to me, “I’m not Henry!”

For as long as I’ve been an aunt, I’ve considered it a responsibility and a privilege to supply my favorite little people with picture books that shape their world and our memories together.

Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that housing a library of picture books has been important to me as a teacher, too. My fifth grade classroom is lined with baskets of chapter books and novels that I happily book talk and recommend to readers, but there are also spaces reserved for my expanding picture book collection. I let students treat themselves to picture book reading as part of their reading life. And I read aloud picture books to my fifth graders. Often.


Gathering my students together on the carpet for picture book read alouds is hardly a stretch from the picture book experiences I’ve shared with my family. There are many purposes for reading picture books as a class: sometimes for content, sometimes for theme, and sometimes just to feel together. Our classroom is family, too. We grow closer with each picture book we share, letting our emotional responses conjured by picture books tangle with one another and marking time and events in our classroom with picture books that will serve as an imprint in our minds and on our hearts. My students may not all have the good fortune that I did, with plenty of picture books to read and share at home. I try to provide our classroom family plenty of shared picture books to enrich our relatively short time together and make lasting memories.

And this is what I look forward to in anticipation of a new niece, too. She’ll be welcomed into our family with lots of love and lots of picture books. Together we’ll have-and she’ll help make-lots of new picture book memories.

Among all the baby things I’m collecting to take to my sister’s baby shower next weekend is a stack of picture books I’ll bring to start filling that brand-new bookcase. Atop that pile of favorites is her own new copy of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.

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When Melissa Guerrette is not acting in her superhero role as Greatest Nerdy Aunt Ever, she is a 5th grade Humanities teacher in Oxford, Maine. (Although, this week she might be lost underneath more fabric as she races to finish baby things for the baby shower!) Her professional passion is empowering students and helping them uncover their individuality–as readers, as writers, and as people–for themselves. You can follow Melissa on Twitter at @guerrette79 or visit her blog at www.melissaguerrette.blogspot.com.