I was a fan of picture books long before I entertained writing them. While I don’t remember my mother investing much time in them, I spent one to two hours a day reading with my children when they were young. We would read at some point during the day and always before bed. It was a special time in my life, and I assume and hope theirs. I still love reading to children.
As a picture book writer, it was with interest I read the recent article in the New York Times by Pamela Paul – Your Kids Aren’t Too Old for Picture Books, and Neither Are You. It is a shout out to the benefits of reading to and with children, and how picture books are useful for struggling readers and non-struggling readers alike who enjoy reading through pictures. All of my conferences in the kidlit world stress how the picture book is a dance between words and illustrations where either one of these two story forms may have more importance on any one page. I get this, though I think there is a case to make that the more esoteric the visual dance becomes, the more the book is intended for adult readers than for young readers.
Paul stresses that picture books are pushed out of children’s lives too early, and that the targeted age range is too narrow. I agree. I used picture books in my fourth-grade classroom often to introduce units or concepts in all subjects. Now, I love to include back matter in my narrative nonfiction that stretches the books’ reach and readability to older siblings and parents.
I have written about my desire to illustrate my own picture books in previous posts. Paul’s article made me realize how much I have to learn still about this dance – about illustrating. Sure, I know kids are supposed to be getting some of the story from the illustrations, but as a hugely (skewed) textual learner, I still struggle with this. I can get pages into a book before I realize something seems off. Once I go back and slowly look at the illustrations, I have my ‘aha’ moment. And actually, while writing this, I realize I am much better at seeing the whole picture when reading aloud to a child or using a book in the classroom – another reason to slow down in our days and our moments.
Paul uses a term, vistual literacy, that I was not exposed to in my Masters in Teaching and which itself was an ‘aha’ moment about my hopeful role as an illustrator: “Educators call this “visual literacy,” and while it refers most directly to the creation and reading of images, it extends more broadly to understanding communication and interaction. We live in a highly visual culture, and if inculcating “21st-century skills” — teaching your child to communicate through a Google slide show, write code or create a video presentation — is what you’re after, then encouraging the reading of picture books serves the purpose.”
I need to strengthen my deep-reading ability, my visual literacy. I remember having a discussion about graphic novels with Chris Gavaler, a friend and writer at Washington and Lee University, about how I read text quickly and find myself several panels ahead having not really seen the illustrations. He recommended some graphic novels, which I enjoyed, but I did not keep up the practice of reading through the pictures. I didn’t fully realize how important this strengthening might be in my picture book journey until I read Paul’s article this weekend and a book I’d ordered came in the mail – Creating Comics: A Writer’s and Artist’s Guide and Anthology by Chris Gavaler and Leigh Ann Beavers (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021). I’d ordered it to support the authors because both are my friends, and I’d heard about its creation over the past few years. But after skimming through it, I realize I actually need to read it carefully to help me in my goals to illustrate – to create that story behind the story in my own books. Who knows, maybe I will even go wordless (gasp) someday, like the picture book Found that I loved and wrote about.