As an ardent advocate for the joys and benefits of reading to children, I love to use books to explore issues of interest or concern to particular children. I don’t mean that I go looking for ‘let’s all share’ or ‘let’s be kind to our friends’ style overtly didactic picture books when children are arguing over toys. The quality of the book as art or literature is always first and foremost.
Using books to help children explore issues of concern is known as bibliotherapy. A key issue for me is whether taking this approach to sharing books with children compromises their enjoyment of literature for its own sake. For example, one of my own children was quite scared of dogs, due to some scary experiences as a toddler with neighbourhood dogs. I discovered “Big Dog” by Libby Gleeson, illustrated by Armin Greder, bought it, and took it home to read, feeling very pleased with myself. Here I had found a quality, award-winning picture book, with an interesting story and engaging illustrations. However the response I got was firstly “Don’t read that book, I don’t like it”, followed by a request for a Thomas the Tank Engine book. A few days later, I discovered “Big Dog” torn into many small pieces. So much for bibliotherapy.
However in spite of a failed attempt on this occasion, I have found countless times as a teacher and as a parent, that books can stimulate conversation and exploration of ideas with children and help with overcoming fears or understanding new and unfamiliar situations. Children can identify with the characters and situations in books, seeing similarities with their own lives as well as encountering different ways of viewing aspects of life and culture. The best books I think are those where messages are conveyed through story, character and images, not explicitly stated, but embedded so that children can think and interpret in their own ways.
Books by author/illustrators such as Anthony Browne, John Burningham, Pat Hutchins, Shirley Hughes are some of my favourites. There are of course many, many more wonderful authors and illustrators whose picture books engage children in journeys of imagination and understanding of their world.
All sorts of issues can be explored through picture books. Diversity in relation to culture, appearance or ability, family relationships, loss, death, illness, transitions, are just a few. And it’s wonderful to discover how the different creative imaginations of authors and illustrators can lead to an amazingly wide range of perspectives on a single issue.
For example, compare Bob Graham’s and Anthony Browne’s different takes on the advent of a new baby:
Which books have you shared with children that have helped them to come to terms with an issue of concern or come to a new understanding of an aspect of life?