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In Defense Of Picture Books

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Sep 9, 2015

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A few months ago, I was waiting for my 5-year-old daughter to finish drama class when I overheard a few parents discussing why picture books are unnecessary. Pictures, they said, are props that distract children from learning how to read the words in the book.

Picture me shocked.

It is surprising that picture books are so conclusively written off, when the interplay of words and pictures, of symbol and icon, is a powerful one. Picture books teach children how to read pictures; you parse words when you read, but you parse images all the time – from traffic lights that symbolize order and co-existence, to photos of other people who look and speak very differently. In a sense, a picture book teaches a child to decipher the world.

A recent study by Dominic Massaro, psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that picture books are more powerful than child-oriented speech, because they challenge children to go “beyond the easy way to communicate.” I wonder, without picture books, when my daughter is older, will she spot the signposts that will help her navigate a culture that could easily manipulate her?  Much like verbal communication, the ability to read visual cues and make connections is a learned skill.

The picture books have evolved into an astonishing beast. It can be a fun story for kids while still taking literary risks and challenging authority. Here are some of my and my daughter’s favourites.

Raul Colon, Child Of The Civil Rights Movement, book, story for kids
From ‘Child Of The Civil Rights Movement’ by Raúl Colón

NEW WAYS OF SEEING

My daughter loves a picture book called The Magic Feather by Roma Singh, whose little girl heroine is illustrated not as human, but as an old, rundown, black book with newspaper clippings for hair. It is a conceit that my husband and I find weird, but my daughter waltzes into its suspension of disbelief with ease. This is because she has been brought up on the distinct vocabulary of a picture book.

Illustrations by Eric Carle test their readers’ sense of linearity and provide remarkable visual cues to deeper understanding of the world. Carle’s The Mixed-Up Chameleon, for instance, is a story for kids about a chameleon who wishes he were like other animals, only to find that, when he does become like them all, he becomes very mixed-up in the process. Carle’s illustration of the chameleon in his transformed state reveals just how uncomfortable he feels, and shows us the downside of perfection.

Raúl Colón’s Draw wields visual wit like knives. A wordless masterpiece, it shows a bed-ridden boy who takes an imaginary African safari. Another picture book by Colón, Child of the Civil Rights Movement, fascinates me and my daughter because it showed its narrator witnessing history from the sidelines, a very interesting role for a child narrator and one that is rarely explored.

Julia Donaldson, Paper Dolls, books, story for kids
From ‘Paper Dolls’ by Julia Donaldson

NEW WAYS OF BEING

How does one talk to a 5-year-old about the past and memories? For me, a picture book by Julia Donaldson, Paper Dolls, comes the closest. It is about a girl whose beloved paper dolls are cut into pieces by a boy. When the paper dolls are destroyed, we feel both regret and awe, almost as if the cutting is necessary to give way to something new. And indeed, the dolls reincarnate in the girl’s memory, exploring the idea that existence is more than being alive.

Leo Lionni’s A Flea Story is about two fleas nestled in a dog’s fur, arguing about their situation. The home-lover wants to stay snuggled, and the wanderer wants to shift to the fur of another animal – a giant leap to see the world. My daughter cannot decide which way of living is right, and this just the way it should be. She is navigating tricky philosophies through a visual plot while developing visual and emotional shorthand.

Shaun Tan, The Arrival, book, story for kids
From ‘The Arrival’ by Shaun Tan

NEW WAYS OF COMMUNICATING

Australian surrealist Shaun Tan takes huge artistic risks in The Arrival and Tales from Outer Suburbia, two masterpieces that are proof of the enormous thematic strides made by picture books. The Arrival has no text, but rather is a series of illustrations about a father who immigrates to a new country and the simultaneous curiosity and alienation that he feels. Tan has said in interviews that there are many different ways to interpret the illustrations, setting his book apart from just another pictorial story for kids.

‘Eric,’ one of the stories from Tan’s anthology, Tales from Outer Suburbia, has text, but is still, in a sense, wordless. It’s about a foreign exchange student — embodied by a friendly leaf-shaped being — that both bewilders and yet interests the little narrator, even though they don’t speak the same language. The other stories of Tales from Outer Suburbia sprawl out with mythologies of space, science fiction, suburbia and longing.

Children love picture books because they contain new, challenging experiences told in a gentle, visual way. Parents should love picture books because they open up new worlds and ideas to child while helping them develop cognitively and emotionally. In some ways, a child’s threshold for images surpasses our own: Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik says a child’s untrammeled mind comes closest to mirroring the psychedelic experience.

In other words, children are “tripping all the time.” (What else could explain this: When reading a story about a grandfather’s tall tales in Tales from Outer Suburbia, I asked one of the children from my book club if her grandfather ever told such stories. Her reply? “My grandfather is more of a person who says that the chicken coop is only made of coconut shells…”) Apart from being right on the money in terms of entertainment, picture books are complex ways to mine the experience of childhood, and prepare children for experiences to come.

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Written By Shweta Sharan

 Shweta Sharan is a work-from-home mother to an imaginative five-year-old girl named Laasya. She has more than 10 years of experience in writing and editing articles for newspapers, magazines, web sites and blogs. She is the Founding Editor of The Affair, an online magazine dedicated to the short story, and is also the Founder of Bangalore Schools, an online community that she created to mobilize the education community in Bangalore, including parents, teachers, students, principals, administrators, education startups, activists and policy makers.

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