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Picture Books Are for You, Too!

Category: Way of Living – Literacy

Date: April 6, 2021

Pernille Ripp, a teacher, author and educational advocate,  joined us for a conversation about the robust merits of picture books for readers of every age. She invited us to start over our reading lives by seeking the books that satisfy our interests and curiosities – centering our own joy and experiences so we can reclaim our identity as readers. She considers it her mission to help picture books garner the respect they deserve – recognizing the power within images, across mediums and fields.

Ultimately, we should all be paying more attention to picture books.

The Wonderful Complexity of Picture Books

Looking at research, the brain processes involved in reading anything with images are highly sophisticated. You need to access decoding and fluency strategies, while also decoding images to add an additional layer to your understanding.

Moreover, in terms of vocabulary, comic books were found to have had the highest rate of rare words, more than classic literature and even more than conversation. Beyond the sophisticated cognitive processes that visual literacy requires, readers are exposed to a wealth of advanced, novel, and nuanced vocabulary, endemic and often unique to these genres.

Picture books are not only challenging and pleasurable for children, but a fantastic avenue for adults to strengthen their visual literacy, enrich their own reading lives, and deepen their understanding of self. It is absurd that we culturally denigrate books with images, as individuals of every age become increasingly deft with using visuals in our personal and professional communication on social media, text messages, and throughout our work. 

Read What You Love

We place so many obstacles in front of young readers – teachers discouraging the reading of picture books, parents in bookstores who try to redirect their children away from anything with images, larger cultural messaging that diminishes the graphic novel genre and dismisses the enormous value and rigor required of visual literacy. Children receive the message that only specific books are “literature” or worthwhile to read. Many kids, because what they love to read is discouraged or frowned upon, are never allowed to find themselves as readers, and likewise, adults lose sight of who they are as readers because they abandoned the reading that brought them joy and delight in favor of what one “should” be reading.

If children are given the space to read what they love, research has shown that they graduate to more challenging books. Like adults, children go through phases in what they enjoy reading. As adults, you can support children in discovering their reading identity and protecting it, and you can also model the practice of reading the genres that you truly love.

Picture Books As a Teaching Tool

Pernille shared a deep belief in the instructional and edifying power within picture books, including graphic novels and comic books. She uses them throughout her instruction, including non-fiction texts to delve into historical moments, and consistently encourages her 7th grade students to read them.

For educators, it is part of our responsibility to teach into how to appreciate and understand the new and heightened type of literacy that is visual literacy. It is essential that we make space for this teaching in our classrooms, as understanding, manipulating and creating visuals is an intrinsic part of being an adult, from communicating on instagram with friends to crafting a powerpoint presentation for clients. 

An Invitation to a Critical Conversation

Picture books offer a place to start when we need to have a larger, critical conversation about the world. They can help us focus on an overlooked part of history by anchoring our experience in the experience of another human via reading. They serve as a catalyst for conversations because readers can empathize and connect – children and adults don’t have to make the vulnerable leap to offering personal information. The character in the book has already shared the experience or thoughts that makes them feel vulnerable, so it makes openness and honesty feel safe.

Particularly after this past year, engaging in these critical conversations with both children and adults is urgent. Picture books can facilitate discussions about race, history, gender, power, and identities, while also enabling the self-reflection necessary to gently interrogate our understanding of ourselves, the world, and how the systems and structures within the world impact this conception of self.

Ultimately, picture books can expand our understanding of what it means to be human. It’s important to expose children and adults to a large variety of experiences, and these books serve as a reminder of what humanity looks like. They can help people to reconnect and/or reconsider their understanding of what it means to be a human in the world. 

Pernille’s Book Recommendations

Sylvia and Marsha Start a Revolution! – Introduces readers to the life of two transgender activists, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, who dedicated their lives to fighting for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. This book helps foster a conversation about their roles in history, and how you can become an activist even when you don’t feel like you should be the one to change the world. A highlight of the ordinary people who become extraordinary.

Call Me Max – about Max, a child who was assigned at birth as a girl, but identifies as a boy.  An excellent introduction to the transgender identity. It is age-appropriate for little kids, but still engaging for older kids. A story about who Max really is as an individual. Books that represent marginalized identities and support them make an incredible difference for transgender children, in both the home and at school. 

Our Favorite Day of the YearEach child talks about their special, perfect day of the year, so the reader gets to learn about a variety of different holidays and celebrations in which people participate. There is a wide breadth of representation within this book. It can inspire a conversation amongst students to talk about what they celebrate, and it can be used with adults for community-building purposes.

I Can Write the World  – A student learns about how the media depicts her neighborhood, and finds their representation of it to be untrue to her experience. Others see her neighborhood through a deficit lens. She decides to become a journalist and shares her truth about the culture, community and vibrancy within her neighborhood. This book provides an opportunity to start a conversation about how neighborhoods and populations are depicted, and how we need to interrogate our own cognitive biases. It provides an invitation to discuss how people may view you and how you can push against those views.

We Are Still Here! – a follow up to We Are Grateful. Native American students present 12 truths about their history – the forced assimilation, relocation, civil rights, cultural persistence, and more. It also talks about the Indigenous populations in the present, highlighting that the Indigenous communities are still here. Despite systemic oppression and a history of brutality levied against them, they are still here, fighting against the same recurring injustices. 

Fatima’s Great Outdoors – An immigrant family goes out on a camping trip. They share what this trip means to them as a family, while also recognizing their immigration status in the U.S. A book that centers conversations about communities of color in joyful representation.

Laxmi’s MoochAbout an Indian American girl and how she feels about the hair growing above her lip. It’s a book that challenges beauty norms and evokes reflection about what we consider to be “normal” and how it can be weaponized against girls, and particularly girls of color. The book can begin a conversation about how and what we are self-conscious about our body and how we can instead embrace that part of ourselves. 

More Than Fluff – Everyone loves Daisy, a chick, because she’s so fluffy. Everyone wants to hug and snuggle her, but she doesn’t want that. This book introduces important ideas about consent, personal space, boundaries, and self-advocacy to young readers in an accessible, age-appropriate way.

Don’t Touch My Hair – A girl of color has to deal with people wanting to touch her curls. This book is a wonderful starting place for a conversation about microaggressions, what consent means, and how to give it to others. 

Katie Has Two Grampas – Another wonderful LGBTQ+ book that finally has a same sex couple that is older. The narrative focus of the book is on Katie’s lisp and her teacher misunderstanding her when she says that she has two grandpas. Another book that centers a joyful representation of this beautiful family.  

Wishes – Will be available this Summer. It is about a Vietnamese family and their wishes as they flee their home. Perfect for a classroom discussion of ideas about U.S. policy regarding the global refugee crisis. It provides the opportunity for students to consider why anyone would want to leave their homeland and how difficult it would be to leave behind all their possessions.

In My Mosque – A celebration of the traditions that can be found in a mosque. A book which helps to tear down existing misconceptions about the Muslim community. Pernille uses this book to expose her students to people who practice Islam, via the characters. It offers the reader a chance to connect to another story, an experience they are not familiar with, and it contributes to the normalization of other lives and experiences. 

To-Do List

  • Interrogate your own reading habits and biases. Question why you may see less value in a graphic novel than a chapter book. Work towards the realization that all reading has value.
  • Give yourself the time to truly “sink into” a graphic novel. There is no rush, and understanding these texts takes time and focus. Reading images is its own skill, but it is richly rewarding once developed.
  • If looking for a graphic novel, picture book, etc., follow the topics that interest you and spark curiosity. (Don’t be afraid to traverse into the kids’ section in a bookstore.)
  • Speak up when someone disparages a picture book.
  • Unabashedly love the genres you love.
  • Advocate for kids to read whatever they enjoy.
  • If you have a classroom, encourage kids to read picture books, graphic novels, comics, etc. Emphasize that there is nothing shameful in reading these books.
  • To change the mind of a student’s grown up, invite them into your classroom and have them browse your books. Display them proudly so they can discover the topics that drive your classroom, from a dissection of racism and sexism to books that celebrate a diverse range of identities and experiences.
  • Allow a child to discover their individual reading identity, and then do everything you can as an adult to protect it.

Pernille ended with a call to stop underestimating the power within images to hook kids into reading and an appeal to adults to start over, by following your literacy passions and joy, so you can rediscover who you are as a reader.

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