The joy of picture books

A 5-year-old reading a picture book about traveling to another planet or befriending a dinosaur isn’t wondering whether the book is challenging enough to help him get into an Ivy League college. Yet many parents are doing just that — worrying about how the books their children read now will affect their educational opportunities later.

A recent New York Times article stated that more and more parents are trying to advance their child’s comprehensive skills by skipping picture books altogether and going straight to chapter books. Given the current emphasis on testing in almost all school systems, it’s not surprising that so many parents feel pressured to do everything they can to give their children a competitive edge. But if kids are pushed through their developmental stages too quickly, they may likely end up frustrated, discontented and even discouraged — not what any parent wants for her child.

Picture books make kids happy and help their imaginations soar. They nurture longer attention spans, cultivate the ability to follow the structure of a story, and lay the foundation for linking images with words, thus developing the “mind’s eye.” Armed with this experience, children will find the leap to chapter books easier and much more fun. Because choosing the right picture books for your child is key, here are some things to consider:

How does your child learn best?

If your daughter learns best by listening, she may respond more to a book with rhymes or words that sound just like what they are describing, like “BOP!” If she is a visual kid, vivid illustrations are the perfect thing. A child who absorbs best through touch is a shoe-in for books that feature texture. Fit the book to the child and the result will be the association of reading with fun.

What does she want to be when she grows up?

Does your daughter stop to point up whenever she sees an airplane? Well then, a book about planes would be in order. A girl who loves animals might flip over a book about how animals live and how humans can protect them. Forming personal connections with books is the way to create a gateway to investigating anything and everything!

Do you like the book?

Be careful not to judge the subjects your child gravitates towards, unless you feel the topic is inappropriate. Instead, try to meet her in the middle. If your daughter loves a particular book but you feel otherwise, find something about the book that you enjoy, too.

What picture books did you like as a child? If stories by Margaret Wise Brown, Ezra Jack Keats or Rosemary Wells were among your favorites, why not share these with your child? Reading together is one of the most meaningful activities that adult and child can do together, creating memories that are passed from generation to generation.

Will she have nightmares?

Just because a book is a best seller doesn’t mean that it’s right for your child, or right for her at this moment in time. Is your daughter really ready to hear a story about death and dying? Will a mystery that takes place in a haunted house give her nightmares? Or will she be afraid to go to school if she hears a story about bullying? In other words, always read the book before you read it to your child.

Give your child a day off from reading

That’s right — if she wants a “no reading” day here and there, no worries. Did you know that playing house, or doctor, or firefighter, is as important to kids’ success in life as learning to read? It’s true! It has been found that imaginary play is the method by which children teach themselves how grown-ups interact successfully and ultimately get things done. That is why, no matter how ambitious you might be for your child’s intellectual growth, you would not want to deprive her of her playtime.

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Remember, picture books become friends that will last a lifetime, often resurfacing when that child needs comfort or reassurance that she has advanced since that book was the hardest she could read. So, if your fourth grader wants to go back to a treasured picture book, let her. College is how many years away? The best thing you can do is let your child build a lifelong love of reading — one stage at a time.

Dr. Deborah Pope is executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation (, a not-for-profit founded by the award-winning picture book author and illustrator, dedicated to the support of arts and literacy programming in public schools and libraries across the country. She is also the mother of two wonderful daughters.