After 12 years of reading picture books to kids, these are some of my favourites. A good picture book is so perfectly written and edited it just feels natural. That is harder than it seems to accomplish and many authors and publishers miss the mark but the ones that do it well do it really well.
What is a picture book?
Picture books are usually between 24 and 32 pages and their large size makes it easy to spread out and read with a child tucked next to you or on your lap. From my perspective, they are easy to hold in one hand when you’re facing it forward to a group of children and the images are large and easy for kids in a group to see. The words are easy to read when looking from the side so you can read without having to move the book around a lot and so you can read it in front of you Storytime-style.
Picture books are meant to either be read aloud or flipped through by children who understand the story by exploring the pictures. The print often isn’t huge as it’s meant for the adults who are reading them. The images, though, are usually spectacular and that’s the part that the children connect with. They hear the story orally and connect with the pictures as they listen.
This oral way of delivering a story emphasizes when the words are written well … and when they aren’t. I cringe when I see picture books with large amounts of text filling a page. Not in all cases, but in many the text is over explaining and lacks the crucial rhythm and flow that make reading aloud so magica. A great picture book to read aloud has beautiful flow and a natural and engaging rhythm. Every word is chosen with precision with the reader and listener in mind.
Tips for reading aloud.
Reading aloud when you’re reading to children in your life (children, grandchildren, friends) is easier than reading to a critical group of toddlers or pre-schoolers in a storytime program. But even if you know the children some people worry that they don’t have a great voice or get nervous about the performance aspect of it. My biggest tip if this is intimidating to you is to just relax and read “with wonder” – meaning embrace the story. To a child that knows and loves you, your voice is already perfect. It makes them happy and gives them comfort. Don’t get stuck on trying too hard or trying to be perfect. Just slow down and embrace the wonder and the story. Play with some voices too. Try giving big creatures a lower voice and smaller creatures a higher voice. Don’t make it complicated. It should be fun for you too and if it’s not, the children will know right away.
The biggest thing is to slow down and play with the story. If you know there is a surprise coming, then maybe hold off on turning that page and build the suspense. Children love play, and books and stories are a big part of that. Play involves experimenting and trying new things.
Allow for questions about the story as you read. Books provide great opportunities to talk about relationships, emotions, morality, and even cultural details that are different than what the child experiences in their everyday life. There are picture books that are written to deal specifically with issues of diversity and life issues such as grief and loss, and behaviour issues like sharing or kindness.
Some of my favourite picture books to read aloud:
Here are some of my favourite pictures books to read to children. There are thousands or amazing picture books around and I’ll review more as I come across them, but these are my trusty standbys. They are all a little older but they have stood the test of time. I know the stories well and I can easily get into the voices.
The Book With No Pictures by BJ Novak (Dial Books, 2014) Ironically, the first picture book I’m going to recommend has no pictures! This is easily the most popular book I read to preschool, kindergarten, and even grade 1 and 2 kids. It’s so popular they request it when they walk in the door and I limit them to twice per year or I’d have to read it every week. This is a performance piece for readers. It’s the book I recommend all parents get their kids and read it to them. Must use voices! They never get tired of it!
The Pout Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen, illustrated by Dan Hanna (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008) There are lots of Pout Pout fish books now but the original, just titled “The Pout Pout Fish” is the best – you will need develop good voices!
Brontorina by James Howe, illustrated by Randy Cecil (Candlewick, 2013) This is a great one if your family likes dance but even if nobody dances, it’s a fantastically fun story about inclusion.
Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae, illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees (The Watts Publishing Group, 2001) This is a great book about individuality and self-expression.
The Wide Mouthed Frog (popup book) by Keith Faulkner, illustrated by Jonathan Faulkner (Dial Books, 1996) This is so much of a favourite for me that I’ve pretty much memorized it and it both read it to children and tell it to children. I love it! I have developed some good voices and the sense of surprise is fun to build up. Pop up books are a favourite of children but for the little toddlers they will destroy them. They are a great lesson on how to care for books but if they get destroyed, you just get another one. It’s worth it.
Don’t Push the Button by Bill Cotter, illustrated by Bill Cotter (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2013) There is a surprise on every page of this book and kids and adults have a lot of fun with it. It has some good reminders about cause and effect.
Fortunately, Unfortunately by Michael Foreman (Anderson Press, 2011) This is a really fun book with lots of adventure that really emphasizes how you can feel like all is lost but really you have the tools at hand to solve a problem. Plus there are pirates and aliens!
If You Give a Mouse A Cookie by Laura Numeroff, illustrated by Felicia Bond (Scholastic Paperbacks, 1988) There are several of these books but I like the original one the best. They are all excellent and lots of fun to read and to listen to.
Click Clack Moo: Cows that Type by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin (Athenium Books for Young Readers, 2000) This one never gets old. It’s all about negotiation tactics.
A Porcupine in a Pine Tree by Helaine Becker, illustrated by H. Werner Zimmerman (Scholastic, 2010) – This is the 12 Days Of Christmas Canadian Style. Each year I read this to any kid or group of kids I can find. If they’re older I break them into groups and let each take a part which makes it a lot of fun. I think it’s best Canadian Christmas book ever!
My first chapter book, The Spyders: Slither Me Timbers, will be out soon in print, ebook and audiobook.