How Picture Books Make Us Better People

Reading picture books - Pyragraph

Photo by Peri Pakroo.

As a kid I had one tall shelf in my bedroom (or at least, taller than me) of picture books and storybooks. Sometimes in the middle of a tantrum I’d knock over the shelf and let all the books fall to the floor. Afterwards my parents would make me put every book back on the shelf. Ever since, this “punishment” has become one of my fondest childhood memories.

My books were both a pleasure and comfort, and the act of returning each one to its place gave me the opportunity to revisit and rediscover them. One at a time, I’d re-explore Amos and Boris and Lyle The Crocodile and Babar the Elephant, and all my Little Golden Books with their gold foil-covered spines, no book left unopened before it was placed back on the shelf. I imagine it must have taken hours.

Unlike images we see on screens, books allow us the opportunity to linger.

It became a self-soothing ritual. A child’s rage is real rage, untempered by experience. And after all those intense emotions, like Micky from In The Night Kitchen falling into a giant bottle of milk, I was immersed in a big pile of the thing I loved most. For a six-year-old kid, the experience was intoxicating. I’m sure I staged more than one of these tantrums just so I could do it all over again.

These books were more than treasures. They were a part of my identity. There’s a concept in psychology called a “schema.” A child learns about dogs, and applies the same idea to the next furry four-legged animal they see. They might see a horse, and mistake the horse for some new variety of dog. The parent clarifies: No, this is a horse. A new category is established distinct from dog: horse. So each horse or image of a horse they see, and each dog or image of a dog is added to their schema for each respective concept.

Unlike images we see on screens, books allow us the opportunity to linger. A book is a unique container. Video images are interchangeable from device to device—they have no physical life—while the pictures in a book live inside that book and nowhere else. Every time we revisit the book these images further enrich our visual and conceptual vocabulary. That vocabulary broadens with every new image we are exposed to,  and so the images in these books become that much richer when we revisit them. And while these schema are still fresh and malleable, those first images can be the most powerful we experience.

But these images, as powerful as they are in themselves, are always—or almost always—in service of a story. And before we learn about our own stories, about how our own lives form a kind of narrative, we experience made-up stories. As we project ourselves onto them, these stories become biographical. When we see a mother, we think of our own mother. When we see a child our age we think of ourselves.

The characters in the earliest books we are exposed to contain our earliest connections to the idea of a world outside ourselves. Babar the elephant and Curious George are old friends. They were some of the first people we grew to know. They might not be real people, but they were some of our first ideas of people. It’s through fiction that we first learn to have a sense of empathy in the abstract. Empathy not just for people outside our circle, but people who are intangible. If you can empathize with the idea of a person, a person as a concept, then you can better empathize with the lives of real people whom you will never meet. It’s the difference between learning about someone who’s very different from you, and thinking, “They, and what they experience has nothing to do with me,” and thinking, “They are like me, and their experiences could be my experiences.”

Lingering on that page, taking our time to absorb what we’re seeing and what we’re reading, looking at a symbol for a person, a symbol for a human face, and seeing a reflection of ourselves when we’re just beginning to come to terms with the idea of a self, transforms us into our better selves. And whether we are aware of it or not, the stories of our childhoods will always live inside us and will always be a fundamental  part of who we are, even if they’re forgotten.

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About Jed Alexander

Jed Alexander grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania where he first discovered his love of books at his local public library. Jed went on to earn his degree in illustration at San Jose State University where he studied under veteran illustrators Barron Storey and John Clapp.

After working for more than ten years in the editorial field for such publications as LA WeeklyThe Sacramento News and Review, and The Santa Cruz Metro, Jed returned to his first love: Children’s literature. He has since done work for Nickelodeon and Cricket Magazine. He is currently represented by Abigail Samoun at Red Fox Literary. His first self-published book (Mostly) Wordless was financed by a successful fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.

He lives in Davis, California with his wife Regina, his best friend and favorite person in the world.

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