5 Great Picture Books about Relationships by Ian Lendler
Hello out there in Nerd-Land! So the second volume in my Shakespeare-inspired graphic novel series is coming out Sept. 29th (The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Romeo and Juliet). While working on it over the past few years, I’ve spent a thinking about great couples in picture books.
I think picture books are some of the best explorations of friendship/relationships that exist in literature. If I put on my literary/child psychology hat for a moment (I’ll be quick, I promise!), I would say that one of the great cognitive leaps we make as human beings is when we break past parallel play and realize that everyone else is a sentient, thinking being. Even as adults, we need constant reminders that “others” (racially, culturally, politically, behaviorally) are “us.” That is where companionship starts. That is where love begins.
Because picture books specifically target children at the age that they make this leap, the best books find eloquent new ways to express one of the most life’s basic lessons: no one is alone.
I’d like to share 5 of my all-time favorites with you. But since this is Nerdy Book Club, I’m going to avoid the obvious classics (George & Martha, Frog & Toad, Bink & Gollie), and let my inner, esoteric nerd run wild.
Welcome to Zanzibar Road
by Niki Daly
Maybe it’s because of the artist’s South African background or the book’s style (five chapters in one picture book!), but this story has a gentle rhythm and character that are really unique. If Richard Scarry had spent time in a bustling African township, he might have created characters like this.
Mama Jumbo (though she has no children) decides to set up house in a new neighborhood. But she soon grows lonely and asks little Chico (an orphan chicken) to move in with her for companionship. As a large elephant and a scrawny chicken, they are certainly an “odd couple.” The relationship becomes something a cross between mother/son and friends.
Over the course of the book, the story slowly shifts from Mama Jumbo’s perspective to Chico’s, and we intuitively understand that many different dramas can play out under one roof, and in one neighborhood. One of my all-time favorite series.
Herman and Rosie
by Gus Gordon
Every year there are at least a dozen picture books (and movies) that follow this basic structure: Two individuals meet, they dislike each other, they grow together, they separate, they realize what they’ve been missing, they re-unite happily.
Herman and Rosie doesn’t do any of that. Instead, it’s a tale of quirky people living self-contained lives full of isolation and missed opportunities all told through a chaotic jumble of mixed-media. In other words, it’s probably the greatest picture-book encapsulation of New York City ever put on paper.
Having spent a large chunk of my life in Manhattan, I enjoyed this book immensely but I harbored serious doubts about how kid-friendly it might be. But then I read it to my kids and realized, what to adults is a tale of heart-breaking, existential ennui is actually a comedy of near-misses to kids. So by the time Herman and Rosie meet (On the final spread! That takes serious cojones to pull that off!), you’re cheering them on all the way.
Bill and Pete
by Tomie DePaola
Bill is a crocodile. Pete is his toothbrush. They are best friends. That is all the explanation offered (and required) in this great oddity from DePaola’s vast catalogue.
But what is it about? It’s not obvious. We see Bill’s frustrating day at school. Bill’s frustrating attempts at spelling. Their run-in with one of the greatest villains in all picture books– “The Bad Guy.”
The cumulative effect is strong. There is no lesson to be drawn from this. This isn’t a “very special episode” in which life lessons are spelled out. Rather, this book is the life of a 4- or 5-year-old child: school, frustration, adventures acted out with flamboyant villains, and the constant companionship of a good toothbrush/friend.
Cat & Mouse: A Delicious Tale
by Jiwon Oh
I’m always fond of stories in which one character might get eaten. Laurie Keller’s Arnie the Doughnut is a classic. But in that case, Arnie is simply worried about saving his own frosting/skin. Cat suffers from a far greater dilemma.
Through Oh’s bright, kid-friendly style and otherworldly Asian backdrops (these are some of the most kid-friendly illustrations I’ve ever seen), we are immediately charmed by the relationship between Mouse and Cat. Mouse is Cat’s best friend. But then Cat reads a cookbook and discovers…Mouse is also her best food.
Perhaps this is not a relationship most of us must suffer from in the real world, but it is a great exploration of the tensions that creep into even the best friendships…and the resolutions that are required.
by Amy Krouse Rosenthal & Tom Lichtenheld
This writer/illustrator team have become a powerhouse lately, so this book has gotten plenty of notice, but I think it deserves a second reading. Breaking the fourth wall has become a trend in picture books in the last decade (Full disclosure: I did it in my first picture book, An Undone Fairy Tale, so of course it’s awesome!), and I couldn’t be happier.
Besides the basic relationship between the reader and the book’s characters, breaking the fourth wall engages the reader in a relationship with the book/author.
“Hey look!” the author shouts at the reader, “There’s a living, breathing, thinking person on the other side of this page!”
But Duck! Rabbit! also forces the forces the reader to recognize the opposing viewpoints of the others reading the book (mom, dad, sibling, classmates). If your home is anything like mine, family members will immediately (and stridently) line up behind Duck or Rabbit…only to realize that neither side is wrong. It’s a powerful lesson.
The sooner a child realizes the existence of different points-of-view, the less chance they’ll get into fights when they’re introduced to that blue dress.
The depth of great couples in picture books is truly awesome (in the original sense of the word), so I would like to give Honorable Mention to a few books that I had to cut with great reluctance for fear of turning this quick Nerdy article into “Infinite Jest.”
Granny Gomez and Jigsaw by Deborah Underwood (Unique characters, situations, and plot-solutions. And that ain’t easy).
The Enemy by Serge Bloch (Genius simplicity)
The Lion and The Bird by Marianne Dubuc (Gorgeous art. More please.)
Odd Duck by Cecil Castellucci, Sara Varon (a great starter graphic novel for kids)
My Teacher Is A Monster by Peter Brown (He’s cranking out classics. Support him.)
When Ian Lendler was younger, he really enjoyed acting in the theater. He was, however, extremely terrible at it. So he became a writer of children’s books (An Undone Fairy Tale and Saturday) and nonfiction. He took a day job de-worming animals at the Stratford-on-Avon Zoo. His latest books are the Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Shakespearean adaptations.