For the Love of Picture Books

This article in Thursday’s New York Times has been making the rounds among book peeps:

In the article, Julie Bosman discusses why picture books sales are declining in the U.S. and that they are  no longer a “staple for children.” Some of the reasons she gives are as follows:

1) The economic downturn. Publishers are publishing less picture books.
2) The increase in popularity of YA means that bookstores have had to make room for them.
3) Wanting to encourage their children to succeed in an increasingly competitive marketplace, parents are pushing their children to read beyond their age.

Personally, this is quite ironic because last month the VCFA sent those of us who will be focusing on YA an email with an opportunity to devote an entire semester to studying picture books. The deadline for applications is coming up shortly and I was planning to write mine this weekend.

As per my creative process recently, I’ve been waking up in the morning with whole phrases and arguments in my head as to why I should be accepted. The primary reason: It scares me.

I am in awe of picture book authors for a number of reasons, but the primary reason is that they are able to tell a story concisely. Some of them can even rhyme (something that I have always struggled with.) Each word is important in a picture book and over-achieving parents should recognize the time it takes for an author to write a picture book. The misconception (and I hear this alot from people who find out that I work in publishing ) is that it is easy to write a picture book.

“I could do write a picture book, no problem it is easy!”
“I have an idea to write a picture book, I haven’t written anything yet, but, don’t worry, shouldn’t take very long.”

Let me tell you, it isn’t easy. At least from my own experience. I have two storybook ideas and I have struggled with writing them. Both are started, but they are far from ready. I’m hoping by taking a semester to focus on Picture Books, I can get over myself and actually write in multiple genres. I can be among those authors like Frieda Wishinsky and Kenneth Oppel who can maneuver between picture books and chapter books. To me, that is the sign of a good writer. (Or man wouldn’t it be awesome to be like Neil Gaiman who seems to be able to write everything from graphic novels to short stories and poetry. Is there anything that man cannot do?)

A parent was misquoted in this story when it was suggested that they would not allow their child to read a picture book because they were reading beneath them. They posted this rebuttal:

When I first read the article, it saddened me the parent who wouldn’t allow their child, a “reluctant reader” to read a picture book. And was concerned about the fact that he wanted to go back and read his storybooks. Why is that wrong? At least he is reading. I imagine that if they let him alone, he’ll find his way to the chapter books he likes. But, now, I’m saddened because this is the message that the author of the article wanted to convey…

The other thing that got me was what these kids (and their parents) will miss. I could list off so many wonderful authors of picture books who take simple concepts and make them so meaningful. And, when partnered with the right illustrator, you have it made. And in Canada, we have such wonderful picture book authors, that it is almost unpatriotic to ignore them.

My Top Five Canadian Picture Book Authors/Illustrators (in no particular order.)

1) Barbara Reid – She is the Queen of Plastercine art and her stories are clever and full of awesome.

Personal Favourites:  The Party and The Subway Mouse. (And if you want to the perfect Canadian Combo, get Peg and the Yeti that she did with Kenneth Oppel. In fact I gave this to my godson Nathan, who loved it so much that he put the book’s poster up on his wall.)

2) Jeremy Tankard – Modern, bright and graphically interesting, his two books, Boo Boo Bird and Grumpy Bird are essential. Tankard books are so subtle, that they require multiple reading. Which is good because as we all know, little kids like to hear things multiple times.

3) Frieda Wishinsky – I once heard Wishinsky talk about writing her picture book, Please Louise. She said that it was an idea that she had that sat in her file for a long time and then she would take it out and write a word and then put it back in the folder. Then it won the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award. She explores the nuances of friendship and sibling rivalry in her picture books with such compassion and humour.

4) Mélanie Watt – kind of like my hero because she has my name only she spells it with an accent because she is Francophone. I think she writes her books in both French and English which I think only a handful of people on the planet can do. She has created two adorable characters Scaredy Squirrel and Chester.  Scaredy is neurotic, and a bit of control-freak who doesn’t not change or green monsters. And Chester the overweight orange tabby cat who takes over her books to create his own stories, reminds me of my own now diseased kitty Simon who used to place his paw on my mouse as if he was channeling his own stories. I laugh out loud every time. Every. Time.

5) Phoebe Gilman – Because she is one of the reasons that all of the people above can do what they do. Her books Something From Nothing, Jillian Jiggs and The Balloon Tree are clever, compassionate and completely lovely. After all of these years, I think that we still miss seeing a new book from her.

As this post is now really long, I will stop here. Next time I will  list my Top 5 International Picture Book Authors.

My point. That a good book is just that no matter what genre it might fall under. And the authors that write them should be recognized for their talent and the books themselves need to be given equal weight. Because what they do isn’t easy. It is novel-epic-writing-hard.


About Melanie J. Fishbane

My novel, MAUD: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery was published in 2017 through Penguin Random House on April 25, 2017. I hold an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Here I talk about my writing process, things I love, and creative people who inspire me.
This entry was posted in Authors, Book Reviews, Children's Literature. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to For the Love of Picture Books

  1. So true and great perspective. I was most horrified by the article that had one mom pushing a 4 yr old into chapt books and forbidding pic books. I love that you're studying this and look forward to hearing more of what you write and think.

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