Why Picture Books Are Important

Two years ago, I taught an ELL (English-language learners) class to seven Somali students ranging in age from six to ten-years-old. The students had only lived in the United States for several months. In the beginning of each class, we sat on the floor and I read a picture book. On this particular day, I chose David Small’s Imogene’s Antlers, which begins, “On Thursday, when Imogene woke up, she found she had grown antlers.”

All the students leaned toward the book in surprise. A few students widened their eyes. A couple students laughed. One ten-year-old girl who I’ll call Hani said, “What?” She touched the page. She laughed. She smiled. As I continued to read, the students inched in closer and closer. Afterward, by pointing out some of Small’s lively illustrations and using the language they had already learned, the students discussed how Imogene, the kitchen maid, and the cook accepted and embraced Imogene’s dilemma, but Imogene’s mother and the principal did not. After completing an activity, the students had free time on the computers. Hani asked for the book. Using it as a guide, she found the “Reading Rainbow” episode that features Imogene’s Antlers. She put on her headphones, sat back, laughed, and smiled. For the remainder of class, she watched the episode over and over again. Hani had traveled 8,000 miles from Somalia to Minnesota where she was expected to learn a new language, become educated, and fit in at a new school. Hani understood, laughed, found meaning, and perhaps found herself in a picture book about a child who accepts being different—and embraces it—even when she’s challenged. While increasing a child’s language and visual literacy skills, picture books broaden a child’s world and provide a place for human connection and understanding.