Picture Books

I am one of those weird people who loves public speaking. I find it invigorating. Even more than public speaking, though, I love reading. So it comes as a surprise to no one when I say that I love storytimes-- they are public reading, shared experiences in which I can make a story I love come alive for a group of children. Storytimes are great. Reading out loud to children is fun, and it's satisfying, and it's important. Children develop vocabulary, they learn how stories are structured, and they develop positive associations with reading. I know all of this. Yet in the last week I've found myself equally captivated by a very different experience-- the experience of being "read aloud to," often by children who can't actually read.

What do I mean by that? For example: I'll be sitting in the library, completely focused on a spreadsheet where I'm tracking quantitative data, when a little girl will come up to me, poke my arm, and dump a picture book in my lap. The first time this happened, the girl in question was about three. She opened the Nyanja-language picture book authoritatively and poked at an illustration about as hard as she had just poked my arm. She said something about the illustration. In Nyanja.

"Hmm," I said, raising my eyebrows. "Yes." It would be really cool if I could speak Nyanja, I thought to myself.

But as we continued looking at the book, I felt less and less of a need to speak Nyanja. We touched our favorite parts of the pictures. We counted some of the animals. We discovered we did share a few common vocabulary words ("apples," "biscuits," "baby") and could have a surprisingly engaging conversation using those words and a lot of pointing and miming. When we got to an illustration of a baby, she picked up the book and began kissing the page enthusiastically. "I love babies, too," I said, and pretended to kiss the baby as well. She giggled. Her emotional connection to that book and its images was real, and the connection we developed while reading that book was real-- even though we couldn't actually read the book together.

I had another experience like this with an older child who spoke English (but didn't read it) the other day as well. He came up to me while I was working at the desk and handed me a book. "I'll tell you this story," he said.

"Okay," I agreed. He opened to the first page. A baby was lying on a blanket in a garden.

"A frog eats the baby," he informed me.

"How can a frog eat a baby?" I asked incredulously, thinking that he was making up something silly. He turned the page. The next picture was of a frog swallowing the baby. Silly me, as it turns out.

I like the role reversal of being read to from pictures. I like that it gives children an opportunity to be the experts, which is an opportunity a lot of children don't have in schools or in their day-to-day lives. More than offering a hollow chance to play-act at being adult, however, I think that there is something essential pre-literate children can share with adults, and each other, using picture books--the skill of reading images.

Last year I told myself I finally needed to get on the graphic novel bandwagon, and I buried myself in my room with some award-winning graphic novels for young adults. I emerged a day later with a headache and a sense of my own incompetence. Reading graphic novels is hard. I hadn't realized how limited my ability to read sequential still images was. I couldn't keep track of the characters. I missed important details. I would find myself re-reading the same pages over and over again, trying to get the same flow that I found in reading words. I got better at it with time, but I still wouldn't say that I like it.

And that's part of why it amazes me to look at picture books with children who can't read words, but who notice every tiny detail in a picture and who use those images as a springboard for their own developing skills as storytellers. I see young children in the libraries every day, children who I know can't read narrating stories they've interpreted from picture books as confidently as if they were fluent readers. Recently I noticed a boy in the library who was sitting by himself and looking at the illustrations in a book in painstaking detail. He hunched over the book and touched the pages, utterly rapt but clearly not reading. I couldn't resist-- I grabbed another library staff member and sat down next to him. "Let's talk about this book," I said. "What are you doing? What's going on that's got you so interested?"

"I'm thinking about what's happening," he said. He pointed to a girl in the sky. "She's flying," he said. "She's flying to the supermarket." He touched the building below her. "This is the supermarket."

"Oh," I said, intrigued. To me there was no indication that the girl was flying, and no indication that the building was a supermarket. I asked the first thing that came into my head. "How do you know that she's flying, and not falling?"

He looked at me incredulously. "Look at her ribbon," he said, pointing to her dress. The ribbon was streaming out behind her in the wind, a dead giveaway that she was moving horizontally. If I paid even a fraction of the attention to pictures that I pay to words, I would have noticed that. It's a good thing I had someone to remind me.

Learning to read words is essential. But I think sometimes we get so hung up on words that we forget about all of the other skills children gain from having access to picture books. They are particularly valuable here, where Zambian-language picture books are scarce and English-language literacy isn't fully developed until most schoolchildren are around nine or ten. Picture books offer those children who aren't yet bilingually literate an opportunity to meaningfully interact with a story on their own terms. However, picture books are not just a step on the way to becoming a "real" reader-- they are complex and beautiful forms of literature that open doors to deep creativity, empowering children of all reading levels (or none) to interpret, create, and share the unique stories they see when they look at pictures.