Why Picture Books Are Important by David Schwartz

by Dianne on November 10, 2014

David Schwartz book cover

Why Picture Books Are Important by David Schwartz
I spent my junior year of college at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. To cure homesickness, I visited the children’s room of the public library, plunking myself down at a low table near the “S’s”—as in “Dr. Seuss.” Nothing connected me to the happiness of my American childhood better than If I Ran the Zoo, Horton Hears a Who, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and McElligot’s Pool. The giant cat who led Dick and Sally on their madcap adventure brought me back to the day my parents had brought home The Cat in the Hat and told me it was better than TV — which it was!

When I comb memories of my early childhood for standout moments, I am struck by how many of them are punctuated by experiences with picture books. Happy, funny, wistful, sad, thought-provoking—whatever my mood, there is a picture book attached to the memory. Most of the titles have escaped my memory but the pleasure has not.

One title particularly influenced my life and my career. It was a thin picture book with monotone illustrations called Cosmic View: The Universe in Forty Jumps by Dutch author Kees Boeke. This book starts with a scene of a girl sitting in a chair holding a cat, drawn at a scale where one centimeter in the picture represents ten centimeters in real life. The next illustration zooms out to a scale ten times that — once cm in the picture represents one meter. Then ten times further and so on, quickly turning the earth and then the entire solar system into receding dots, and even beyond to the realm of galaxies. Then in a deft reversal, the book changes direction and goes from outer space to inner space, returning to the girl and entering the domain of cells, viruses, molecules, atoms and electrons.

What a journey! How utterly fascinating to see the scales of our physical and biological world, and the power of multiplying (or dividing) them by ten. That very concept later influenced Charles and Ray Eames who morphed it into the classic film, Powers of Ten (now easily found on YouTube).

To the young David Schwartz, Cosmic View was an invitation to wonder and imagine on an unbounded scale. These musings gave way, years later, to my first picture book, How Much Is a Million? which I see as a result of the kind of thinking Cosmic View had kindled years earlier. In author visits at schools, I emphasize the value of wonder. “Wondering is wonderful,” I tell children. “You don’t have to be 25 years old to have a great idea. You already do now, so long as you wonder.”

For me, it started with a picture book.

David Schwartz

David Schwartz

About David Schwartz
David M. Schwartz has been wondering about the world ever since he looked up at the stars as a young boy and asked, “How many? How far? How long would it take to get there on my bicycle?” Now he turns his lifelong sense of wonder into award-winning non-fiction math and science books including How Much Is a Million?, If You Hopped Like a Frog, G Is for Googol and Where In the Wild? He has spoken at over a thousand schools around the USA and the world, where he gets children to scream with delight and howl with laughter … about science and math!

Picture Book Month Daily Theme: Non-fiction Monday and Numbers

Curriculum Connections

Science begins with wonder. The scientific method is a way to ask and answer scientific questions by making observations and doing experiments. Most scientists do this without even thinking. However, there are specific steps to the Scientific Method:

• Ask a Question
• Do Background Research/Collect Information
• Form a Hypothesis or “possible explanation”
• Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
• Record and Study Data
• Draw a Conclusion

Using Rotten Pumpkin by David Schwartz for inspiration, have students conduct their own scientific experiment based on something they “wonder”. Some examples from the Classroom Investigations at the back of the book include:

• Does temperature affect decomposition?
• Does carving a pumpkin change what grows on it or how fast it decomposes?
• Does the decomposition process change when animals are involved?

Correlates to the Common Core Writing standards: W.2.2,7,8; W.3.2,4,7,8; W.4.2,4,7,8; W.5.2,4,7,8

LIBRARIANS and TEACHERS OF YOUNGER GRADES: Discuss what the children “wonder” about and discuss how answers could be found. Demonstrate good questioning and research skills.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Norah Colvin November 10, 2014 at 7:07 am

I love what you have said about wonder. It is indeed wonderful! 🙂


:Donna November 12, 2014 at 11:22 pm

David, what a wonderful story about picture books being the main source of your inspiration in this way. It’s WONDERful 🙂 And if you don’t know of it yet: http://www.wonderopolis.org and you can sign up to receive a “wonder of the day” 🙂 Thanks for a great post!


Jen Milner November 18, 2014 at 6:39 am

David, your math books are pretty good, but my kids’ favorite and what really inspires wonder in them is the terrific poems in your “Where in the Wild” series. The imagery, meter and rhyming are wonderful–they seem very different than your usual prose. My two kids have memorized many of the poems by heart. Their favorite is the flounder poem. Did you write the poems by yourself or did you get help? Not bad for a math and science guy! I’d love to see more science/poetry books for children!–Jen


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