The Power of Picture Books

children reading under a treeChildren’s reader books, or “picture books” tend to be somewhat overlooked in the busy Realm of Literature. I was guilty of such oversight myself… until I began to have children. But, even then, I simply read through “readers” like most parents would, patiently enduring the infantile prose until the children moved on to more interesting material.

Several years ago, however, one of my middle children began kindergarten and my husband and I discovered–to our utter consternation–that she strongly disliked reading. Now, she loved stories and hearing them read aloud; she’d follow along with me as I read to her; she’d trace and draw letters on paper just fine and she likewise understood the correlation between the letter’s shape and the sounds each made. The action of sounding out letters out loud, however, made her balk–every time–to the point that she began to resent the action of reading altogether. Her father and I were baffled, to say the least; our two older siblings hadn’t any trouble with phonics reader books at her age.

Our daughter’s teacher was not as concerned. Test results showed that she had no ‘learning disabilities’ whatsoever.

“Every child learns differently,” the teacher told us. “Just spend extra time reading with her, until she gets comfortable with it.” And so I did. We read together in the backyard garden, away from the hearing of others. I watched as she would gulp, swallow and fight her way through the sentences, until I finally had an epiphany. My daughter had no problem understanding the words, nor recognizing them, nor seeing them. Her problem was she didn’t like reading for herself. The rather infantile phonics books that her older siblings had used held absolutely no appeal for her… not on little bit. I spent the next day trying to come up with a solution, looking for phonics games or flash cards, but my searches yielded little results for help with “normal” children who just don’t like to read out loud.

Early the next morning however, I realized that an obvious solution already lay within reach.

“I could write her a story,” I thought, as I poured out my first cup of coffee. The idea seemed almost too easy. Children’s picture books were not something I’d ever considered writing, due to their assumed simplicity. However, as I sipped my coffee that morning, a plot began to form in my mind. I squinted out the kitchen window, catching sight of far-off rolling hills, just visible over the industrial buildings on the outskirts of our city neighborhood. A story might work, I thought, if it focused on a little girl  going on a journey, using as many colorful descriptions as possible, and also if I mentioned  some the things she most liked. If I could capture my daughter’s imagination and tap into that inherent Narcissistic strain–a thing all humans possess–then she might just want to read for herself. If the story could somehow hint that avoiding one’s problems was not the solution, that would be icing on the proverbial cake. My husband liked the idea immediately.

I began crafting a story for Sara that day, using the recommended spelling lists provided by her teacher, as well as consulting numerous online articles by children’s book professionals. Late the next night, I carefully copied out my scribbled story and stapled the pages together. My oldest daughter was charmed by the story; she inked a little drawing on the front of it, one picturing her little sister in her favorite dress and backpack, walking along a road with flowers growing along it.

The next day, as my middle daughter sat down with a phonics book–with that same, pained expression–I sat down with her and held up the stapled papers.

“What’s that, Mommy?” she asked.

“It’s a new book,” I told her. “I’m going to read it to you.” My daughter gave me a wide smile. She snuggled up to me and looked at the words on the ‘cover’.

“That’s my name!” she said, sitting up again; her eyes grew wide. “And, that’s my backpack… and that’s my red dress!”

I smiled.

“I wrote this story, just for you. It’s called Sara and the Land of No Letters.

My little girl gave me the biggest smile I had ever seen, and I mentally kicked myself for not thinking of this book sooner. We settled in to read. When we were finished, I gave her the story and told her we could read it again, if she took care of it. She carried it to her room and put it on the special shelf where she kept her precious paper dolls and jewelry box. The next day we read it again, but this time, she wanted to try to read her story by herself. With some whispered hints from Mommy she managed to finish the whole thing, without a grimace, a swallow and nary a gulp. In school, she drew pictures of the scenes of her book from memory and brought them home. She read her story twice a day for a week and gave the family an unprecedented performance, with hardly a mistake in pronunciation, showing confidence in reading for the first time. Mommy hugged her and gave compliments, blinking back tears of real relief.

The teacher was highly impressed; she listened to my daughter read through her story and gave her high praise. Later, she told me that the story was engineered perfectly–as it encouraged parents to read it with a child first; she also liked that it included the right blend sounds and ‘everyday’ words children would need in order to “springboard” them on to other books.

“You should publish this.” the teacher told me. “And, you should more of them.” At the time my husband and I were in the middle of writing our Epic Fantasy fiction series, so I put that idea on the shelf and let my daughter keep her story for herself. True to prediction, she branched out to other books with ease, borrowing her older sister’s C. S. Lewis books (sometimes without permission), pouring through The Hobbit and asking for me to find her some more reading material online.

Today, my little girl’s Reading Comprehension scores on annual tests place her three grades ahead of her peers in aptitude and vocabulary. Likewise, her scores in math, science and social studies began climbing the moment she lost her ‘fear’ of letters, and her teachers couldn’t be happier. As I watch her now, sitting in the corner happily reading from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I know that my respect for the ‘simplistic’ picture book has grown exponentially.

Sara and the Land of No Letters was just published this week, and is available on Amazon. My oldest daughter did the colored illustrations for her sister’s book, a thoughtful gesture we appreciate very much. We have two more Sara books planned for publishing: Sara and the Land of No Numbers, and Sara and the Land of No Rules.

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L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books

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