What Makes a Picture Book Worth Buying?
A variety of picture books can be found in libraries and local thrift shops, and many children also receive them as gifts. Many of these simply aren’t worth the time it takes to read them to your children. The library is a good place to scout for books, but many libraries no longer have the best picture books. Even children’s bookstores may no longer stock the older backlist books, because many of them are no longer advertised or reviewed. They have been replaced by books with characters borrowed from popular media shows and games, with little content that can stand the test of time. Many of them are literary junk food.
Which books are worth reading again and again and again to your children? First, they should be books that capture the imagination of your child or reflect his interests. My son loved big rigs when he was five. He knew much more about them than I did. I checked a book out at the library for him that he loved. It was obvious that buying it would be a good investment. It had information he was hungry for. I decided to get it as a Christmas present.
As it turned out, I had to special order the book because it was so specialized that no bookstore would carry it. We had to order the library edition because that’s all there was. It was nonfiction and he would pour over these photos day after day, learning. I probably was the one who learned the most, because until Jason came along, those vehicles had simply been trucks to me — not tractors and trailers. Since Jason couldn’t read, I learned while I read to him and I let him know he was helping me learn about what interested him.
I think you can see why a little boy who loved trucks and thought he wanted to drive one someday would like this book. It didn’t have cute little cartoon drivers, but real photos of a real truck and a real trucker doing what truckers do. He liked its realism and getting a vicarious taste of the trucking life.
I have found boys, especially, can love nonfiction. It satisfies a craving to learn about the things they see around them — bugs, snakes, motorcycles, fire engines, whatever they are curious about. They often prefer nonfiction to stories when they get to school age. Even when younger they may want the books of Ruth Heller or Gail Gibbons, which are beautifully illustrated to show children about their world and how things work. Girls also appreciate these books with their bright colors, bold illustrations, and clear information.
What you want to look for is excellence. If the book is illustrated with photographs, they should be first-class photos. If the illustrations are done by artists, would they be of the quality you might want to frame if they weren’t in the book? As an example, let’s look at Thomas Locker’s The Boy Who Held Back the Sea.
Locker is a first-class artist, and it’s a rare picture of his that I wouldn’t want to display on my wall. But quality pictures aren’t enough alone to justify buying a picture book if the words aren’t of equal quality.
Locker’s illustrations accompany the story adapted from Mary Mapes Dodge in Hans Brinker and adapted by Lenny Hort. Jan is a mischievous little rascal who lived in Holland. He has a reputation in the town as a person who gets attention by making up emergencies that turn out not to be true, so his stories are no longer believed. After telling a lie to get excused from church one Sunday, he spends the day up to no good and his naughtiness tires him out. He wanders over to the dike on the way home and notices a hole. Everyone knows that the dike holds back the sea and a hole that lets the sea through would grow and allow the village to be flooded. He runs to get help, but no one believes him enough to follow him back to the spot. He knows it’s now all up to him, so he wraps his handkerchief around his finger and sticks it in the hole. A storm comes up and soaks him. He is cold and tired and getting sick.
Finally he is discovered, almost delirious, and help arrives to deal with the hole. The village is spared and Jan has become a hero. He has also realizes that if he had always spoken the truth, the townspeople would have believed his story and come with him right away, sparing him his suffering .
Any child hearing this story and seeing the photos will live the story vicariously, and it will become part of how he sees the world. He begins to learn that actions have consequences. But Hort doesn’t preach. The child hearing the story learns from Jan’s experience. And this story supplies a brick in the foundation of the character of the child who hears it. Story and illustrations work together to show readers (or listeners) a truth about human nature as they identify with Jan in his predicament. It is a book children will want to look at again and again and remember as they linger over each picture. They will also develop a taste for awe-inspiring pictures.
Any book you buy for a child should be one that he will want to read or have read to him again and again. Be sure it’s a story you enjoy reading. If it’s good literature, it won’t talk down to the child and it will not become tiresome upon repetition. Its pictures should be of high quality and enhance the story, and the child should be able to relive the story through them.
From the intricate pictures of Peter Spier and the detailed humorous illustrations of Steven Kellogg to the rich paintings of Thomas Locker, picture book art can be the beginning of a life-long appreciation for fine art.
How to Select a Book for Your Child.
Since many towns no longer have bookstores, you may need to start by checking books out of the library and reading lots of them yourself before deciding which ones you like enough to read to your child. Keep his interests in mind, but don’t get stuck having to read a book you don’t like ten times. Let the child pick out one book, but you select the rest. If you like reading it, he will probably like hearing it. Ham it up as you read and draw him in. It makes the reading experience more fun for both of you. Before you return the books, ask which were his favorites of all you checked out. Ask which book he would pick to keep if he could only have one. Make a list of those books and keep it with you when you shop.
Keep in mind that today’s libraries only have a fraction of what is available. You may do better to browse on-line, where you can find even out-of-print editions. I have tried to review books on this site I believe have lasting value and that have worked with my own children. As this site develops, I will also make suggestions on how to get the most out of these books as you read them.
When you make your buying decisions, take these things into consideration.
- If the book is nonfiction, is it about a subject my child has expressed an interest in? Horses? Bugs? How to build a house? You know your child’s interests better than anyone.
- If fiction, does the story have a character your child will be likely to identify with? Does the writer use language well and use vivid words that your child will enjoy hearing?
- If you are going to read the book to the child, stay away from books with controlled vocabularies matched to the child’s reading level. Instead pick books on the child’s interest level that use some words he doesn’t know yet. You can talk about them if you need to, and this will help increase vocabulary in a natural way.
- Make sure the book has appealing illustrations that match the mood of the book.
- For very young children, pick books that use words in creative ways. At this age children love books that rhyme or repeat. That’s one reason nursery rhymes have survived through the ages. Examples of stories with repeating lines that children love to repeat with you as you read would be The House that Jack Built, The Three Little Pigs, Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat, and The Little Red Hen.
- Please buy a paper edition of the book rather than an e-book. Your child should have the books available any time to look through and the experience of physically turning the pages and lingering over each picture. No electronic version will do the illustrations justice, and the tactile sensation of turning pages enhances a child’s enjoyment. He also feels a sense of accomplishment as he turns each new page. He should be able to see the books on his own shelf, if possible, for they will be an important part of his life.
- As I was putting the links on these books, I noticed that some versions had been condensed. Reviewers did not get what they had expected. If you remember a book from your childhood and the version you remember is no longer available, read the reviews of others carefully for any indication that parts you loved in the book may be missing. My links go to unabridged versions if I have only linked to a single book.
Pages listed under this tab will contain some recommendations for my favorite picture books. Some I read as a child and they survived the test of time. Some I read to the children in my life, and some I discovered only after I started buying books to sell. Not all will be perfect for every child, but you are sure to find some your children will love. Any will be a good investment in your child’s life and education.