My husband and I have four children, aged 6 through 11, and we love books! The library is a prime destination for our household and I have bookcases at home full of a range of genres and reading levels. Many of these books are picture books as this was basically all we read when I had four children under five. Picture books are often undervalued as teaching tools for our children, dismissed as babyish and pointless, not helpful literature to read to your children in order to teach them. This has some validity. Many picture books are just silly, some are rude or inappropriate, some purely comic entertainment, and most don’t have much of a moral in them. However, if you are willing to dig a little deeper into the picture book world there are some real gems that have a lot to teach our children in a way that they can understand.

Why picture books? If you have ever tried to read a chapter book with no pictures to a child under the age of 5 you will understand why picture books have a place in our house. Young children engage with the world through what they can see, touch, hear and taste while their speaking skills continue to develop. Once they have learnt that books don’t taste all that good (sometimes a long process!) children are generally happy to hold them, turn the pages, and enjoy the beautiful sights they present. Our children loved to be read to, turning pages, pointing out what they recognised in the pictures, mimicking the rhymes from poetical books. If you are enthusiastic about teaching your children to love reading, then you will need to start with picture books.

Once children are old enough to appreciate being read to with the help of pictures, then they can be introduced to more difficult concepts through the medium of story. We have a wonderful picture book at home called The Little Heart by Susanne Margreiter-McQuie, which we used to introduce our children to the concept of salvation, God’s love for sinners, and Christ’s sacrifice for us. Through simple pictures and words this book lays out our fallen state, Christ’s coming into the world, his death for us, the need for repentance, and forgiveness through Jesus’ blood. All this in a 30 page picture book! Clear and plain, easy to read and understand – what better way to introduce very young children to the concept of salvation? Children’s Bible story picture books also fulfil this type of role, although I personally try to stay away from those containing pictures of Jesus. Stories about heroes of the faith from the Bible are a wonderful way to introduce our children to biblical examples and qualities we would like them to imitate.

Other Christian picture books like The Donkey who Carried a King by R.C. Sproul introduce children to biblical stories from an alternative perspective. This particular book has helped teach my children the importance of serving others and doing the task in front of you, even when it doesn’t seem like a very significant or special job. Papa Panov’s Special Day shows us how we demonstrate our love to God by blessing those around us and how by helping others we are helping God. Tarore and her Book by Joy Cowley teaches us the power of love over revenge, and the importance of mission work, evangelism and the spread of the gospel. Who can deny that picture books like these have an important place in our children’s lives? Others that I have found helpful are the Jungle Doctor Picture Fables, or the Berenstain Bears series – these little books include relatable lessons about listening and obeying, and little ways in which our children can learn to love God and others.

When our children are struggling with a particular sin, and we have discussed it over and over again with limited success, then turning to a story for lessons can often be a less confrontational and more helpful way to address it. In a story our children can sit outside the problem and look at it more impartially – much like having the “imagine if you were your brother” conversation, but with more objectivity. Consider when David had sinned against Uriah the Hittite by taking his wife Bathsheba: David was entrenched in his sin until the prophet Nathan told him a story about two men and a little lamb. Suddenly David could see his sin without prejudice and he was convicted of his guilt and repented before God (See 2 Samuel 12). In the same way, when our children are struggling we can help them by finding books that deal with their particular problems in order to help them fight their temptations.

This brings me to a new problem – where do we find these books? Hopefully your church library has a good selection of picture books dealing with some of the more common issues that plague our sinful human natures. Perhaps your parents, or grandparents, or friends with children have books that can be shared and borrowed as issues come up or are resolved. Particularly good books should be bought as they are a valuable resource for us as parents while we train our children in the way they should go. (Don’t ask how many books I have at home!) However, if you can’t find the book you need for your child through these sources then don’t be afraid to look in the public library. I have found many valuable picture books in the public library; one very recently on the golden rule, another on techniques for dealing with anger, plenty on sharing and friendship, some on lying, and others on dealing with grief. There are many talented authors and illustrators in our society who can help our children through the medium of picture books.

A word of caution however: I strongly urge you to thoroughly vet all picture books before your child brings them home from the public library. Despite all the wonderful books available in our libraries there are also many others that can teach our children harmful things. I have seen picture books normalising homosexuality, transgenderism, reincarnation, lying, rudeness, and other undesirable traits. These go back on the shelf with the advice to my children that “this book is not suitable for you, and is not in line with what God teaches in the Bible; please go and choose a different one.”

I hope that this article will encourage you to broaden your scope in the reading of picture books to your children, particularly by finding books that speak to them where they are in their difficulties. Do not underestimate the power of story and pictures to help bring fresh understanding to problems that trouble them, or to teach them truths about God and the Bible, sin and salvation, service and gratitude, friendship, obedience, love, repentance, and forgiveness. A picture can speak a thousand words – let us find the right pictures to speak the words to our children that they need to hear.

Mrs Joanna Voschezang is a member of the Reformed Church in Hamilton.

See issue 47/3, April 2020 for more articles on this subject.