on never outgrowing picture books

final-exams from thecommentnewspaper dot files dot wordpressIt was Finals Week for my college-age daughter, meaning she and her friends were stressed out, sleep-deprived, harried with the demands of music juries, term papers, and cumulative exams.

On a whim, she decided to throw an Anti-Stressyummers cover image Picture Book Party. She checked out armfuls of her favorite picture books from the local library, baked yummy treats, and invited a slew of friends to her apartment where they ate cookies and listened to one of the guys read stories.

the philharmonic gets dressed kuskin and simontGarth Pig evading the treacherous Madame Lupino, Frances sobbing over her bread and jam, and the Philharmonic dressing for a concert, all entertained these intellectual college students. Most of them were utterly unfamiliar with these characters. Yet for each of these twenty-somethings, it was a delightful, restorative, imaginative escape which they hoped to do again.

They had not outgrown  picture books.

In Margaret Edson’s play, Wit, callous, demanding Vivian Bearing is a scene from Wit from the examiner dot comcomforted in her final moments by an elderly professor sitting at her bedside and reading her The Runaway Bunny. She was not too old to be reached by a picture book.

What is it about picture books that makes them ageless?

Excellent children’s books tell us things we never tire of hearing. They comfort, embolden, admit, challenge, reconcile, amuse, relieve, broaden. They see humor in life and miracles in the ordinary. They exult in the triumph of the small fellow, and look for the way back home. These things are not merely the realm of children. As C.S. Lewis has written, “a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” (from On Three Ways of Writing for Children)

illustration by Raul ColonBesides all of that, visual art engages us deeply. The combination of storytelling via text and visual art in the form of a picture book, then, is extra powerful. With picture books, we enter into ideas through many doors – rhythm and voice and vocabulary, line and palette and form. There’s an exponential impact due to the melding of written story and illustrated story that speaks to all ages. 

Picture books are short. That in itself recommends them! Limited space for words means only the best and clearest survive the cuts. In just a few minutes, we absorb distilled ideas and facts which took authors and artists a great deal of time and effort to gather, sift, pare down, order, revise, imagine, compose.

In the slimmest of picture books, I’ve learned about a master big snow illustration jonathan beanchef who opened soup kitchens for the poor, and I’ve seen lands from Vietnam to Appalachia through eyes that call those places home. I’ve laughed over ridiculous zebras, admired Harriet Tubman, and been mesmerized by snow. All in just a few minutes.

A breadth of experience and understanding is offered to us in picture books. A wave of good humor, warmth, fantasy, and story can wash over us and relieve our stresses – all in just 32 pages. This brevity makes them an appealing change from longer, stouter works for older children. A fresh, fascinating morsel.

from journey by aaron beckerIf you have relegated picture books to only the youngest children, especially those who cannot read for themselves, I encourage you to reconsider. Check out some titles on my blog, settle in somewhere comfy, enjoy the story, linger over the illustrations, and make some wonderful acquaintances in the world of picture books.

zits by jerry scott and jim borgman 001