I’m an adult with a serious reading habit. I read widely; I prefer Gothic novels and literary adventures (books about books), but a cereal box will do in a pinch. Today, however, in honour of Picture Book Month, I will count the reasons I love the picture book.
I regularly read picture books. I can’t help myself. When I pass a bookstore or browse in a library, I never skip the children’s section. How can anyone resist the rich colour, the flights of imagination, and the simple playfulness?
I’m happy to report I also have a legitimate excuse to savour picture books. Every week I read to Ty,* a thirteen-year-old boy in foster care. This arrangement is part of a literacy-based mentoring program called The Pyjama Foundation’s Love of Learning. Because of the disruptions and trauma in their early childhood, many fostered children display severely delayed language and reading skills. The aim of the program is to remediate some of these deficits through regular, fun exposure to books.
Each week, in my Pyjama Angel role, I take a pile of carefully selected picture books to read to Ty. Although he’s thirteen, such are his learning difficulties and delays that books intended for the very young are appropriate. For example, Green Eggs and Ham was a challenge for him to read.
Early in our mentorship, I took Ty to the library and asked him to pick out books that he wanted to read. I did this to make sure I was matching his interests and levels. The first book he selected was something like My Yellow Blankie, a book aimed at toddlers.
I was (quietly) shocked. I’d been picking boys’ interest titles–all rough-and-tumble and cheekiness. Ty’s selection clearly showed that his needs were broader than remedial reading. So, with that in mind, I pitched things younger, much younger, for a few months. We read beautiful picture books about bedtime and puppies and puddles.
The next library trip showed a sign of advancement: He chose older stories that alluded to fairy tales, Goldilocks, for example. The trouble was, Ty missed the humour of the books because he didn’t know common stories. Goldilocks was just some blonde girl with a strange name. Sadly, The Gingerbread Man and Jack and the Beanstalk were not a part of his cultural knowledge.
My goal became clear. I found some gorgeously illustrated, simply told fairy tales and started filling in the holes.
In the 15 months we’ve been reading picture books together, Ty’s reading and speech have improved slowly. The first reading of Green Eggs and Ham took nearly an hour. He can read it now in under fifteen minutes. But, the thing I’m most chuffed about is that he is now familiar with well-loved childhood stories. Such knowledge opens up the world in new ways. The movie Shrek, with its multitude of literary allusions, makes a lot more sense to Ty now.
Among picture books, Where the Wild Things Are and Curious George are his favourites at the moment. And that’s how it should be. Every boy deserves to make mischief with Max and spend an afternoon getting out of trouble with George.
[Ty is not his real name.]