As I type this, I’m about to embark on Week 1 of what I’m calling my Picture Book Summer. That is, my summer will be filled with more picture books than it normally is.
For the first time, I’ll be teaching. It’s a graduate course for a university, and the course is called Picture Books Across the Curriculum. This means I’ll talk with my students, all of whom want to be (or already are) librarians, about what it means specifically when we describe something as a picture book; how picture books work; why we use picture books; and how we use a wide array of them in schools: nonfiction, poetry, international picture books, fiction, biographies, you name it.
And why am I excited about teaching? Well, there are many reasons, but the primary one is because their biggest assignment will involve them reading a veritable slew (to be precise) of picture books. I’m going to arm them with list after list of award-winning books and tell them to have at it, to read as many picture books as they possibly can during the summer of 2013. One often hears that the best piece of advice for aspiring picture book authors is to read picture books—and read them very often—to learn how they work. I say: Anyone who plans to work with children and picture books (or even teens and picture books)—and especially anyone studying how a good picture book works—needs to immerse him or herself in them. There is no other way.
I want them to read widely and deeply and tell me what they think: what moves them, what repulses them, what baffles them and what makes them want to cheer. Mem Fox once wrote, after all, “If we don’t laugh, gasp, block our ears, sigh, vomit, giggle, curl our toes, empathize, sympathize, feel pain, weep, or shiver during the reading of a picture book, then surely the writer has wasted our time, our money, and our precious, precious trees.”
Hearing their thoughts will be a pleasure, since it will likely force me to see and think about many books in new ways. And, even though I read picture books widely, I will surely be exposed to some books I’ve not yet seen, and I will undoubtedly re-visit old ones to see them in a new light.
Does it get any better than that?
In prepping for this course, I have been reminded that studying picture books is one of the most fascinating areas of academic study, one that crosses many disciplines (art, education, sociology and much more). I believe that picture books are the most unique and complex of art forms, “inherently adventurous,” as Nathalie op de Beeck once described them. In a recent panel on picture books in mid-May at Washington, D.C.’s Politics and Prose, the great Leonard Marcus, moderating the panel, said we hear the word “magic” used often to describe picture books and that the word isn’t too strong. They are “a miraculous extension of life itself,” Patricia Lee Gauch has written, and “something for the eye, something for the heart, something for the mind, something for the funny bone, something for the senses.”
And there’s so much to discuss now and a lot for students to ponder. As the picture book panelists discussed in mid-May, what do we do about the issue of economic disparities with picture books? (Do picture books, priced at $17.99 or $18.99, make it harder for economically disadvantaged parents to buy picture books for their children?) What about e-picture books? As Marcus once said, digital books will have to prove that “they’re more than a glamorous gimmick.” Will they ever? What is it about the reigning Caldecott winner, as Minh Le has recently asked, that strikes a chord with readers today? And what about, as Betsy Bird has asked, the “girl bears”? Are we limiting girls in contemporary picture books?
There’s a lot to discuss and learn, and I’m reminded that right now—this very year, this very moment—is an exciting time to be a fan of picture books.
What picture books will you be reading this summer?
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.