The Reason We Should Read Picture Books to Older Kids

Books GeekMom

I was quickly cruising through my email inbox on Friday morning, making sure there wasn’t something urgent needing my attention, when I came across a link to a New York Times article about how picture books are losing popularity. The subject matter stopped me in my tracks. I skimmed through the article, tagging it for a more in-depth read once I got my nine-year-old on the bus for school.

But the whole time we were going through our school morning routines the idea gnawed at me. The main point of the article is the idea that parents are anxious to get their kids into chapter books. There’s pressure to get your kid moving along the academic track as quickly as possible. Picture books are seen as something for little kids, a minor step on to bigger and better things. I understand the pressure parents are under to keep their children moving forward academically. But letting go of picture books too early is not the answer.

Because I work in a library I have access to all the newest picture books and I bring them home by the bagful. The youngest child in my house is almost 10, and I’m proud to say he and I often curl up with a stack of big rectangular books. There are many reasons he still enjoys these weekly sessions on our living room couch.

For one thing, a lot of the subject matter in picture books is relatable to children of many ages. Some concepts that the younger group may not pick up on will be the launching-off point for an in-depth discussion with an older child. Many picture books deal with relationships, from friendships at school to confusing life situations like a grandparent with Alzheimer’s disease. My son and I have had some valuable heart-to-hearts after reading through a picture book.

Then we could move on to illustrations. I’m a member of a SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), and through our meetings I’ve met many amazing illustrators who work in a wide range of mediums. The artwork in a lot of picture books is stunning. Almost once a week I come across a book at the library that has pictures I’d frame and hang on a child’s bedroom wall. By reading picture books to my son I’m exposing him to all types of art and artists. He gets the value of an illustration on a much higher level than a preschooler ever could.

Then I’m reminded of a lesson I learned in my elementary education classes in college. The topic was reading to children, and all of the positives that can come from it. Someone questioned our professor, wondering how reading to an infant or toddler could do any good. I’ll never forget his answer. “A child who’s read to, even before he has any concept of a book, learns to associate the warm cozy feeling of being nestled in a parent’s arms with reading. For the rest of his life he’ll have positive feelings about learning and reading.”

I think the same carries over into the topic of reading picture books to an older child. Sure, my son bounds up the stairs and reads chapter books before he goes to sleep every night. And the nights we aren’t reading picture books, we’re snuggled up together as I read aloud a chapter book that’s just a smidge above his own reading level. But it’s nothing like the positive feelings he gets from our time poring over picture books, discussing the pictures and themes long after the story is over.

Chapter books are great. They have their place and there are many great ones to choose from. But I truly believe we do our kids a great disservice to abandon the world of picture books too early, seeing them as a childish step that has no place in an older child’s reading world.

I hope the New York Times article ends up being just a blip on the publishing radar. My dream would be for parents to understand the value of a great picture book and how they can enrich their elementary age child’s life just as much as it did their preschooler’s. Books are many kinds of wonderful. Let’s not forget the value of each step.

(For more on this topic, visit GeekDad.)

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42 thoughts on “The Reason We Should Read Picture Books to Older Kids

  1. My four kids are each about three and a half years apart, but the oldest always hung around to enjoy the stack of picture books I read to everyone else until he was driving and had to leave for a part time job. As the younger ones got older, I made a point of reading a stack of picture books at breakfast or lunch. No one left the table!

    Picture books are endlessly useful. Nothing like a picture book synopsis before seeing the same full-length play. Or a quick picture book biography to stimulate interest in deeper research.

    I even use picture books when teaching adults. I run a 20 hour course on non-violence and conflict resolution. Particularly when I teach teachers but often when I teach community groups I find breaking people into groups to explore themes in certain picture books really helps to get a discussion going.

    Long live picture books!

  2. My four kids are each about three and a half years apart, but the oldest always hung around to enjoy the stack of picture books I read to everyone else until he was driving and had to leave for a part time job. As the younger ones got older, I made a point of reading a stack of picture books at breakfast or lunch. No one left the table!

    Picture books are endlessly useful. Nothing like a picture book synopsis before seeing the same full-length play. Or a quick picture book biography to stimulate interest in deeper research.

    I even use picture books when teaching adults. I run a 20 hour course on non-violence and conflict resolution. Particularly when I teach teachers but often when I teach community groups I find breaking people into groups to explore themes in certain picture books really helps to get a discussion going.

    Long live picture books!

  3. The worst problem with beginning chapter books is the horrific writing. A great number of even very popular books (ie: Magic Treehouse) seem to be written in a very condecsending way. I would never have read those when I was a kid, and my kids mostly are not interested in them. Picture books on the other hand, are usually written in normal language.

    1. Could not agree more with the comment about horrible writing in beginning chapter books. You can go to the library and pore over the selections and simply be in despair over some of the choices.

      I remember reading picture books to my middle daughter — she would simply stop everything and let her eyes travel carefully over every inch of the pictures. It was integral to the plot and to the way her mind processed everything. How parents can simply dispense with picture books is just beyond me. They’re making a big mistake.

      Even now, with my girls long past picture books, I still get out the big box of Christmas picture books every year. They’re still a hit! And every year I try to add a new one that I find (after all, families do expand! We now have a great-nephew who visits and finds the books in our house enchanting. Well, that and the fake food in the basement from the old toy kitchen…). This year’s entry — Santa & the Little Teddy Bear — has simply phenomenal illustrations. Beyond that it’s also thought-provoking, plus it has plot, carols, music and song — a picture book and so much more. Truly a picture book worthy of the name and worthy of all ages. Take that, NY Times story — and the people who don’t like picture books!

  4. The worst problem with beginning chapter books is the horrific writing. A great number of even very popular books (ie: Magic Treehouse) seem to be written in a very condecsending way. I would never have read those when I was a kid, and my kids mostly are not interested in them. Picture books on the other hand, are usually written in normal language.

    1. Could not agree more with the comment about horrible writing in beginning chapter books. You can go to the library and pore over the selections and simply be in despair over some of the choices.

      I remember reading picture books to my middle daughter — she would simply stop everything and let her eyes travel carefully over every inch of the pictures. It was integral to the plot and to the way her mind processed everything. How parents can simply dispense with picture books is just beyond me. They’re making a big mistake.

      Even now, with my girls long past picture books, I still get out the big box of Christmas picture books every year. They’re still a hit! And every year I try to add a new one that I find (after all, families do expand! We now have a great-nephew who visits and finds the books in our house enchanting. Well, that and the fake food in the basement from the old toy kitchen…). This year’s entry — Santa & the Little Teddy Bear — has simply phenomenal illustrations. Beyond that it’s also thought-provoking, plus it has plot, carols, music and song — a picture book and so much more. Truly a picture book worthy of the name and worthy of all ages. Take that, NY Times story — and the people who don’t like picture books!

  5. Thanks, Judy. I was similarly troubled by this article, but probably more because I have a 5 year old who seems to be losing interest in picture books. I’ve introduced chapter books not because I think she should be at any particular level, but there are so many I couldn’t wait to introduce to her (Hello, Roald Dahl!) I keep bringing more and more picture books into the house, and a few times a week I can still get her picture book interest up.

  6. Thanks, Judy. I was similarly troubled by this article, but probably more because I have a 5 year old who seems to be losing interest in picture books. I’ve introduced chapter books not because I think she should be at any particular level, but there are so many I couldn’t wait to introduce to her (Hello, Roald Dahl!) I keep bringing more and more picture books into the house, and a few times a week I can still get her picture book interest up.

  7. My 8 year old will stop what he is doing to come listen to me read to his younger sister, and he loves to read the picture books to her! I can see that there is something in there that is still very appealing to him.
    I also agree about the illustrations – they introduce our kids to amazing varieties of art! One of our favorites is Kitten’s First Full Moon, and all of the illustrations are black and white.

  8. My 8 year old will stop what he is doing to come listen to me read to his younger sister, and he loves to read the picture books to her! I can see that there is something in there that is still very appealing to him.
    I also agree about the illustrations – they introduce our kids to amazing varieties of art! One of our favorites is Kitten’s First Full Moon, and all of the illustrations are black and white.

  9. I can’t imagine depriving children of picture books – I collected whole bunches for myself just because I loved to look over the beautiful illustrations before I ever even had kids! It’s far more important for kids to love books than to push them to read a particular level.

  10. I can’t imagine depriving children of picture books – I collected whole bunches for myself just because I loved to look over the beautiful illustrations before I ever even had kids! It’s far more important for kids to love books than to push them to read a particular level.

  11. When I was in college, I took a course on Children’s Literature. One of the things we spent a good deal of time talking about was how an excellent picture book can tell just as much of the story through the art as it can through the words. Picture books engage kids verbally, emotionally (connection with parents) and visually.

    The best part of that class was my spring break assignment- read as many of the Caldecott winners as you can, and focus on how the art and the writing work together. My mom and I sat in the living room with 35 or 40 books that I checked out of the local library and relived parts of our childhood, while discovering some new wonders.

    One of the books from that assignment was called Tuesday by David Wiesner. There are I think 15 words in the whole book. However, the pictures tell a story that is hysterical for both children and adults.

    Part of keeping picture books alive for kids of all ages is showing kids that reading and learning doesn’t always mean going for more advanced material. As an adult, I find myself enjoying YA books as much as “adult” literature. Kids should learn they can get the same enjoyment out of any book they chose as well.

  12. When I was in college, I took a course on Children’s Literature. One of the things we spent a good deal of time talking about was how an excellent picture book can tell just as much of the story through the art as it can through the words. Picture books engage kids verbally, emotionally (connection with parents) and visually.

    The best part of that class was my spring break assignment- read as many of the Caldecott winners as you can, and focus on how the art and the writing work together. My mom and I sat in the living room with 35 or 40 books that I checked out of the local library and relived parts of our childhood, while discovering some new wonders.

    One of the books from that assignment was called Tuesday by David Wiesner. There are I think 15 words in the whole book. However, the pictures tell a story that is hysterical for both children and adults.

    Part of keeping picture books alive for kids of all ages is showing kids that reading and learning doesn’t always mean going for more advanced material. As an adult, I find myself enjoying YA books as much as “adult” literature. Kids should learn they can get the same enjoyment out of any book they chose as well.

  13. As a Girl Scout camp counselor, I was always known for bringing my kids books to the older girls, although our younger girls were 7-11, and reading them, and they enjoyed them too (between groans). I continue to improve my picture book collection and can’t imagine when I wouldn’t.

  14. As a Girl Scout camp counselor, I was always known for bringing my kids books to the older girls, although our younger girls were 7-11, and reading them, and they enjoyed them too (between groans). I continue to improve my picture book collection and can’t imagine when I wouldn’t.

  15. I agree with your assessment. Chapter books are great, but picture books have their place.

    I am the mother of a three sons, ages 4 to 9. I also write children’s book reviews, so my house is filled with picture books that I’ve reviewed in the past.

    I keep thinking my older sons are too old to be interested in these books. However, I often find them pouring over the new ones or quietly coming in to curl up with the 4-year-old and me when I read aloud.

    These books often contain beautiful lyrical language that is a pleasure to hear at any age. And you are so right that the illustrations are a wonderful showcase of mediums. Why deny these delights to anyone, let alone children?

  16. I agree with your assessment. Chapter books are great, but picture books have their place.

    I am the mother of a three sons, ages 4 to 9. I also write children’s book reviews, so my house is filled with picture books that I’ve reviewed in the past.

    I keep thinking my older sons are too old to be interested in these books. However, I often find them pouring over the new ones or quietly coming in to curl up with the 4-year-old and me when I read aloud.

    These books often contain beautiful lyrical language that is a pleasure to hear at any age. And you are so right that the illustrations are a wonderful showcase of mediums. Why deny these delights to anyone, let alone children?

  17. The thing that bothered me the most about this article is that it completely discounts the use of public libraries. I think that many people have stopped purchasing as many books because of the state of the economy, and it really makes no sense to draw all of your conclusions about picture books strictly from a sales perspective. Many people check out MANY picture books per week at their local libraries because they still love to read them, even if they cannot afford to purchase them. And to even suggest that picture books are only for “little kids” is absurd. It’s clear that some people have not spent the time reading picture books before passing judgment. So sad.

  18. The thing that bothered me the most about this article is that it completely discounts the use of public libraries. I think that many people have stopped purchasing as many books because of the state of the economy, and it really makes no sense to draw all of your conclusions about picture books strictly from a sales perspective. Many people check out MANY picture books per week at their local libraries because they still love to read them, even if they cannot afford to purchase them. And to even suggest that picture books are only for “little kids” is absurd. It’s clear that some people have not spent the time reading picture books before passing judgment. So sad.

  19. When I read to my youngest (who is 4) many times my boys (12 and 7) will come over and sit beside me to look at the pictures, offer their insight, and be the laugh track. 😉 There are many picture books–even for older kids–that are terrific. I was recently reading the classic, “where the wild things are..” and we paused on the pages with no words. I saw their faces.. their eyes scanning the faces of Max and the beasts–it was nice to just sit still and be quiet and let them all imagine the sounds that were going on in the land where the wild things are..

  20. When I read to my youngest (who is 4) many times my boys (12 and 7) will come over and sit beside me to look at the pictures, offer their insight, and be the laugh track. 😉 There are many picture books–even for older kids–that are terrific. I was recently reading the classic, “where the wild things are..” and we paused on the pages with no words. I saw their faces.. their eyes scanning the faces of Max and the beasts–it was nice to just sit still and be quiet and let them all imagine the sounds that were going on in the land where the wild things are..

  21. This is a subject near and dear to my heart, and I also just blogged about it because the article was so disturbing to me. Whether it’s really a true phenomenon or not, I think that there can certainly be a tendency to think a child should be ‘beyond’ picture books once they reach a certain stage, without recognizing the value and appeal of good quality picture books. My four children have received many, many books from a children’s librarian friend of mine (particularly meaningful for us since we live abroad in Japan and must build up our own home library), and each of those has become a true treasure. Interpreting a good quality picture book is, in her words, like “reading poetry” – it takes skills of deduction and inference that are actually quite sophisticated for little ones. But most of all I love the fact that reading these books together over and over means that we’re all sharing an experience together – the books, the characters, the illustrations and the text – they all become a part of our family lore and something we can refer to in conversation, something we’ve shared.

  22. This is a subject near and dear to my heart, and I also just blogged about it because the article was so disturbing to me. Whether it’s really a true phenomenon or not, I think that there can certainly be a tendency to think a child should be ‘beyond’ picture books once they reach a certain stage, without recognizing the value and appeal of good quality picture books. My four children have received many, many books from a children’s librarian friend of mine (particularly meaningful for us since we live abroad in Japan and must build up our own home library), and each of those has become a true treasure. Interpreting a good quality picture book is, in her words, like “reading poetry” – it takes skills of deduction and inference that are actually quite sophisticated for little ones. But most of all I love the fact that reading these books together over and over means that we’re all sharing an experience together – the books, the characters, the illustrations and the text – they all become a part of our family lore and something we can refer to in conversation, something we’ve shared.

  23. Well said. I’d add that there are many picture books so imaginative or informative that I still pick them up for my own enjoyment (Castle by David Macaulay, for one). I’m in my 30s.

  24. Well said. I’d add that there are many picture books so imaginative or informative that I still pick them up for my own enjoyment (Castle by David Macaulay, for one). I’m in my 30s.

  25. Couldn’t agree more! I tackled the same NYT article on my blog. We need good picture books and we need to keep reading aloud to our kids and as families! If we don’t, everyone is missing out!

  26. Couldn’t agree more! I tackled the same NYT article on my blog. We need good picture books and we need to keep reading aloud to our kids and as families! If we don’t, everyone is missing out!

  27. As an illustrator and author of children’s picture books I have found it very hard to keep my books in print despite their popularity and success. Publishers are finding that discounting is making it more difficult to make these books profitable, the demise of the net book agreement and the closure of many small independent book shops all add to the problem.

  28. As an illustrator and author of children’s picture books I have found it very hard to keep my books in print despite their popularity and success. Publishers are finding that discounting is making it more difficult to make these books profitable, the demise of the net book agreement and the closure of many small independent book shops all add to the problem.

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