From the archives — The Fine Art of Reading Aloud, 3b, Picture Books for Emerging Readers

This was first posted on elizabethannewrites on June 8, 2011.

As I said in my initial post on reading aloud to emerging readers, not only should being read aloud to still be an important part of an emerging reader’s life, but there is definitely still a place for picture books in the reading choices for the age group of 5 to 8.

These days, many people seem to want to hurry their children past picture books and on to chapter books, perhaps thinking that a continuing interest in picture books indicates some level of immaturity or lack of reading readiness. This is far from the case! These are still children, after all, and still have a great capacity for absorbing story not just from words, but also from pictures. I was, quite frankly, incensed by this quote from a New York Times article published in October 2010 —

“Some parents say they just want to advance their children’s skills. Amanda Gignac, a stay-at-home mother in San Antonio who writes The Zen Leaf, a book blog, said her youngest son, Laurence, started reading chapter books when he was 4.

Now Laurence is 6 ½, and while he regularly tackles 80-page chapter books, he is still a “reluctant reader,” Ms. Gignac said.

Sometimes, she said, he tries to go back to picture books.

“He would still read picture books now if we let him, because he doesn’t want to work to read,” she said, adding that she and her husband have kept him reading chapter books.”

I would contend that Laurence knows what he is ready for, and the fact that he is now a “reluctant reader” signals that, and also is a flashing red warning sign that he is on the way to being turned off reading by being pushed too hard, too fast. My point of view is that kids should be allowed — make that encouraged — to read whatever they’re interested in, and if picture books are what they want, that’s great!

There are many excellent picture books available for this age group. Emma Walton Hamilton gives an extensive listing beginning at page 80 of Raising Bookworms, and in Jim Trelease’s The Read-Aloud Handbook, beginning at page 182 and continuing for pages and pages, there is a listing of picture books with brief synopses/reviews, age level indicators, covering fiction, non-fiction, classics and hot-off-the-press titles. And of course, I have a few to suggest as well!

As children start kindergarten or “real” school, there may be some issues they have to deal with such as giving up certain treasured habits (like a security blanket, or an imaginary friend) for the time that they are in school. Seeing how picture book characters deal with these things can be very helpful for opening the discussion about how the child wants to handle their particular concern. Even if there isn’t a blankie or a Betsy to deal with (I’ll leave you to guess how I came up with that name for an imaginary friend…) likely there will still be some area that causes a child some anxiety as they head off into the new world of School. A couple of books by Kevin Henkes provide an excellent way to look at these totally normal anxieties.

Jessica, written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes, tells the story of a little girl, Ruthie, who won’t do anything without her best friend — her imaginary friend — Jessica. Henkes’ gentle illustrations show the reader the many ways in which Ruthie interacts with Jessica in the course of a day. In contrast to the small type font in which most of the book’s text is printed, and the tiny font used for Ruthie’s one-sided conversations with Jessica, the large, bold font of the words “There is no Jessica,” said Ruthie’s parents, is jarring, but, on the same page, the text asserts… “But there was.” When Ruthie starts kindergarten, she pays no attention to the other children, still preferring the company of her best friend, her imaginary friend. Text and illustrations show Ruthie having playtime, naptime, arttime with Jessica… then it’s time for the children to line up in pairs and a little girl approaches Ruthie to ask if they can stand together in the line. Can you guess what the little girl’s name is? This book would be helpful for any child who is having trouble making friends at school, imaginary friend or not.

Owen is one of Henkes’ delightful mouse books. In this book, the little mouse Owen is about to start kindergarten as well, and refuses to give up his treasured blankie, Fuzzy. The neighbor horns in with suggestions, his parents try all sorts of things, but Owen is adamant that he will not give up Fuzzy (and he finds increasingly imaginative ways by which to thwart his parents’ attempts). Finally his mother puts her own imagination to work and finds a creative solution that works for everyone. Reading this story aloud to a child who is just beginning their time in kindergarten or school could open the child to being able to talk about concerns he or she might have, and can promote looking for creative solutions beyond simply banning a blankie, for example.

Alphabet and number books still have a place in helping a child who is struggling with these areas of learning, but “baby” books will NOT be appreciated. An alphabet book with a difference, that uses humor and a wildly different vocabulary to that usually found in alphabet books will appeal whether or not a child needs remedial help with ABCs. Bad Kitty, written and illustrated by Nick Bruel, first caught my eye because there look to be two large bites taken out of the book. (Note: to see these chomp-marks, one must buy the “cat-nipped” edition.) The kitty starts out as a good kitty… but when the family runs out of cat food, and suggests substituting various vegetables (running the gamut from Asparagus to Xigua, Yams and Zucchini) Kitty turns bad — very bad — and there is an alphabetical listing of the horrendous things perpetrated by Bad Kitty in reaction to being fed vegetables. The family relents and brings all sorts of alternate foodstuffs in another alphabetic, illustrated list that will have children laughing uproariously. Kitty repents after such delicacies are provided, and repairs the damage done previously in — you guessed it — another alphabetical list. As a reward… well, you’ll have to see what Kitty’s reward is, but at the end of the book, it looks as though Kitty is about to go on another rampage! This is great for letter-learning, vocabulary building, and just plain having fun.

As a child gets a little older, even when able to read many picture books independently, there is still room for read-aloud with picture books. Lauren Child‘s unique forms of illustration and text-writing are sure to appeal to older children, and will challenge the adult reading the book with the child, due to the unique style of in-your-face art (created with torn paper, collage, magazine cuttings, watercolor, etc.) and text that scrambles all over the page, following the mood of the speaker. Clarice Bean… That’s Me, is a good place to start. Clarice has a younger brother who’s a pest, an older sister who is lost in a world of boyfriends and talking on the phone, and an older brother who’s just lost in his own world (in his room that “smells of socks”). As Clarice talks about the various members of her household and how they try (and don’t succeed) in finding some peace and quiet, I can imagine children recognizing and relating to what she says. Will they even relate to the way Clarice finally finds that elusive peace and quiet?

Favorites from earlier childhood may still be trotted out — especially if the child is experiencing some stress. The child may start to feel self-conscious about choosing picture books from the “baby shelves” at the library, but may be excited to find the many non-fiction picture books titles that await on the big-kid shelves. And waiting in the wings are early readers and chapter books, the subject of my next post.

Happy reading!

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