If you love picture books and don’t already know about Politics & Prose’s annual picture book panel discussions in D.C., take note. This year in early November, they had their third annual discussion, which I was happy to moderate, called “Too Good to Miss—Picture Books for Older Readers.” Those speaking at the event were author-illustrators Christopher Myers and Jason Chin, author and poet Jacqueline Woodson, and illustrators John Parra and Chris Soentpiet. (Editor Nancy Paulsen was scheduled to speak but was unable to attend.)
Let me back up a bit and explain the history of the event itself. Here’s how Politics & Prose describes it:
“Two years ago, a spellbinding event with author and editor David Levithan and author Jacqueline Woodson made us eager to hear more conversations between major figures in children's and young adult literature. To create forums for authors, editors, and illustrators to exchange opinions and ideas, we organized panels on both picture books and graphic novels. The panels were so successful that our picture book panel is now a yearly event that we look forward to as much as our customers do.”
That part about eager customers? They’re not kidding. This cozy and intimate bookstore space has been packed with people each year, readers and children’s literature fans eager to hear conversations about the topics they love. You can see for yourself on YouTube, because the bookstore videotapes the discussions and posts them annually. How wonderful for folks who cannot travel! (Grab some popcorn and hot cocoa, because posted at the bottom of this piece is 2013’s discussion, moderated by historian Leonard Marcus, with editor Neal Porter; authors Mac Barnett, Meg Medina, and Jon Scieszka; and author-illustrators Christopher Myers and Laura Vaccaro Seeger, as well as last year’s discussion, also moderated by Marcus, with editor Richard Jackson; author Jen Bryant; illustrator R. Gregory Christie; and author-illustrators Brian Floca, Susan Roth, and Duncan Tonatiuh.)
That brings us back to November’s discussion this year, which the bookstore has recently posted:
This year’s conversation centered on using picture books with older readers, which inherently frames picture books in a curricular, more utilitarian light. It was clear, however, right off the bat that everyone agreed picture books can be for all ages—“We’re all young at heart, and I don’t think that should ever die,” said Parra—yet it’s often the marketing side of books that attaches an age-range label to a picture book. “There are clearly different answers on different ends of the industry,” said Myers, who added that age levels, or even topics, have little to do with who actually “receives” the book. “I love haiku, microfiction, prose poetry—these short forms with no age limits on them.” It is all of these things, and more, that influence what he writes. Writers, he stressed, don’t often have age in mind, when creating. “I don’t have a picture of the reader in my mind,” added Woodson, who also noted that readers at various ages take different meanings from picture books. “When I write, I am not conscious of who is coming to [my books]. I’m conscious of myself coming to it and if it delivers to me.”
Nevertheless, it is adults who set the tone, as Woodson noted, for how students learn, and many educators use picture books in the classroom with older readers in ways that make them relevant to the students’ lives. Bringing picture books to school visits with middle schoolers or even high schoolers, Chin said, can even “make the mood lighter,” and Soentpiet talked about his own visits to schools where he felt like he reached older readers—sixth, seventh, and eighth graders—with realistic stories of social justice, biographies, and the like. Picture books also can be used as writing tools, not to mention with those students for whom English is a second language, as well as their parents.
The discussion turned toward the stigma that some adults place on using picture books with older readers, Myers noting that as he talks to children and teens across the country he never experiences the stigma coming from the students themselves. Woodson wondered if perhaps the stigma (that picture books are for “babies”) comes from publishers, bookstores, or perhaps even libraries with regard to how they’re marketed and where they’re placed in collections. “We need to change the message around the presentation of picture books,” she said.
After Woodson read an excerpt from one of her picture books, we were all struck by the notion of a computer algorithm (the type that determines reading levels for books) trying to compute a number to match the complex, poetic phrasing she spins and the “complicated way of thinking,” as Myers put it, that Woodson captures. “Books are not finite,” he added. “Books, ideally, grow with the reader, if you do it well. That’s what makes a successful book.” And there are simply no algorithms for the kind of wonder that prompts that growth, for a picture book story that gives one chills, and for the rich, complex language found in many picture book texts.
Too Good to Miss, indeed.
(Again, posted below are the 2013 and 2014 Picture Book Panels.)
Photo above (from left to right): Jason Chin, John Parra, Christopher Myers, Julie Danielson, Jacqueline Woodson, Chris Soentpiet. Photo credit: Politics & Prose.
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.