Stop what you are doing right now, and burn all your books. (or how to tell if a picture book is good simply by reading it) by Bob Shea
Let me ask you a question.
How much are you paying for Netflix? Cable? You get a couple of premium channels? Maybe a sports package? Internet connection, what’s that run you a month?
Cell phone service?
Add them up. Go on. Use your phone, it has a calculator.
Whoa! That’s a lot! Okay Richie Rich, you in a position to throw that money away, or are you going to make the most of those services?
Well, you can’t make more hours in a day, so let’s carve out time where we can. Sleep less? No, that won’t work, I’ve tried. Eat less food? Ha! Right. Less exercise? Really? What’s less than never?
What’s that leave us?
That’s right. Bothersome reading.
Think of all the time reading steals from mindlessly poking at your phone, catching up on the wonderfully curated lives of Facebook acquaintances or binge watching every episode of your favorite sitcom. (I’m talking to you, Full House.)
All it takes to lift the burden of a literate life is a rusty old oil drum, a couple busted up wooden palettes, and some type of accelerant (kerosene, maybe?) to get things started.
“But Mr. Shea, do I have to burn the books? Can’t I just hide them in the basement or throw them in the dumpster behind the chicken wing place in town?”
Where kids might find them? What’s wrong with you? Oh, and please, call me Bob.
Look, are you in or out? What’s your level of commitment? No seriously, I bet you’re reading right now, the very thing I suggested you not do.
Fine. It’s your money.
When someone asks, “Hey, did you see that really worthwhile thing on Twitter?”, don’t come crying to me staring at your feet with your nose in a book.
Oh, you know what I mean. Well, Brainiac, if you insist on reading, I guess I can help you figure out how to tell if a picture book is good or not.
Can you spell the author’s name using a combination of these letters? E, B, A, H, O, S.
Then it is good. Tops, in fact.
There is another way, but it’s a little harder.
You have to read it.
Wait, I’m not done. Don’t go grabbing the first picture book you see and start reading all willy nilly, without parameters or a task to ruin the joy and spontaneity of the experience.
Okay, here is how I tell if a book is good. More accurately, here is what all the books I like have in common.
I love a book if the author loved making it.
“How can you be sure, Mr. Shea? I mean Bob. You only have the book to go on, you didn’t see them make the thing. Did you?”
No, most times I didn’t and if I did, they sure didn’t know I did. The thing is I don’t have to see them, it’s apparent in the work. One of my favorite picture books is Laurie Keller’s The Scrambled States of America. The thing I love about this and all of Laurie’s work is the joy that comes through on every page and in every joke. You can just imagine Laurie up late at night sketching and painting and cracking herself up. Then tossing whole illustrations because she thought of something funnier, or moving things around to stick in one more joke.
My son is ten and still pulls this book off the shelf out to read together. He loves it and likes seeing his Dad crack up. We’ve been reading this book for years and we still find jokes hidden in there. Let me say this, there’s no way that book was delivered on time. I’m sure they had to tear it away from her, “One more day! I thought of another wisecrack for Montana!”
You should get one.
“Wait, isn’t that the filthy one with the bad swear word in the end any kid who reads it is destined for a life in and out of juvenile detention centers and what about college, oh you can forget college with that trash flopping around in their brains?”
YES! That’s the one.
What I love about this book is it’s simplicity. Two characters sitting in a room having a conversation. The personalities are clearly defined and the timing is pitch perfect. Imagine this Lane fellow walking around during the day (he obviously doesn’t have a job) having this hilarious conversation in his head, replacing one funny line with another. Oh, and when he came up with the Treasure Island as text speak bit, he must have been impossible to be around.
Lane: (giggling to himself)
His lovely wife, the talented Molly Leach: Are you thinking about that Treasure Island bit again?
Lane: OKAY! YES!
Oh Lane. See, that’s what makes a good picture book great. The people who make them (who otherwise should not be trusted) put all of themselves into them.
They aren’t writing what they think they should write, they are writing what they know is right.
Wow, that sounded pretty smart. Who’s the nerd now, book club?
Bob Shea has written and illustrated more than a dozen picture books, including Dinosaur vs. Bedtime, and is the author of Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads and Big Plans, both illustrated by Lane Smith. His writing career began at Comedy Central, and his characters and animations have appeared on Nick Jr., Playhouse Disney, and PBS Kids. You can find him on Twitter as @bobshea and online at bobshea.com.