Picture Books Make You Smarter

Eavesdropping on families hunkered down in our children’s section, I find it hard to believe the recent New York Times article which suggested that picture books have been languishing in bookstores and libraries. So dire is the state of the genre, it would seem, that some publishers have significantly cut down their production.

According to this article, parents are feeling the pressure to shift their beginning readers away from picture books and toward more text-heavy chapter books. Parents are afraid that if their kids aren’t reading “up”, or above their reading level, those children will be missing a crucial edge in the intelligence market. Of course, we aren’t talking about reading Crime and Punishment to our kids, so what’s the big deal if we skip the books with the pretty pictures?

I’m certainly no expert, but I believe that picture books serve as an important catalyst for early development. Not only do the vivid images reinforce the text, but they also help the child discern the subtext. Take, for instance, author Lemony Snicket and illustrator Maira Kalman’s new book 13 Words. On page one, the text is simple: “The bird sits on the table”, but the corresponding picture of a tragic bird with mournful eyes gives us a deeper subtext; thus we are prepared for the next page which tells us that yes, this “bird is despondent”. Now, as a rainstorm forms above our bird’s head, and foreboding colors tint the window and deep circles of sorrow pool beneath her eyes, we see the context of our new word and we get the picture—forgive the pun.

I know that every time I encounter a really well-done picture book I get a little bit brighter. So, on that note, here are a few more picture books that will make both you and your little reader infinitely more clever:


Flotsam by David Wiesner

Flotsam, Wiesner’s third Caldecott winner, is a magical book told in pictures about a boy who finds a camera at the beach. When he takes the film to be developed he discovers a world beneath the ocean teeming with mystery and beauty. This wordless book transforms the reader into the storyteller and one must connect the images to form the narrative of the tale.


The Great Paper Caper by Oliver Jeffers

In this delightfully quirky story, the animals of the forest realize that someone has been cutting down their trees. But behind the scenes, a perceptive reader notices the real culprit long before the characters do. The images are essential to solving the mystery of these woodland shenanigans and helping the child—quite literally—read between the lines.


How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird by Mordacai Gerstein and Jacques Prévert

While most picture books are aimed at readers ages 4-8, this gorgeous story is meant for readers ages 9 and up. A child paints a cage onto a canvas,  fills it with things a bird might be drawn to and then waits patiently until one flies into his painting. In this story, we, too, are swept up into the impossible: a glorious trip through what might be. And what is the purpose of art, if not to transport us from the mundane into the spectacular?


2 thoughts on “Picture Books Make You Smarter

  1. Thanks for this post EBBC. As a secondary English teacher and part of a visual literacy component of the course, my year 8 students are required to write a picture book. It’s a great task showing students how complex these books really are. It’s a shame that parents are feeling the pressure to get to the written text in books when the visual text of picture books is such an important part of the developmental reading experience and should not be seen as ‘dumbing down’.

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