This article in the New York Times yesterday made me incredibly sad. No, it actually made me incredibly angry. The article is about parents who are not buying picture books for their young children any more, because those books are viewed as too easy.
“They’re 4 years old, and their parents are getting them ‘Stuart Little,’ ” said Dara La Porte, the manager of the children’s department at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington. “I see children pick up picture books, and then the parents say, ‘You can do better than this, you can do more than this.’ It’s a terrible pressure parents are feeling — that somehow, I shouldn’t let my child have this picture book because she won’t get into Harvard.”
My first reaction was “what is wrong with parents today?!” — I’m sorry, parents-of-today, but you are ruining the joy of reading for your children.
Picture books have a really important function in children’s development of reading skills. Those of us who love to read may not realize this, but children have to learn that words are connected to ideas, characters, and actions. Picture books do that. Children learn and retain words better when they are connected with pictures. Picture books help children develop the ability to picture for themselves as they read — and what would reading be without that ability?
We know that children of educated parents come to kindergarten way ahead of children of uneducated parents. Why? Because just hearing more advanced words from adults helps children. Just being around books and adults who read helps children. Things we think are silly, like nursery rhymes and patty-cake, help children learn to read. But that doesn’t mean they need to read Stuart Little before they reach first grade!
Most importantly, picture books build a love of reading for children. Do you really want your child to grow up not knowing who Sam I Am is? Or not having experienced the joy of Where the Wild Things Are and the sadness of The Lorax? People — those books aren’t just “easy”, they are works of art.
I’m not a teacher but teaching children to read is my field. And I get asked some of these questions by my friends who are having kids. So here are some of the things I know about helping your child love books. And forcing them to read chapter books at the age of five or six is just about the worst thing you can do.
- Read to your kids! Even if they can read, you can still read books to them they may not be ready for (like Stuart Little).
- Make reading to your kids interactive — let them talk, point, turn pages, ask questions. One of the mistakes parents make is to “shush” their kids while they are reading.
- Read lots of different things, but also read the same book over and over again. When your child wants to hear the same book every night, that’s a good thing. That’s a love of books.
- Don’t worry so much about what level your child should be reading. When they are school-age that’s important. But before six, the important things are that they like to read or be read to, and that they know what a book is (for example, how to turn pages or pretend to read). Very young kids can understand what words like “author” and “illustration” mean, or “fiction” vs. “nonfiction”. If a book is too advanced for them, they’ll absorb some of the words and learn the others later. If a book is too easy they will still get something out of hearing the words and the language. Picture books are usually full of great vocabulary, even the ones that look easy.
- And for kids who are reading, there are chapter books that can be read well before a complex book like Stuart Little! The Amelia Bedelia books and the Frog and Toad books, for example.
How sad are you for this child? I think this is horrible:
Some parents say they just want to advance their children’s skills. Amanda Gignac, a stay-at-home mother in San Antonio who writes The Zen Leaf, a book blog, said her youngest son, Laurence, started reading chapter books when he was 4.
Now Laurence is 6 ½, and while he regularly tackles 80-page chapter books, he is still a “reluctant reader,” Ms. Gignac said.
Sometimes, she said, he tries to go back to picture books.
“He would still read picture books now if we let him, because he doesn’t want to work to read,” she said, adding that she and her husband have kept him reading chapter books.
(Note: Ms. Gignac, who feels she was misquoted, has responded on her blog.)
So, readers, what are the picture books you (or your children) love? For me, in addition to all the ones I’ve mentioned, my favorite may be Go Dog Go. It’s a silly book but full of vocabulary, rhyme, and great pictures, and I remember nearly every word because the book is so fun. You know that huge tree at the end of the book? Every time I see a tree like that I automatically envision a great big dog party at the top. And that makes me happy.
Why would we ever deprive children of that?