Do a quick search on Amazon for picture books, and you are suddenly faced with more than 60,000 titles. Think of it: 60,000 picture books to choose from. That’s a lot of books! In fact, if you could stack all of those picture books one on top of the other, the stack would reach to the top of the Empire State Building!
To state the obvious, there are a lot of picture books around that you could read to your preschooler. But, to state the (perhaps) not so obvious, not all picture books are created equal.
We all know that it is important to read to your child. Reading together every day is one of the best things you can do as a parent—for any age child.
But there is more to it than just reading together. It matters what you read.
Don’t buy into the idea that “it doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you’re reading.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The content of the books is vitally important.
When you read to your child, you are feeding her mind and heart with ideas about herself, ideas about others, and ideas about the world around her. And those ideas start doing their important work when your child is very young, during the preschool years.
So be picky about the books you read to your preschooler. Give her the best books that you can find, and that includes the best picture books that you can find.
But how do you know which are the best ones—or even just the good ones—in that tall, tall stack? How do you determine which picture books are keepers and which ones don’t deserve your time?
Let me give you five qualities to look for when evaluating a picture book. If a book meets these five criteria, you’ll know it’s a good one—maybe even a great one!
In order to keep it simple, I’m going to use one classic preschool picture book to illustrate all five points: Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Burton. Yes, it’s an old book. You might even think it’s too old and outdated to make a good picture book for your modern child. But hold on, this book contains all the qualities of a great book.
Quality #1: An Interesting Story
Keep in mind that you will probably have to read the book over and over again for several years. And if you have more than one child, well, you can do the math. So it only stands to reason that you want to look for picture books with interesting stories. A good plot appeals to an adult as well as to a child (and you won’t cringe every time she pulls that book off the shelf and brings it to you to read to her).
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel has an interesting story line. Mike and Mary Anne (that’s his steam shovel’s name) have worked on lots of great jobs over the years, but lately all of the work is going to the newer, bigger, diesel motor shovels. Mike is sure that Mary Anne can dig just as fast and just as well as ever, so he goes looking for a chance to prove it. He offers to dig the basement of the new town hall and promises to do it in just one day. If he doesn’t finish in a day, they don’t have to pay him.
There’s the story. For a child, there is the excitement of the challenge: Can they do it in just one day? For the adult, there is the sympathy over being replaced by newer models and proving that the older shovel can still get the job done and do it well. Both are rooting for Mike and Mary Anne to win.
Now, here’s another detail. As you’re following the story, you might notice that there are some repeated phrases. A little repetition sprinkled throughout the story helps a young child mark her progress through the story line. The repeated phrases are almost like little markers along the way that reassure the child in the midst of the uncertainty: Where is this story going? What’s going to happen next? A recognizable phrase from earlier in the book gives your child a mental signal that she’s on the right track.
But there’s a difference between a little repetition sprinkled throughout the book and beating the same phrase to death on every page in the book. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel does this repetition detail beautifully. Right on the first page, the first theme is introduced: “Mike Mulligan was very proud of Mary Anne. He always said that she could dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week.” That phrase is repeated when Mike decides to look for a chance to prove it, and he tosses it in again later when he is convincing the town people to give him the job. But it’s not overused.
Another key phrase is introduced a few pages in: “When people used to stop and watch them, Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne used to dig a little faster and a little better.” That theme is repeated as Mike and Mary Anne race against the sun to get the basement dug. As the tension mounts, more and more people come to watch them, and the phrase is tucked into those pages to reassure the child-reader that things are going well.
Gentle reminders like that are an art form. Not all good picture books have them, but the great ones usually do.
Quality #2: Relatable Characters and Plot
A young child has a limited range of experiences. Make sure that what happens to the characters in the book is something your child can relate to. The settings might be different, but look for familiar emotions, familiar questions, familiar situations.
For example, your child has probably seen an excavator at a construction site that you drove by. So while a steam shovel might be a little different, your child will have experience with the concept of an earth mover.
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel takes it one step further and gives the excavator a name: Mary Anne. Giving an object or an animal a name tends to give it a personality and makes it easier to relate to that object. By the fourth or fifth page, your child has developed a relationship with Mike and Mary Anne; and by the end of the book, they seem like old friends.
Your child can easily understand how Mike took such good care of Mary Anne that she never grew old. And while a young child may not understand all the differences between steam shovels and diesel engine shovels, she can fully understand the challenge that Mike and Mary Anne took on: Can Mike and his steam shovel dig the basement for the town hall in just one day?
So even while your child is learning something new, it is presented in a context of relatable characters and plot.
Quality #3: Conversational Sentences
If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a picture book that assumes your child doesn’t know any words of more than one syllable! You don’t talk baby talk to your preschooler (at least, you shouldn’t!); make sure the books you read to her don’t talk baby talk either. Avoid books full of short, choppy sentences. Look for sentences that reflect the typical, everyday conversations you have with your child in your home. Young children can understand good sentences.
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is full of flowing sentences like, “They started in early the next morning just as the sun was coming up” and “Dirt was flying everywhere, and the smoke and steam were so thick that the people could hardly see anything.”
That’s quite different from sentences like, “Here they go. Time to dig. They will dig fast.” Who talks like that in real life? Good picture books contain flowing sentences that reflect a generous use of language, like your everyday conversations with your child.
Quality #4: Wise Ideas
Make sure the ideas presented in the story promote the attitudes and habits that you want your child to cultivate for herself. Books help a child make sense of the world around her. The examples she sees and hears about in books will influence her thinking and actions. That doesn’t mean the book should be sugary sweet or goody-goody; just make sure that it portrays choices and their appropriate consequences.
Also keep in mind how tense moments or sad moments in books can help your child learn how to deal with life. In Mike Mulligan there is a character who makes remarks in “rather a mean way.” He’s the man who hires Mike and Mary Anne for the job of digging the town hall basement, but his main reason for hiring them is because he thinks they will not succeed at the challenge and he will get part of his town hall basement dug for free.
The first few times I read the book to my children, I left out that phrase about how he was saying things “in rather a mean way.” My reasoning was that I didn’t want my children to say things in a mean way, so why put that idea into their heads?
But later it dawned on me: at some point my child needs to be exposed to the idea that sometimes people say things in a mean way. That’s a reality of life. And how much better that my child learn about that possibility in the safety of our home and through the security of a book, where she can absorb and process that idea little by little as she is ready to think it over, rather than throwing her wide-eyed and innocent into the middle of a world that often contains mean voices and mean words and she has never dealt with that possibility and has no clue what is happening or how to respond.
And learning how to respond is a key idea tucked into this story. Mike does not react to the man’s mean words. He simply goes to work and proves that he can do what he said he could. And in the end, he and the guy who said the mean things become friends. Those are powerful ideas that can cause a lot of growth in a child.
So don’t avoid unpleasant or uncomfortable parts in a story. They can offer valuable learning opportunities. The key thing to look for is how those ideas are dealt with. Great books present ideas in a wise way.
Quality #5: Pleasant Artwork
So far we’ve talked about the content of the words, but don’t overlook the importance of the artwork in the book. The pictures your child sees repeatedly will shape her taste for what she expects in art.
You are cultivating her taste for art just as you cultivate her taste for food. If you regularly give her healthful, nutritious food, that’s what she will expect to eat. That’s what she will consider normal. In the same way, if you regularly give your child good artwork, that’s what she will grow to expect. You are cultivating her tastes.
So look at the art that is used in the picture book. By definition, the pictures will carry a lot of weight in a picture book. Look for illustrations that are pleasing to the eye and easily understood. Art that is too abstract can be confusing to a young child.
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel contains somewhat simple drawings—they aren’t intricately detailed watercolor paintings, for example; but they have a charm to them that appeals to young children and helps reinforce the setting and plot of the story.
There is no one right style for illustrations. Just make sure you consider the artwork as well as the story when selecting picture books. Both should be excellent.
Next time I’ll share some specific titles. If you’re curious what my top picks for preschool picture books are, make sure you don’t miss that post.