The power of a picture book

History in literary language

by Karen Andreola

It was the 1990s. Dean and I tucked our young children into bed with a story. We then crept downstairs into the kitchen for a hot drink. Dean took his steaming mug into the living room. A minute later, I followed.

“Where’d you find that?” I asked as I entered the room. “It’s been missing for ages.” I smiled as he held up the remote control.

“Under the seat cushion &hellp; with a pencil stub and some popcorn.”

With this shortfall in my cleaning routine staring me in the face, I said curtly, “Get up, please. I need to sweep out the sofa.”

“Right now?” Dean responded with a slight raise of the eyebrows. “I just got comfortable.” He spoke calmly and glibly. “Let’s watch something before it gets too late.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s eight ten. There may be something on PBS. We haven’t checked in a long time. There might be something good on.”

“Okay.” I acquiesced, but it took a minute.

“Hmm, it’s a documentary,” he stated, “about the Vikings, it looks like.”

“Oh, the children and I just finished reading about Leif, Eric the Red’s son. Is there a blank video around somewhere? We could record this for the children.” The Man of the House obliged me. He pushed a video into the slot.

As we watched the PBS special, a dignified man with a gray beard, in a suit to match, sat in a leather chair and spoke with authority. He was a professor. Behind him, the walnut bookshelves and paneling gleamed. A beautiful, barren, windswept hillside on the coast of Nova Scotia replaced the professor’s office, panning to the site of what was once a dig. Under the rubble of moss and lichen-covered rocks, a tiny artifact had once been uncovered. Back in his study, the professor spoke again. I was waiting to hear something I hadn’t already learned from what the children and I had read in our picture book. I grew impatient. Dean was bored but endured. After some minutes, I said, “That’s enough. No use taping this.”


“We learned similar facts on the Vikings in homeschool this week, and in a more interesting manner.” Being a bookman, Dean understood.

This incident, which took place in the middle of our homeschool years, stands out in my memory. The moral of the story is no matter how expertly constructed a short educational special (for adults) can sound or appear, the book is better. In this case, even the children’s picture book was better. It brought forth similar facts, and then some. After my years of home teaching with well-written children’s books, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

During rare moments when a busy home teacher is able to sit comfortably somewhere, she is likely to be found on the sofa with a picture book in hand, her children close beside her. Cozy and sweet? Yes, it is. These cozy times, however, should not be underestimated in their power to train children in the habit of attention. And picture books, or storybooks, have a wonderful way of introducing a subject, especially history.

A knowledge of history is gained through the unfolding of a story. For this reason, history is best understood through literary language. Focusing on the story of history allows children to develop their powers of imagination. The use of imagination will be advantageous to the intellectual activity of a student in the school years that follow when there are fewer pictures in his books. The serious side of history, the details of politics and philosophy, can be saved for the older student. Through a well-written story, even a picture book such as Leif-the-Lucky, children in the elementary years can learn to see the connections between events and learn to trace causes.

Children can be asked to orally narrate back a few pages of the story in their own words. “Describe the place where Leif explored and called Vineland.” And if a teacher thinks her young student can tell her more, simply ask, “What else?” Along with the enjoyment of the story comes the mental benefit gained through the effort of narrating it.

Hearing her student narrate history is the best way for a teacher to find out what he knows. And if you compared to the kinds of facts and interesting tid-bits brought forth in your child’s narration, with what is conveyed in a video “special” presented by experts, you’ll be less inclined to undervalue the power of a picture book, if that is your tendency. But perhaps, unlike me, you won’t be surprised.

Biographical Information

Home educators know Karen Andreola by her groundbreaking book A Charlotte Mason Companion. Karen taught her three children through high school—studying with them all the many wonderful things she missed during her own education. For fourteen years the Andreola family researched products, and wrote practical reviews for Christian Book Distributors. Knitting mittens and sweaters for her grandchildren, and crossstitching historic samplers are activities Karen enjoys in her leisure. For encouraging ideas, visit her blog: www.motherculture.com.

Copyright, 2015. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, Summer 2015. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.