In the Library, Everything Starts with Picture Books!


When you enter the Children’s Area of any San Jose Public Library, you will immediately notice the focal point of the Children’s Area: the picture books!  Picture books stretch from A to Z, wall to wall.

Picture books are prominently displayed in the library because they function as the first literature for children.  The picture book format includes board books, hardbound and paperback picture books, concept books, and folk and fairy tales.

Because picture books utilize illustrations on almost every page, they also serve as children’s first introduction to art.  Picture books can contain different media, visual elements and style.  Late author Eric Carle, for example, is renowned for his collage media use in his artwork.

Many picture book authors and illustrators encourage children to think about all kinds of subjects:  concepts, pre-reading skills, social and academic skills, etc.  No topic is taboo!

Picture books are also unique in that they serve two audiences: the adults who read the books to pre-readers and the children who start to transition to reading on their own by reading the familiar picture books that they have memorized by heart.

But how did picture books originate?  The evolution of the picture book started with an innovation by Randolph Caldecott.

The Evolution of the Picture Book

According to Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles in Children's Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, picture books began with author Randolph Caldecott, also known as the “Father of the Picture Book.”  He is the namesake of an award for the most distinguished American picture book of the year.  Caldecott started the “Golden Age of Children’s Literature,” a period from the late 19th Century to the early 20th Century, by inventing the picture book.  Unlike previous illustrators, who only added art as decorations or as subtext, his illustrations expanded the meaning of the text.

Another important figure during the Golden Age was publisher Noel Carrington, who made publishing picture books affordable in his series, Puffin Picture Books.

Other authors added their own innovations that continued to allow picture books to grow as a literary form:

  • Jean de Brunhoff’s The Story of Babar was the first picture book to use full color pages.
  • Margaret Rey's and H.A. Rey’s Curious George focused on an enduring childlike character that appeals to children to this day.
  • Leo Lionni, a prominent graphic designer, used his skills to enhance art in picture books
  • Maurice Sendak was the first author to write with the goal of appealing to both parents and children alike.
  • Many 21st Century global authors, whose influence makes the case for the expansion of the Caldecott Medal to non-American authors, according to expert Michael Cart.

The Jewels of Storytime: The Picture Book at the Library

Picture books are the cornerstones of storytime.  At San Jose Public Library, picture books for storytimes are categorized into subjects that appeal to children.  They are further categorized by reading level: babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and older children.  Books are lovingly chosen by the Early Education Department and shipped to all libraries.  Librarians then select titles to fit the kind of storytime and to fit their personal style preferences.

Each librarian has a different style of presenting and their choice of picture books reflect their styles.  For instance, librarians who prefer dramatic readings may choose a title like Steve Webb’s Tanka Tanka Skunk.  Librarians who prefer classic stories may choose Don Freeman’s Corduroy

Ultimately, however, certain kinds of picture books seem to work better during a storytime.  These books tend to have the following characteristics:

  • Large books that can be seen in the back of the room when there are one hundred or more people in the audience.
  • One or two sentences per page to entertain both babies and preschoolers in multi-aged storytimes, but developmentally appropriate.
  • Rhyming texts that appeal to a child’s phonemic awareness.
  • Bold colors (like author Todd Parr’s books) attract a young child’s attention.
  • Books that invite participation are appealing to older children.

Librarians hope to achieve two goals during storytime: to excite a love of reading in children and to show adults how to pick books that will be well-received by their children.  Librarians assist in achieving these goals by reading and displaying picture books, which will encourage adults to borrow picture books to read at home.

Picture Book Author Suggestions to Try

Meanwhile, while you wait for libraries to re-open and for storytimes to resume, you might consider borrowing picture books from the following noted authors.  This is definitely not a complete list.  However, I have listed five picture book authors each from the following categories: classic, prolific, and popular.  At the end, I also list 5 notable books for 2021.

If you have never read picture books before, the following authors are some of the best:

Five Classic Picture Book Authors (see above for more):

Five Prolific Picture Book Authors You Should Know:

  • Nancy L. Carlson (She writes about difficult situations that kids often face.)
  • Lois Ehlert (Her seasonal books are made from materials fromthe natural world.  Check out RRRalph.)
  • Kevin Henkes (He is gifted in expressing children's feelings.)
  • Laura Numeroff (Her "If You Give" books help to develop the pre-reading skill of narrative awareness.)
  • Patricia Polacco (She makes a unique connection to children due to her own learning disability.)

Five Popular Picture Book Authors:

Five Notable Picture Books for 2021 (see American Library Association's complete list):

If there are any authors you think I missed, please let me know in the comments below!

Books About Picture Books and Storytime

Children's Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, book cover
From A to Zoo, book cover, book cover
The handbook for storytellers, book cover
Show Me a Story!, book cover
Ring a ring o'roses : fingerplays for preschool children, book cover