A Bloodhound with Picture Books

I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’m a picture book snob from way back.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about controlling or censoring or even criticizing what children read or, more accurately, what parents read to children. Far from it. Read, read, and read some more. Anything. Everything. Read them the back of the cereal box as you’re sitting at breakfast. Read them the outdated books that were read to you as a child. Read them things that other people tell you you shouldn’t read to them because the author is a person whose politics (including those that lived a long time ago in other cultural and societal contexts, but don’t get me started) you may not agree with personally. Read them books over and over and over – young children crave that. Read them things that make you smile, things that lull them to sleep, things that you dreamed of sharing with your children. Just read. As long as they’ll let you. Whether they can read or not. Read with intonation, read in the “voices” of characters. Get into it. Reading together is love.

Speaking of children who know how to read…did you know that research has demonstrated* that being read to out loud has the same impact on the development of children’s reading fluency as children reading themselves? In simpler terms, children’s reading abilities are increased just as much by being read to as by “practicing” or “doing their 10 minutes of reading” (bleh!) that their teachers may demand. It’s true.
*(Yes, I have citations; I seem to have lost them, but will add them here when I get a chance, in the meantime, maybe you could trust me a little bit?)

But can we get back to snobbery for a minute?

See, the thing is, my friends, picture books (we’re talking about picture books right now, not chapter books or other children’s literature) are not just things to read to children. They are a genre, an art form, and a body of literature. Picture books, as a genre, are unique as they rely equally upon visual art, design, and text, so there is the potential for beautiful art in combination with beautiful writing. And, as it just so happens, they are one of my favorite art forms, even as an adult. Yes, it turns out that there are many adults who maintain a deep love and admiration for great picture books. Maybe you’re one of them–if so, I’m waving madly! And…the sad truth is that not all picture books are great. Just like not all art is great and not all books in general are great. Or maybe it’s not sad; maybe it just is. I’m a huge fan of the great ones, and of course, being the snob that I am, I think my opinion about which ones are great is…well….right. Yeah. I’m not shy about this. I am laughing at myself, though. That’s got to be good for something.

So, Robin, what are your favorite picture books? Ah, I knew you’d ask that. That’s such a hard question. And as not-shy as I am about all of this, I don’t want to make enemies or cast aspersions (“aspersions” – what a good word that is) on books that you may love, nor to to insult anyone who has put in the hard work of creating a picture book, which is no small feat. So I’m not going to answer that question here. Maybe when we meet up sometime. We’ll go out for coffee after a workshop or we’ll hang out by the fire at night at a Visible Child weekend retreat, and we’ll talk great picture books. Deal? Deal.

Okay. Fine. I’ll give you one. “The House in the Night” by Susan Marie Swanson, and illustrated by Beth Krommes, is a masterpiece. Beautiful in every way. I accidentally happened upon it when I was a parent volunteer in the school library at my daughter’s elementary school (way back when!) I helped out in a variety of ways, including shelving books, and by doing “shelf reading”, which is going through shelves making sure books are in order, something I just love, even as it might seem tedious to some. The book just appeared one day, and even just from the cover, I had to read through. That’s another great thing about picture books–you can read through them quickly, nothing like those nasty adult books with no pictures that you have to read all the way through, 300 pages, line after line, before you can assess whether they’re terrific or not. Adults, ugh. Anyway, I saw it. It grabbed me. I sat down in one of the tiny wood chairs. I flipped through. I swooned. I proceeded to buy it for everyone I knew who had young children, because well, it’s just so perfect.

Some of you might be thinking “Okay, but what does this have to do with respectful parenting?” Ah, good question. Thanks for wondering, I love a curious sort.

A lot. It has a lot to do with respectful parenting, in particular the lens through which we view children, which as many of you know, is at the heart of the work that I do.

We live in a culture that, well, doesn’t think much of children in general. We don’t trust them, we don’t see them as particularly capable, and in our oh-so-wonderful (yes, sarcasm) capitalist way, we are acutely aware that they are not direct consumers, voters, or decision makers. We also tend to hold a cultural belief that children are recipients of education or information–people we “give knowledge or information to” rather than collaborators or co-constructors of their own knowledge and skills. These beliefs and attitudes tend to shape everything that is made or meant for children. Young children are not going to recommend or even remember a powerful or important book that is read to them, so it doesn’t really matter what we write for them. It’s more financially lucrative to churn out endless spin-off books of mass media characters, because “that’s what kids will bug their parents to buy.” By the same token, consumers of artwork and people who appreciate art are usually adults, or at the very most, older children or teens. Why would anyone put weeks or months into creating an amazing museum-worthy piece of art, the result of hours of detailed work for a child who “can’t/wouldn’t” even appreciate it or even notice?

I’m sure you have the idea by now. Picture books — at least the very finest ones — are an active resistance to these notions. Young children do appreciate and value beauty and color and technique in artwork. It captivates them just as it captivates older people. Young children do appreciate and can be entranced by words and the way they are put together – rhythm, cadence, rhyme, playfulness, feeling, solemnity, lulling, repetition. Cynics may argue that these works are for adults, who purchase the books. I disagree, even as this positions me as uncharacteristically idealist. I believe that these books are created for children, and for young children at that. I’ve heard too many authors and illustrators say as much to believe otherwise.

These works demonstrate a countercultural and phenomenal respect for children as people. Children are worth great literature, careful and beautiful writing. Children are worth great art, painstakingly and lovingly made. These books do not “talk down” to children, whether in words or images. It will come as no surprise to those of you who know and love Visible Child that this, above all, is why I love these books so much.

So is that what the “bloodhound” is about, you ask? Is it really just about sniffing out beautiful (according to me, of course) picture books? I mean, that would make sense. But no, it’s actually more than that for me. It’s more about the intersection of two significant forces that have dominated my mind and my work for more than two-thirds of my life; namely, a passion for art and a devotion to the world of child development, and the knowledge base that it rests upon.

I’ve talked a lot here about beauty. Beautiful writing. Amazing artwork. The ways in which those show deep respect for children as “readers” (which includes being a listener.) We have not yet talked about my other picky criteria for greatness in children’s books, the part that comes from the devotion mentioned above. Yup. They don’t only have to be beautiful and well-written to make my “list.” The authors also have to show that they understand their audience, which in this case means that they know about child development, they know how young children think, they know how children process information at different ages, and they know at least a bit about the “limitations” (tough word, because it makes it sounds like it’s a bad thing, which it isn’t) of cognitive development in early childhood.

I know. Tough crowd. It’s not the first time that’s been said to me, or of me. It’s okay, I can take it. I mean, it’s true. I am a tough crowd. Yes, all by myself. I contain multitudes.

So…yeah. Every snobbery has its criteria. Here are mine. There are really only two (or three if you insist on separating writing from illustration): 1) Beauty. 2) Text that meets their audience where they are.

On that “audience” thing: Yes, I know that parents are technically “the audience” since we buy or check out the books and we’re actually reading them. That doesn’t count. I want a book that, while we may buy it or read it out loud, is speaking directly to the child. Because that’s part of being respectful. The book is supposed to be for the child. That’s why we’re reading it to them. It should speak to them, directly.

So there it is. As you might imagine, I don’t find a lot of books that fit in this category. They are like literary needles in haystacks. You’ve seen the picture book section at your children’s library or bookstore. It’s immense. Thousands upon thousands of picture books, narrow spine after narrow spine. And like I say, read them. Any of them. All of them. Any one your toddler pulls out while wildly and randomly pulling books off the shelf.

As an aside, and in the spirit of “books just falling into your lap”, this is how I was introduced to the book “Ida Always” written by Caron Levis and illustrated by Charles Santoso. I was at the public library hanging out with two young friends of mine, children of other dear friends, neither of them near reading age. One of them grabbed Ida Always off of a display and handed it to me to read out loud. I sat down, as you should if a child pulls down a book and hands it to you, and I began to read. If you’ve read this book, I bet you can guess what happened. Yeah, I read it. Or more precisely, I blubbered through it, while my small friends listened and looked at me with a bit of alarm. It’s another spectacular book, this time about death and grief. Few books handle the topic as well as this one. Great book. (Oh, shoot– there, I named another one, darned impulse control!)

What moved me to write this post on this day? As you may have guessed, I spent some time in a fabulous bookstore yesterday (you can usually find me in the children’s book section!). I picked up and browsed through the “hot new titles”, some by otherwise famous authors. Nope. Nope. Nope. And then I saw a book that intrigued me, in the semi-non-fiction section of the picture book section. It was a picture book which shall remain unnamed for our purposes. Its subject was an admirable one, so I picked it up. It was about why people sometimes march or protest for causes that they believe in. What a great idea, and arguably valuable topic to talk with children about, even as some of it may be largely above their heads during the early years, maybe an excellent addition to my library.

Now I know some of you may have seen this book, or can at least probably figure out what it is. And maybe you love it and maybe your children love it. Or maybe you feel like well, there aren’t many books on this topic, and it’s important to you, so you include it because the topic is valuable. Fair enough. More power to you. I’m just here to say that your children deserve to have a book that talks about this subject in language that they genuinely and completely understand, as people who do not yet process or fully understand abstract concepts. No, it’s not because they’re “not smart.” It’s just what cognitive development looks like in early childhood. Yes, I understand that some of you are certain that your child does understand complex abstract concepts and words. That’s a place where we can be easily fooled because children can repeat back to us what we have told them what words and concepts mean. That’s something young children do very well: repeat what they have heard. It’s not the same as genuine understanding. There’s time for that, it’s coming, they’ll understand as they grow, I promise. This is why I ran a group on how to explain things to children for several years, because this idea of meeting children where they are, even in discussing complex or big or serious subjects, is so very near and dear to me. Ironically, it’s why the group no longer operates–arguing with parents about what children genuinely understand at different ages in the interest of advocating for meeting children where they are was not my cup of tea, and inevitably a poor use of my time. And unfortunately (I guess), development is one place I can’t compromise.

But back to picture books for a moment. The kicker here is that young children are capable of understanding some of these concepts if we can break them down and talk about them in concrete ways that match what we know about their development, rather than what we want or wish for them to understand. Unfortunately, this book didn’t do that. Maybe for some of you, it would be a great starting place, and you would read it and then build upon it with more developmentally appropriate conversations. Again, more power to you. Sounds great. It’s just a red flag in the book department for me, that’s all I’m saying.

Needless to say, as I stood in the bookstore, I shook my head, and I put it back. And okay, I ranted out loud for a bit to the unfortunate people I was with. “REALLY?” “THEY ARE USING THESE WORDS FOR FOUR-YEAR-OLDS, AS IF THAT EXPLAINS THINGS?” Yeah, I’m testy. It takes a certain kind of courage to go into a bookstore with me, I’ll give you that.

Man, Robin, you drive a hard bargain. The books have to be perfect. Well, no, not exactly. But yeah, kind of. I mean, only for me to buy the books or want to add them to my library. Of course, I’m not the only one. We all look for books, movies, and media that are “perfect,” or at least preferred, by our particular criteria. No one buys or owns every book, sees every movie, watches every show, either for ourselves or for our children. We all make choices. These are simply mine.

The upside of my in-bookstore rant is that I accidentally fell upon another book (see how that keeps happening?) that was very close by on the shelves. The first thing that grabbed me was the artwork. The lure of a cover, eh? The art didn’t “talk down” to children. As you can imagine, I like that a lot. Art. Beauty. Well-crafted, rhythmic language that meets young children where they are. Check. Check. Check. So lookee there, I bought a book.

Are you a lover of picture books? What are your favorites? What are your criteria?

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