There was no television permitted in my house until after dark during my childhood in the 1950s and 1960s. My mother, a voracious reader, was determined to raise her four children as readers, so we were surrounded by books and reading was always a part of our daily activity. Yet, despite the enthusiasm for books and the high value placed on reading, I do not remember a single picture book from my early years.
It wasn’t until I attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Library School that I began to get a sense of the world of picture books. The renowned Wisconsin Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) was housed with the UW library school, in Helen C. White Hall, and Ginny Moore Kruse, who served as director of the CCBC for some 26 years (from 1976 to 2002) was a remarkable force for children’s literature. She and Kathleen T. Horning, the current director of the CCBC, were early and vocal advocates for more diverse representation in children’s literature and picture books. Still, even with Ginny’s powerful voice strengthening the national reputation for the CCBC, I have almost no memory of looking at picture books during my time in library school, either.
It wasn’t until I started my career working in libraries that I began to understand the true power of picture books. I was fortunate to learn from some incredibly talented children’s librarians—and from Muriel Koretz, a retired teacher who was an expert on the art and history of the picture book. Muriel wrote a regular column for the Syracuse Post-Standard in which she’d recommend the best new books for children, and she often spoke to my youth services classes when I taught at the Syracuse University iSchool. She had this magnificent slideshow that explored the history of illustration, and she updated it annually with new favorites. Muriel’s presentation was always the highlight of the semester for my class.
Recently, I was reminded of the transcendent power of picture books by another column, New York Times book review editor Pamela Paul’s February 20 opinion piece, “Your Kids Aren’t Too Old for Picture Books, and Neither are You.” The piece really got me thinking—as a librarian, a parent, and now a grandparent—about my own evolution with picture books and the critical role picture books play in sparking and sustaining a lifelong love for books and reading.
By the time my daughters Meg and Bridget were born, I had been steadily building my knowledge of illustrators, authors, and the production process that brought quality stories and pictures to life to inspire young children. My husband and I gathered a large home library of picture books for the girls. And we supplemented them with piles of books I regularly brought home from the library. We would quickly discover our favorites among those borrowed titles and purchase them so we could read them again and again. And we had many favorites. I still remember when Meg turned five how my sister and I worked hard to replicate elements of her favorite book, Emma’s Vacation by David McPhail, for her birthday gift.
When Meg gave birth to my grandson Matt in 2019, books became an essential element of his nursery, too. A “bring a favorite picture book” themed baby shower added to the abundance of titles from his doting grandparents, friends, and more than a few publisher pals in New York. And Matt’s collection keeps growing. He now has books stashed in every room of his home.
As soon we began to read to Matt, and as soon as he began to show his own preferences in story lines and pictures, his mother started to pull books from her own childhood that she wanted Matt to experience. Her earliest memories were connected to classics like Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd, Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Berger, and Taxi Dog by Debra and Sal Barracca and Mark Buehner.
My daughter Bridget (Aunt B to Matt) remembered We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, and The Napping House by Audrey and Don Wood. No matter how many times you read The Napping House to Matt, he is ready to laugh at the snoring granny as she breaks the bed.
Woke Baby by Mahogany L. Browne and Theodore Taylor III, and Every Little Thing, adapted by Cedella Marley and Vanessa Brantley-Newton, are also among the many important new titles that are part of baby Matt’s growing collection.
Because I am a librarian, my children were especially fortunate. Many times I stood in long lines at American Library Association conference exhibits to get signed books for each of them. And during my years at the Onondaga County Public Library (Syracuse, N.Y.) and as an adjunct faculty member at Syracuse University iSchool, my children were lucky enough to be more than just exposed to beautiful picture books, they sometimes got to meet the authors and illustrators they loved.
Jerry Pinkney once gave Meg and Bridget an impromptu ride on his hotel luggage cart. Years later, when I co-hosted an interactive Pinkney Family event at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Branch of the Cleveland Public Library they were reintroduced to Jerry, and met his illustrator son, Brian.
Meg and Bridget also got to visit the studios of Pat Cummings and Barry Moser. Barry Moser even came to our house for tea.
In our first years in Cleveland, my daughters met Floyd Cooper, Patricia Polacco, and Faith Ringgold, to name a few. James Ransome once joined us for a home-cooked meal of roast chicken, and the girls tortured him until he drew each of them a picture. Meg and Bridget have little recall of these experiences, but the signed books remain treasures from their childhood.
Yes, my family's experience was extraordinary. But the point is, as I often told parents when I was a young librarian, that children need to love books to be ready for the hard task of learning to read. And in her piece, Pamela Paul explained why better than I ever could.
“First, appreciate what picture books, the real wizards of the literary world, do. With remarkable economy, they excel at the twin arts of visual and textual storytelling,” Paul wrote. “Picture books are the carrot that motivates the emerging reader, frustrated and bored silly by the phonemic progression from cat to mat.”
I’ve seen this in action with my own children. And now, as a grandparent, I see the power of picture books again whenever my grandson’s spontaneous laugh at something on the page shows us that though he may not be able to read the words yet he is in fact reading the pictures, and building visual literacy skills along with his language skills.
I care for my grandson every weekday morning so my daughter, a teacher for the New York City school system, can teach remotely from her kitchen. During a recent stretch of good weather, Matt and I found ourselves at a pocket park on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. After a few rounds of rolling the ball and stacking toys, it was time for a snack. I never go anywhere with my grandson unless I bring a selection of picture books. So, while he munched on some banana, I read to him.
Within moments, other children in the park drew closer with their protective nannies. I read loud enough for everyone to hear, but the children came closer and closer because they wanted to see the pictures. Because the pleasure of a picture book is not only hearing the story but looking at the pictures. It was the rhythm and pacing of Bill Martin Jr.’s language in Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? that first attracted the tots. But the vivid Eric Carle pictures soon became the main attraction.
In my opinion, the picture books of today just keep getting better. Fresh, original, and, increasingly more diverse. The best of these books reflect the world children know and the fantastic worlds they imagine, like the Newbery Medal and Caldecott honor-winning Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson, and Aaron Becker’s spectacular Journey.
We read, recite, and sing to Matt constantly. I am even teaching him fingerplays dredged up from some of my early library jobs subbing in the Children’s Room. Matt is still too young for screens, so he doesn’t attend the virtual toddler storytimes necessitated by Covid-19. But I have thought about reaching out to colleagues, watching some virtual storytimes, and refining my technique with the idea that I might do more reading and fingerplays in the park this spring and summer. Even in a mask I have the look of a grandmother these days. And, as more vaccines find their way into arms, caregivers’ concerns about safety may ease enough to let a few more children gather ’round.
But even if I don’t evolve into the local park’s storytime lady, I will always have an audience of one. Matt’s librarian grandmother may need to turn to graphic novels in the years to come, but that’s fine with me. I know that a lifelong love of books and of reading means a lifetime of picture books, too.
Again, Pamela Paul says it best: “Picture books are one of the literary world’s great pleasures.”
PW columnist Sari Feldman is the former executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland and a past president of both the Public Library Association (2009–2010) and the American Library Association (2015–2016).