5 picture books to read aloud with melodramatic zeal, especially if you love world languages

I’ve hinted at this in my posts about learning foreign languages, but I like to get a little silly when my mind is the most engaged. It makes tasks that might be onerous into a bit of fun, and it keeps my sometimes whiffly energy levels from flagging in mid-effort.

My own two kids are big enough to read on their own now, but ours is a household of almost constant excited interruptions to share some great, new sentence, paragraph, or page of written work. In fact, I wooed my husband by reading an entire (admittedly short) novel* to him one afternoon at the beach.

I’ve read and re-read a few top favorites aloud to my boys even at advanced ages well past the “tell me a story” years; I think I’ve read these books to most of the younger friends we know, too. I’m that adult who always has time to read to a child. Some stories are too delicious not to share.

Two of my favorites are very popular and well-known American picture books I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere:

Bear Snores On (Karma Wilson)

Click Clack Moo (Doreen Cronin)

You can’t go wrong with either of these. If you’re like me, and you read them a few times, you may memorize most or all of the text! It’s hard not to when the rhyme and rhythm of the stories flow like song lyrics with every reading. This was a great help when the middle of our stapled paper Cheerios box freebie edition of Click Clack Moo lost a page. We closed our eyes and imagined those illustrations as I recited from memory.

Two other wonderful read-alouds were gifts to our family from the PJ Library program, a non-profit that strives to provide Jewish books to all interested Jewish or interfaith families with kids aged six months to eight years.

Something from Nothing (Phoebe Gilman)

The least obviously rhyming text on the list shows up in Something from Nothing, but the writing still has a poetic quality. There is a regular rhythm, both visual and verbal, to the way each new page spread builds upon the last as the story moves ahead. This one also happens to have a beautiful message about favorite things “wearing out” and being lost, whether you see it as primarily ecological (using something up completely without waste) or self-reliant (making the best of what you have) or some combination thereof.

Something from Nothing depicts a lovely inter-generational relationship between grandfather and grandson. It has the most detailed artwork of any book on this list. The wonderful, whimsical pictures, drawn by the author herself, include an entire silent second storyline hidden beneath the illustrated floorboards. Pre-readers might particularly enjoy poring over this aspect on their own.

Beautiful Yetta (Daniel Pinkwater)

My absolute favorite book to read to children, I’ve given Beautiful Yetta as a gift several times. This book is amusing—telling the tale of a valiant hen who “will not be sold. She will not be soup… She is free”—and includes the great fun of combining English, Yiddish, and Spanish in the text. Don’t worry, there are phonetic transliterations so you don’t need to read Hebrew letters or know either Yiddish or Spanish to share this book. You can also try on your Brooklyn accent when the rat tells Yetta to “Get lost!” This one is less obviously moralistic than some children’s books, but certainly carries on lightly with themes of self-reliance, serving others, and loving yourself and your friends as you are and in spite of your differences.

Except cats who try to eat you. Those, you scare away with confident words and wide-spread wings.Book Beautiful Yetta excerpt

ΡΕΠΚΑ (translation: Turnip; pronounced “Ryep-kuh”)

Not every reader will be able to share this story with their kids, but if you are even a beginning student of Russian, the frequent repetition makes this a great confidence builder for deciphering Cyrillic characters and the cadence of the story makes it so much fun to read aloud. In our family, where the kids heard Russian from native speaking grandparents from birth, this served all of us well.

Book Repka cover

When I said these stories were delicious read-alouds, I meant literally, and not in the modern sense where literally now officially means figuratively. DS2 chewed off that missing corner.

Hopefully the text is pretty classic, because my edition isn’t available on Amazon in the US, but here’s a link to a bilingual Russian-English version. We own two versions of this story, and this little red book (©2002, ISBN: 5-7865-0003-9) definitely tells it better as far as enjoyable read-aloud cadence goes. Not being fluent in Russian, I can’t say if the language itself is any more refined.

If you know of other wonderfully rhythmic read alouds that shouldn’t be missed—especially if they include foreign content in German, Spanish, or Russian while being accessible to a language learner—please share the titles in the comments!

*The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector, haunting, and lyrical even in translation; it’s one of my all time favorite books

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