5 Picture Books to Make the School Year Beautiful—And Why Beauty Even Matters for Kids

08/04/2017 09:01 am ET Updated Aug 04, 2017
Photo by L.L. Barkat

When I was teaching my daughter to read, many moons ago, she was already a budding book critic.

“These pictures are ugly! These words aren’t interesting! I don’t want to read these books.”

So much for the scintillating world of learn-to-read titles.

I was surprised to discover, just this year, that way back in that world of carefully-controlled language and stick figures, my daughter privately vowed to start reading “bigger books” as an escape route from early readers. Okay, so that didn’t turn out so badly. She made a plan, and today she’s an avid reader and a beautiful writer.

But, of course, the reason she knew that picture books, and then chapter books, were her key to freedom was that I’d been reading them to her all along. She delighted in the lure of delicious words, magical worlds, and beautiful illustrations. Today, at age 20, she can still tell you her first book loves. And these childhood favorites are still on her shelf, beside Macbeth, Aristotle, and her high school “pretty geometry book, which is just the best.”

Because my daughter has always been an artist, I assumed that her taste in beautiful books was unique—an aesthetic preference. I never dreamed she might have been exhibiting a strong case of caudate nucleus phenomenon.

Why Should We Care About Our Kids’ Caudate Nuclei?

In an intriguing observation on the role of beauty in learning, Ian Leslie mentions the caudate nucleus—a region seated in the center of the brain (Curious, page 14 ).

Though “caudate nucleus” doesn’t sound particularly beautiful if you’re not into neuroscience, it’s actually beautiful indeed—or, well, it’s involved in our responses to visual beauty. The caudate nucleus is also involved in verbal fluency and multiple types of learning. Without getting too complex, the important point here is that besides helping to control behavior (and prevent, for example, hyperactivity), the caudate nucleus helps us eventually perform integrated procedures such as reading.

Leslie’s side note was ultimately that curiosity, piqued in the caudate nucleus by beauty and promoted by the excessive dopamine this brain region traffics in, may play an important role in learning.

Say Goodbye to Boring and Ugly

When our kids yawn, cry, or get rebellious during learning tasks, we’re tempted to blame the kids. Sometimes, we even increase the pressure in the face of their lackluster or frustrating responses. Soon, the spiral begins. Kids are unhappy, teachers are stressed, parents are worried or outright upset—which increases the pressure, which escalates the unhappiness, stress, and distress… and so on, and so on. Everyone loses.

Not all kids will grant us an obvious window into their learning hearts. My younger daughter, who cared a lot about pleasing the adults in her life, was less expressive when a learning method was less than impressive.

Bottom line: why should we wait for kids to yawn, cry, or rebel—especially when some, like my younger daughter, never will? We probably know instinctively that we should make learning tasks less “boring and ugly,” but for those of us who’ve pushed this instinct aside, the caudate nucleus calls: make it beautiful to make it a better learning task!

5 Books to Make It Beautiful This School Year

Donalyn Miller, author of Reading in the Wild, suggests having a core collection of books that stay with a class for the whole year. These are books you can return to, sort of like a good cup of tea, for comfort and community building. Plus, as she notes based on research, “rereading books increases comprehension and enjoyment.” (p. 175)

Taking our cue from the caudate nucleus, we can choose our core collection not only for themes but for also beauty. Here are five new and old favorites, some of which, yes, are still on my daughter’s bookshelf. Take it from her, or take it from neuroscience. Stock your shelves with the beautiful.

One Horse Waiting for Me (out of print, but worth searching for in your library)

That’s it, from our beautiful shelves. We’d love to see what’s on yours, if you want to offer some beautiful recommendations.

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