In Praise of Picture Books

I love a good children’s picture book. The gorgeous illustrations, silly jokes, catchy rhymes, poignant endings… what’s not to love? Truth be told, I’d probably rather buy a beautifully illustrated picture book than a new pair of shoes. Children’s picture books have evolved into an art form in their own right, and enjoying them with our children is one my favourite parts of being a parent.

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An illustration of childhood memories by Rebecca Cobb in Julia Donaldson’s The Paper Dolls.

A great illustrated story is a priceless treasure; a journey into new worlds and ideas, a gentle way to learn important life lessons, a visual and aural feast for the imagination. It’s such an instinctive, natural way to develop language skills and amass a growing collection of shared experiences which linger long after the stories have been read. It only takes a familiar word or phrase to trigger off a “story-memory”, and the girls will gleefully start spouting whole chunks from their favourite read-alouds.

With the girls quickly growing up, as they do, I recently noticed that some of our older, much-loved picture books have been gathering dust – and we’ve been making a point of rediscovering them! So we decided to make our blog readers a list of the Chu girls favourite picture books because, in the endless sea of children’s literature, I’ve always found other people’s recommendations useful myself.

Favourite early years books

In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf.” I think this will be forever etched in my memory.

The Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle wins hands down for this category. When they were little, the girls could not get enough of putting their little fingers through those punched holes and delighted in flapping the “beautiful butterfly” around at the end. We had fun trying to memorise the ten treats eaten on Saturday. We even turned it into a puppet show for Little Miss’ 2nd birthday.

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Our DIY Hungry Caterpillar puppet show!

Other early favourites include Dear Zoo (Rod Campbell), Knuffle Bunny (Mo Willems) and Monkey & Me (Emily Gravett).

Favourite illustrator

I think illustrations are at least as important as the text, and sometimes more so, when it comes to children’s storytelling. The pictures shed much light on the meaning of words, and provide a lot of the context and humour. Even though I’ve long-forgotten the stories, I can still vividly recall the illustrations from many of my childhood books.

We can’t pick a favourite! Maybe it depends on whether you lean towards comic genius or painterly gorgeousness… Oliver Jeffers is wonderful at both; he manages to put so much expression and humour into his vibrant watercolours, using a restrained palette and simple figures really effectively. How to Catch a Star is a long-time favourite in the Chu household, as are The Way Back Home and Lost and Found.

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Love Oliver Jeffers illustrations…

But we also love Quentin Blake, Eric Carle, Mo Willems, Emily Gravett, David Roberts, Lucy Cousins, Rebecca Cobb…

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Also love this depiction of the Isle of Blowyernose by David Roberts

Favourite Julia Donaldson book(s)

Having lived in Scotland for the entire part of their early childhood, Julia Donaldson, Queen of Rhyming Stories, probably dominates their collection of picture books – and so deserves her own category. It’s impossible to pick a favourite, but our most-read Julia Donaldsons are Monkey Puzzle, The Paper Dolls and Superworm.

Daddy’s favourite is A Squash and a Squeeze. Mine is Jack and the Flum Flum Tree.

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Both kids loved making Paper Dolls to play with after reading the book!

The girls have also loved watching many of these stories on stage and we are glad we saw quite a few at the Edinburgh Fringe before moving to Singapore… the ticket prices are so expensive here!

Favourite audio book

If you’re finding yourself tiring of reading that story for the hundredth time, it’s probably worth downloading the audio book. They are especially good for car journeys! Julia Donaldson dominated this category for a while, with Tiddler and Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book being the most-requested. But having discovered Nosy Crow’s (free!) Stories Aloud podcasts a couple of years ago, Princess Daisy and the Dragon and the Nincompoop Knights by Steven Lenton is now their top choice. The giggle over it every time and love doing the voice impressions.

Not far behind are Nosy Crow’s The Princess and the Presents and The Princess and the Peas.

We have definitely noticed that audio books have a way of embedding themselves into your long-term memory. We can all quote substantial chunks of these stories now…

Books that Daddy and Mama Chu don’t get… but the kids adore

We’re Going On a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen – I know, it’s a children’s classic – but neither Daddy Chu nor I thought much of it after the first couple of reads. It must be something about the repetitive structure and rhythm that makes it so appealing to kids as they kept asking for it over and over, despite our initial reluctance.

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The Tiger Who Came for Tea by Judith Kerr – another classic, but surely the most unsatisfying ending ever to a very odd little story? It’s still a mystery to me why they liked this one!

Best for acting out

We’re Going On a Bear Hunt – again! I guess it grew on us after a while. The kids really enjoyed making the sound effects that go with each stage of the journey and love pretending to run away screaming from the bear at the end. So much so that we used it as the theme for Little Miss’ 3rd birthday party!

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Re-enacting the “big dark forest” and the “swirling whirling snowstorm!” Sorry for the terrible photos;  I was trying to find ones which didn’t show other people’s kids too clearly!

The Lamb Who Came for Dinner by Steve Smallman also gets a special mention here. We got this one after hearing it on CBeebies Bedtime Stories and it definitely makes it to our most-requested list. The girls always wanted to be “the little lamb” and inevitably Daddy Chu or I had to be the wolf. Their favourite bit is when we have to try to cure them of the hiccups.

Most memorable library book we didn’t end up buying

Many of our book purchases are ones we first borrowed from the library and didn’t want to give back. Tadpole’s Promise by Jeanne Willis is a hilarious read, but essentially a one-liner joke that you can only tell once. It is enduringly memorable – if only for the look on Miss Chu’s face when she got to the last page. Go borrow this if you haven’t yet!

Best Scottish book

A big thank you to our old friend and neighbour in Edinburgh who sent this over after we had left for Singapore – There Was a Wee Lassie Who Swallowed a Midgie by Rebecca Colby is a firm favourite around here and has been almost entirely memorised. It’s a humourous take on the classic rhyme : There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly, wonderfully substituted with Scottish wildlife. A charming premise for a picture book.

Also a special mention to the Hairy Maclary series, which enjoyed a good run here when the kids were younger!

Favourite series

Both girls loved Maisy books – Lucy Cousin’s bright child-like drawings and simple text are very appealing and we have collections in both English and Mandarin! Maisy Big Maisy Small is also one of Little Miss’ most-cherished toddler books.

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The Little Miss Complete Collection by Roger Hargreaves (a fifty-book gift set) was a surprise gem. These books are short and sweet, great for travel, and get read over and over, not just by our kids but by their friends too – boys, girls, preschoolers, primary-schoolers…everyone!

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Miss Chu has also enjoyed her Beatrix Potter collection and The Kingdom of Wrenly series by Jordan Quinn – which offer a great transition between picture books and chapter books.

Beyond picture books…?

Just yesterday, a friend asked me for book suggestions to make the leap between picture books and chapter books. Despite a trend to move kids onto text-heavy chapter books earlier and earlier, I’d personally hold off, especially if your child is still a preschooler. Even though Miss Chu was a competent early reader, she still happily reads large picture books, even now. Picture books vary widely in terms of language and complexity – many have reasonably sophisticated and challenging language anyway, as they are primarily written for adults to read aloud. I find them preferable to a lot of the “early reader” books, which tend to lack the poetry and wit of a good picture book. Picture books are also short enough to be read many times over, and I think children benefit from that.

I’ve tried to photograph a few of our picture books here, showing an increasing range of complexity from the simple toddler ones through to our longer illustrated stories.

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My recommendation for moving on would just be to seek out progressively longer, more challenging picture books, which are still gorgeously illustrated on every page. Fairy tale anthologies, fables and short story collections often fit the bill.

Mixing in non-fiction, poetry, simple biographies and the like can offer a broader range of ideas and vocabulary beyond the usual fare of animals, princesses and pirates.

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Lots of non-fiction books are beautifully illustrated too!

Alongside these, we do read chapter books together. Sometimes, I get Miss Chu to read alternate pages with me.

Then there are the (less lusciously) illustrated simple chapter books, still with pictures on every page – some in colour, like the Claude series by Alex T. Smith (Miss Chu didn’t take to these) and Dixie O’ Day by Shirley Hughes (haven’t really tried these), and some in black and white, like The Kingdom of Wrenly series mentioned earlier, which Miss Chu loves, and Little Miss will often listen to.

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Fully illustrated chapter books like Dixie O’ Day and The Kingdom of Wrenly series can be a good bridge between picture books and chapter books.

As for the chapter books with few illustrations, well – she still prefers me to read these to her! So we’ve been gradually getting through some of my own childhood favourites together – Roald Dahls, Enid Blytons and the Ramona series by Beverly Clearly.

It takes a bit of work to hunt down well-written stories your children can connect with. I still trawl the library shelves selecting books for Miss Chu, even though she is very capable of choosing her own, because kids rarely go for stuff outside their comfort zone. But by choosing together, reading together and talking together, I gain a lot of insight into their thoughts and interests.

The most important thing is to keep a love of reading alive. So many studies show that reading for pleasure has great benefit but is also on the decline amongst schoolchildren today, especially in a world of digital distraction. So I plan on reading to my kids as long as they’ll let me! I’m also starting a new storytelling gig at Miss Chu’s school library this week…so better stop writing now and head off to choose some thing fun to read!

The Chu girls would also love to hear any of your favourite book recommendations in the comments ?. Happy reading!

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