How we decide which picture books to save from our kids’ childhood

pile of picture books

By Mary Janevic

“These all have to go,” my tween daughter declared.

She pointed to the slippery mountain of picture books on her bedroom floor. I glanced over at her bookcase. Three of the four shelves had been entirely cleared.

“I’m making room for my books.”

The heap was only a fraction of the picture books we had owned at one time. It was made up of our favorites, the survivors, the books that had escaped the periodic culls that sent the rest of our collection to donation bins. The books’ last remaining territory was in my daughter’s room, because she was the youngest.

But now their time had come, too. Off went Room on the Broom, Days with Frog and Toad, and the Paper Bag Princess. On went the Hunger Games trilogy and A Court of Thorns and Roses.

I stared at the pile, trying to decide where the evicted books should go next. I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of them. Would it be weird to keep them in my own bedroom?

It was the official end of the picture book era in our family, and I was surprised by how bereft I felt. I’m usually able to purge outgrown clothes or toys without feeling too bogged down by nostalgia. I treasure my memories of the little-kid days, but I wouldn’t want to go back. I appreciate the independence of teens. I enjoy learning about the world with them, instead of always explaining it to them. I love being taught a TikTok dance rather than leading them through a round of Wheels on the Bus.

But seeing those discarded books tugged at something inside me.

There was so much magic contained in that jumble on the floor. Fairies, wizards and monsters. Softened portraits of daily life (equally fantastical). The absurdities of Dr. Seuss and Mo Willems, which make perfect sense when you’re reading them with a small child. Julia Donaldson’s skillful rhymes that propel your voice like it’s motorized. Each book in that pile had some special quality that kept it on heavy rotation for years. The Pocket Dogs. Harry’s Home. Plum Tree Cottage.

But the books’ artistic value wasn’t the only reason I was reluctant to see them go.

Once upon a time, when the kids were very young and the days long and relentless, picture books were my lifeline.

We always hear how beneficial it is for children to have parents read to them, never about how good it is for parents to do the reading. But looking back, those books were like therapy for me:

The books transported me

A mouse went strolling through the deep dark wood/
He saw a nut, and the nut was good. (The Gruffalo, by Julia Donaldson)

Therapy sometimes includes guided imagery exercises, to lead you to a calmer mental space. Picture books are even better. They’re the original virtual reality. To read one out loud with children is to grab their hands and plunge into a self-contained tiny universe. When we opened The Gruffalo, we entered the mouse’s hushed wood, breathed in the cool still air between the trees. By the second page, our own world—the one with knee-deep toy clutter and spilled Cheerios and unwashed breast pump parts in the sink—was already far behind.

The books centered me

Winnie lived in her black house with her cat, Wilbur. He was black too. And that is how the trouble began. (Winnie the Witch, by Korky Paul and Valerie Thomas)

Being mindful—focusing all one’s senses on the present moment—can enhance well-being. Mindfulness comes quite naturally to kids, as anyone knows who has gone on a walk with a toddler that takes half an hour to go twenty feet (the ants! the sidewalk crack! a candy wrapper!). Book illustrators know it, too. The images in picture books are packed with details, enough to withstand repeated readings. We discovered something new in Winnie the Witch’s house—the tiny lizard on the wall, the pitch-black toilet—every time we read her story. A slow, focused trek through a picture book slows you down, centers you.

The books soothed me

Then I dreamed I was sleeping on billowy billows/Of soft-silk and satin marshmallow-stuffed pillows. (I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, Dr Seuss)

Moms are told to prioritize self-care, but when you have small children, this can feel like yet another task that you don’t have time for. Cuddling up with a book and a few warm kids was as close as I got to a spa visit in the middle of the day. The kids and I would get snuggly, their wild kinetic energy on pause. A kid or two burrowing into my lap, another leaning into me on the sofa, a small head pressing into my shoulder like a Swedish massage. Words from the pages warmed as I murmured them over fuzzy heads. I’d make sure we had a stack of books in easy reach so we could stay cozied up like that for a good long time.

The books stepped in for me

You’re not awake/it’s six o’clock./You hear a ring, you hear knock-knock. (The Birthday Monsters, by Sandra Boynton)

Therapists—and friends—always remind you to take it easy on yourself. The best thing about picture books for a wrung-out parent is that the authors have already done the hard work. On the days I zombied around the house after another fragmented night with my terrible sleepers, I had no capacity for play that required creative effort on my part. Like Hide and Seek, or an art project. But when you read out loud, there is a path from eyes to mouth that circumvents the brain. I’m pretty sure I read some books to the kids while I was, neurologically speaking, asleep.

Sometimes people would tell me what a great job I was doing with the kids, by reading to them so often.

But here is my confession. If all that reading had really been for them, like trying to get them to eat vegetables or practice the violin, I wouldn’t have done nearly so much of it. I don’t have that much good-parent energy in me. That whole time, I was doing it for me.

And so I’m hanging on to our collection of favorites, like an emergency supply of sanity, in case I’m ever called on to take care of little humans again.

Mary Janevic is a health researcher and part-time writer. She lives in Michigan with three kids, two guinea pigs, and one zillion books–some of which are in a box in the hallway because she still can’t figure out where to put them. Follow her on her brand new Twitter account at @Mary_R_J.  

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