Why should we care about children’s books? There are the answers we know (it is a good thing to teach kids how to read) and there is a compelling answer that may surprise you. What if teaching kids how to read was not the greatest thing that children’s books can do? What if the art, the illustrations, the pictures, the characters, are actually more important than the words? Is that possible? Let me explain. Kids can learn far more from children’s books than the meaning of words.
When I think about teaching reading, I can cling to the power of words. What COLOR are your SHOES? I will ask, pointing to a little one’s shoes. Do you like PINK? Is PINK the COLOR of your SHOES? Words have become very important to me because knowing words is a GOOD THING. But while I’m squawking out words like a parrot, I’m missing one of the positive effects of reading children’s books to kids. I have an analogy—knowing what color your shoes are is probably not as important as knowing when it is a good thing to wear shoes.
The art in children’s books teach kids about human behavior and ways of behaving that are good, and that is a good thing. Kids are seeing how characters behave in a world with others in it. In a very real way, children’s books are our kids’ first friends. Illustrations that show animals or kids sharing, hugging, playing together, overcoming obstacles together, spending time with parents and grandparents are important. Picture books teach our children how to feel, what it is like to be a feeling person, and how to make sense out of emotions.
I was impressed by what children’s book author Anna Dewdney recently had to say about the importance of children’s books. In an interview about her book Llama Llama and the Bully Goat, Anna Dewdney says, “The one that I think that is very unappreciated is that children’s books help children learn what it means to be human. Children develop empathy by reading picture books and learn what it means to be them, and they learn what it means to be other people.”
In children’s books full of pictures of fantastical dragons, green ogres, and princesses, kids learn how to interact with a presence outside of their immediate family circle. But these images are not realistic! I could counter. No, a talking cat may not be real, but recognizing the good feelings from looking at fun characters, seeing how characters handle difficult situations in a good way, and experiencing what a pleasant ending looks like and feels like is a good thing for kids (and parents, too)!