Picture Books as Magical Bridges
Ajia, well-known children’s reading advocate, children’s books author and translator, tells us why picture books are a great way to nurture children’s love for reading.
I could not help but want to give the best in this world to my daughter ever since I became a father. Being a bookworm, I could not resist reciting poems to her shortly after she was born. Of course, I knew she would not be able to understand, but I could not hold myself back. A few months later, I realised that she would be tapping her feet on the crib while I was reciting long poems! Before acquiring meaning, children fully engage their senses to experience the world and absorb information miraculously.
My daughter and I discovered picture books together during the parenting process. Before she turned two, picture books were rare in mainland China. Initially, I did not know how to improve my reading. While I was reading picture books to her, she discovered many interesting details within the pictures. During our casual conversations and games, we turned every book, which looked seemingly simple, into a major play. These explorations we had while reading together left a lasting impression on both of us, and presented an opportunity for me to better appreciate the value of picture books. “My child is my teacher when it comes to reading picture books,” I said sincerely when I conducted my first sharing at the National Library in 2004.
I have participated in and witnessed the rise of picture books in mainland China over the past two decades. To promote the reading of picture books, I have visited most of the provinces in China. I was often asked, “What’s so good about picture books?” In response, I would say, “The best thing about them is that they help children to develop a love for reading.” Why? Because it acts as a special bridge. The best and most natural way to read picture books is to read them to children, invite them to look at the images, while adults read the words on the page. The child listens while looking at the illustrations, fully immersed within, with the help of his or her own experience and imagination. They have crossed the magical bridge of picture books and ventured into a wonderful parallel world away from everyday life. If the adults reading the books also enjoy the process, picture books would become a bridge between the children and adults. While children fall in love with reading because of the charm of books themselves, it is also largely because of the charm of the reader, the voice and scent of his or her parents, the feeling of intimacy, and memories filled with love.
The bridging effect of books is not limited to families. When we try to tell stories by reading picture books aloud, we will notice that children who love listening to similar stories tend to play together, and adults who love similar picture books are likely to become friends. We hold regular parent-child picture book storytelling sessions in bookshops, parks, communities and public libraries. At times, only adults are invited to study picture books over tea. Over time, those who often participate, be it young or old, would feel like they have joined a reading club and enjoy sharing with each other.
As children grow up, their enthusiasm and interest in reading are increasingly influenced by their peers. Hence, the learned parents will go to schools to influence their classmates by playing the role of storytelling parents like myself with the support of teachers. The quickest way to get a group of children you have just met to accept you quickly is to tell them magical stories with picture books, followed by listening to their voices, and guiding them to have a dialogue with the most creative creators.
Akin to the Bridge to Terabithia, picture books can enable children, with the support of trusted adults and company of equally curious peers, to temporarily bid farewell to the commonplace and venture into a fairyland. These are the key elements to help them fall in love with reading.
3 March 2022, Beijing, China
Ajia (阿甲) is a Chinese author and translator of children’s books, a promoter of reading, an enthusiastic storyteller and a 2022 Carle Honors Bridge Honoree. As an independent researcher, he has written several books including A Little History of Picture Books and Passion for Reading – A Handbook on Reading Promotion. Picture books authored by Ajia include Li Na: Be an Even Better You illustrated by Yu Rong and Drawing a Horse illustrated by Dai Dunbang. He has also translated several reference books like Dear Genius by Leonard S. Marcus and more than 200 picture books from English to Chinese, such as the Peter Rabbit series, Goodnight Moon, and Where the Wild Things Are.