Tag Archives: picture books

Picture Book(s) on the Subway

            A few weeks ago, Ken and I were all dressed up and heading to a party in the middle of Manhattan.  The occasion was my agent’s fifteenth anniversary party and I had in tow a picture book, Mitchell Goes Bowling, by Hallie Durand, illustrated by Tony Fucile, that I wanted to get signed by the author. 


I knew she would be at the party, and I had every intention of getting her to sign it.  (Confession:  I will haul a book thousands of miles in order to get a signature).

            At any rate, our stop was a ways off, so I decided to show the book to Ken while we rolled along the tracks. 


            Our car was crowded and noisy, but that was okay.  I was only sharing it with Ken, who sat right next to me.  That is, I thought I was only sharing it with Ken.  At one point I stopped to show him a particular illustration that just made me laugh, but while we were pausing on that page, the young man on the other side of Ken said, “Hey, keep reading!” 

            Then another person chimed in with, “Don’t stop!”  I looked up, and all of the people in our end of the car were staring at me and smiling.  Without even knowing it, the book had drawn in at least a dozen people.  I didn’t need any more prompting.  I held the book up and read the last few pages. 


          As I closed the book, everyone started clapping. Of course they did!  It’s a book that merits applause. 


            I have had so many happy reading experiences in my life, and many of them have occurred while traveling, from all the books I read to my kids as we drove down the road, to the many books that I’ve read on airplanes, but that one on the subway made my heart sing. 

            Here we were, strangers, each of us wrapped up in our own worlds, each of us going our own ways, and each of us in the presence of that most wondrous of all literary accomplishments, a picture book, and in this case, a book that calls for a “steaming hot potato dance.”

            As we rolled to our stop, Ken and I waved to our fellow readers.  We had shared such a small moment, but also such a happy moment.  There are many glories in a picture book.  There is the wonderful economy of text.  There is the highly satisfying experience of the perfect match of text to art. There is the art itself.  But most important is the glory that comes from sharing it. Voice, as it turns out, is a most essential ingredient, turning a book into that fundamentally human enterprise–story.

            The members of our small subway cadre will likely never meet again in our lifetimes, but we will always be part of each others’ lives now because we did something together that people have been doing since the dawn of time—we took a story, we took the art of it, we put it all together, we went along for the ride.

            And that, my brothers and sisters, is what it’s all about.     


                     Have any of you ever had an unusual picture book reading experience?  Tell us about it, why don’t you!


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Beyond Visual Literacy — Uma Krishnaswami

There’s been a lot of talk about the demise of the picture book. Parent Tracy Grant summarized the heated debate in this piece in the Washington Post. Maurice Sendak chimed in to say that the picture book is blighted by misguided notions of childhood innocence, although he admits at the same time that he hasn’t read very many lately. 

Some of us who watched the National Book Awards streaming from New York recently were a little perturbed by celebrity writer John Lithgow’s attempts to be funny. In the process of self-deprecation he managed to dismiss the entire form of the picture book by suggesting it wasn’t “real.”

Is it, as Karen Lotz, Candlewick publisher suggests in the NYT article that started the brouhaha, a matter of the picture book being an analog artifact in a digital age? I’m not so sure. The codex book might be analog in structure but the picture book, if we pay attention to how young children “read” it, is far from analog in application. 

Adults may read it from front to back and left to right but look at this child poised to turn a page.


Left? Right? Depends? If the book topples and ends up upside down in the process, a two-year-old might continue “reading” it that way. Nothing linear about that.

Toddlers react to the whole book as an object, without privileging the words on the page. They also react to the voice and the presence of an adult reading to them. They memorize text (another skill we tend not to privilege for some odd reason) and will often catch the lazy adult reader trying to flip two pages at once. Young children will want to visit a beloved book over and over, as they define it for themselves auditorily and visually, finding comfort in prediction. And of course they will imitate the reading behaviors (or lack thereof) of the adults in their lives. In all these ways, the picture book is meant to be a multi-sensory experience.

Its future is obviously tied up with the future of the book itself. But as with hybrid cars, we haven’t quite found the right combination of green, cheap, tough, and accessible, not yet. Meanwhile, the codex book with pictures continues to allow children to acquire meaning in the often ambiguous spaces between text and image, and to do so with their entire bodies, which is what young children need to do. Speculating on causation in a narrative is a very different skill from touching a screen to create it. The two are not interchangeable, nor is one better than the other. But they are different.

If we let the picture book slip away while we dither around trying to decide if the form is dead, then the thing we may be endangering is the potential of the young child’s brain to take in multiple stimuli, find meaning, react with all senses at once, and thereby create the active engagement with the world that we call literacy.


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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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