UPDATE: Well, don’t I feel foolish. You’d think I’d have learned to stop trusting New York Times “trend” stories by now (remember the hipster potbelly craze of last year?) Pragmatic Mom has alerted me to the fact that one of the parents quoted in the original Times story was, in fact, misquoted—you can read about it here. Pragmatic Mom also makes the entirely plausible suggestion that cash-strapped parents are checking out costly picture books rather than buying them these days. While I regret jumping on the bogus trend bandwagon, I am glad that I was inspired to review some truly excellent books.
ORIGINAL POST: In a recent New York Times article, Julie Bosman reported that parents are feeling pressure to get their kids reading “chapter books” at an earlier age, believing that books with lots of words and no pictures will better prepare their children for doing well in school. Publishers are responding by producing fewer picture books.
This is a shame. It’s sad, first of all, because it supports the idea that visual literacy is unimportant. My family likes picture books because we like pictures. My daughter recognized the work of Tibor Gergely by the time she was two, and now she’s interested in learning how illustrations come to be. We talk about techniques and the choices artists make, and these conversations often find expression in her own artwork. Not many four-year-olds, I suspect, are eager to try gouache.
But this trend is also distressing because so many picture books are simply so wonderful. Two of my friends—one a librarian, the other a professor specializing in children’s literature—opined that many picture books are much more sophisticated than the majority of chapter books, and they’re absolutely right. I think that any creative person will tell you that limitations can be motivating, rather than inhibiting, and I believe that the formal constraints imposed by the picture-book format often inspire genius.
There are, of course, many ways to be sophisticated. If Bertold Brecht has a counterpart in the picture-book world, it may well be Margaret Wise Brown. And, for reasons I cannot elucidate, the sublime marriage of word and image produced by Nancy Willard and Alice and Martin Provensen in A Visit to William Blake’s Inn puts me in mind of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. But when I read Bosman’s article and considered the protestation of my friends, three picture books new to my acquaintance immediately sprang to mind.
Cinderella, retold and illustrated by Barbara McClintock
Countless authors and illustrators have recast Charles Perrault’s Cinderella, and many acknowledge their source material and remain faithful to it. The feature that sets McClintock’s version apart is her conscious decision to recreate the fashions and interiors of the reign of Louis XIV—the era during which Perrault, a French civil servant, composed his fairy tales. This information is provided in an author’s note in which McClintock lists Watteau, Fragonard, Jean Cocteau, and Tintin among her influences. This Cinderella opens up so many avenues for further exploration, and it gives the folklorically-minded parent the opportunity to explain that Cinderella was not a princess invented by Disney in order to sell licensed products. (Pepita readers can, by the way, expect to see more on the aforementioned issue in a future post.)
Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Julie Paschkis
Engle captures the essence of the scientific revolution in the experience and voice of one real-life girl. As Maria Merian quietly and carefully documents the lifecycle of butterflies and other insects she explodes the long-held belief that these tiny creatures were born fully-formed out of mud. Thus, wisdom received from the ancients gives way to a science based on meticulous observation. Paschkis’s paintings are not just nice pictures: Her mixture of fantastic imagery from illuminated manuscripts with more naturalistic representations offers a visual version of the intellectual evolution Engle describes in her text. Together, author and illustrator introduce young readers not only to a key moment in the history of science, but also to the idea that worldviews are contingent and mutable.
Beowulf: A Hero’s Tale Retold by James Rumford
The pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations are rendered in a manner that implies action—quite suitable to a hero story—and Rumford uses standing stones and runes to create a vivid sense of otherness. The dragon flying from page to page is a subtle evocation of the important concept of fate or wyrd: Beowulf’s end is present at his beginning. My first time through the book, I got a faint whiff of anachronism from the tonsured monk visible in some pictures, but then I re-read the afterword and realized, when I saw this monk looking straight at me from the dedication page, that he is the scribe who set down Beowulf in the ninth century. Very nice.
The afterword is also valuable for giving young audiences a concise history of language and the study of language in Britain. Rumford describes the Anglo-Saxon of Beowulf, and explains that this ancient tongue persists in the “powerful, straightforward words that form the backbone of our language.” Rumford then goes on to reveal a detail of his text that only the most careful reader would catch: In retelling Beowulf, he tried to restrict himself to modern English words derived from Anglo-Saxon, and his exceptions are few and well-defended.
While the story of Beowulf might be a bit bloody for the very young, the violence would hardly be disturbing to any child raised on fairytales. I can even imagine giving this picture book to high-school students along with a few excerpts from Seamus Heaney’s translation and a sample passage in the original language. At the very least, I can say for sure that I would much rather give a “reluctant reader” Rumford’s slim-but-artful volume than, say, the 224-page Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger. While I cannot say that I have actually read the latter book, it seems safe to present it as evidence that more words is not always better.