Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Picture Books for Grownups

I have a theory that writers are either born to be novelists or poets. Novelists like details. Lots of 'em. Poets like to find just the right word. Novelists write novellas, chapter books, and sagas composed of multiple texts. Poets write odes, poems, and...picture books!

The Sistahs will tell you that I've often repeated that I just don't "get" picture books. They are a mystery to me. I feel that they require a kind of magic that I just don't possess. How, I wonder, can a person tell an entire, perfect story in a mere 32 pages? I've tried but somehow my need to include detail after detail soon has me dividing my manuscript into chapters.
But I do hold a certain fondness for certain picture books. I especially like the kind that is written on two levels. Snowflake Bentley is one example. The regular text tells the fascinating story of a man so obsessed with the beauty of individual snowflakes that he works his whole life to find a way to photograph them. Sidebars provide more "adult" commentary and additional facts.

I remember, as a child, reading certain novels over again. Picture books--not so much. Once I learned to read on my own, I was desperate for thick books that would take me away for hours at a time. Rereading a novel not only brought me back to a favorite place but the second and third readings always opened my mind just a bit more. I relished favorite descriptions and didn't jump over the challenging words to get to the end. I knew the end. Now I could savor the journey. Double-layered picture books make me feel the same way.

Recently my daughter gave me a picture book that challenged me
in this way. She gave it to me because it was a Caldecott winner and she knows I like to collect award-winning children's books. The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis, is a picture book but as I read it I felt it was not really for children as much as for the 'tween to adult reader. As an artist, Sis has the advantage of designing his pages and his story exactly as he wants. The result is a book that may be difficult for today's children to understand, at first, but will resonate with those of us who grew up learning how to stock a bomb shelter.

Sis includes photos, cartoon-like drawings, as well as excerpts from his childhood journal. Some of the entries show a typical childhood: "I built a scooter that collapsed when my sister, Hana, was riding it downhill. she hates me!" Other entries show what it was like to grow up in a Communist country: "We are all encouraged to get a pen pal in the Soviet Union. I've chosen Volodja in Leningrad. Our letters are graded." And, "We are told that if we see our parents doing wrong, we should report them."

Even as a child artist, Sis is told what he should draw and paint:"After drawing whatever he wanted to at home, he drew what he was told to at school. He drew tanks. He drew wars."

There is a happy ending, of course, because this is a picture book, after all: "On November 9, 1989, the wall fell." I think of the adults, like me, who read this book, and remember. More importantly, I think of the immigrant children who may read this story and have hope.

1 comment:


Thanks for reminding me of Snowflake Bentley. I stayed at a B & B in Jericho, VT about 10 years ago. It was a lovely old working farm. Other guests had come from North Dakota and needless to say, the film Fargo kept running through my head. It made for a very interesting breakfast! But back to Bentley. There was a teeny little Bentley museum in town. I thought it was fascinating. "Why this would make a great story for kids," I thought. I purchased a bunch of material to file away for future research. Imagine my dismay when only a few months later, Snowflake Bentley, the book came out, and, it was too good to improve on! Oh well, it's not the first time, nor will it be the last, that one of my recently discovered great subjects will make it into print before I even get my research done! By the way, there's a Dover book of nothing but Bentley's photos of snowflakes, I bought it for my library after that VT trip. It is great to look through.