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Rebecca Serle Headshot

In Defense of Picture Books

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Picture books have terrible PR amongst the children of this country. Ask any librarian, after a certain age children just aren't interested in the picture book section anymore. It's filled with moms, strollers and unbalanced toddlers. Once a child can read on their own they are about as likely to reach for a picture book as they are to suck their thumb in public. It's just, as they say, not done. These are the books their parents read to them as bedtime stories, the books with mostly pictures, not words. These are, sorry folks, books for babies. Or, at least that's what my seven year old friend Julie tells me.

I take issue with Julie's stance, though. Picture books, while less in word count, are certainly not less important. There are unbelievably skillful authors writing in this vein. Authors like Jane O'Connor and Jon Scieszka. I've said it before and I'll say it again: writing picture books is an art, the art of word choice. And I challenge anyone to not bow down to the brilliance of Mo Willems: "Leonardo was a terrible monster/ He could not scare anyone."

That, my friends, is true talent.

The interesting thing about picture books being lost on the young is that they become, actually, targeted to the old. Or at least the grown-up. Certainly they must appeal to children but the actual buyers are all adults. And we grown- ups like the familiar almost as much as children do which means that picture books last a very, very long time. Goodnight Moon is a staple of any nursery bookshelf. So too are Harold and the Purple Crayon and Madeline. These books are just as much a part of mainstream reading culture as or The Catcher in the Rye and they are passed down from generation to generation. They are books that children learn by heart before they can even recognize the words on the page, and, most importantly, they are books that are shared. Perhaps the most important element of picture books is just that: they take a most solitary act and turn it into a dialogue.

In light of the fact that we love our favorites, it is sometimes easy to forget that new picture books are being written all the time. Picture books that are (dare I say it) just as rich, emotional, smart and evocative as, say, Margaret Wise Brown's texts (well maybe not her, specifically, but definitely others). True, they don't have the history these other books carry for us, but perhaps they will someday for new readers.

To prove it I thought I'd share four of my favorite NEW picture books here. They have all been published in the last two years and they are all, without a doubt, now staples of my own bookshelf. If she's lucky, I may even let Julie borrow one.

HOW I LEARNED GEOGRAPHY by Uri Shulevitz.
Ask anyone who knows me, I will not stop talking about this book. It's my current favorite and has been for at least a year now. It's the story of a little boy in a war-torn land whose father brings home a map one day instead of dinner. The little boy is hungry, and angry, but through the map he begins to explore the world. In the end he recognizes that his father gave him a far more important gift than bread. He gave him possibility.

THE CURIOUS GARDEN by Peter Brown.
I was lucky enough to come across this one at the bookstore last summer. The cover intrigued me and I ended up bringing it home. It's a wonderful story about a little boy who tends a small plot of garden in a big, grey city. The illustrations are sharp and witty, the kind that reveal more on the second read than the first, and the story is a good one. Solid, strong, with an environmental message to boot.

RHYMING DUST BUNNIES by Jan Thomas.
This one is a new favorite of mine. It was recommend to me by a friend a few weeks ago and it's downright hilarious. It's the story of, well, rhyming dust bunnies and one little bunny who doesn't play along. Be prepared to laugh out loud and note: it's fun to read in silly voices.

WAITING FOR WINTER by Sebastian Meschenmoser.
This is a very sweet story with a few funny twists and turns. Winter animals are waiting for the first snowfall, trying to stay awake. The illustrations are absolutely jaw dropping and the animals Meschenmoser sketches are magnificently alive. There is motion, energy and humanity in every animal and on every page. Even in the summer, this book delights.

Now go out! Defend picture books! Maybe we can even get some children to sign on, as well.