As we all know, books can be great learning tools. But when it comes to picking one out from millions of other books on the book shelf at the library or book store, how do you choose? Do you go by a colorful cover? A "best-seller?" Are you looking for content that has to do with your child's daily routine or perhaps a helpful book that is applicable to your toddler's growing needs such as potty training or learning to share? Picture books can be such powerful tools for young children and we as parents, teachers (and authors) rely on them for various reasons. Whether it's a book from your home library that becomes your child's favorite bed time story or a book that your toddler keeps pulling out from the shelf that gives him satisfaction because he can successfully point out and name colors, books are an essential part of childhood. But what makes a good picture book great? What should we be looking for in children's picture books if we want our children to get the most out of such powerful tools?
First, let's start with breaking down why picture books are so powerful and why you need to continue reading to your young child on a daily basis. Picture books expand our children's language, brain development, attention span, and allow physical participation. Picture books are multi-sensory. The more multi-sensory learning a child gets, the more rapid their development occurs. Maria Montessori was a huge advocate on sensory learning for young children - that is why there is a whole section of sensorial materials dedicated to her curriculum in a Montessori classroom. Picture books allow children to feel the pages, hear the language, see the pictures, maybe even sympathize with a character's emotions. Picture books are the only book genre that offers this kind of multi sensory based experience. The more we read to our young children using physical, tangible picture books - the stronger their intelligences become.
As a former Montessori preschool teacher, I know just how powerful books can be for young children. I used to read picture books to my class several times a day during circle time. I learned what worked and what didn't really work just by watching and observing the children during story time. Some of my favorite books that I personally love and that the children took to most (which is the whole point, right?) are the 'Fancy Nancy' books and Jamie Lee Curtis books - both of which are great for expanding your child's vocabulary. 'Where the Wild Things Are' is a great one - particularly for boys because it has a boy protagonist and a lot of research shows that boys relate better to books with a boy protagonist. Girls seem to understand everything, but boys better relate to a character that they can identify with. This is why boys tend to love the David Shannon books as well. Julia Donaldson has some wonderful books. I am subscribed to the Growing Child newsletter and they send on 1 book a month to your child from the Dolly Parden Imagination Library. Those books are all on contract with Penguin Publishers - but they tend to publish some great learning books. I love David Roberts' 'Dirty Bertie,' because not only is it simply written with a little message, it's funny and it's important for children to laugh and associate fun with reading. 'My No No No Day' by Rebecca Patterson is a good one for dealing with a child who is having a bad tantrum day. My son loves 'Pete the Cat.' Of course we can't leave out the classics of some of Dr Seuss. Some of his books I find are too long and poorly written in my opinion, but for the older kids they are especially useful when it comes to learning about language. Because of Dr. Seuss' clever play on words, children can start to recognize sight words and practice with their rhyming. Personally, I like to look for text that is simple and to the point. Too many words on one page and I know my little one won't take to it for two reasons: 1) a young child's brain can't handle too much information at one time and 2) their attention span is short. This was the one of the biggest challenges for me when writing 'A Little Goes a Long Way' and that is - how to tell a lot using as few words as possible so my target audience would better understand the story.
If you are on the look out for great books for young children (ages 0-6), look out for short simple text, a repetitive phrase (so that the child can participate and eventually start to recognize the words), a relatable subject or topic for discussion and let's not forget colorful and engaging illustrations. Details in the illustrations are so important because you are able to ask your child what they see in the pictures, talk about colors, talk about the story; it allows them to participate that much more in the experience to get their language going. Part of being a children's picture book author is making sure that I am writing a simply written story with correct grammar and language, that offers new vocabulary words but allows the illustrations to tell part of the story as well. This was another challenge for me while writing 'A LIttle Goes a Long Way.' My editor had to remind me after each draft I sent on to allow the pictures to carry the story as well. 'A LIttle Goes a Long Way' is a simple story - but it's HOW a story is told and put together with the marriage of illustrations and the flow of how the pages turn that makes all the difference.
Sometimes I wonder how certain books make it to a 'best seller' list or even wind up on the shelves of Barnes and Noble. But if you can weed through all the 'fluff' out there and make an effort to find those little gems that can be super useful for your child by using some of these tools I've provided, you will end up with a fantastic collection of books for your child. Take them to book fairs, author readings and library story times. Get them engaged in your storytelling. Take advantage of some great books out there - and remember how valuable it is to read to your child. Some of these things I have pointed out may seem obvious, but if you look at your collection of books at home, you may realize you have a lot of fluff there too. I think as parents we just assume that anything we pick up at Barnes and Noble will be good, but the truth is some of the books out there are either really poorly written, inapplicable to a child or just plain boring because it has too much story to follow. And publishing is a business at the end of the day - if it's marketed well and it's selling it will stay on the shelf. This doesn't necessarily mean it's a useful tool or that it is a good book. Examples of this (in my opinion): 'Splat the Cat' or 'The Little Engine That Could.' For some reason 'Splat the Cat' is a hit but I don't get it and I REALLY don't get how 'The Little Engine That Could' is considered a classic. It could be a really great story because I like the message - but it is so poorly written and put together, I find myself paraphrasing each page for my 2.5 year old son just to get through it without tearing my teeth out.
See below some of my recommendations for some great picture books and keep in mind why our children need them in their lives! It's not only the message and how a good book is put together that makes them great, it's the whole experience that a book gives a child that is most powerful of all.
RECOMMENDATION LIST (0-6 years)
Ezra Jack Keats - 'Peter's Chair,' 'The Snowy Day'
Eric Carle books
Bill Martin Jr/Eric Carle - 'Brown Bear Brown Bear'
Julia Donaldson - 'Monkey Puzzle'
David Roberts - 'Dirty Bertie'
Herve Tullet - 'Press Here'
Anna Dewdney books
Crocket Johnson - 'Harold and the Purple Crayon'
Margaret Wise Brown - 'Goodnight Moon,' 'The Diggers'
Bill Martin Jr/John Archabault - 'Chicka Chicka Boom Boom'
Judith Viorst - 'Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day'
Audrey Wood - 'The Napping House'
Rebecca Patterson - 'The No No No Day'
David Shannon books
Jamie Lee Curtis books
Fancy Nancy Collection
Dr Seuss - 'Green Eggs and Ham'
Litwin and Dean - 'Pete the Cat'
Maurice Sendak - 'Where the Wild Things Are'
Robert Neubecker - 'Wow Ocean!'
Eric Hill - 'Where is Spot?'
Maloney/Zekauskas - 'One Foot, Two Feet'
Kate and Jules Pfeiffer - 'No Go Sleep!'
Nicholas Oldland - 'Big Bear Hug'
Caroline Jayne Church - 'I Love you Through and Through'