How many words does it take to teach a meaningful lesson in critical thinking? 5000? 1000? 500? And how young could your audience be and still get something out of it? Ten? Eight? Three? Imagine you have been challenged to teach a three-year-old child something about metacognition in fewer than 300 words. It may sound impossible, but picture books do it every day.
Obviously, we aren’t asking toddlers to parse the Monty Hall problem or navigate the prisoner’s dilemma. But figuring out how to make decisions – and assessing the strength of both that process and the decisions themselves – provides the foundation for any bigger questions you might want to pose. And because toddlers are still figuring out this whole decision thing from scratch, they engage with this process without hesitation. Most people are familiar with the characteristic “why” stage, with curious young minds asking about everything from how toasters work to why people have hair. But spending time with a toddler makes it clear that children this age are probably also asked “why” more than any other humans on the planet. “Why didn’t you tell me you had to use the potty?” “Why do you think the lamp is going to bite you?” “Why did you stuff your napkin into a full glass of milk?” All of these fall within the realm of an average morning. And the answers are often delivered with a blank-faced sincerity unparalleled in adults: “I wasn’t done with my book,” “The lamp can see me,” or “It was wet.”
Parsing the logic of seemingly id-driven actions takes work on both sides – grown-ups trying to follow staggering non sequiturs and toddlers trying to articulate their logic with a limited vocabulary and foggy grasp of pronouns. One common arena for these kinds of conversations is the reading of picture books. Try as I might to explain the decision-making process, I can’t imagine I will ever approach the clarity and impact of Mo Willems’ Should I Share My Ice Cream? Spoiler alert for those have not followed this particular adventure, the elephant gets some ice cream and has to decide whether to share it with his best friend, Piggie. Elephant takes so long making the decision that his ice cream ultimately melts, and Piggie shows up just in time to console her friend by sharing an ice cream cone of her own. This synopsis contains neither the humor nor the melodrama of the original story. But my ~894 readings have taught me that young readers can not only follow the logic of deciding whether to share, but also be driven to such sympathy to need to hug the book on pages when the characters look sad.
Part of the magic comes not just from the ultimate decisions, but the steps the characters take in making them. Each step is laid out and illustrated for the reader. The initial excitement, the realization that he has a chance to share, the question of whether he should share, the question of whether he wants to share, the discovery of an excuse to keep the ice cream to himself, and the logical breakdown of that excuse. On one page, the elephant gleefully determines that the chance that Piggie might not like the flavor absolves him of any reasonable obligation to share. He looks at the ice cream with almost manic anticipation. But flip the page, and you witness the honest admission that Piggie would, in fact, like that flavor. I can’t decide if it sounds simple or complicated, but there is power in the page turn. It even drives some critical analysis of my own behavior. Am I overthinking this story as a defense mechanism against the hundreds of times I will likely be asked to re-read it? Probably. Do I care? No.
And limited text and few powerful illustrations can take on concepts more nuanced than sharing. On its surface, Galia Bernstein’s I Am a Cat follows a small house cat on the journey of convincing its larger peers – lions and tigers – that it too is a cat. In the process, the characters engage their assumptions, personal bias, in-group/out-group dynamics, combating misconceptions with logical arguments, and changing their minds when faced with convincing evidence. There is even a reasonable primer in taxonomic practices thrown in for good measure. Both kids and grown-ups can appreciate a small, stripey role model standing its ground when laughed at, and responding with calm, careful evidence rather than visceral frustration. Even when the argument is about tails, pointy ears, and claws, it is a welcome change to see evidence-based arguments result in changed minds and a collective kitty romp rather than finger pointing and assertions of us versus them.
For those who will spend the foreseeable future in the land of picture books, there is comfort in recognizing opportunities to challenge assumptions (Last Stop on Market Street) or giggle at terrible logic (the final lines of the classic Madeline). But there are also lessons for those tasked with conveying complex ideas to unexpected audiences. There is a source of hope. Not only can we start conversations about critical thinking before they can be fully considered conversations, but we can remember the power of a clear narrative in opening conversational doors that might otherwise be closed to us. If picture book authors can use their prodigious skills to engage toddlers in logic, trade-offs, and critical decision making with 500 words and an ice cream cone, the rest of us can take the time to get to know our audiences, find the right narrative, and open the door to conversations with a shared story.