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Picture Books: Why not to rush your kids out of them

By Debra Ross

In addition to serving as publisher of KidsOutAndAbout.com, I write fiction for 8-to-12-year-olds. So I am part of several professional organizations in the publishing world, inlcuding the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. While attending their annual conference in NYC in 2009, the most valuable insight I took away from the weekend had nothing to do with my own writing, but everything to do with my own approach to books with my kids:

In my effort to help my girls, who were then age 7 and 9, become independent, conceptual readers, I had been rushing them out of picture books. Big mistake!

I adore the places novels can take my imagination, and so does Madison, my older daughter. She had been reading non-picture books since she was 6, and she would rather have her nose buried in a good thick book than anywhere else. But Ella is different. She was almost 8 years old when I went to that conference, and was at the time a reluctant chapter-book reader. (She's a reluctant reader even now.) She preferred picture books, but at the time I was viewing her emergence from picture books toward "real books" with pleasure and triumph.

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That was wrong of me.

At one of the short breakout sessions at the conference, I found myself mistakenly assigned to an illustrator's seminar instead of a writer's seminar. Not wanting to make things difficult for the organizers (having been the busy "right-hand man" at conferences myself), I went to that lecture instead of trying to switch. What good fortune! This session showed us, up-close-and-personal, the life of an art director making decisions about how to match the text of an author with the art of an illustrator in her portfolio.

For the first time, I saw how profoundly the people who create books care about art, about having text come to life through art, about how the art is not somehow a second-class citizen beside the words. I realized how quickly I have turned the pages in my kids' picture books: Usually, just as soon as I stopped reading the text, I flipped the page. Did I ever give them time really to absorb the pictures? Did I ever really study the art? No, to both questions. Often, Ella would point out some visual detail of a book that I had read dozens of times, and it would startle me.

The conference totally changed my view of the importance of picture books in even my older kids' lives.

So when I got home with my newfound insight, it was Picture Book Week at the Ross house. I piled dozens of books we haven't seen in years on our dining room table. We slow made our way through the art in our own library. We relished it, and have done it once every couple of months since then.

Ella always saw the pictures, but as if for the first time, Madison and I really saw them, too. We noticed use of color, the medium (watercolor, acrylic, computer-generated, markers, oils, collage), realistic versus non-relistic art, and, most important, how the art illuminates the text. Our main question now when we read a picture book is: What about this book couldn't we understand if it weren't for the art?

Henri Sorensen's art used for Robert Frost's poetry...the same scene used by Betsey Lewin in Doreen Cronin's Click, Clack, Moo

Here's a terrific example of what I'm talking about: Check out the two photos on the right. (Click on them to see them bigger.) Notice how Henri Sorensen, for Robert Frost's Poetry for Young People, paints almost exactly the same scene as Betsey Lewin does in Doreen Cronin's Click, Clack, Moo. Both use watercolors, but to VERY different effect! My kids get this!

Exploring this art with my kids is deeply, deeply satisfying. I am so glad I caught myself before the girls got cynical and blank about art, as so many young people do as they grow up. I hope that as a result of our focusing anew, they will see this kind of creation on equal footing with the written word: as one more way that humans express the best that is within them.

 


 

© 2009 and 2010, Debra Ross. All rights reserved.

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