Despite last week’s prediction by the New York Times, the demise of the picture book is not yet upon us. At least not children’s picture books with Jewish themes! So many Jewish families continue to turn to picture books to learn about our religion, heritage and place in the world. A story like Engineer Ari and the Sukkah Express will likely have pictures of a lulav and etrog; Rosh Hashanah stories like The Secret Shofar of Barcelona may feature a shofar. A Hanukkah story may feature a menorah or dreidel and show how families and groups use them in their celebrations. Without pictures, these stories would be accessible only to children and families who know what these items are and are already familiar with them. Picture books continue to open new worlds to both children and parents, especially those dealing with the rich diversity of the Jewish experience.
Illustrations can add subtlety to the story experience and can teach important lessons beyond the words of the tale. An illustration of a seder that just happens to includes two men with a child in a highchair between them, a main character who is portrayed wearing glasses and is still the most popular in the class (no mention of the glasses in the narrative), a synagogue scene with multi-cultural faces, or an illustration of a classroom that happens to include a child in a wheelchair are subtleties that might make an important statement or create a teachable moment. Without art, these subtleties would all be lost.
While chapter books are wonderful and have a purpose in a child's reading progress, sometimes it’s only through a picture book that a child can come to truly understand a story. Certainly some parents will continue to push their preschoolers to read chapter books in the race to succeed, but those parents are doing their children a disservice, depriving them of some rich cultural learning experiences.
Artwork from Abraham's Search for God, illustrated by Natascia Ugliano.