Word Play: A picture’s worth more than a thousand words

It’s hard to imagine that the reading of picture books could be controversial, but this fall saw a considerable kerfuffle over a story in the New York Times that declared picture books to be in decline. In the midst of a perfectly respectable news story about a business trend — fewer picture books are being published and sold — the tale took a dark turn into the dank woods of parental anxiety.

“The economic downturn is certainly a major factor” in the decline in picture-book sales, the Oct. 7 story noted in its summary paragraph. The reporter, however, immediately abandoned this humdrum explanation for a juicier one: “but many in the industry see an additional reason for the slump. Parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books. Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.”

Outraged parents, booksellers and librarians responded so fast and furiously that the comment page had to be closed, and a poor blogger whose comments about her son were quoted still has this button up on her home page: “If you are here about the NY Times article, please see my response post before commenting: When Quotes Are Taken Out of Context. Thank you.”

Newspapers are scrambling for readers these days, and the New York Times seems to have hit on one excellent way to get a huge rise out of its readership: to suggest that parents, no matter how devoted and affluent, may not be giving their precious children every possible competitive advantage in life. The obvious anxiety the story of the decline in picure books raised was: Oh my heavens, we’re still reading Trixie picture books! She’ll be left behind!

Sure, some kids can be force-fed their letters, be shamed out of their desire to sit on someone’s lap and look at pictures while being read to and “graduate” to chapter books before their classmates are out of diapers. But anyone who has watched a tiny child turn the pages of a beloved picture book and pretend to read memorized words knows that there is a lot more to learning how to read than acing kindergarten admission tests (yes, there are such tests, especially in New York).


Literacy experts generally agree that rich early experiences with books foster a connection between reading and the exercise of curiosity and the imagination. Picture books, read in the warmth of a parent’s embrace, often carry much more complex words and ideas than chapter books geared to early readers. And since when do picture books exclude chapter books? Literacy experts also recommend reading aloud to children as long as they’ll let you.

Here are some fall picture books worth your time and attention:

Apparently, controversy is the watchword for some children’s picture books this season. At least that’s the case for one book that has sparked quite a discussion in media outlets, including the decidedly un-bookish Fox News. In Barack Obama’s “Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters” (Alfred A. Knopf: $17.99, ages 3 and up), the president of the United States appears to endorse some historical figures — including Cesar Chavez, Georgia O’Keeffe and Maya Lin — over others as models for children. Isn’t it great to know that the leader of the free world thinks enough of children to write seriously for them — seriously enough to be controversial? (Although, in fairness, with the state of our politics, any move he makes will be objectionable to someone.)

“Of Thee I Sing” is everything you want in a picture book: It contains ideas to talk about with kids of various ages, couched in colorful language and brought to vivid life in illustrations that tell a story of their own when carefully perused.

As if writing a letter to his children, the author asks: “Have I told you lately how wonderful you are?” He follows with a series of questions — “Have I told you that you are smart/creative/brave/strong?” — and uses the lives of famous Americans to describe each of these qualities of character: “A woman named Helen Keller fought her way through long, silent darkness. Though she could not see or hear, she taught us to look at and listen to each other.”

Two little girls — clearly the president’s daughters, Sasha and Malia — romp through each of illustrator Loren Long’s pictures, attending Albert Einstein’s moment of insight, the crack of Jackie Robinson’s bat, a Billie Holiday song and more. As they move through the book, the girls collect a group of companions, who appear together, shoulder to shoulder on the last spread: It is a sort of class photo of an ideally integrated America.

You can agree with or dispute Obama’s list of heroes — Fox News took particular exception to his inclusion of the Sioux leader Sitting Bull — but it’s not every president who takes the time to talk to children (as he has done in two addresses to students), let alone to write for them.

For hipster friends of any age, “13 Words” (HarperCollins: $16.99, all ages) brings together the considerable talents of Lemony Snicket, author of the “Series of Unfortunate Events” series, and Maira Kalman, picture book artist extraordinaire and co-cartoonist of the famous New Yorker cover, New Yorkistan. Using the structure of introducing 13 words — simple ones like “baby” (word #11) as well as complicated ones like “haberdashery” (word #9) — the book tells its story of a dog’s (word #4) efforts to cheer up his friend, a bird (word #1). And it tells it with panache (word #12). To tell the truth, it seems quite like a Kalman book up until the last line, which is a characteristically Snicket-y zinger.

“The Tree House” by Marije Tolman and Ronald Tolman (Lemniscaat/Boyds Mills Press: $17.95, ages 3 and up) is a gorgeous picture book to study during some quality lap time. In this entirely wordless story, two bears discover a tree house that becomes a ship of adventure, a cozy nook and a haven for passing friends. With glorious skies as a shifting background, the sophisticated illustrations capture the richness of a day of play from dawn to dusk.

In “Art & Max” by David Wiesner (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: $17.99, ages 4-8), a lizard who takes himself very seriously as an artist is about to execute a formal, heroic portrait. Even before the overly enthusiastic Max bursts onto the scene (“I can paint, too, Arthur!”), it’s clear that Art with a capital A is going to come in for some ribbing. In fact, Art — the lizard as well as the commodity that Sotheby’s deals in — will be quite deconstructed before our eyes. “Art & Max” is one of those rare children’s books that lends itself simultaneously to literal and figurative reading.

“Dave the Potter” by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Little, Brown: $16.99, ages 3-8), shows how complex the information conveyed in nonfiction picture books can be; it offers a look at the life of a slave with a valuable talent. Little is known about the artist who made enormous ceramic jars on a plantation in South Carolina, but a great deal can be understood about 19th-century life from his work and the inscriptions he scratched on them.

In addition to lyrical nonfiction, Japanese-American writer and illustrator Allen Say has cultivated a fascinating specialty in dream sequences, and these strengths often combine in a compelling artistic vision. “The Boy in the Garden” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: $17.99, ages 5-8) tells the story of a boy taken on a formal New Year’s visit to his father’s employer. Allowed to wander in the garden, the boy falls asleep in the teahouse, where he dreams a version of the folk tale that begins the book, “The Grateful Crane.”

Being angry with mom is one of the great dramas of early childhood. It’s so dangerous to push her away and leave one’s tiny self exposed! The bunny child in “Mad at Mommy” by Komako Sakai (Scholastic: $16.99, ages 3-6) performs the brave feat of running away, only to return and throw himself into his mother’s arms. The genius in this book is the bunny’s expression: his refusal to look at his mother, his crushing disappointment at her failings, his towering rage as he promises to get bigger and “do whatever I want!” Any parent will recognize his gripes as legitimate (“You always tell me to hurry up…but then you never hurry up yourself”). No lovers’ reconciliation (“Did you miss me?”) could be as sweet.

For rambunctious boys, you can’t do better than “Shark vs. Train” by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld (Little, Brown: $16.99, ages 3-7). A raucous game of one-upmanship, the book asks “Who will win?” in an escalating series of contests between the super-powerful shark and the ever-popular train. Who wins at roasting marshmallows? Train — shark’s too wet! Who’d attract more kids as a carnival ride? You’re kidding, right? Even boys stuck in the pirate stage will get this.

The books you want to keep on your shelf are the ones that your kids will want to read over and over. But some picture books are particularly good for the experience of one perfect “aha!” moment. A family might not want to spend $16.99 for that one moment, but give that book as a gift to a classroom and multiply that one moment by years and classrooms full of “ahas” — then, it will start to look like a bargain. James Rumford’s “Rain School” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: $16.99, ages 3-7) takes place in a village in Chad, where students spend the first weeks of the new school year building their schoolhouse out of mud bricks; only then does the chalkboard come out. Lessons go on until the rainy season comes. The mud wall and mud desks melt away, as the illustrations show the vibrant colors of Africa giving way to the grays of torrential rainfall. But it “doesn’t matter,” the book concludes, underlining — for a lovely aha! — what is ultimately of value: “The letters have been learned and the knowledge taken away by the children. Come September, school will start over.”

For those inclined to mark the season by giving to charity in honor of friends, consider Books for Africa (

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