ON PICTURE BOOKS Daphne Lee
Before kids have even mastered the alphabets, they are already able to understand stories through pictures. Here, DAPHNE LEE talks about the wonders of picture books and how we must never underestimate their value
I CAME to picture books late. They were not a staple of my childhood. Illustrated books, sure, but not picture books, where text and illustrations share equally in the task of telling a story. I don’t think I even came across any picture books when I was little. I was never given any and don’t remember seeing them in the bookshops where I grew up.
My first up close and personal encounter with a picture book took place in England. I used to babysit for a colleague, and his five-year-old daughter loved Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea. I must have read that book a hundred times and, needless to say, I fell in love with the tiger who is so thirsty he drinks all the water in the tap. I adored the absurdity and humour of it all, and I was besotted by the gentlemanly, rather dapper-looking beast who wore his fur like a bespoke suit.
From that time on I read picture books, and I bought them. When I had children of my own I shared the books with them. Now I continue to buy picture books for myself and, sometimes, I buy them for my kids, too.
Several years after I became a journalist, I persuaded my editor that I should write a column about children’s books. This was only partly about getting paid to read picture books (a dream job!). I really, sincerely, wanted to spread the word about them.
I still write that column and now I also run a community library that has a large collection of picture books. Because I love them and because it’s part of my job, I read a great many picture books, and I am constantly amazed by the depth and variety shown by the writers and illustrators who choose to tell stories in this way.
I read The Tiger Who Came to Tea when I was 23, but there’s no reason for anyone to wait that long, although, of course, it’s really never too late. I do think the sooner the better, though.
Picture books are the perfect entry point to the lifetime of wonder and insight literature brings. I think they are the best way to introduce children to books and reading. Long before a child has learnt to read, he can already understand and appreciate pictures. It’s wonderful to offer children the gift of the delicious sensation of being read to. You can even do that using a book that comprises solely text. But how precious if you also provide the child with a book that is filled with pictures, that he can enjoy it with you, as well as by himself.
I feel that one of the best things about liking to read is knowing that you need never be bored—so long as you have a book, you’re set! A picture book reveals this to a child from a very young age, from the moment he is able to hold a book in his hands and focus on the pictures.
And no, books aren’t just for those who can read. I’ve met parents who won’t buy books for their babies and toddlers as “they can’t read yet.” “You’re supposed to read to them,” I say, and am met with varying degrees of incredulity and confusion. The concept of sharing a book with a child is one that is new to many people. I was always read to at bedtime, and for a long time I assumed that everyone enjoyed this treat. Now I realise that bedtime stories are the exception rather than the rule. The regular emails I receive from parents are encouraging though. A frequently asked question is what books they should read to their babies and toddlers, so habits are changing.
I have favourite picture books that I recommend to parents. The list keeps growing as each year sees the publication of new books. And, because the range of subject matter, and writing and illustrating styles is constantly widening, I do not see these books as being only for very young children. Yes, picture books are an excellent introduction to literature, but they are also an important literary medium for readers of all ages.
It’s a common assumption that children’s books are of little or even no literary merit. Perhaps picture books get sidelined even more than children’s novels because some people believe that books that use illustrations to help tell a story are an insult to their intelligence. That, however, is a subject for a whole separate discussion. Suffice to say that the standards of picture books vary, just as they do for books written for adult readers.
As I’ve already pointed out, most picture books use text and pictures to tell stories. In a good picture book neither trumps the other. As author and book critic Karla Kuskin put it, in an article for American literary journal The Horn Book, “A picture book is a complicated form of collaborative art. When it is very well done, it is an artistic achievement worthy of respectful examination and honor.”
Good illustrations are not just a literal translation of words into pictures. A skilful illustrator encourages the reader to explore the various and possible meanings of the author’s words. He doesn’t make assumptions about a child’s level of knowledge, understanding or thought processes. He plants ideas and questions in minds, and provokes discussion.
In We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by children’s laureate Michael Rosen and illustrator Helen Oxenbury, the text ends with the children safe at home, having slammed the door on the bear. But Oxenbury adds to the tale by drawing the bear walking home with its head hanging. Suddenly, the reader sees another side to the ravenous wild beast. The bear could be dragging his feet because he’s missed out on a good meal of children. But maybe, just maybe he’s lonely and disappointed because he wanted to play. We’ll never know, but it’s so much fun to speculate!
Even when targeting a particular age group or introducing a basic concept, like letters or colours, what sets an exceptional illustrator apart from an ordinary one is the former’s ability to craft a book that appeals on several levels. An outstanding picture book must be interesting to the child it’s meant for as well as the adult who will be reading or introducing it to the child. After all, it’s Mum, and not Little Soraya, who controls the book budget.
And then there are textless picture books. These rely solely on illustrations to tell a story and it’s entirely up to the “reader” to interpret the pictures.
Like picture books with text, wordless picture books explore a wide variety of subjects and themes. All three of Barbara Lehman’s textless books (The Red Book, Museum Trip and Rainstorm) are exciting adventures. The first and third are also about friendship and the solace it offers. Two of David Weisner’s three Caldecott Medals were won by textless books which feature ordinary animals in fantastical settings. Jan Omerod’s Sunshine and Moonlight depict the loving relationship a little girl has with her parents. And Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is a massive 128-page textless picture book that deals with loneliness, alienation and oppression, as well as friendship and love as a bridge between physical and cultural distances.
If you’re interested in picture books for your children, I think you should give them the best you can find. While I believe in letting children make their own choices, I also believe in guided choice. Offer your children the best picture books and then let them choose. Give them good picture books—books that stimulate their imagination and stir their senses; books that make them laugh and squeal and shout; books that turn them into dinosaurs and fairies, giants and princesses; books that make them dream of being different and dare to be themselves; books that take them on journeys ... to faraway places and ... deep inside themselves; books that are fun, fun, fun.
Give your children picture books that will make them love books.
Reproduced from the January-March 2009 issue of Quill magazine