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12 Picture Books 4 to 8 Year Olds Should Read

Published in ChicagoNow, November 10, 2014

This is National Young Readers Week – a perfect time to post my feelings about the demotion of picture books for the 4-8-year-old crowd. I first noticed this phenomenon a couple of years ago as a volunteer at my local elementary school’s bookstore. Kindergarteners rejected beautiful, hardbound, age-appropriate, “pre-read” picture books, selling for $1, in favor of “chapter books” of poor quality for three times the price. And most of these kids couldn’t read yet.

I couldn’t get first or second graders to look at these either. They didn’t want the beautiful, color illustrations that introduced them to art appreciation. Perhaps this is due to the popularity of e-readers. More likely, it is due to clever marketing of tons of rather boring “Step 1” chapter books, and the underlying message that accompanies them telling 4 to 8-year olds that picture books are for babies.

Recently, a friend asked me to recommend some good chapter books for her 4-year-old grandson, who is not yet reading. She thought he might enjoy bedtime stories that continued a plot through many chapters. I could think of tons for older kids but not anything great for a preschooler. I advised her to go on Amazon if that was what she wanted.

It seems sad that a generation of 4-8-year olds may be missing out on some of the finest children’s literature with beautiful illustrations that allow their imaginations to soar. So, I decided to make a list of books that might be missed by rushing kids into far inferior books for the sake of having chapters.

Here are a dozen my grandkids loved in preschool and still love in elementary school, even those who can read:

1. Knuffle Bunny Free (should read Knuffle Bunny and Knuffle Bunny Too as well) by Mo Willems

Every child who has ever had a lovey can relate to this story of losing it and of finally letting it go. And the illustrations are wonderful.

2. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (and many others) by William Steig

A magical and sweet story about the danger of getting what you wish for – beautifully illustrated.

3. Strega Nona (and others in the series) by Tomie de Paolo

One of my grandkids was obsessed with this tale of Big Anthony, Strega Nona, and the magic cooking pot. Another example of being careful what you wish for.

4. Where the Wild Things Are (and most anything else he’s written) by Maurice Sendak

The story of the child sent to his room for bad behavior and his escapades with the wild things of his imagination resonates with kids of all ages. And Sendak’s illustrations are amazing.

5. The Lorax (and so many more) by Dr. Seuss

A great starting point to help kids understand how their actions affect the environment. Dr. Seuss was a master of language and his books are a delight to read.

6. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

The 50th anniversary of this book has adults debating its deeper meaning. The book can be read and reread at many different levels as the child matures.

7. Madeline (and other original books in the series) by Ludwig Bemelmans

“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines

Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines …”

Need I say more? These words and Madeline’s adventures have mesmerized children for over 75 years.

8. Curious George (original books only) by H.A. and Margaret Ray

And for almost 75 years, the adventures of that most curious monkey have made children laugh – even 8-year-olds.

9. The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Potacco

This beautifully illustrated story of creating a family quilt introduces the concept of generations in families.

10. Fancy Nancy (and other originals in the series) by Jane O’Connor

A fun book with whimsical illustrations that actually introduces some pretty sophisticated vocabulary.

11. Olivia (and other originals in the series) by Ian Falconer

Kids can easily relate to this endearing and energetic pig who dreams big and sometimes is a bit naughty.

12. The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn

A sweet story set in kindergarten about Chester Racoon’s struggle to say goodbye to his mother on the first day of school. Unfortunately, this one is often used with younger kids only.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. I left off many of my favorites for younger children in the interest of making a point here. Please note that, wherever applicable, I recommended the original books, as some of these have been commercialized and simplified. All of these books kept my grandkids spellbound. They could be read many times and had different meanings for the children as they moved from preschool through second grade.

Even my third-grade granddaughter, who completed the Harry Potter series on her own, asked me to read her a picture book the other day. Did I tell her she was too young? Not in a million years. We cuddled up together with the book and she paused to examine every illustration.

I think the market that book publishers have created for “chapter books” aimed at preschoolers and beginning readers is sad. It’s part of the overall educational push down of learning experiences more appropriate for older children to younger and younger kids. Much like what has happened to Sesame Street, kids these days get the message that picture books are for the under three crowd. When they are the right age to experience the books on another level and truly understand them, that ship has sailed.

I’ll confess I am just as guilty as the next grandmother of buying the Step One version of a Disney story for my grandkids because it was what they wanted. I loved seeing their excitement over a simplified version of Frozen. But when I sat down to read it to my grandkids who can’t yet read, I missed the rich language and art in books like the 12 I cited. More importantly, my grandkids missed out on an age appropriate experience with children’s literature.

I hope my shout out to picture books might inspire you to consider these as holiday gifts for the under eight crowd. There are so many great choices. Ask a children’s librarian for suggestions. There is plenty of time for chapter books as kids mature and can actually read them in their original form.


by Laurie Levy
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