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  • Ashley Adkins

How to READ a Picture Book: I Mean, Really READ a Picture Book

I first met Ed Spicer a year and a half ago at a Marketing Bootcamp event Nick and I organized for SCBWI. Ed was on our panel for School Visits Decoded. He brought an awesome perspective on picture book impact by reading snippets from several books and he talked about what he likes to see from a presenter as a teacher. After listening to Ed read for only a couple of minutes, you could tell he brought his own life into each story he read, and you could feel how his “performance” could gain the interest and involvement of students of all ages –us adults in the audience included.

Now, many months after that event, I often think of Ed while reading picture books with my boys, ages 9 and 10. Sometimes my boys think it’s weird that I only (or almost only) check out picture books from the library. They think these books are for babies, but I love that they are short but meaningful texts and I love that I can get through one story in just a few minutes. I can make time for that in my life! With that, when I read with my boys I work on getting different voices down for different characters and I try to show excitement, sadness, or confusion when appropriate. When I ask the boys to read the story to me, I encourage them to do the same.

Ed graciously answered some questions I sent him regarding his experience and suggestions for reading with kids.

You are awesome Ed! Thank you for your willingness to contribute.

How should a picture book be read?

That is an interesting question with many different answers depending on the setting, the people involved, any current issues, and so much more. All of the answers, however, involve showing respect for the picture book. It is NOT a temporary bit of literature until you get smart enough for “real books.” And, by the way, my answer to, “When are you going to write a real book?” is: “Maybe about the same time you get a real brain.” A picture book is filled with carefully curated words and art worthy of most art galleries in this country. Picture books should be read as much for your own self as for the audience.

There are thousands of picture books. Books for any situation. Books to meet any need (of yours or of your audience). Find something that YOU are passionate about and read that book. Even if your audience does not share your same passion, they will understand and relate to your enthusiasm. With younger readers, it is important that you let them know that they do NOT have to like the same stories you do. When you show respect for picture books, you build respect. When you give young readers permission to disagree, you build thoughtful, critical readers. Pretty soon the literacy club belongs to everyone. Respectfully sharing our differing views becomes a joy. We should also read with the idea that a picture book, like any great piece of literature, should reflect our huge and beautiful diverse world. This means that we need to seek out all kinds of voices to read and share.

Why should a picture book be read?

Picture books should be read by all ages because they are filled with some of the best artwork in the world. Younger readers need picture books even when they are capable of reading chapter books. Picture books are essential for a deeper understanding of the words. When I taught first grade, I often heard, “They are not reading, they are just looking at the pictures.” My answer is (still), “When a student struggles with the word, “tree,” they see the picture and they can read the word. The next day they may struggle again. And the day after and the day after, etc. There will come a day when the student sees the word “tree” and visions of oaks, maples, palms, birches, willows, redbuds, elms, hickories, and more will come to mind. Using pictures IS reading. It is building that sort of comprehension that requires regular grounding in visual images that the student who skips picture books does not acquire as easily. The student who did not see the pictures in the books may be bored by the word, “tree” because he cannot picture that ancient banyan tree.

And while this example focuses on a single noun, the same thing happens with entire scenes, with verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. Think of Laura Vacarro Seeger's book entitled Green. There is no plot initially (although I have witnessed first graders turn this book into MANY different stories). The book is like a mood poem featuring the color green and it is brilliant. My students adored this book, several even wrote letters to Seeger with new ideas about the color green! Many picture books become part of a family’s cultural heritage and they serve as metaphors for many of our defining moments.

Did I mention the world class art?

What specific actions can adults take during one-on-one reading times to get kids excited about the text, specifically picture book texts?

Often adults turn reading into an expectation that the children they read to will share their exact same love for the book chosen. I wish they would love the book (which they do), but allow children the freedom to express their own honest feelings. Too often feelings are hurt. "They did not like the book I chose!” That reaction has the potential of reducing the number of times you read, which is the exact wrong way to go. Instead, I always hope for, “YAY! You did not like my favorite book. I cannot wait to hear why!” and, “Please tell me about your favorite book.”

Reading is about sharing things we love, BUT NOT EXPECTING CHILDREN TO BE US and respond with the same kind of love. There WILL be those kind of books too. AND they will be so much sweeter because the reaction will not be based on trying to please an adult. See that child you are reading to as a partner. Share your passion. Allow the child to be bored or not like or love the story as they see fit. Cherish their reactions and use them to help select the next book. Don’t shy away from reading the same book multiple times AND make sure to read lots of different types of books (and, yes, there is one of those delightful paradoxes built into this answer).

I often read the same book twice in a row, sometimes using totally different accents or tones. If I didn’t have time to read the whole book twice, I might read parts twice. I like introducing the idea of point of view to young readers. “Read that again, but this time instead of a young human, you are a grandmother duck.” And try to get in the habit of reading the book all the way through without explaining it to death. Hint: I don’t understand everything I read; it is okay if students don’t understand every last inference. Make this time FUN and if the topic is not a fun topic, make this time meaningful and worth repeating.

There are lots of ways to engage readers, such as having them supply missing, predictable (or repeated) text. Build movement into your reading that match the illustrations. Use different voice volumes that reflect the art and type layout, remembering that a whisper is sometimes more effective than a shout. Move around as you read. Use eye contact to personalize the story without terrifying your introvert students. Vary your reading pace as the story dictates. Use pauses like cliff hangers—and either show or wait to show pictures to compel interest. DO NOT RUSH THROUGH THE ILLUSTRATIONS. Probably the biggest problem for most teachers and other picture book readers is that they do not allow children enough time to examine the art. Spend at least as much time, often more, sharing the art as it took to read the text. SLOW DOWN (unless you need to speed up to make the story more compelling). Watch the reaction of your audience.

Remember that you are the boss of the book and, if you need to, it is okay to skip parts or repeat parts. Also do not be afraid to stop reading if the story is clearly not working. If you are reading a book to a class and the art work is filled with lots of small details, announce that students will have time to inspect the art after the story or allow more time to show the art. You want this time to be enjoyable. So many more…!

What is your primary goal when reading a picture book to a child – or to a room full of adults as you did at the Marking Bootcamp?

My primary goal is to be so in love with the book I read that my passion is contagious. By this I mean that my reading is so focused and yet so surprising that those listening are with you until the end, even on stories they do not care for personally. This answer is very related to the respect for picture books discussed in the first question.

What is your favorite picture book?

My favorite picture book is the one I happen to be reading. I just finished doing a guide for Yuyi Morales’ Dreamers. Her book is brilliant. It is also a book that pays its respect to MANY other brilliant picture books. Win win!

You are a Cool Teacher! What can other teachers (any adult really) do to be cool in the eyes of a child?

Love each child and respect each child. I have said many times that I often meet students smarter than I am. Even though there are folks out there that think I am joking, I mean it very literally. If you really believe this, it means you listen to the child and listen carefully (and this belief becomes truer and truer). I never tried to be cool and I see that as a stupid goal for me (maybe for others too). The only thing I ever tried to be is kind and I didn’t always succeed each day. Good thing I had enough tomorrows!


I recently attended a conference where the keynote speaker was Jason Kotecki and he spoke about escaping adultitis (adulthood) and breaking rules that don’t exist. I think Ed is a professional at this and so many people are winning because of it. Thank you for sharing your tips and tricks about reading picture books Ed!


Ed retired after seventeen years in the first-grade trenches in Allegan, Michigan. Now you will find him doing his own writing, volunteering with students in several different places, doing freelance work, selecting books for various committees, and, of course, reading. He won a 2016 Outstanding People for Education award from the Allegan County School Board Association. He is proud to be a Cool Teacher award winner for Grand Valley State University’s educational television station. Over the years, Ed has taught a Graduate Young Adult Literature class, served on the Printz committee, the Caldecott committee, and many other book committees for the American Library Association. Ed is a certified Reading Specialist, which has led to the publication of more than 50 curriculum guides for students of all ages for eight different publishers, most notably Houghton Mifflin’s Scientists in the Field series. He founded the teen book review column for the Michigan Reading Association and is now chairing the Schneider Family Book Awards committee. Please drop Ed a line at, follow him on Facebook, or visit his website: Ed’s twitter handle is @spicyreads.

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