Why We’re Still in Love with Picture Books (Even Though They’re Supposed to Be Dead)

Click here for original article on 'The Horn Book'

by Allyn Johnston and Marla Frazee

Maybe now, while we’re all running around wringing our hands and wondering if picture books are dead, it’s time to declare our love for them.

What is a picture book, anyway? In the most basic, classic, and very best sense, you could say it’s a story for young children told in both words and pictures that unfolds over thirty-two or so printed pages that are sewn together at the spine and housed within hard cardboard covers. And this story, when read aloud, will cast a spell over all who are present to hear it and look at it; and, with luck, it will go straight into their hearts and never be forgotten.

On good days, we don’t think picture books are dead — or even that they are dying — but we’ve heard the rumors and felt the rumblings. On bad days…well, this isn’t the place to talk about the bad days. Let’s just put it out there right away: we are making no predictions here about what may or may not replace traditional picture books, and we are not offering any opinions about whether it’s an exciting, scary, sad, or wonderful time. We just want to say that we love picture books. And we want to say why.

It’s theater!

The words in a picture book are written to be performed. They are meant to be read aloud. Each syllable, each line break, each sentence’s placement on the page and where those critical page-turns occur, the rhythm, the word choice, the repetition (and maybe even the rhyme, if it’s done well) — all of these are massively important. The goal is for everything to come together in such a way that the reader of the book becomes a star performer and their audience adores them. The read-aloud experience should be so extraordinary that practically as soon as the book is closed, everyone just wants to open it up and do it again.

It is a simple circle — if the adult reading the story loves the story, that adult will love reading it aloud, and because he or she is having such a positive experience, the child experiences love for the story, and by extension, love for the person reading it. And when this happens, a space is created — a holy space, if you will — where the book, the child, and the adult are under a spell together. It may be a quiet, dramatic, or wildly raucous spell, but it is a spell nonetheless.

When picture books really work, it is because they make us feel something intensely. Every word, every picture, and every page-turn (especially that final one) contributes to the emotion and builds toward a completely satisfying ending. The words, the pictures, and the intimacy and theater of the moment all combine for a dynamic and loving multi-sensory experience.

Kids are picture-reading virtuosos!

While the words in picture books are meant to be read aloud, children can read the pictures on their own. They don’t need to be taught this skill and are, in fact, way better at it than grownups. They study pictures for story, meaning, character, setting, plot, and motivation and for a parallel, counterpoint, or secondary narrative. They notice everything, which obviously includes any mistakes.

A few years ago, at a book signing for Santa Claus: The World’s Number One Toy Expert, an earnest boy of around five came up and said, “There’s a mistake in this book.” He then pointed to an illustration of a girl twirling a baton on Christmas morning, which was one of fifteen gift-opening vignettes sprinkled across a double-page spread (see above), and explained how the speed lines indicate that the baton is moving one direction, but the tassels are moving the other direction. Of course, he was right. Yikes.

If children are confused by the pictures, it’s because the pictures are confusing. The child doesn’t need to be taught how to read the picture better; the picture needs to be better!

When we read aloud to kids, we know they can understand and appreciate complexities in language and story far beyond their ability to read words on their own. But the amazing thing is, without any help from us, they are experts at understanding the complexities of story to be found in the illustrations.

The pictures allow a not-yet-reading child to make his or her own way through the narrative of a picture book. You see children take this path when they pick up one they have just heard and then plop on the floor with it to study the pictures intensely, page after page, for a really long time. Pictures speak to them, and they understand what the pictures are saying. They are not stressed. They are privately and independently learning how stories work. They are “reading.”

When we were finishing All the World, written by Liz Garton Scanlon, the copy editor asked a question about the final art. “You can’t see what the little girl on the last page is holding. Problem?” This little girl is the same little girl who picked up a shell on the opening spread of the book and proudly showed it to her mom when the text says “a shell to keep.” The shell is never mentioned again in the word-story, though it does appear one other time in the book twenty-eight pages later in the party scene, where it’s sitting on the floor next to the girl while she plays hand-clapping games with a friend.

We talked at length about whether the shell should show in that final picture, and then decided to leave the piece as is, with the girl’s hands cupped around something that isn’t quite visible.
When the first proofs arrived, a friend read them aloud to his three-year-old daughter, Maggie. When he finished, there was a palpable hush, and then Maggie whispered, apropos of nothing: “I know what she has in her hands.”

Because this picture-reading skill is one that seems to reside mostly in childhood, the intricacies to be found in pictures (and the way these intricacies weave themselves in with the words) often remain unseen by those of us who are no longer children — even those of us who are writing, illustrating, editing, reviewing, and buying the books. Unfortunately, many picture books are published without enough of the visual-narrative richness and depth that children are so capable of finding.

When Max returns to his room in Where the Wild Things Are and finds his hot supper waiting for him, there is much to take note of in the illustration. But one of the most moving and powerful details is that piece of cake sitting there on the table. The cake is only in the picture, not mentioned in the text. A grownup might miss it, or not bother to glean any meaning from it. But a child, with those expert picture-reading skills, will see that cake and understand that Max’s mom is no longer angry with him. You do not get dessert if you are still in trouble. It’s like a secret message, from picture to child, that says, “Max is okay. Don’t worry.”

The pictures don’t move!

Part of the reason picture books work so well for young children is because the pictures are notmoving. Of course pictures move all the time now everywhere anyone looks — and there are amazing and terrific benefits to this, benefits that can be expansive, educational, practical, or just plain fun. But it’s the nonmoving pictures in a picture book that make the young child a truly active viewer.

Check out these YouTube videos of two little kids we don’t know: three-year-old Gavin, who’s reading Roller Coaster (www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvuU9-TVnnw), and two-year-old Molly, who’s reading Hush, Little Baby: A Folk Song with Pictures (www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxdBBY8hYhI). Gavin sits on his bed and “reads” the book from cover-to-cover, often using his finger to trace the words and point out elements in the pictures. He adds gestures and sound effects to demonstrate the physical workings of the roller coaster. He swings his arms around, holds them in the air, covers his eyes, and screams as if he’s actually riding it. He even looks sad when the ride is over. Molly sits on the floor while “reading” and singing Hush, Little Baby. She supplies verbal sidebars that describe what the characters are feeling and makes up imaginary (yet totally appropriate to the story) dialogue between them. In fact, she animates the characters almost as if she were playing with them in a tiny dollhouse. And it’s obvious from the way the children are also engaging with their off-camera parents that both families have shared many previous cozy read-aloud experiences with these books.

If the coaster in Roller Coaster were doing more than it is doing on the plain, simple, quiet picture book page, Gavin would not be interacting with it in such a spirited, physical way. He would probably be just sitting there, passively mesmerized. But because the pictures are still, he is motivated to expand them and interpret what perhaps came before and what perhaps will come later. Or add to them — as when Molly inserts her own commentary into Hush. The interactivity with the story comes from the child. It’s not predetermined by someone else.

In the nonmoving pictures of a traditional picture book, the moment depicted has been carefully chosen. Ideally, each picture has evolved through a rigorous editorial process of thumbnails, sketches, and multiple dummies, through trial and error (in our case, mostly error!), and has arrived at a complete, compressed moment that goes perfectly with the words on each page, propels the story forward, and leaves spaces in the narrative that can be filled in by a child’s imagination. If with a click, buzz, or beep, the image changes, moves, or spins — as it can already do and certainly will continue to do in many dynamic new formats — it becomes another kind of experience for the child. A valid experience, yes, but not a picture-book experience.

Witnessing the comfort and coziness of Gavin’s and Molly’s environments, the love between the children and their parents, the fact that the children themselves are determining when to turn the pages and how to deliver the words, their freedom to touch the paper and spread the books out before them — this is why Gavin and Molly are so compelling to us. These are children of today interacting with picture books right now, in this time of rumors that picture books are dead.

They’re a drug — and legal!

Australian picture book writer and literacy expert Mem Fox wrote the following in Reading Magic,her brilliant book about the power and importance of reading aloud: “As we share the words and pictures, the ideas and viewpoints, the rhythms and rhymes, the pain and comfort, and the hopes and fears and big issues of life that we encounter together in the pages of a book, we connect through minds and hearts with our children and bond closely in a secret society associated with the books we have shared. The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading. It isn’t achieved by the book alone, nor by the child alone, nor by the adult who’s reading aloud — it’s the relationship winding between all three, bringing them together in easy harmony.”

Or, as a harried lawyer-mother-of-a-toddler once said to us, “Reading picture books with my son is the only calm time of our days. He calms down and I calm down. It knits together our frayed edges.” That shared experience, those private moments, that calming power — it is a very potent thing.

We’re clearly not alone in believing that sharing traditional picture books with children is one of the best ways to grow them up. If a child’s life is filled with picture books, read aloud from birth, he or she will be better able to process the complexities in the world, read with deep understanding, and emotionally connect with themselves and with others. And the adults in their lives will grow right along with them.

So are picture books dead? Is the form over? To us that seems like an absurd question. It’s kind of like asking: Is love over? Is love over between a parent and child? Is love over during story time? In a classroom? In a library? On a lap? At bedtime? And the answer to that is obvious.

Of course not.