In Praise of Picture Books by Randall de Seve
I noticed something sad over years of teaching first grade. As soon as children learned to read, they abandoned picture books in favor of what they imagined to be more impressive, or “grown-up,” chapter books. I’m sorry to say that some of their teachers and parents did, too.
What many children (and the adults that guide them) don’t realize is that the best picture books can be equally, if not more, sophisticated than some of their longer kin. Plus, you can have an entire picture book experience in a fraction of the time it takes to read a novel; said another way, you can have a wide variety of experiences in that same time.
So what, exactly, is this picture book experience?
“There is in a picture book, make no mistake, something for the eye, something for the heart, something for the mind, something for the funny bone, something for the senses,” said renowned author and editor (my first, in fact), Patricia Gauch in her inspiring 2012 New York Public Library talk, “The Picture Book as an Act of Mischief.”
Inspired by this talk, I’d like to comment on each of Patti’s somethings:
Something for the eye: A couple of years ago, I wrote picture book-based curriculum for a network of New York City charter schools. The lessons followed a strict format, teaching children to deconstruct each of the 32-page titles with a critic’s eye. While I felt the curriculum may have gone overboard in its academic approach, it astonished me as to how much meaning and nuance I could find in the best picture book illustrations. These pictures did much more than entertain; they helped tell their stories with appealing characters and settings, and conscious use of perspective, composition, symbol, color, line, material, shape, texture, you name it. How’s that for an introduction to art?
Something for the heart: My favorite picture books go right to it; they make my heart swell and contract, soar and plummet with the emotional highs and lows of their characters. No matter if these characters are animals (Mr. Tiger, BLUEBIRD, SPARKY!), monsters (Leonardo, the Wild Things), children (ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER; BRAVE IRENE) or even a little iceberg (CECIL, THE PET GLACIER), we relate to them; they are distilled versions of us. Or at least us at moments we know well. As such, picture book characters invite us to see ourselves clearly, and then to talk about ourselves safely and with humor.
Something for the mind: Great picture books, though short, say big things. Through metaphor, fantastic worlds and characters or just beautiful exposition, picture books go beyond the literal facts of their stories. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is not just about a boy having a wild rumpus with some monsters; and FERDINAND is not simply a peace-loving bull. Right?
Something for the funny bone: Not all great picture books are humorous, or even contain bits of humor. But widen the definition of funny to include “odd or strange” or “differing from the ordinary in a quaint or eccentric way” (Websters), and you’ll be able to describe most picture books. Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Picture book writers take this advice to heart. We’ll personify anything (SOPHIE’S SQUASH) and go anywhere (JOURNEY, LOST AND FOUND), we’ll push and pull and twist a plot to grab the attention of our young audience and say what we need to say; anything is possible in picture books.
Something for the senses: Can you see young Einstein’s Beam of Light? Or taste Mr. Tiger’s boring tea? Can you feel that cozy EXTRA YARN or Willy’s fear in THE STRAY DOG? Or smell the rock on Strawberry Hill that “smelled like a rock” and not at all like Sylvester? Can you hear LILLY’S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE play its “jaunty tune?” or the creaky voice of THE DARK? Or those BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL: “Kuplink, Kuplank, Kumplunk?”
I can. And I do. So does my 10-year old, who pulls picture books from our shelves as often as she does chapter books. Because even though she’s been reading the latter for ages, my husband and I never put our favorite picture books away in boxes when the kids got older, or sold them for pennies on the stoop. Why would we? These exquisite collaborations of story and art–devoured on our own or in a delicious cuddle–continue to speak to us. They are important, and so they stay.
Books included in this post:
TIGER GOES WILD, by Peter Brown
BLUEBIRD, by Bob Staake
SPARKY! By Jenny Offill and Chris Appelhans
LEONARDO, THE TERRIBLE MONSTER, by Mo Willems
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, by Maurice Sendak
THE DARK, by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen
ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
BRAVE IRENE, by William Steig
CECIL, THE PET GLACIER by Matthea Harvey and Giselle Potter
THE STORY OF FERDINAND, by Munro Leaf
SOPHIE’S SQUASH, by Pat Zietlow Miller and Anne Wilsdorf
JOURNEY, by Aaron Becker
LOST AND FOUND, by Oliver Jeffers
EXTRA YARN, by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen
THE STRAY DOG, by Marc Simont
SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE, by William Steig
LILLY’S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE, by Kevin Henkes
BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL by Robert McCloskey
Randall de Seve is the New York Times bestselling author of Toy Boat, The Duchess of Whimsy, and Mathilda and the Orange Balloon. Her newest book, A Fire Truck Named Red, illustrated by Bob Staake, is on sale now. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband, two daughters and a very wicked dog named Henry Biscuit. Learn more about her at randalldeseve.com.