Grandmother Reflections: 70 Years with Picture Books

Today, I’m interviewing someone I love. Kathy is a retired educator, mother of four children, and grandmother of 11 grandchildren. She has read picture books, used them at work, and created some for her family. Today she’s sharing perspectives she’s gained from more than 70 years of picture-book reading!

Melinda: What is the first picture book you remember reading as a child?

Kathy: I remember having The Little Engine That Could read to me when I was very young.  In fact, it became a family rule of sorts.  None of us where allowed to say that we couldn’t do something.  We all had to say, “I think I can.  I think I can.  I think I can.”

Melinda: What was your favorite part of reading books with your children when they were small?

Kathy: I loved settling on the couch or bed with little people cuddled on each side and on my lap as we shared a fun adventure together.  Sharing a book with a little one is such a loving thing, and it expands their world beyond just home and neighborhood as well.  I especially enjoyed sharing with them the picture books I had loved as a child.

I also loved the way that books can teach life lessons by stories without being preachy.  It reminds me of how Jesus taught by parables.  He made us, and He knows humans relate to stories.  Also the stories are about someone else and not pointed at us, so it is easier to not be defensive and just learn from them.

Melinda: When you began sharing picture books with your grandchildren, how had they changed from the books you remember reading to your children?

Kathy: That is a hard question. There are certainly many more stories available.  I think there is more diversity now, in a positive way. And the production of books now is advanced, so some of the pictures are more sophisticated and nuanced, and less cartoony or simple.  On the other hand, some illustrators now do simple drawings to reach out to children, and those are great.

Melinda: What are some books that both your children and your grandchildren enjoyed? Why do you think they worked so well for both generations?

Kathy: I actually read some books that have worked for three generations – my childhood, my children’s childhood, and now my grandchildren’s.  I think there are some universal human experiences that resonate through the ages. An example, to return to The Little Engine That Could, is the experience of not having the resources many have and yet keeping a positive attitude and making the best of what you have.  This kind of approach is admired and appreciated by others, and it comes across in the story without being preachy.

Melinda: How did you use picture books as an educator?

Kathy: Many educators try to relate different subject matter to make a more connected whole of a concept.  When I wrote elementary math curriculum, we used picture books to get across ideas in an appealing way and to illustrate without making a point of it that math is part of everyday life.  For just one example, there is a wonderful picture book called The Doorbell Rang that worked very well for teaching fractions and, incidentally, sharing as well.

Melinda: How can authors and publishers make a picture book especially effective for classroom use?

Kathy: This is tricky. Many authors have tried this, and few really succeed.  I think many books like this are too conscious of trying to teach rather than just sharing a good story that can then be applied to a concept in some school subject.  I guess I would say to start with a good story you are excited about, and if it is true to life in reality or imagination, then it might easily be applicable in a subject.  For example, if you love quilting, write a  story about quilts.  There are actually already a number of good quilt stories that can be used to teach history about the Civil War and Underground Railroad, or about geometric shapes and repeating patterns.

Melinda: What is the funniest picture book you remember reading?

Kathy: I always loved Amelia Bedelia stories.  If you have never read one, give yourself a treat and find one at the library.  Amelia is a literalist who misinterprets the meaning of words because of the way they are used colloquially.  I chuckled all the way through each of them.  Words are such fun – used or misused, they are still fun.  Some of the funniest things I remember as a teacher were mistakes students made from misusing words – for example, the youngster who wrote about how effective “gorilla warfare” was.

Melinda: What is the most important picture book you’ve read? Why?

Kathy: How to choose?!  Well, we used many different Bible picture books with our children for evening worship each night, and these made the stories more real.  Since our daily life is not like it was in Bible times, something that helps us understand the meaning is really important.  Other than that, I think the story Beginning with Mrs. McBee by Cecil B. Maiden is outstanding as it demonstrates with humor and humanity the concept of passing good on rather than paying it back.  I have read this with our children and grandchildren and still love it regardless of how often I read it.

First picture book you remember?

I love to hear quirky, detailed, real-life stories from people I know. I’ll ask a question about some little thing that doesn’t come up in an ordinary day. The answers are endlessly interesting – a person’s memories, and the ways they recount them, are full of clues about how they see the world and themselves. It’s a chance to stand in their shoes for a moment, catching a glimpse of what you’d see looking out on the world from their eyes.

The Question

Today, I asked, “What is the first picture book you remember, either reading yourself or having read to you, and what do you remember about it?” Here’s what my friends said!

The Answers

This survey was conducted on Facebook. Responses are copied exactly, with the exception of some minor typo fixes.

Todd: Corduroy.”

Selena:The Rabbits’ Wedding by Garth Williams.”

Ashley:Pat the Bunny….I remember patting Daddy’s beard in the book and then feeling my own father’s face. I loved how the world in the book matched my own little world at home.”

Richard:A Ghost Named Fred by Nathaniel Benchley. George playing astronaut.” (Thanks, Richard, for the photo of George playing astronaut. That looks like the original copy of the book – a little battered, but still read!)

Nitsa: “A Greek book about Popi and Eleni and a dog. No idea what it was called. I remember the simple drawings of the girls in their dresses and of the dog. Nothing fancy. I also remember that Greek dogs say ‘yav yav’, not ‘woof woof’!”

Katherine:The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. I was a city kid who longed for the country, and I so identified with that little house.”

Kelleylynn: “I wasn’t read to as a small child, not by my parents (please don’t feel sorry for me) but in second grade, I vividly remember my reading teacher, Mrs. Lattner (yes, the mother to pro basketball player) would read a daily poem from Shell Silverstein; most especially The Giving Tree. So I gave (back) like the Tree to my children.
I’ve grown a grand love for good children’s literature and read daily to our children, especially instilling the love for the zany and quirky authors such as Roald Dahl and Charles Dickens; fantasy and poetry.”

Marie: “This was not long after WW2. It was a Danish book a friend had sent to thank my mother for all the material help she had sent – mostly food and clothing – to her and her neighbors in the immediate post-war period. It was about a little boy named “Peter” and I looked at the pictures while my mother read the little story from a handwritten translation into English.”

Barnabas: “Learning to read using the Dick and Jane books.”

Joanne: “Ditto, this (Dick and Jane) is what I remember, too.”

Joanna: “Not the first, but one that stuck with me was Little Bear’s Trousers. The illustrations were incredibly detailed and I would read it over and over just to have an excuse to look at the pictures and admire all the different textures. There was a cake at the end that I always wanted to eat because it looked so delicious. I lost my copy as a kid and was always sad to have it gone. After telling my husband about it when we were first married, it showed up in the mail one day as a surprise. I got to read it again to my step kids and now to Ruth.”

Tanya:Go Dog Go. I remember the dogs.”

Tammie: “Cappy. Its about a dog who gets in trouble. 😂 Not the first book but definitely a memorable one because it was the first one I had planned to buy with money earned from working for my dad. It was a ‘first purchase alone w/o parents’ kind of thing. I walked home from the bookstore a happy kid!”

Kathleen: “This will come as no surprise to you, Melinda: a joke book with pictures!”

Audra: “I remember my mom reading me a book about a snowshoe hare afraid to change colors with the seasons.”

Elizabeth:Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, which is curious, because I also remember not liking anthropomorphic animal stories in general. I also remember The Little Engine that Could. I was so happy for the Little Engine that he made it. I actually remember a lot of stories. We had books upon books in my house. Being read to and learning to read are among my cherished childhood memories.”

Michelle:I learned to read with Go Dog Go.”

Bonnie:Caps for Sale was one. Where the Wild Things Are, and The Monster at the End of the Book (Sesame Street, my mom did a great Grover voice!). And for remembering – for Caps, it was hilarious the amount of hats, for the Wild Things the illustrations, and for The Monster at the End of the Book, it was interactive and of course my mom’s Grover voice. I have the book and do the voice now with my kids.”

Christine: “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.” [Here’s my post about Mike!]

Svetlana: “I remember reading the Cajun Alphabet book. A is for Alligator and B is for Baton Rouge. I was four. The other book I remember from when I was really young was The Little Mermaid. It was not a childish fairy tale. The pictures were really beautiful watercolors. When she walked it was like stepping on knives. When she danced, she forgot about the knives. When the Prince too another woman to be his wife, her sisters gave her a knife from the Sea Witch to kill him. They had all sold her there hair for the knife. His death would allow the Little Mermaid to return to the sea. Instead she walked out in to the sun and became sea spray. That one was also before kindergarten. I have no idea who wrote it, but I’ve never seen a Little Mermaid like it since.”

Andrea:I Know a Farm. The memorable thing about that was it came in the mail, as a book club selection. I seriously doubt this was the first book read to me, but it is the first I remember receiving.”

Edith:The Cat in the Hat.”

Tawni: “I know Poky Little Puppy, Saggy Baggy Elephant, and Tawny Scrawny Lion were among my first favorites. And now I read them to my kids!”

Peggy:A Fish Out of Water, a Dr. Seuss book, I remember being so worried about that fish as the little boy gave him too much food and Otto grew bigger and bigger.”

Elissa: “I remember the Little Golden Books, especially Hop on Pop and Take Me To The Zoo.”

Jonathan: “The Poky Little Puppy.”

Elina: “The Serendipity books. I remember the fanciful illustrations and the characters – how they made me feel – like there was a beautiful world out there that I knew nothing about. I loved them, and stumbled across the collection a few years back and am so happy my kids are reading them now!”

How about you?

What is the first picture book you remember? What do you remember about it? Why did it matter to you?

It’s fascinating to consider how many books have touched us at one time or another. Some were good, some we hated. They all leave a mark, don’t they?