Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What are picture books for?

Some of the most memorable and beloved books in my library are picture books. As an elementary school librarian I am one of the lucky ones that I get to surround myself with the art, words, and deep thoughts of picture books.  Yet once my children are independent readers they seldom choose picture books to read.  So how do I keep these books, some of the best art and literature in my library, from languishing on the shelves? I talk to anyone who will listen about picture books and what they are for.

Picture books are for sharing.  The unspoken assumption behind the format is that this is a book for a reader and a listener (or a class).  The traditional oversize format is not really comfortable for a child reading alone.  Often the words - the reading level, the vocabulary - even the size of the print - are not appropriate for the independent reader.  Great picture books beg to be read out loud!  They want to be performed, sung, whispered, shouted, and shared. I would even say that if you have only read a picture book silently to yourself you haven't really read it.

So who will borrow the wonderful, thoughtful, artistic books from my school library?  I try to convince the classroom teachers that they can teach so much (comprehension strategies, writing style, even content) with picture books, but most of them are engaged in reading novels.  So I turn to the students.  When I explain what picture books are really for, many students are excited to try out the role of reader! It seems like almost everybody has a younger sibling, or a cousin, or somebody to babysit (or help mom babysit.)

At first I gave extra borrowing privileges to students that told me they were reading to a younger child.  Now I let everyone borrow two books a week.  Often one of those books is a book to read to someone else. Does everyone who borrows a picture book follow through and read to someone else?  Of course not.  But the intention of reading to someone else can make a student feel entitled to read a picture book without feeling out of place.  And once the book is opened the words and pictures will sell themselves.   

Who will you read to today?

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