100 Picture Books by Michelle Webb Fandrich
In September of 2014, I attended a workshop with the incredible Liz Garton Scanlon. It was a weekend intensive focusing on the Complete Picture Book, from idea through revision. Liz’s task was to lead us through the early stages of ideation and drafting. At the end of her time with us, she proposed a challenge. Liz asked each of us to commit to reading 100 picture books in six months. “100 picture books? In six months? Easy Peasy,” I thought.
And so I left the workshop with Liz’s challenge in mind and set about reading my 100 picture books. I’d visit the book store every Tuesday when the new releases came out. I became a regular fixture in my local library’s picture book section, weeding through all the lovely picture books they had on the shelves. I posted my reading on Pinterest and Twitter (#100picturebooks). I read indiscriminately, sometimes quickly, sometimes closely, I read and read. It was like wading through an ocean of picture book texts. Just floating along in that ocean was enough to allow for some absorption of what the qualities of a good picture book (and a bad picture book, for that matter) are. But soon I wondered, what if I read deeper – instead of letting that ocean of picture books wash over me, perhaps it would be better to bail it out, one bucket (or book) at a time, and examine it more closely. What might I find?
As the six months progressed, my pace slowed. I continued my reading habits – regular trips to the book store and the library – but instead of stacks and stacks of books each week, I read two or three. Closely. Carefully. Instead of just reading for volume, I was reading for depth. It was around then that I revisited my notes from that workshop with Liz.
Let me just say here that I’m an experiential learner – I tend to dive right in and then paddle back to shore when I realize I might need a tad bit more guidance to swim across the ocean. So knowing that, it should be no surprise that when I returned to my notes; I saw that when Liz suggested we read 100 picture books, she had also given some pretty clear steps for how we might get the most out of our reading. I’ve come to think of it as a three step process.
Read for Pleasure
I find the books that get me inspired – whether it is their cover art, a charming premise, or a clever book review (ahem Nerdy Book Club). I read them just for what they are – good books. I bask in the language, I read them out loud, I take them in, pictures and words. That picture book goodness I was looking for? I’m soaking in it.
Read for Substance
Once I’ve enjoyed the combined beauty of art and language or laughed until my sides hurt at the perfectly paired written and visual joke, I take another look and ask questions. Is this book child-centric (I would say if it’s made it to the shelves of your book store or library, there’s a 99% chance it is)? And more importantly, what makes it child-centric? Is it a book that begs to be read again? And why? I look for compelling characters that draw me in. I look for a satisfying, yet inevitable conclusion that leaves me with that “ahhh” feeling. These are the polished sea glass moments I want to instill in my own work so that’s what I look for as I read.
Read for Structure
Structure may seem to be the most obvious piece to pluck out of a story – looking for the rule of threes and how it is or isn’t used, charting the plot, picture book standards such as the child or childlike stand-in solving the problem. But I resist the urge to distill my reading into outlines and graphs charting the course of the story until the very end of my time with the book. Doing this has allowed me to see how the author has so artfully draped all that is interesting and funny and enchanting, all that makes their work a unique drop in the picture book ocean, onto the framework of structure so that, in the best of books, structure all but disappears.
I’d like to think I’m a stronger writer today because of all the reading I’ve done and continue to do. I do think that I’m a grateful writer – grateful to Liz for the challenge and for the guidance (and only a bit sorry that I had to paddle back to shore to get it).
Michelle Webb Fandrich was once a fashion and art historian. She spent many years getting lost in the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where she worked in the Costume Institute) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (where she worked in the department of Costume and Textiles). These days, she spends her time getting lost in children’s books of all kinds (picture books are her favorite). And when she’s not reading, she writes books for children.