While some people’s favorite college professors were taking their classes through Dostoyevsky or Dante, my favorite professor was reading us Mem Fox and Patricia Polacco. And more writers of their kind: authors of some of the finest children’s picture books around.
The course was “Teaching Reading” for elementary education majors, and the professor, a retired first grade teacher, began each class with a read-aloud. Twenty college juniors sat in a semi-circle, leaning into Mrs. Kines’ lilting voice and the lovely pictures she held up for everyone to see.
Maybe it sounds childish. Maybe a lesser professor would think that reading picture books to college students would insult our intelligence, or waste valuable class time when we could be studying advanced educational theories and techniques. But we weren’t insulted; we were captivated. Those ten minutes at the beginning of Mrs. Kines’ class impacted my life more than any of the hundreds of undergraduate hours I trudged through lectures, labs, and textbooks.
“Enthusiasm for reading is caught, not taught,” Mrs. Kines would say, and then she proved it. She loved picture books, and she didn’t try to teach us to love them. She simply shared her favorites with us, and we came to love them, too. Each title she read earned a special place in my heart, not only because of the beautiful stories and pictures, but because, in her gentle and caring way, Mrs. Kines had forever linked those books with feelings of warmth and comfort and simplicity. Feelings that transported my grown-up-too-soon heart back to childhood.
That year, at age 20, I asked for picture books for Christmas. I wanted to begin a collection of my own.
Though I never taught primary grades like Mrs. Kines had, hundreds of eyes beheld the pages of that collection. Even if some people thought the grades I taught were “too old” for picture books, I didn’t. If I loved being read to as a young adult, why couldn’t I use picture books for any age? I read them to fifth, sixth, and seventh graders in my reading classes. I read them to underprivileged kids and kids who seemed to have everything; to learning disabled children and children in the “gifted” program. I read them to high schoolers on youth group retreats. And the reaction was always the same: total, enraptured attention. The same way we listened to Mrs. Kines.
It’s been twenty years since I sat in Mrs. Kines’ class, and I’m not a classroom teacher anymore, but her legacy still lives. This past week, I settled into our living room couch with my children and opened Patricia Polacco’s “Pink and Say,” a deeply moving book about the friendship of two young soldiers during the Civil War. By the end, I could hardly speak through my tears, and my children watched me gulp and struggle to get through the final pages aloud.
Days before that, we had laughed, as we always do, at the marvelously clever ways the animals trick Lion in Verna Aardema’s retelling of the African folk tale, “Rabbit Makes a Monkey of Lion.”
Those books are just a tiny fraction of the picture book collection I began that long-ago Christmas. In the home I share with my husband and our children, the bookshelves hold some of our greatest treasures. We add favorite books on every birthday, each Christmas, and as often as we can in between. Each week, we visit the library to find new and forgotten gems. When our children discover a book they once loved hiding on the shelf, their faces light up as if they’re seeing a beloved old friend.
And, in a way, they are: these books live in us, bring life to us, much in the way special friendships do. Some are ancient and wise, while others are young and energetic; some make our hearts ache with sadness, while others lift our hearts with laughter. In the end, they are a lens through which all of us can look at life, at its joys and sorrows and everything in between; and though the image is simple enough for young eyes to see, it is also lovely enough to last a lifetime.
Of course, that’s not to say that every picture book on the library shelves holds this gift. Sometimes we will sift through a hundred titles before finding that special one, that one that perfectly blends the art of storytelling, the loveliness of language, and the beauty of artwork, to become more than an average children’s book. There are many imitation pearls, and indeed, every person will have his own idea of what a fine pearl should look like. But that search only adds to the thrill when we stumble upon a real one.
That’s also not to say that we read picture books and only picture books. Over the years, our family has built lasting friendships with Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, George MacDonald, and many more chapter book authors. But we don’t intend to leave picture books behind, for to us, they aren’t merely stepping stones on the path to more advanced literature. Rather, picture books have their own unique gift to offer all of us, when we keep their treasures alive.
When we dust off Mem Fox’s “Koala Lou” and hug our children close, telling them, along with Koala Lou’s mother, “I DO love you!”—
When a teenager gets misty-eyed listening to Tomie de Paola’s “Now One Foot, Now the Other,” empathizing with the boy in the story as he struggles to understand his grandfather’s stroke—
When the oldest child sits her youngest brother on her lap and reads to him, for the first time, the favorite book her mother read to her a hundred times before—
When a child visits his grandparents and pulls from the shelves, for his nightly read-aloud, a book his grandfather used to read to his dad when he was growing up—
When these things happen, we’re not just “reading books.” We’re connecting generations. We’re building bonds of love. And, I believe, we’re doing what Jesus asked of us.
“Unless you turn and become like children,” Jesus says in Matthew 18:3, “you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” This, I believe, is the heart of the unique gift, the treasure that our most beloved picture books have to offer. They let us become like children. They enfold us in simplicity and wrap us in warmth and comfort. When we read them together, they spread over us a blanket of love.
We may grow older, but we’re never too old for picture books. They are your story and mine, our parents’ and our children’s, living in our homes and in our hearts, awakening the child within and reminding us that the Gospel imperative to “become like children” might—when we’re standing near a book shelf—be just within arm’s reach.