Expert: Picture Books Do Still Work for Kids

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A growing number of parents and schools across the country, according to a recent article in The New York Times, are pushing young children away from picture books and toward chapter books in the hope that challenging them early will help them perform better in the increasingly competitive environment.

But Dr. Deborah Pope, executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, a non-profit founded by the award-winning picture book author and illustrator, says, "Where's the joy?"

Pope, a leader in the field of arts and education, cautions that such thinking on the part of parents may backfire.

"If a parent pushes a child through their developmental stages too quickly, the child often ends up frustrated and behind later on," she said. "What's sadder is that they miss out on something they can never get back -- their childhood."

She added, "Picture books nurture a child's ability to conceptualize. At this early stage, they're learning to connect the dots -- following the events of a story from beginning to end and linking images with words to develop the mind's eye. Armed with this experience, they'll eventually make an easy leap to more text-heavy chapter books."

So, with the holiday season fast-approaching, Pope offered advice for parents on choosing the right book for their children:

How does Susie learn best?

If your child is an auditory learner, she may be more drawn to a picture book filled with alliteration and rhyming, while a visual learner may respond more to vivid pictures and detailed descriptions, and a tactile learner may prefer books loaded with texture and pop-ups. The point is to ignite your child's desire to read by choosing books that tap into whatever learning style they seem to favor.

Choose a main character that will inspire your child. Fly a plane? Sure. Become a veterinarian? Absolutely. Design a green building? Why not! Picture books are designed to open a child's eyes to a world of possibilities. Many of the central characters in Keats' books, for example, are kids from the inner city who, in the storyline, inspire those around them and see beauty in everyday things.

Don't judge. "If your child will only read picture books about dogs or monsters, don't shy away from getting yet another one for the holidays. "What's most important is that they like to read," said Pope, who promises that they'll eventually gravitate toward other topics."

Do YOU like the book? Pope encourages adults to choose books that resonate with them in some way.

"If you don't like the book, chances are your child won't either," Pope said. "Your facial expressions, the intonation in your voice, the questions you ask your child about the story are all part of the equation. The more you respond to the book, the more meaningful the connection."

Will Oliver have nightmares? Just because a picture book is a bestseller doesn't mean that it's right for your child or right for them at this moment in time. Is Laura really ready to hear a story about death and dying? Will a mystery that takes place in a haunted house give Oliver nightmares? Will William be afraid to go to school if he hears a story about bullying?

Pope recommends that parents or guardians screen a new book before reading it to their child.

Pope says her message to parents is to lighten up. If Sara doesn't want to read every now and again, no worries. And if your 8-year old goes back to a treasured picture book, let him. Picture books are a touchstone for many -- supplying a foundation, adding a measure of comfort and making the reader feel good. She says the point is  college is more than a few years away, and the best thing you can give your child is a lifelong love of reading.

Dr. Deborah Pope has served as executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation since 1999 and been a member of the Board of Directors since 1983.

After receiving her Bachelors degree in 1973 from the State University of New York at Purchase, Deborah went on to complete her Ph.D. in 2002 at the Graduate School of the City University of New York.

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