Thursday 24 May 2012

The Power of Picture Books - Karen Saunders

As the subheading of this blog suggests, the authors here are passionate about picture books. And I am too. I honestly believe picture books are amazingly powerful things.

I have a 20 month old son I’ve nicknamed Tornado Toddler. That’s because he’s a whirling tornado of a child, alive with energy and constantly on the move, always exploring and investigating.  But picture books — picture books make him stop. Picture books have the power to make him slow down enough to clamber onto my knee and together, we share a story. It’s one of my favourite things in the world, reading a book with my son. 

Children learn so much from talking about things they see in picture books, and hearing about what’s happening on each page.  My little boy said his first proper word pointing at something he saw in a book. But I think books are more than just learning tools. Picture books have the power to create a whole new world for a reader to step into, because stories are adventures, allowing children to experience all sorts of exciting things. In a book, you can be a pirate, or a cowboy, or a princess. You can go anywhere, or do anything. Picture books have the power to make magic a real, tangible thing, which is why it’s such a wonderful stage to start a child reading. It’s a joy to see the pleasure a child can get from a book, long before they can read themselves, or even talk.

Picture books also help children explore subjects in a safe way. My picture book, Baby Badger’s Wonderful Night, explores a common childhood fear, that of the dark. If I’ve helped one child be less scared of the dark, even just a tiny bit, well, that’s a pretty amazing accomplishment, isn’t it? And there are books to help with so many things. Like what happens when a new brother or sister comes along. Or when someone dies.  Or you start school, or move house, or have to go to hospital. These are all massive things to happen in a person’s life and subjects such as these, many more besides, are addressed in the pages of picture books.

Magic. Adventure. Reassurance. Knowledge. Hours of endless enjoyment. Oh yes. Picture books are very powerful indeed.

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Moira Butterfield said...

Thanks, Karen! You're so right. Picture books are vital for even the youngest of children. We can be proud of what we do.

Abie Longstaff said...

Thanks for this lovely post, Karen. I love the bonding side of picture books - my two have always enjoyed snuggling down with me and having a story read. Even now, at 10 and 8, they still want their their old favourite picture books, like Tim All Alone, or Princess Smartypants.

Charlotte Guillain said...

All so true. Picture books can be so multilayered and surprising. My 8 year old will pick up picture books we read to him years ago, read them himself and guffaw with laughter as he gets a joke in the picture or understands some word play that would have been lost on him the first time around. It's also like revisiting old friends for him. I think it's such a shame when children no longer have access to picture books because 'they've learned to read'.

Paeony Lewis said...

Enjoyed your blog post, Karen. When my children were small I too wanted picture books they could enjoy, but also helped them make sense of their world.

Anonymous said...

You are spot on! I, too, had a whirlwind toddler, but picture books made him stop and look and listen. He fell in love with board books, then picture books, and now years later he's still an avid reader. Picture books were the crucial hook that started that love.

Your book sounds lovely as well. Can't wait to read it!

Diane Dawson Hearn said...

Speaking to the power of picture books, I just received this amazing e-mail today. It made me cry, and I want to pass it along to all of those who work hard and maybe get little recognition. If only one child loves your work, it is worth it.

Dear Ms. Dawson Hearn,

I hope all is well -- and I wanted to relate a small story:

When I was very young, growing up in Randallstown, Maryland, my
grandmother bought be a set of very small books called "My Very First
Teeny Tiny Strawberry Paperback Library," which included The Runaway
Pancake, Lazy Jack, The Princess and the Pea, and others. These books
were perhaps my favorite books when I was very young. I believe they
were published in 1976, when I was three years old, and since my
grandmother read to me constantly, the books were kept at her house on
a shelf with several other favorites of mine. (I spent every Friday
night at grandma and grandpa's house, until a few years after I was
too old to do so.)

I believe you illustrated those books (although I can't find them in
the bibliography on your site at And the stories
were very simple, many (perhaps all?) of them old folk-tales retold --
but what drew me to those books so magnetically was your wonderful
drawings; rich with line and detail and thought and texture, simple
but so evocative and, for a young child, very real.

So, time passed, and the Teeny Tiny Strawberry Paperback Library
remained on My shelf at grandma's house in their tiny box, a bit
scribbled-in and chewed, with a few pages loose like baby-teeth, but
in reasonably good shape. And I grew up and graduated into more and
more complex reading, nevertheless, I frequently took those tiny books
off of the shelf and leafed through them nostalgically, given how
deeply they were woven into the fabric of Me.

And I moved away from my hometown and went to college and beyond, and
my grandparents got older and older and sold the house, but my Teeny
Tiny Strawberry Paperback Library remained with their small collection
of Gabe's Books, and grandma promised to keep them intact for me for a
time when I had a child of my own (which, in my mid-twenties, I
couldn't imagine happening for a million years). And I traveled up
and down the East Coast for various sorts of school, and I ended up in
Manhattan, where I met the lady of my dreams in 2003, whom I married
in 2005, and our son, Orion, was born in 2010.

When we brought Orion back to Baltimore for his first visit to where I
grew up, I took my grandmother aside and asked her whether it was OK
to take my Teeny Tiny Strawberry Paperback Library back to New York
with us, so that I could read them to Orion one day. Naturally, she
obliged, our small prophecy having been fulfilled.

The three of us -- my wife, our son and I -- now live in Tokyo. This
morning, Orion came into our room at around 6 AM and tugged at my big
toe and asked, "Papa read? Papa read?" and who in their right mind can
resist a request like that, irrespective of the hour? So,
bleary-eyed, he led me to his room and as I sat down on the floor, I
asked, "Orion, can you pick out some books for Papa to read to you?"
And he went to the shelf and grabbed his Teeny Tiny Strawberry
Paperback Library, and he looked at spines of the tiny books nestled
snugly in their box, and said, "Wanna read Runaway Pancake!"

And so we did.

Those books have been in my family for -- I cannot even believe this
-- nearly 40 years. It's the *illustrations* that still get me, like
it's 1976 all over again. And I think that's what draws Orion to
those books, too.

So, Diane (if I may call you Diane)... thank you, from both of us.

malachy doyle said...

Thank you Karen (and Diane) for reminding us of the power of picture book to affect people's lives.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thanks, Karen. All so true. There's nothing like snuggling down with a child and a book...

Lynne Garner said...

From an early age my nephew would pick a picture book from the shelf, reverse into you so you could pick him up and put him on your lap and insist you read to him. When that one was finished the process was repeated. Now his younger sister has started to do the same.

Alison Boyle said...

I like your son's nickname! That's so true, about the capacity for picturebooks to explore issues. The really good ones have compelling stories without letting the issue bog them down. Thanks Karen for your insights.

Jane Clarke said...

Your post made me smile. Yes, picture books are powerful and memorable - like your Tornado Toddler.

Karen Saunders said...

Thank you all for having me, and for your lovely comments. Lynne, Tornado Toddler does the 'reverse into your lap' trick too! And Diane, what a wonderful email to receive.