A Thousand Words

by Nancy

A picture’s worth a thousand words, right? There’re even a couple of songs about that idea, including Davey Gates’ “if a picture’s worth a thousand words, then why can’t I paint you? The words would never show the you I’ve come to know.” Pictures have a special, evocative appeal.

Before people had written records (i.e., history), we had pictures. Nobody knows, since we have no recorded explanation, why early humans created cave paintings. Were they religious? Commemorative? Decorative? Some combination thereof? We’ll probably never know. But people travel great distances to see them.

Before children learn to write, they learn to color, maybe even to draw. The whole “stay within the lines” thing is kinda overrated sometimes, I think. There’s something to be said for creativity.

“The reason to know the rules,” Cassondra said to me recently, “is so you understand how and when to break them.” Or words to that effect. So if a kid wants to color outside the lines, why not? Maybe she’s a visionary.

Anyway, pictures have great appeal for us. Some of us like pictures of actual, recognizable things and people and places. Others prefer abstracts that go for mood rather than image.

Young children particularly like pictures, maybe because tots don’t read so well yet. Even high-verbal tots, as the boy was, like picture books. The pictures tell the story. They help engage the imagination. I had a Little Golden Book (remember those?) about a squirrel who had adventures.

I also had a picture book version of Silver Chief that my grandfather read to me over and over and over because I loved it so. It mildewed in the folks’ dank basement, alas. I tried to find a copy for the boy but couldn’t. It’s long out of print. And of course I had the usual complement of Dr. Seuss, Disney adaptations, etc.

I first read The Iliad in picture book format, and I had a picture book adaptation of the King Arthur story. The D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, which I discovered in third grade and checked out of the school library time after time, now sits on our bookshelf. The dh bought it for me one Christmas because I still love those pictures.

So I was somewhat distressed to read in yesterday’s New York Times that many parents are pushing their children away from picture books and into chapter books while they’re still in pre-K. This has become so common that the market for picture books is falling. Publishers aren’t buying them, and bookstores aren’t stocking them. Except for perennial favorites like Seuss and Sendak.

If parents want their children to read earlier, that’s certainly up to them. I wouldn’t presume to dictate that. Some parents didn’t let their kids read comic books when I was growing up. I read them, the boy read them, and it doesn’t seem to have hurt either of us, but that’s a family choice. I’m just not sure why that means there’s no place for picture books. I sort of think anything that draws a child to books and reading would be positive.

All this makes me glad the boy came along when he did, when picture books were still abundant and varied. He had a huge vocabulary for his age, if I do say so, but wasn’t in any special hurry to learn actual reading. We didn’t push him to. I should probably confess here that his dad teaches children’s lit, including a course on literature for young children–which means picture books–so we enjoy that format a lot.

The boy had a wonderful little book called Jamberry, by Bruce Degen, and loved it. The dh used to read to the boy’s class every week to give the teacher a little time. When he read Jamberry, he took all the berries mentioned in the book to school so the kids could taste them. He did the same thing with the foods mentioned in The Very Hungry Caterpillar (by Eric Carle).

Among the most useful baby shower gifts I received were Good Dog Carl, by Alexandra Day, and a Babar picture book, both in board book format (smaller books on heavy, heavy cardboard pages that withstand the carelessness of small hands).

The boy adored Carl. The beauty of the Carl books was that they had no words–or at least, the early ones didn’t–so you made up your own story. At our house, they were known as the “Carl Baby” books because Carl had adventures with the nameless baby that the apparently clueless parents never detected.

The boy had a couple of text-free picture books by Peter Spier, Rain and Christmas, that contained beautiful, detailed pictures but let you make up your own story. Spier also created picture books with text, and we had some of those, too. Of course, we were abundantly supplied with Waldo’s adventures.


Some kids probably like to change the story around, and the text-less books would be great for that. Once we had a story for those pictures, though, the boy wanted it the same every time. Exactly the same. Absolutely, exactly the same.

There was a great book called Boom Chicka Boom Boom that was a sneaky way to teach the alphabet (just as Age of Empires on his PC, a few years back, sneakily taught him Norse and Roman mythology). He loved Go, Dog, Go and Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman.

The House That Jack Built was another favorite, and he had a beautiful book about a polar bear’s Christmas that inspired us to buy a polar bear ornament for our tree. The Polar Express didn’t do much for him, but a book about a couple of naughty grasshoppers was a huge hit, as was If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. And the Busytown series.

I saved the books we read most often. He was done with them, but I couldn’t bear to see them go. There were too many wonderful memories associated with them, too many images of a small person sitting in my lap, absorbing the words and admiring the pictures. Sharing the moment.

Which picture books do you remember fondly? Which ones do the tots in your life enjoy?

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