Once upon a time.... may be the oldest trick in the writer's bag, but we still fall for it—especially if it's accompanied by pictures. There's a sense in which all picture books are fairy tales (even the ones that take place in New York City or a log cabin) simply because they're able to transport us in a way words alone can't. We become part of the story viscerally, sensing the subtleties of mood and place and texture.
Not all picture books are created equal, of course. We don't go in for VeggieTales, or Disney, or Sesame Street (etc. etc.), preferring the more classic style (like Caldecott winners) and newer ones that are more artistic (as opposed to merely visual). The only thing a second-rate illustration can do is make you mourn the preeminence of Saturday morning cartoons, whereas a good one has the capacity to take you inside.
We're not trying to be snobs about this, but if we offer our children picture books to read and look at, we want them to be of the highest quality. We want the text to be excellently written, the plot well-crafted, the illustrations rich and vibrant. There's a very real sense in which a child's imagination is formed by the things he or she sees as a small human, and if they only get to look at poor drawings there's a pretty good chance their creative powers will end up severely limited.
If you've encountered the illustrations of Trina Schart Hyman, Robert McCloskey, Mauric Sendak, or Michael Morpurgo, you'll know what we're talking about. Good picture books have a way of showing us things we've always seen or imagined a little differently, tilting the canvas of the familiar to make it seem a little less so, more wild, more mysterious, more real.
When we say "picture book," there's one thing we aren't talking about: illustrated fiction. Not that illustrated fiction is bad in any way, it's just not the same as a picture book. Illustrated fiction is primarily text with some plates or drawings thrown in for good measure; picture books focus on the artwork, with text either subordinate, incidental, or explanatory. In a picture book, the pictures tell the bulk of the story. Also, this section does not include non-fiction. There are lots of excellent science, math, biographical, and other types of picture books—we have plenty—but they are in separate sections (see below).
Which is precisely why they're such a great way to introduce kids to reading. They don't have to know what the words say to get the gist of the story, yet when they do begin to learn what the words say, it's easier for them to grasp the meaning since they're already familiar with the basic premise. Many kids have learned to read this way, and we suspect many more will do so in the future.
That is, if they have access to quality picture books at a young age. We like them proliferating throughout the house like small landforms, squeezing out of bookcases, turning up beneath the couch and on top of dressers. Just remember—they aren't only for children. In fact, adults often need them more, to connect with their progeny, to recapture a sense of youth, or simply to rest when words stop making sense and only pictures are able to communicate.