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How to Spot a Great Picture Book
If there’s one thing Charlotte Mason homeschoolers love, it’s good books. And today we have a treat in store for you. We are talking with Sarah Mackenzie from Read-Aloud Revival, all about what she looks for in a good picture book.
Sonya: Sarah, it’s great to have you back.
Sarah: Oh my goodness, I’m happy to be here, and really happy to be talking about my favorite thing on the planet.
Sonya: Absolutely. Now, you know, this one might go for four hours or so, well see. (Laughs) We can cut it off. I know you have guidelines for all kinds of books that are out there, and you recommend all kinds of books on your Read-Aloud Revival page for all the different ages, but let’s focus in on picture books.
Sarah: My favorite.
Sonya: Tell us what you look for in a good picture book.
Sarah: I remember when my oldest was one year old. I went to the library. I wanted to get some new books, because we had, like, 10 board books that I had read and memorized.
Sonya: Forever, yes.
Sarah: Yes. And I thought, “Well, I’m going to get some new books to read from the library.” And I walk into the children’s room, and there’s this sea of books, and I knew some of them were better than others, because we all had that experience of reading a picture book and thinking, “I think I’m going to drop this one behind the couch so it can’t be found again.”
But there are also ones that we really love and don’t mind reading again and again. So I got very curious. What is it that makes me want to pick up a book again? So I have developed some opinions, with a capital “O,” about this. But one of the things that I look for is good illustrations. What does a good illustration mean? For me, it means illustrations that make me want to look longer than necessary.
Sonya: I love that definition.
Sarah: It might be art that I would actually hang on my wall. Not always, but maybe. It’s just art that makes me want to look at it. I feel like this is very Charlotte Mason idea, because it is respecting a child as a born person when we are putting the best art in front of them, when we put art that would be worth putting up on a wall, or art that makes you want to sit with it and linger over it. One really good example of this is Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey. And all of Robert McCloskey’s books, of course, are classics: One Morning in Maine, Make Way for Ducklings. Blueberries for Sal is my own personal favorite. The illustrations in this book really do make you want to look a little bit longer than you must. Because if you just read the words, or you just looked at the pictures, you could get the gist of the story. You could get most of it, but a little something would be lost. They’re only done in two-tone, and they’re sketches, they’re not full paintings. But good art doesn’t necessarily mean complicated art, but it’s art that I enjoy looking at as much as my three-year-old enjoys looking at.
Sonya: There are many wonderful details Robert included in there, even though it is just a sketch. And as you said, you might not hang that on your wall. So there’s not just one particular style that is considered good art. We’ve had Amber O’Neal Johnston on our podcast previously, and she’s talked about how another important part of the illustrations is letting the child see other children that look like her, or that look like him. So I love this new adaptation, The Story of Little Babaji.
Sarah: I haven’t seen this one.
Sonya: It is so cool. I love the pictures.
Sarah: Look at this stuff.
Sonya: Isn’t it great? And he’s hiding. It’s one of those—you look longer and longer, as you said. You want to just see all the details. When this originally came out, not this particular version, but the story came out, the pictures in it did not do justice to the India setting. And this has it set in India. It’s fabulous. It’s a small book, but I think it carries some huge ideas with the illustrations that are in it.
Sarah: One of the really great things about illustrations is they don’t always have to be beautiful or solemn or something. Imogene’s Antlers by David Small is such a fabulous example, because this story is so funny. You have this little girl who wakes up with antlers, and the whole rest of the day the family is trying to figure out how to get rid of her antlers. But I mean, there’s the mother who’s always fainting. It’s not even always in the text, but you have to look at the illustrations longer than necessary in order to see what’s going on in every page.
Sonya: Yes. And I love how each member of the family responds in a different way. Like you said, the mother is all about, “Oh, we’ve got to fix this.” And the maid is like, “Oh good, another place to hang my donuts and send her out to be a bird feeder.” And the brother is having fun with this too. He’s trying to figure out what de could use all the antlers for. It’s just all the different people and how they respond to it. And Imogene just goes through the day, and I’m not going to give away the ending.
Sarah: The ending’s very funny.
Sonya: The ending is fabulous. And that also makes me think about that Charlotte said we don’t want to give the children a lot of twaddly nonsense, but they can still have fun silly books, sometimes, not for their schoolwork of course, but fun silly books like that can be a joy.
Sarah: Yes, yes. So illustrations, that’s a big piece. Of course, with picture books, a really good picture book, half of the story is told through the illustration, at least. So that’s a really important piece. But another piece that I look for is language that I want to read aloud, that might be delicious to say. One really good example of this is Kiyoshi’s Walk by Mark Karlins. This is a good example of a new book. A lot of times I think we think, “Oh, the best books are the old books.” But that is not always true. There are some fabulous picture books coming out, as well as chapter books and middle grade novels. They are coming out today that still do all of these things. They have illustrations you want to look at longer than necessary. They have really beautiful language. In Kiyoshi’s Walk, your kids will learn all about haiku. And the language itself is beautiful. The dripping faucet takes me back to my old home, raindrops on frog pond. Every page or every few pages, there is another haiku. And the words, when you flip through this at the library, you can just decide really quickly, in a minute or so, is this something that I would enjoy reading aloud? And usually that means it has elevated vocabulary. It doesn’t feel like it’s dumbed down or talking down to your child. It goes right back to that respecting the child as a person.
Sonya: Yes. Beautiful stories, well told. As you said, if it doesn’t attract your interest and draw you in, that comes across when you read it aloud to your child. You might put on a good face and think you’re faking it really well, but on the 10th time through, let’s face it, your irritation is probably going to come through, and as you said, you’ll probably drop it over the back of the couch. “Oh, I don’t know, where did that book go?”
Sarah: Well, there’s a huge difference between that and reading something like Imogene’s Antlers, like we were just talking about, where you turn a page and laugh out loud because there are donuts all on Imogene’s antlers. That kind of sheer enjoyment or delight, our kids see it and they absorb it. It’s exactly like when someone’s laughing, and it makes you laugh just because the joy just sort of bubbles over and it’s contagious. That’s what our children can get. Not just from funny books, but from a book that’s worth sharing.
Sonya: That shared experience. So much more happens when you’re reading aloud to a child than just the story. There’s so much more going on. Have you read The Enchanted Hour?
Sarah: Yes, by Meghan Cox Gurdon.
Sonya: Oh, yes. That really details a lot of those ideas of what all is happening in those times of reading aloud.
Sarah: Yes, she’s got a lot of of research there too that shows you exactly what’s happening in interpersonally between you, between your child and the books they’re reading.
Sonya: And between your brain. Yes, very fascinating. When we’re talking about language, this one was new to me, A Long Road on a Short Day.
Sarah: I just love this book so much.
Sonya: It is so cool. And I love the pictures too. The pictures are just fabulous. But the language in it was really good. And it’s short chapters, so it would be a good one to read to your five-year-old as a chapter book, I would think. Although, and here’s another thing about language, it appeals to all ages. Your little one will want to listen in too.
Sarah: That’s one of the things I think this book does uniquely well, is that it can appeal to a wide range of ages because it has pictures on almost every page. At least there’s an illustration every chapter, and the chapters are very short. But the language, again, is not dumbed down. So even while there’s fewer words than there would be in a middle grade novel, it’s got a really rich story. The sentences are beautifully constructed. So I think your 12-year-old would enjoy it, just like your three-year-old would. That is really helpful for homeschooling families who are trying to cover a lot of bases.
Sonya: That’s right.
Sarah: Here’s another one that I think really appeals to a wide range of ages. Patricia Polacco’s work often does this. I think her picture books often can. They’re funny; they’re longer. Almost all of them have more text on them than you would see from most picture books that you’d pick up off the shelf. But the stories are often very rich and cultural, and there is a lot to dig into there. They’re meaty, and there are layers. You could read it five times and catch something you missed on the first time.
Sonya: Yes, and I love the idea that’s in The Bee Tree book, that books are like honey. Tou should desire them. There’s an idea we want our kids to have, right there.
Sarah: Ideas. Let’s talk about that, actually, because that’s the other piece with timeless. We’re looking for good illustrations that make us want to look longer than necessary. We want beautiful language we want to read out loud and tastes good in our mouths, and we want ideas that are timeless, and that are ideas we want our children to think about. Give me a Charlotte Mason quote here. There’s got to be, I know there is one, on giving your child something worth thinking about, caring about.
Sonya: There’s one on Nature Study, something about for a child who is always paying attention, you should give him something that’s worth his attention. That’s not how it is, quote exactly, but that idea. And it’s the same with the picture books. And it’s just like what Charlotte was talking about, what do parents sow? What seeds do we sow? We sow ideas. And in books, especially, all the ideas that are included. When you’re picking picture books, or any book, but especially the picture books, yes, check for the illustrations. Yes, make sure it has good language, but also it’s not just, “Well, it doesn’t matter what he reads as long as he’s reading.”
Sonya: That just irritates me. The ideas are just as important. What is this child absorbing? For example, this, have you seen this one? Anna Carries Water.
Sarah: I have not. No.
Sonya: It’s a fabulous book about a whole family. I believe they’re in Jamaica. I think it takes place in Jamaica. It doesn’t say in the storyline, but they don’t have running water in their home. So all the kids, a couple times a day, they’ll each take a container of some sort, depending on how big the child is, and they all go to the main village’s place where they can get water. So they do this long trek across fields of cows and go over there. And they get the water filled up. And by the way, they put a banana leaf on top so it won’t spill.
Sarah: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Sonya: I didn’t know you could do that. There’s an idea for you. Next time you need something not to spill, put the leaf on. Then they all put them on their heads to carry back. But Anna, the littlest, hasn’t learned how to do that yet. And she really wants to. So the whole book is about her desire to mature in that way. Her siblings are so supportive of her. They don’t make fun of her at all. They just say it’ll happen when you’re ready. You don’t have to keep trying. Not as in don’t do it, but as in don’t get anxious about the trying. Just keep going, and it’ll happen. The idea of all the children contributing to the family chores and the work is in there. And then at one point, she’s scared to death of the cows in the field. And so she’s running back home and she comes in terrified. And the kids are like, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” She’s like, “The cows are chasing me.” And they said, “Do you mean those cows?” And she turns and looks, and they’re all still lying down in the field chewing their cud, just looking at her. So there’s the idea of dealing with your fears.
Sarah: Imagination run wild.
Sonya: It’s all in just a little picture book, but it’s not preachy.
Sarah: I was going to say that. It sounds to me like it’s done through a really well told story. And that’s a huge difference from a book that sets out to teach a lesson, where it’s very clear that that is the point of the book.
Sonya: And sometimes the titles even say that that’s the point of the book. I see so many of those these days. A book about . . .
Sarah: Which is not a book that any of my children would pick up off a bookshelf. But a book like this would be; it’s a story. It draws them in with all this good storytelling. Another really good one that does something similar is Brave Irene by William Steig. There is a little bit of a hint there in the title, right? But it’s about courage and overcoming your fear and overcoming obstacles. But the story is not preachy because the story itself is worth telling on its own. And then what happens is, because there’s this respect for the child to make connections, the author doesn’t feel like he has to tell you what you’re supposed to take out of the story. That’s the big difference between a preachy book and a book that’s not. There’s that respect for the child to make his own connections, to meet the ideas in the story for himself.
Sonya: And a good book, I think, has an abundance of good ideas in it. Not just one. So, for example, in the Anna Carries Water, we listed four or five different ideas in that book. But the child’s going to take what he or she is ready for at that particular reading. So, as you said, when children go back and read it again and again, they might be ready for one of the other ideas at that point. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Sarah: That’s so good. because it also reminds me that I will have read the Little House books, Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie, and the whole series with my children so many times. But when they hear it when they’re seven, they’re in a different place or a different person than they are when they’re 12. So when they revisit that book, it’s like they’re reading it at a whole different level, because again, they’re getting whatever they’re fit for. We’ve spread this feast, and they get to take what they’re ready for.
Sonya: I think that is some of what you mean by timeless. I have the same thing with the Little House books. I read those voraciously when I was young, and I identified with Laura. Now when I read them to my kids, I identify with Ma for many other things. Not completely, but I’m thinking more about what she went through in the log cabins and in the wagon.
Sarah: Well, even that scene where there’s the bear, and she tells Laura to run into the house.
Sonya: Go to the house, yes.
Sarah: And as a child, I would read that so differently than as a mother where I think, “Ooh, would my child obey that quickly?” I don’t think that they would. (Laughs)
Sonya: Exactly. And same thing with Little Women. When I read Little Women, I would identify with the kids. But now when I read it to my little women, my four girls, I identify with Marmee. That’s part of the timeless. Those aren’t picture books, but it’s the same idea.
Sarah: Oh, that’s true. Yes. We could probably talk about books for a good long while, Sonya.
Sonya: I think we could. But I like your three points on what you look for in a picture book. And you are starting, Read-Aloud Revival is starting to foray into their own publishing, correct? Tell about that.
Sarah: We started our own boutique publishing house called Waxwing Books. And we’re publishing picture books, in fact, books that do these three things, that have illustrations you want to look at longer than necessary, that have language that you want to read aloud, because the language is so delicious, and that had these timeless ideas. So the book could be read like many of the books that we’ve pointed out today. Blueberries for Sal was read to me as a child, and I’m reading it to my children, and my children will probably read it to their children, because it’s the kind of book that can stand the test of time. It’s timeless. It’s got good ideas that are timeless and aren’t confined to one period of time. That’s what we’re trying to do at Waxwing Books. So our first book is A Little More Beautiful: The Story of a Garden. That one’s out now. And we have another one coming up later this year as well called, While Everyone Is Sleeping. And with every book we’re making, those are our three things we’re really trying to do with each of the books.
Sonya: And are you doing a variety of authors?
Sarah: The first several books are all written by me, but they are illustrated by a variety of illustrators. So for all five of our first books, I did write all five of those. And then we have five different illustrators for each of those. Then we’re hoping to open up to new authors. But we’re building this plane as we’re flying it, so we’ll figure it out as we go.
Sonya: It’s exciting. Now, I understand that your first one was illustrated by Breezy Brookshire. I love her illustrations.
Sarah: Talk about art that makes you want to look longer than necessary.
Sonya: Oh yes. And I especially love it because we used her to do the illustrations for our preschool program that we’re doing for Simply Charlotte Mason called Our Preschool Life. Her illustrations are included in that as well.
Sarah: Yeah, when I saw one of the illustrations for that, I thought, “Ooh, that looks like Breezy art.” And it is.
Sonya: You can identify it wherever you see it. You can see other watercolors, like, no, no, no, oh, there it is. That’s Breezy’s right there.
Sarah: Yes. Exactly
Sonya: It’s wonderful. Well, we include favorite picture books in our monthly box for our preschool life so that the kids can have one of these books delivered to their home as a little gift to them. They are so excited when they get their box with their book in it. And other stuff is in the box as well. But we want to include a Waxwing book in there. We’ll have to make sure we keep in touch so we can, because we’re always looking for good picture books to include in those boxes.
Sarah: Excellent, excellent.
Sonya: That’ll be great. And where can people get in touch with you?
Sarah: Well, at readaloudrevival.com, that’s where my podcast is, and where I’ve got lots of book lists. So if you are looking for more books like these, that’s the best place for those. And then all of our books at Waxwing, you can find them at waxwingbooks.com.
Sonya: Wonderful. Thanks, Sarah.
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