Picture Books About Grownups?


Advice for writing picture books often includes this: your protagonist should be a child. Yet many of my favorites quite blatantly ignore this received wisdom. In fact, several of my own picture books star grownups. I am a questioning sort of person, so for my first VCFA blog post, let us investigate the topic.[1]

Some of my ponderings:

*I am not, in fact, a child. On the other hand, I do know quite a bit about what it is to be a child. On the other hand (I have three hands), I am interested in the lives of all ages. Old, young, in between. Why shouldn’t children have similar interests? Don’t children want and need to read about something other than themselves? Aren’t they fascinated by the things people do? *Aren’t children, like adults, fascinated by the greater world?

*Lots of picture books feature animals (‘people in fur’), some of whom are not identifiable by age. Yes, two of the three bears are parents and one is a baby. But frog and toad? And so many others? They’re grownups.

*Then there is the idea of courage, of breaking the rules, of ignoring the prevailing wisdom, of taking risks as a writer.

*And of following one’s own passions and writing from one’s own heart. Obviously the picture book writer’s heart often involves children. But sometimes it does not. In my BALLET OF THE ELEPHANTS, for example, there are no children, but it was a book I simply had to write; a story that obsessed me for months.

The challenge, as I see it, is to make any picture book, whether about inanimate objects, actual children, or grownups, brilliant on its own terms and enticing enough that it demands rereading. That’s all. Simple.

So here is a list (title and author, no bibliographic info) of some of my favorites that are NOT centered around the lives of children. There are many, many more. Is there anything wrong with any of them? Not in my humble opinion. Are they all picture book biographies, which are often about adults? No. Do they have intriguing characters who face problems and take action, just like many picture books about children? Yes. And I didn’t include hundreds of eligible folktale retellings.

Agee, Jon. Milo’s Hat Trick and Terrific

Allard, Harry. Miss Nelson is Missing (yes, I know there are children here)

Blake, Quentin. Mrs. Armitage and the Big Wave and Cockatoos

Blos, Joan. Old Henry

Bodecker, N. M. Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear

Burton, Virginia Lee. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

Christelow, Eileen. Five Dog Night

Cole, Brock. Buttons

Coleridge, Ann. The Friends of Emily Culpepper (a very weird and wonderful book, OP)

Cooney, Barbara. Miss Rumphius

Cronin, Doreen. Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type (Animals, but I’m sneaking this in)

DePaola, Tomie. Strega Nona

Dunrea, Olivier. The Painter Who Loved Chickens

Ernst, Lisa Campbell. Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt

Fleischman, Sid. The Scarebird

Gag, Wanda. Millions of Cats

Goffstein, M.B. A Little Schubert

Hall, Donald. Ox Cart Man

Hurst, Carol. Rocks in His Head

Jackson, Shelley.  The Old Woman and the Wave

Macaulay, David. Angelo

Martin, Jacqueline Briggs. Snowflake Bentley (a picture book bio, but it’s got to be here)

Gerstein, Mordicai. The Man Who Walked Between the Towers and Sparrow Jack

Pinkwater, Daniel. Aunt Lulu

Rathmann, Peggy.  Officer Buckle and Gloria and Goodnight, Gorilla

Root, Phyllis. The Aunt Nancy books

Rylant, Cynthia. Mr. Putter and Tabby series; The Old Woman Who Named Things

Schubert, Leda. Here Comes Darrell (Tricked you. I wrote it.)

Slobodkina, Esphyr. Caps for Sale

Stead, Philip C. A Sick Day for Amos McGee

Stewart, Sarah. The Library

Taback, Simms. Joseph Had a Little Overcoat

Thurber, James. The Great Quillow (I named one of my dogs Quillow)

Timberlake, Amy. The Dirty Cowboy

Wagner, Jenny. John Brown, Rose, and the Midnight Cat

Yorinks, Arthur. Company’s Coming (one of the funniest books ever written); Louis the Fish

AND SO MANY MORE. What are some of your favorites? And what do you think?


Posted by Leda Schubert

[1] I had already written this post when I opened up the May/June Horn Book and discovered that Leonard Marcus wrote on the same topic. Too late for me to revise! But please check out his article, which is excellent.


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7 responses to “Picture Books About Grownups?

  1. Kathi Appelt

    Leda, this is a wonderful post. I’m working on a p.b. as we speak that has, as its main character, an adult. And I’m so glad that you included AUNT LULU, one of my all-time favorite books despite the fact that it’s all dogs all the time. Love those dogs with their shades.

  2. Bigfoot

    I’ve heard the same “rule” applied to middle grade novels. I’ve never understood it for the reason you say—part of the fun of books is reading about characters who are different from you. From a kid’s perspective, adults are as different as can be.

    A couple of my favorite picture books with adult characters are THE BAKE SHOP GHOST by Jacqueline K. Ogburn and ROSIE’S FIDDLE by Phyllis Root.

  3. Sarah Ellis

    Great list, thanks Leda.  I noticed that quite a number of the adults starring in picture books are . . . (what the heck is the correct term? old? elderly? seniors? seasoned? retirees? persons for whom time is at a gallop?).  Anyway, there is that bond between those at both ends of life.   Since we’re allowed shameless self-promotion on this blog I’ll just mention my The Queen’s Feet illustrated by Dusan Petricic with its all-adult cast.

  4. Julie Larios

    If that “rule” were enforced, we wouldn’t have Tomi Ungerer’s Mellops or Crictor or Papa Snap or Benito Badoglio or Monseiur Racine, we wouldn’t have Harry Allard’s and James Marshall’s The Stupids…oh, my God, we wouldn’t have George and Martha!! The world of picture books would be diminished. Can you imagine the Atwaters deciding that Mr. Popper’s Penguins had to have a child as the main character? What kid would ever have believed that parents would let a child buy penguins? But Mr. Popper buying them – that made sense; after all, he was an adult, and wasn’t it wonderful to see an adult be so foolish, get obsessed with Antarctica and have penguins all over his house? I know, that’s not a picture book, but I think this rule about the protagonist having to be a kid is hogwash. Thanks, Leda, for the list, and for the thought-provoking post.

  5. ledas

    Oh, yes! The Mellops and George and Martha! And Rosie’s Fiddle and The Bake Shop Ghost! And of course The Queen’s Feet, of which I own a signed copy!

  6. Uma Krishnaswami

    Aunt Nancy and Cousin Lazybones and Aunt Nancy and Old Man Trouble, both by Phyllis Root

    And whole families of grownups plus death and inheritance and all kinds of grownup issues (NTM a couple of kids on the side who also grow up) in the quirky, bizarre and completely fascinating McFig and McFly by Henrik Drescher

  7. Louise Hawes

    To your wonderful list, Leda, and the middle-grade books mentioned by others, let me add Richard Peck’s series featuring the wildly eccentric Grandma Dowdel: A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO, A YEAR DOWN UNDER, and now, A SEASON OF GIFTS.

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