Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Why I Love Picture Books

After I got accepted into VCFA, the assistant director of the writing for children and YAs program sent me a few lists of suggested reading. One of those lists was The New York Public Library's 100 Picture Books Everyone Should Know. (The other was the School Library Journal's 100 Books that Shaped the Century, which also has a lot of picture books on it, along with some chapter books, MGs, and a few YAs.)

I'll admit that, up to this point, I never gave picture books much thought. I don't have kids, and I haven't babysat someone who was PB-age appropriate for about nine years, so the need just wasn't there. And I don't write picture books, I write YA, so I didn't think I would need to look at that section of the bookstore for at least 3-10 years, when hubs and I start having kids (you can see the jury is still out on when that will actually occur). So when I was at the library last week, I figured I would pick up a few of the picture books, just for fun, and bring them home.

And, wow.

Picture books are amazing. They are funny, heart-warming, and even bring tears to my eyes. They have beautiful lessons about morality, friendship, courage, being true to yourself, humility, and all of those things that kids (and most adults) need to learn - but always presented in a fun, easy-to-access way.

There is no way that writing picture books is easy. (Not that I need to tell any of you that.) I read one book about riots in L.A. (Smoky Night by Eve Bunting, illustrated by David Diaz). It talked about riots, obviously, but also about race relations, and used cats and children to demonstrate the point that tragedy will often bring together people who have had major differences in the past, even if they're very different from each other. There's this kind of amazing moment in the book where the child narrator says a line of dialogue, and he says all the adults get very quiet - it's exactly how the moment would have happened in real life, because the moment was poignant and pure. I never knew picture books could be so powerful, but they are.

I also loved Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett. This one is meant for a slightly younger audience than Smoky Night, and it had me laughing out loud. I even made my husband read it, I thought it was so great. Then I read Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann, which was just wonderful. It's about friendship and loyalty, and shows how teamwork is the key to success. Plus the illustrations on the inside covers are so funny, I appreciated them even more after I finished the book.

I guess the point of this post is that there is definitely a subtle art to writing picture books. You need to appeal to the right age group, get the right lessons across without being too preachy, and adding a touch of humor is always nice, too. And revisiting picture books as an adult, especially as an adult writer (whether you plan to write picture books or not) is a great exercise in studying the basics of powerful storytelling. Because these books elicit strong emotions, and stick with their readers for years to come. (Remember how you feel thinking about your favorite book as a kid? I remember I used to make my dad read The Monster at the End of This Book almost every night to me, even after I was old enough to read it myself. I think once I even told him I could read it, but really I'd just memorized the words from multiple tellings.)

I don't think I'll try picture book writing anytime soon. But maybe someday, after reading and studying enough of the outstanding books out there, I'll give it a try. I have a feeling there's no way I'll measure up.

Now, you tell me: What's your favorite picture book?


  1. Welcome to the beautiful world of picture books (it's like the best-kept secret, right?). :) You and I definitely need to talk.

  2. Oh, I don't think I could pick a favorite, but one that popped into my head right away was Stellaluna. It's both beautifully written and beautifully illustrated.

  3. Hopefully this doesn't post twice, having some computer issues :) Enjoyed your post - I had never given picture books much thought, either, until I took a Resources for Children class a few years ago and I had to analyze books. I thought, "It's a kids book, what's there to think about?" But every word and illustration is so carefully considered - it's amazing.

  4. These books come up often in my teaching classes, pretty much for the exact reasons you mentioned you liked them. They are entertaining, tell a good story, have good lessons, usually have really nice artwork, and can be read by just about anyone (meaning you could be in the middle of your elementary school education and still understand it). They convey what we teachers call "big ideas" (the rest of the world generally calls them "life lessons") in a small space. And, as you say, they aren't all just kids' stuff.

    And you absolutly LOVED showing off your "reading skills" - you recited The Monster at the End of This Book to anyone who would sit still long enough for at least a month. :)

  5. Oh, and to answer your question: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day; If You Give a Mouse a Cookie; Don't Let the Pidgeon Drive the Bus; the Skippyjon Jones series; the Nate the Great series...

    Ok, you know what, never ask a teacher for her favorite picture book!

  6. Peggy Rathman is awesome. In Ten minutes to Bedtime, you can see the distant zoo animals following the zookeeper to his house in a view out the window, from Goodnight Gorilla (also by her). And Ten Minutes to Bedtime has SUCH cute little hamsters in it.

  7. I'm definitely reading my share of picture books right now. Luckily, we're getting into some books with an actual plot, which I appreciate. One of my favorites right now is BEAR SNORES ON. I love the rhythm (and actually sing it to my daughter--yes, I'm kind of lame). I have so much respect for picture book authors!

  8. Officer Buckle and Gloria is one of my favorites also!!!! Just seeing it on your blog post gives me a warm fuzzy feeling!

    I love picture books and use my 3 kids as camouflage (and now my blog) to indulge in them. But I am now also giving them as gifts to adults:

    Teacher who got married and invited her 2nd grade students (my kid included): Lily's Big Day by Kevin Henkes

    College Grads: Oh, The Places You'll Go by Dr. Suess.

    Just my subversive way to sneak in wonderful picture books into everyone's consciousness.

    Pragmatic Mom
    Type A Parenting for the Modern World

    I blog on children's lit, education and parentin


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