Sharing Picture Books to Make Meaning
The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.
– Muriel Rukeyser
Rabbits and owls happen to be two of E’s favorite animals so when we read a story about a friendship between them, we were both eager for the tale. The good friends built their homes next door to one another but Owl couldn’t see out over Rabbit’s vegetable garden. So Owl built a taller house. But Rabbit decided he wanted his home to be the tallest. They built and built to touch the sky until both houses fell down. Did they rebuild? Were they able to remain friends? You’ll have to read “Two Tall Houses” with your own children to find out. “That reminds me of Jonathan and me,” said my son. “When I talk about my toys, he always says his are bigger and better.” And another interesting door to dialogue is opened between my son and me through the story we read together.
“Children’s ability to learn reading comprehension is inextricably linked to their ability to work together and to bring values like responsibility, respect, fairness, caring and helpfulness to bear on their own behavior and interactions.” write the authors of Making Meaning, an evidence based literacy curriculum. Making meaning of text also involves understanding our own identity and emotions and our place in the world. Sharing books with children can be one of the richest and simplest ways we, as parents, can discuss social issues, create conversations around social and emotional themes and ultimately participate in our children’s moral development.
When you go to the library or bookstore to find stories, look for key words that can clue you into the themes without requiring a thorough read-through such as friendship, loyalty, trust, feelings and courage. Often children are drawn to books with characters that they see on television and in the media and some do offer compelling stories that can insight dialogue. But try and mix in your own selection of stories you know will bring up key issues your child may be working on developmentally. Maybe your child is struggling with kids who act aggressively on the playground. Local librarians can do wonders in finding just the book for you that will address that theme so take advantage of the free resource.
There are far too many picture books in children’s literature to recommend but I will place below some of the favorites in our household organized by the five areas of social and emotional competencies. Check these out or begin to pay attention on your next trip to the library to those books that will instigate the most interesting conversations with your children.
In My Heart; A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek, Illustrated by Christine Roussey
A girl explores the feelings of her heart and describes what she feels when she is happy, calm, brave, hurt, angry, sad, hopeful, afraid, silly, shy and proud. This is a perfect book to introduce a conversation about emotions and the purpose they serve as clues to who we are. There is no shame or guilt in feeling any of these emotions. They are all equally a part of this girl’s heart as they are a part of ours.
How does she describe how she feels when she is brave? Afraid? Shy? Hopeful?
How would you describe yourself when you feel those emotions?
How do your feelings help you?
Are there times when you don’t know what you are feeling? How do you discover what you are feeling?
Mouse Was Mad by Linda Urban, Illustrated by Henry Cole
This is a hilarious book about a mouse who gets critiqued about the ways he is expressing his anger until he finds his own way to cool down that impresses all of the other animals. This is an excellent book to discuss and learn about the ways to manage anger.
What are the different ways Mouse expressed his anger?
How did the other animals respond?
What did Mouse do to impress the other animals?
Were they able to do what Mouse did?
What happened when Mouse tried standing still and breathing?
How do you act when you feel mad?
What makes you feel better?
Are there things Mouse did that you might try?
Don’t Be Afraid, Little Pip by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman
Little Pip has been told he will learn to swim with all of the other penguins his age. He is scared of swimming and his interest in flying becomes the excuse for not learning to swim. When he accidentally falls into the water, he learns to swim and overcomes his fear with the support of a friend.
What is Little Pip afraid of and why?
Do you ever feel scared? Of what and why?
What does Little Pip do when the others are learning to swim?
How does he learn to swim and overcome his fear?
Have you tried something you are scared of? What helped you?
Self and Social Awareness
The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler, Illustrated by David Lee Cscicsko
Race and skin color can be a challenging subject to bring up with our children though so important. This book can help! It describes the beauty of a variety of skin tones using dessert imagery. Then, it moves beyond skin color to talk about all of the qualities that make a person unique – their imagination, their hopes and dreams.
Do you notice difference skin tones? What are the varieties of colors?
How does the book describe the different colors?
How would you describe your own skin color?
How would you describe the skin color of your best friend?
What does the book say skin is not?
What makes up you unique beyond your skin?
Who’s In My Family? All About Our Families by Robie Harris, Illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott
A family takes a trip to the zoo and notes all of the different make-ups of human and animal families. It discusses how different families eat a variety of foods and live in varying environments. There are multiracial families, single sex couples, adopted children and stepparents. It makes the point that it’s normal to have all sorts of different kinds of families and family members.
What were differences you noticed in the families in the book from our family?
Were there families or people represented that were new to you?
What different kinds of families to do you know?
What were the common elements of families that you noticed?
Children Around the World by Donata Montanari
This book introduces individual children from many different corners of the world starting with Emilio from the Philippines and ending with Rosa from Boliva. Read about their experiences in their countries, where they live and what they do each day.
How are children around the world like you?
How are children around the world different?
What surprised you?
What do you appreciate about where you live?
Which places and people would you most like to experience?
A Pocket Full of Kisses by Audrey Penn, Illustrated by Barbara Leonard Gibson
This is an excellent book for siblings or with only children who feel envious when their parents share their attention with other children. Big brother Raccoon struggles with his younger brother’s need for attention. Mama Raccoon is able to explain, using each of her paws and the sun’s rays, that there is plenty of love for both and between the brothers too.
Why is big brother Raccoon so upset?
When have you felt that way?
What happens when Mama Raccoon gives love to the younger brother?
What does big brother Raccoon discover about his mother’s ability to love him and his younger brother?
How much love do you feel is there for you and your siblings?
What can you do if I am giving your sibling love and attention and you are feeling sad about it?
Too Tall Houses by Gianna Marino
Friends Rabbit and Owl build their homes next door to each other. But when one feels the other’s house is bigger, the other starts building his own. A competition ensues to build the tallest house. In the midst of their building frenzy, both houses collapse and they must consider what to do next. They find that their best solution is to rebuild one home to share together.
What kind of relationship do Owl and Rabbit have?
What happens to their relationship as they both try to build the tallest house? How are they feeling?
What happens to change their minds about building the tallest houses?
When their houses collapse, what do they decide to do?
How do you think they will get along in the future?
Do you ever want to do something better than your friends? What do you want to do?
How do you feel when you compete?
How do you feel when you work together?
The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney
This is a particularly interesting “read” with a child since there are no words – only illustrations. Give your child the opportunity to narrate the story and see how they advance the events and interpret the pictures. A lion spares a mouse by not eating him when he encounters him. The mouse promises to help him one day. The lion laughs off his offer figuring he is too small to contribute. But when the lion gets caught in a hunter’s net, the mouse chews the rope and sets him free.
What do think the lion thought of the mouse before he saved him?
What happened to the lion?
What choices did the mouse have when he heard the lion cry?
Why did he make the choice to help him?
Have you ever made a choice that scared you but you did it anyway? Why did you do it?
What do you think the lion felt when he was set free by the mouse?
The Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
This delightful rhyming tale is about the unlikely friendship and adventures of a snail and whale. When the whale’s life is threatened, the tiny snail uses a unique attribute to attract attention and enlist help to save the whale.
Why do you think the snail went with the whale when all his friends stayed behind?
What was he feeling as he rode on the tail of the whale?
What event put the whale in danger?
How did the snail decide to help him? What other choices could he have made?
What would have happened had the snail chosen not to help him or felt he was too small to do anything?
Could you imagine saving something so large? What would you do if you had the chance to save the whale?
Reading pictures books with your children can deepen your connection with one another. The experience can bring up topics that may not typically enter your daily conversations but are fundamental to understanding oneself and each other. Enjoy tales and explore open-ended questions together to enrich your awareness and understanding.
What are your favorite picture books?
For a related article, check out: