I am teaching a college class about children’s literature, and today our topic was picture books. Truly, we could spend a whole semester on these beautiful works that are not merely cute stories (I challenged my students not to use the word “cute” in any of their papers for the rest of the semester) or fond memories from childhood. Picture books represent an astonishing variety of artistic styles and mediums; they tell stories that may incorporate irony and sensitive characterization, and–yes–they sometimes teach lessons ranging from basic counting to eating in moderation (both of which are found in The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, a simple and delightful book that doesn’t feel like it’s teaching any lessons).
During the 75-minute class period, I had time to read seven entire picture books to the class, while pausing to point out important details in the text and illustrations. Here are the books we read, along with a few observations about each.
- Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, words by Charlotte Zolotow and pictures by Maurice Sendak. This book draws from two very grown-up artistic traditions. Magical realism, a literary tradition in which bizarre events happen to normal people and are treated as no big deal, is evident in the protagonist’s conversation with a rabbit who is taller than she is and from whom she has no problem taking advice. Meanwhile, the pictures in the story, with their pastoral setting, pastel colors, and blurred brushstrokes, seem to fit into the school of impressionism.
- The Story of Ferdinand, words by Munro Leaf and pictures by Robert Lawson. The text, about a bull who would rather smell flowers than fight, is laugh-out-loud funny (I say that because I actually laughed out loud while reading it), and the black-and-white line drawings are amazingly detailed and delightful. We don’t expect to find irony in pictures books, but the whole impact of this story comes from an ironic reversal involving the key word “mad”: Everyone wants to make Ferdinand mad so he’ll fight, but he ends up making everyone else mad when he sits down to smell the flowers.
- Tuesday, words and pictures by David Weisner. This almost-wordless book, in which frogs launch off on lily pads and begin to fly through an average neighborhood, is illustrated in a style that our textbook calls surrealism, and I have to agree. I bet Salvador Dali wishes he thought of painting a picture of a guy eating a sandwich in his kitchen while frogs are flying past the window. Another wonderful thing about this book is that the ending isn’t really an ending–there’s an indication that more magic is going to happen next Tuesday.
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar–I’ve already mentioned this one, and it’s so well-known that there’s not much more that I can say about it. For a very short book, there’s an awful lot going on, and it’s brilliant.
- Come Away from the Water, Shirley, words and pictures by John Burningham. This is a very funny book about a little girl having an adventure with pirates while her clueless mother keeps admonishing her not to get tar on her shoes or to pick up any smelly seaweed. There is huge irony in the layout of the book; the parents’ boring day at the beach is illustrated in washed-out colors on the left-hand side of each page spread, while Shirley’s simultaneous adventure is depicted in bold colors on the right. The deliberately naive drawing style reminds me of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts. (Shirley’s head is perfectly round, like Charlie Brown’s.)
- Make Way for Ducklings, words and pictures by Robert McCloskey. This one might be my favorite of the ones we read today. The sepia pencil drawings aren’t necessarily eye-catching at first, but they grow on you as the story continues, taking you flying above real locations in Boston (this book has a strong sense of place). I love how the police officer, Michael, is so serious about helping these ducks get through the city safely that he gets practically the entire Boston PD involved. This books has it all: onomatopoeia, repetition, and even a quest narrative.
- Where the Wild Things Are, words and pictures by Maurice Sendak. Speaking of books that have it all: this one is also a quest narrative, with a chiastic structure, internal rhyme, and a plot that make psychoanalytical theorists go crazy. But it’s also a story about a boy who feels wild and out of place, learning that he belongs right where he is, where his mother loves him and keeps his dinner waiting for him, still hot. Now that’s a good story.
Picture books aren’t just for children or people with children. Read some this week!