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Author blog: Kate Cunningham explains why children are never too old for picture books

We are delighted to host a guest post by Kate Cunningham, author of Vlad and the Great Fire of London (available here) and Vlad and the First World War (available here).

In this blog post, Kate explains why children never reach the stage of being “too old” for picture books.


“You’re too old for that”

Why picture books are for every age

Telling a child that they are too old for a picture book is like telling them that they are too old for chocolate ice cream or computer games. When did life’s pleasures stop at 7 years old? In two short phrases the speaker has dismissed huge numbers of beautiful, exciting books, when choice is so critical to encouraging children to want to read.

Why clip their reading-wings at the exact moment that we want them to fly?

Personally I am amongst those who believe there is no age limit to reading a picture book (adults I am including you) and here are six reasons why older children should be actively encouraged to read picture books:


1. Many Coloured Days

As stated by Dr Seuss “Some days are yellow. Some days are blue. On different days I’m different too.We all have our different days and on some I’ve settled down to read Les Miserables or War and Peace (weighing-in either side of 600,000 words), but others are very definitely a short story, James Patterson BooksShot day. Likewise, checking my 9-year-old son’s book pile I found he had Sir Charlie Stinky Socks (Kristina Stephenson) and Green Eggs and Ham (Dr Seuss) sandwiched between Who Let the Gods Out (Maz Evans) and Wonder (RJ Palacio).


Whilst this is anecdotal there are many studies that show that beyond decoding the words, the biggest impact on a child’s reading is allowing them to choose what to read. The key is to find what interests them and gives them pleasure across a wide range of genres and formats. It does not matter if that is a comic, graphic novel, chapter book, picture book, newspaper or magazine. Removing one of the largest set of options only limits both their enjoyment and growth as a reader.

2. Tackling difficult topics in a comfortable way

I have often started a difficult conversation at home or in class with a book, and I was very grateful for Mummy Laid an Egg (Babette Cole) when the inevitable baby discussion arose with my sons. A story gives you something concrete to discuss and is often less threatening than jumping straight into explanations (for both the child and the adult). If the book you use is concise, accessible and clear you will progress to the core point much quicker than if you have to explain and analyse the structure and language first. There are many wonderful picture books that tackle very complex, emotive subjects such as The Journey (Francesca Sanna) on refugees, Henry’s Freedom Box (Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson) about slavery and Amazing Grace (Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch) for sexism and racism. Using picture books with older age groups allows you into the topic quickly; the reader is not struggling with the format of the book or the language, as these are already more familiar constructions.

3. Stimulating starting points

Picture books are great stimulation for new work at any age. The word count is smaller, and there are pictures so you have something to build on. Are they going to tell the back-story, give more information about the characters, continue the story or tell a parallel one? The possibilities are endless and with a picture book you reach that starting point much quicker than reading a longer text. In many of the pictures there will be clues and ideas ripe for discussion. There are many examples of this with the rich images in Anthony Browne’s The Tunnel, but equally You Choose (Pippa Goodhart and Nick Sharratt) is a fabulous resource with little children, so why not older pupils?

Some of the most memorable work I did with a KS2 class stemmed from traditional fairy tales rewritten with a modern or alternative twist. The time spent rereading and looking at the picture books was well spent and brought out enthusiastic and exciting writing.


4. Language analysis

As children progress through the year groups they will study poems, fact texts, reports, letters etc. I would argue they definitely should also be looking at picture books. If you are writing a story with a smaller word count, you make those words really matter. I have spent days analysing a single word in my script only to change it a few times and then delete it anyway.

My favourite example of this skill is Not Now Bernard (David McKee) which has a total of 154 words, with only 58 of them being different. With KS1 children this book is a funny tale of a misunderstanding, but with older children there are deeper issues around busy lives, failing to connect and fantasy versus reality. A retelling could be expanded and extended, or more challengingly other scenarios could be tackled in this pared-down style. Small does not need to lack quality or content, and it is healthy to show that good storytelling is not always verbose.


5. Books bring us together

This accessibility also makes them excellent vehicles, bringing young and old together. At home they are shared between generation and in school I have seen them used in two ways. Firstly, with children from different year groups reading them to each other, but also secondly with older classes writing their own picture books for the younger classes to read. What a fantastic way to build a literate-rich environment, and a clear example of how picture books are important throughout a school.


6. Pictures are great!

It is perfectly acceptable for adults to appreciate art, so why suggest that only books with words are acceptable beyond a certain age. We have been collecting the new Jim Kay illustrated Harry Potter books with wonder, and having teenagers in the house I have learnt to understand the Marvel Universe more than I ever imagined I would. The range of comics and growth in graphic novels show I’m not alone in that, so once more we need to consider what helps excite children when they look at a book. There are also a lot of fantastic picture books with no words at all (including any Wiesner book) which make me love books even more. Surely anything that encourages a child to open a book has to be good.

When I wrote my second picture book in the Vlad series it was very deliberately suited to KS2 both in terms of language and structure (though obviously anyone, of any age is absolutely welcome to read it). Vlad and the First World War is my flag in the sand declaring that I genuinely believe that picture books are not just for KS1 and that they too should be given space in the book shelves and reading corners in all stages of the reading journey.


Vlad and the First World War is available to order online or from your local bookshop or library.

Many thanks to Kate for sharing this guest blog post with us.

If you are interested in writing a guest blog post please get in touch here or click here to find out more.

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