Why picture books

Because the books I write may be first books, I want them to be equal to that honor and to help carry on what I remember from my mother reading to me. Yet I hope they aren’t only first books. In respecting the riddles children live with, and the height and experience they see the world from, I believe I am writing about mysteries we are all participant in and the ways in which we meet them, know them, and know ourselves.

I am writing, too, from what I’ve learned, and continue to learn, living on an old New Hampshire farm. In her translations of Anna Akmatova’s poems, my friend and neighbor Jane Kenyon asked, “how does one render rodnoi?”–the Russian word about place meaning “all that is dear to me, familiar, my own.” Story is a way I try to. Every third grade boy faced with blank paper knows that big trouble–eruption, collision, attack–makes instant story; but that’s not the only way to it. Almost every one I write begins, some way, in something that has happened in ordinary days here. Other story may attach to that, and what if may enlarge it, but the beginnings are in what is near–some disclosure of memory or meaning seen and suddenly understood or understood only after long waiting.

Now that reading is no longer first grade’s achievement, at booksignings I’m always hearing some parent say to a child, “This doesn’t have enough words. You need something harder.”

I wish picture books weren’t so often regarded only as learner books, thin books or baby books but were, instead, seen as a different–and very special–way of telling (and experiencing) a story. They invite a different kind of reading and filling in around the edges, a different exercise of curiosity and imagination and creative thinking. They have their own smell and heft. And they are, besides, small flat packages of art: very real and sophisticated art any of us would be astounded to receive as a gift. And there it all is, for the taking, for any child (and those who read with or to that child).

Then add to that what happens in holding a picture book and turning the pages.

“Over the hills and far away there was once an old house full of mouse runs and woodpecker holes,” my first and favorite book (Snow Before Christmas by Tasha Tudor) began. “Through the crooked window panes one imagined things, though really nothing was there but the wind.” Together, my mother and I looked at the words. We tasted the language. We looked at the picture. We took in everything. We wondered what would come next. Then we turned that page.

The books my mother read with me gave us a place to go to, a place that was both far away and also right where we were. You can go there, too. You can take a child there. Every time you read with a child, you discover a place that becomes your place to go to. It’s a place where you and that child will meet language and story and discover the pleasure of looking at pictures, looking closely, looking again. And you will begin to talk about things that otherwise you wouldn’t be talking about. Because reading stories together invites telling things and asking things that wouldn’t otherwise be spoken of, wouldn’t be asked.

The time together–the gift of being there with that child–is not the least of what that place you go to is about. Some years back, during an interview, an NPR producer said to me, “The books read to us when we are children may be the most influential books we encounter in our lives.” And there’s some truth in that. But what makes these books so influential may be not only what’s in the books but also who reads them with us, or to us, before we can read them ourselves.

With the popularity of e-books and DVDs and the push toward early chapter books, then the still-thicker books that follow, we may not realize that traditional picture books are endangered. They are. Publishers won’t keep publishing what there’s no market for. Which means that what picture books offer children–something they get no other way–is endangered, too.

I want to think, however, that these spare books and their stories told with pictures will survive.

And I want to think we never have to outgrow them.

So I thank you for believing in them, too.