“It’s a beautiful book!” the woman told me as she handed it back to me. “I love it! But I don’t have any little ones in my life to buy it for.”
“Buy it for yourself,” I said. “I buy picture books all the time. If a children’s book isn’t good enough for an adult to read, you shouldn’t buy it for a child. A good picture book is a good book. It’s for anyone of any age.”
She didn’t believe me. And she wasn’t the only one. That weekend at the University District Street Fair, lots of people passed my book by because they thought it was only for young children. They seemed to have the idea that picture books are like baby food: they’re what you need when you haven’t yet grown up enough to handle the real thing.
They couldn’t have been more wrong. Picture books are the real thing.
Eight Reasons Picture Books Are for Grownups
It’s true that (most) picture books are suitable for children (although my picture-book version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream really isn’t). But grownups should read picture books, too.
One: The benefits of reading books you love
Picture books are easy to fall in love with. People who fall in love with books read more. And reading is good for you. It reduces stress, improves memory, enhances theory of mind, and increases mental agility as you age.
Two: Sophisticated language
The language in picture books is sophisticated – more sophisticated than the language in other children’s literature, and more sophisticated than the language adults use every day. The vocabulary is rich, but it’s not just vocabulary: picture books use language that is rich with rhythm, imagery, and various forms of word play and sound play.
In this respect, picture books are very much like poetry. We don’t scorn sonnets just because they’re short. Their brevity is part of the art of a sonnet. And it’s part of the art of the picture book as well.
Three: Visual literacy
Picture books are more than just words on a page. They develop meaning through a combination of words and imagery, and so they both require and develop visual literacy, the ability to decode meaning from images. Because of this, reading a picture book exercises your whole brain. This not only provides joy when you’re reading them. It also strengthens your ability to interpret and manage the endless daily barrage of advertisements, movies, and memes that use combinations of words and images to influence your behavior and your opinions.
Four: Fabulous art
Picture books are filled with incredible art. If you want to feast on great art, or if you want to teach someone (including yourself!) to recognize and understand the techniques that artists use, you can go to art museums. Or you can read picture books. Or both.
Picture books build relationships. When a child sits on your lap to explore the pictures in a book, when you read out loud to a child or to a classroom, or to your sweetheart or spouse, you’re not just sharing a book. You’re creating emotional bonds.
A seven-year-old child can read Green Eggs and Ham to her grandfather. And they can use the book to talk about food, peer pressure, and silly rhymes. Her grandfather can read Passage to Freedom to her. And they can use the book to talk about what it means to love God, and how it’s sometimes hard to do the right thing.
They can’t share novels. But they can share picture books. And through the books, they can share so much more.
Six: Joy for All Ages
Laughter, wonder, beauty, imagination — these things don’t have age limits. And a picture book works across ages. I see that first-hand, when I’ve done readings of Catherine’s Pascha at churches and bookstores. The children who come to hear it are enchanted. Teenagers who consider themselves too old for picture books sidle over to where I’m reading, and are soon caught up in the story. And so are their parents, and their grandparents.
Seven: A Gentle Introduction to Anything Hard
Picture books are perhaps the perfect way to introduce complex ideas in science, in math, or in any other subject. Because picture books are brief, the ideas they contain are distilled to their essence. The words and the images are worked and reworked, and the meaning is clarified until it’s impossible to misunderstand. And if you want to introduce emotionally difficult content (like the Holocaust, or the Indian Removals), picture books provide an introduction that is small enough to be manageable.
Eight: They’re Small
There is room in even the busiest schedule for picture books. If Lord of the Rings is a 14-course dinner a la russe, Maddi’s Fridge is a bowl of homemade chicken soup, and The Gruffalo is a plate of cookies and a cup of hot chocolate at bedtime. Even when you can’t fit a full-blown multi-course dinner into your schedule, you still need to eat. And even when you don’t have time for epic novels, you still need to read. Picture books can fill that need.
The Bottom Line
Next time you’re at your favorite bookstore, take a look at the picture books. If you have to pretend that you’re buying a book for a young child, that’s okay. But, really, booksellers love great books. They can help you find a picture book, or two, or ten, that you will love for now and forever.
Picture Books Can Change the World: A picture book is a small thing, a humble thing. But in the right hands, it can change the world!
Six Exceptional Multicultural Easter Books: Whether you call it Easter or Pascha, whether you celebrate in the middle of the night or at sunrise or midmorning, it’s the biggest day of the year for Christians of every culture and country.
Disability in Children’s Books: It’s hard to find books that feature characters with disabilities. Here’s a start.