Inclusion and wellbeing

To Make Sense of This Year, You Should Read Picture Books

Here's your picture book reading list for 2020.
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September 23, 2020
Reading time:
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The six months since the UK went into lockdown in March may feel like they have dragged (or flown past!) for us adults. But for a two-year-old, it’s been a whole quarter of their lives so far.

This makes sharing high quality picture books even more important, as they provide what children’s literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop influentially described as ‘mirrors, windows and sliding doors’. Picture books can reflect children’s experiences, providing a space for processing and talking about their lives, or acting as windows into worlds similar or dissimilar to our own. The best books act as sliding doors, opening into the world of imagination.

As a new term starts full of challenge and uncertainty, early years practitioners can benefit from a specially selected picture book library. This can help you talk and think through the health and social crises which have characterised so much of our little ones’ summer, as well as our own – for both reflection and escape.

Picture books about the coronavirus

The New York City School Library System provides a database of free, downloadable picture books that focus on the COVID-19 pandemic.

My three recommendations, which I’ve found most suitable for an Early Years audience, are:

Reading through some of these texts, I felt reminded of the particularly collaborative quality of the picture book: something produced in tandem between author and illustrator, and designed to be shared between readers and listeners who work together to reflect on the themes of each story. Many have been produced quickly and thoughtfully in response to the needs of children in specific settings, with a view to inspiring practitioners in similar situations around the world.

Practitioners can use these texts to share in their own classrooms, or take up the baton and produce new resources of their own!

The big ideas

Classroom activity: Writing your own coronavirus picture book

Perhaps looking through some of the resources available via the New York database could inspire you as a practitioner to put together your own picture book which speaks specifically to the children in your setting. Could you collaborate with your young learners in generating, for example:

  • Rules for good hygiene in your setting?
  • Routines for keeping ourselves safe at home and at school?
  • Photographs or illustrations of hand-washing, or parents and grown-ups wearing masks?

You could think, too, about collating children’s artwork or taking photographs which illustrate the emotions we have from lockdown and social distancing, or our thoughts, hopes and worries for the new term ahead of us.

Here are some links that will give you some top tips for book-making with toddlers and young children, which show the rich cross-curricular learning which goes into such a project:

A few more tips of my own would be to use a hole punch as the ‘middle’ of your book (which can start with just one sheet of A3 paper folded in half!). Plus, secure your book with treasury tags. That way, you can add new pages to record children’s responses to using the shared picture book, inserting new ideas, drawings, or photographs when they’re produced.

Do make your shared books accessible in your reading corner, where they might attract young readers normally less inclined to interact with stories independently. The promise of contributing artwork of their own can be a powerful catalyst in helping children feel reflected, and more conscious of their role as active participants, in the reading experience.

Stories for sad times: reflecting on loss and difficulties at home

Of course, the pandemic has affected everyone in lots of different ways. Some children might be struggling with the loss of relatives or loved ones to illness, and others might live in households where parents and carers are struggling with the economic repercussions of redundancy or unemployment. A well-stocked picture book library can provide resources for children to recognise their own lived experiences.

Mediated by a supportive adult, quality picture books can create collaborative spaces for children to work through and reflect upon the emotions generated by these experiences in a focused, supported way.

  • ‘Goodbye Mog’ by Judith Kerr sees the death of a beloved cat handled in a hopeful and sensitive way, focusing on the necessary cycles of change tied up in death and birth.
  • ‘The Heart and the Bottle’ by Oliver Jeffers helps us think about self-expression when struggling with feelings of grief, loss and loneliness. It celebrates, too, the importance of sharing happy memories in a joyful way as a means of working through these feelings.
  • ‘The Sad Book’ by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Quentin Blake, is a very emotionally honest book which articulates the grief and sadness experienced by Rosen upon losing his son. It speaks to children in a refreshingly frank way about coping directly with difficult experiences, and learning to manage our emotions over time.
  • ‘It’s a No-Money Day’ by Kate Milner speaks to many children’s experiences of growing up in difficult economic circumstances. It celebrates, too, the strength of children and families who can flourish despite these difficulties, and find love and joy in what they do have.
  • ‘The Last Chip’ by Duncan Beedie tells the story of a lonely, hungry pigeon, and illustrates the importance of kindness and sharing against the loneliness and shame which can often accompany poverty. It’s a recommended read I discovered via the fantastic resources of Empathy Lab, an organisation which provides reading lists and advice on using picture books for reflecting upon and developing empathy in young readers.

Picture books to build empathy

Empathy Lab’s book lists are a good resource for reflecting on other social crises we’ve witnessed this summer, too, exemplified by the Black Lives Matter movement. Diversity, representation, and the promotion of empathy, tolerance and respect matter in children’s culture as much as they do in Hollywood and in music, and a high quality picture book library must be reflective of and celebrate the diverse world in which we live.

In response to the ‘Reflecting Realities’ survey conducted by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education in 2018, which found that only 4% of UK children’s books featured a non-white hero, the CLPE teamed up with Letterbox Library to promote picturebooks celebrating equality and diversity. Their early years picks below are a great place to start in developing your picture book library:

Andy’s picks of the summer

My own favourite picture book for reflecting on the social movements we’ve witnessed this summer is ‘Hands Up!’ by Breanna J. McDaniel, illustrated by Shane W. Evans. It tells the story of a young Black girl who lives joyfully and freely, and channels her youthful creativity and optimism in celebration of her, and her peers’, lived experience.

Children, of course, are enormously sensitive to the emotions and experiences of their adult caregivers, who might struggle to see themselves reflected in the joyful, hopeful picture books we share with little ones. For parents and practitioners, I recommend Charlie Mackesy’s ‘The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.’ It’s a ‘grown-up’ picture book which might provide you with a little extra space for reflection and drawing strength during these difficult times. Described as an ‘inspiration and hope in uncertain times’ when it won the (adult!) Waterstones Book of the Year in 2019, Mackesy’s beautifully illustrated book with its spare, profound prose is a testament to the absorptive power of picture books.

Books have the capacity to provide readers of all ages with a mirror, a window, or a sliding door, whenever we need one most.

download pdf

Andy McCormack is an Early Years teacher, and a PhD candidate at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.

graphical user interface, text, application
Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

Picture of a Guidance document
UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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