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A Childhood Bond to Illustrations



I was recently asked to look through the children’s books in my church’s small library and resource center. We were a few decades past due for a careful evaluation of our book inventory. The library staff wanted to know if there were books that should be discarded and if I had recommendations for new books. I was thrilled to be able to assist and spend a few hours looking through picture books.


I used this library as a child, probably more frequently than the public library. It was open before and after each service, Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. It quickly became our family “meeting spot” when my siblings and I were old enough. While others had library numbers like “462” or “1329”, my parents were so excited to join that their library numbers were “2” and “3”! This made it very easy for us as kids to check out our own books. We joked that number “1” must have been the senior pastor, though we never did find out for sure.


While I sat on a library stool looking through the pile of possible discards, the process turned into an emotional journey. While some books were easily retired from wear and tear, others made us laugh with such dated artwork or cheesy titles. Then a nostalgic wave from a few special books made me a child again. I reverently handled works that had not only been well-loved but had been well-loved by me. Mine were the little hands that had left the “lift-the-flaps” limp with overuse. I was the one who’d creased soft covers by trying to cram too many books into my bag. I was the one who’d loosened spines by dropping books into the return bin over and over. 


I am not sure if this book helped influence those desires or if my developing natural interests made this book a favorite. Perhaps it was a little of both. Chelsea Barnwell

One book, in particular, caught my attention. It was a simple story titled Debbie’s Birthday Party. Its copyright was 1969. This book was already decades old before it found its way to this library for me to read. There wasn’t much plot, no problem to solve, or any unexpected turns. Honestly, I didn’t really remember the story. However, as I turned the pages, each illustration perfectly matched an image stored deep in my long-term memory. I hadn’t thought about this book since the last time I checked it out over twenty years prior, but from the feelings it stirred, I must have checked out the book repeatedly and pored over the pages for hours. Since I don’t remember the story or words, but the pictures were instantly recognizable, my guess is that this was a favorite of mine before I could read.


It was interesting to note the different activities represented in the pictures: sewing, dancing, and hosting a beautiful party. These are some of my favorite things to do now! I am not sure if this book helped influence those desires or if my developing natural interests made this book a favorite. Perhaps it was a little of both.


As I finish the task of winnowing the book collection, I now look forward to the task of recommending new books to fill the empty spots on the shelves. Clear words, a true message, the sweep of an imaginative story, and beautiful language all matter, but I am vividly reminded that the illustrations are just as important. I imagine little children in our church nursery or preschool classes “reading” a book by the pictures dozens, even hundreds, of times more often than their parents or Sunday School teachers are able to read the words to them. The illustrations imprinted in their minds should be beautiful and meaningful, not merely eye-catching. These little ones deserve both good stories and good art, feeding their understanding and imagination.

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