I have a secret to share: This summer I read countless children’s picture books to myself—not just once, but several times, even at bedtime.
There’s more. I have a children’s-book buddy. (It surprised me, too.) It’s like a poetry buddy, but we read children’s picture books instead of poems.
What encouraged this surprising turn of events? Here’s how it went down.
One day I heard a gentle thump on our foyer’s tile floor, followed by the click of the dead bolt as my husband headed out for the afternoon.
What was that?
I approached the front door and found a box, its Amazon smile tempting me. I didn’t recall ordering anything, but carried the box to the kitchen, sliced through the packing tape, and pulled back the ends. Nestled inside was a calming sea of color: ocean blues, waves of white, and laurel green hills. I picked Miss Rumphius from the pile, a picture book written by Barbara Cooney.
Children’s books? Were these delivered to the wrong address?
I read the shipping label; it showed my name and address. Then I searched through the box until I found this note: “A gift for you. For your creativity, Sharon. The sea is calling. Warmly, Laura.”
I couldn’t resist the opportunity to abandon my to-do list and read Miss Rumphius aloud to myself. It made me feel like the freckle-faced girl I once was, with a pixie haircut and missing front teeth—comforted and somehow cared for.
Now the story shifts to Megan Willome and an app called Voxer. Megan and I became friends through the Tweetspeak writing workshops she taught. As one course neared completion, we voiced a mutual desire to stay in touch. It only seemed natural to invite her to Voxer, a voice-based messenger app. She accepted.
Our conversations began with personal updates about summer plans and the differences between our springs—hers in Texas and mine in Maine. Then one day I pressed Voxer’s orange button and voiced my insights about Miss Rumphius. I told her how Laura had suggested I look at the structures and patterns of children’s stories.
“Do you know much about frames and layers of story?” I asked.
Megan borrowed Miss Rumphius from her local library, and our exchange ensued. I had never plunged so deeply into a story’s meanings beyond what was on the page. Soon, one of us said something like, “Let me know if you come across another picture book you like.” And the buddying began.
Barbara Cooney wrote, “A picture book is like a string of beads with the illustrations being the jewels, but the text is the string that holds them all together.” That’s what has guided Megan and me ever since. We share each jewel and string, one book at a time. Now we’re exploring I’m In Charge of Celebrations by Byrd Baylor.
The Initial Reading Process
During my first read-through, I focus on general observations and feelings the story evokes. With subsequent readings I pull the story apart like a puzzle, sorting pieces by concepts, images, and sounds. Many children’s books carry both the craft and magic of poetry, so it seemed natural to pull out my copy of How to Read a Poem by Tania Runyan. Just as I explore a poem, I unwrap a children’s story — opening my senses, lingering along lines, and “feeling for the light switch.”
4 Ways to Go Farther With a Buddy
1. Find Connection
Incoming messages from my buddy feel like the letter in my mailbox I can’t wait to unfold. A text message about a particular book pops into my Voxer feed: “I’ve got issues.” I chuckle because I now know Megan well enough to get her.
Buddying has also brought us and our stories together. Courage by Bernard Waber generated conversations about our personal experiences with courage. We agree that we both sometimes “do things scared,” because courage is not without fear.
2. Be More Curious
Like many children’s stories, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is a book filled with curiosity. The more Max wonders, the bigger his world becomes. The ceiling grows leaves. Bedposts become a forest. The floor transforms to flora. He goes on a journey and meets monsters. They have a wild rumpus!
Just like Max, we can use our imagination and mentally go wherever our curiosity leads us and find adventure and discovery.
When I read about Max with a buddy, the story provoked curiosity questions like:
“Are the monsters a metaphor for anything?”
“What do the monsters help Max do?”
“What is my wild thing?”
“What can I learn from Max?”
3. Be More Creative
Children’s picture books may be less about finding the right answers and more about asking the right questions. Sometimes Megan and I think differently, and as we share and ask questions, we discover new ideas. One of us will say, “I would never have noticed how the lines break,” or “I didn’t see how those elements served as bookends.” Learning from each other makes us more creative.
Megan discovered Martina, the Beautiful Cockroach: A Cuban Folktale by Carmen Agra Deedy. Sprinkled with Spanish, it explores love, family roots, and traditions in ways I had not considered. I found a fun online reading from a library near Megan’s neck of the woods. Later, she sent me the link to a song in Spanish and English — another way to fuel my creativity, with continued learning.
Paying attention to detail in Martina made us more creative as we considered how the story works and how the illustrations may have come about. We looked at literary terms, word choices, repetitions, framing, and themes. It may sound weighty, but our discussion was light and lively. We noticed Michael Austin’s illustrations — a thread spool acts as a stool, a silver spoon serves as a mirror, and a postage stamp hangs as wall art. When it comes to being creative, sometimes what we’re looking for is already there. We just have to see it.
4. Acquire Knowledge
Reaching into children’s books allows us to learn about ourselves, others, and the world. We gain knowledge about history, other cultures, and divergent perspectives. In other words, we apply our curiosity to the pursuit of knowledge.
Katherine Applegate’s historically-based picture book, The Buffalo Storm, encouraged me to examine not only the story arc but also the life of a pioneer girl like Hallie. My research taught me that buffalo storms and Hallie’s other experiences along the Oregon Trail were likely pretty common. This vivid story has its tense moments. Many exchanges later, I told Megan I was “all buffaloed out!”
A Final Note
Children’s book buddying has allowed me to see with the eyes of a child. It now motivates my weekly visits to the library, where I explore child-sized shelves and listen to new readers sound out words as I thumb through books. I leave, my arms filled with books like a kid with an armful of toys. (Did I tell you I put my name in to read at Story Hour?)
I like to think we’re all still children at heart, like the children who never forgot the rocky hill where they entered an imaginary world, the place they called Roxaboxen. Maybe Roxaboxen by Alice MeLerran should be our next selection. After all, there is so much to talk about.