Why Picture Books Are Important by Arthur Levine

by Dianne on November 23, 2017

Why Picture Books Are Important by Arthur Levine
Having been posed the question “Why are picture books important?” I find myself stumped. Not because I can’t think of a way to answer the question, but because I can think of so MANY ways to answer the question. So here are just two:

The Picture Book is a unique art form: picture books (and their older cousin Graphic Novels) are the only forms of published storytelling that give equal narrative weight to the text and the art. The difference is that picture books are read to, and embraced by children who are often too young to read themselves. So with picture books there is an aural component to consider in the text – how do the words SOUND to a child? What is their rhythm, what are their textures? How does the length of the text affect how long the (adult) reader stays on the page, while the child reader explores the illustration? How does it affect the pacing of the book? (Illustrations contribute equally to pacing – by varying layouts to include small spots, single page illustrations, and double-page spreads all of which are “read” at different paces.) How does the prompt to turn the page affect things like COMIC timing, suspense, surprise? The best picture books take all these things (and more – this is supposed to be a “short” essay!) into consideration as the book develops.

Picture books have two distinct artistic media that come together to make the ultimate work – art and text. That the overall tone of a picture book is affected enormously (overwhelmingly) by the choice of artist is so obvious as to seem unnecessary to mention. But the choices one has to make as the editor are perhaps broader than most readers realize. Do you choose an artist with a style that is a perfect parallel to the style of the text – a “sweet” artist for a sweet text, for example? Or do you go with an artist whose style works somewhat in tension with the text. “Irreverent” with sweet? What aspects of the story do you want the art, with its nonverbal storytelling powers, to bring out and highlight? These decisions and choices make the editor’s (and often the art director’s) roles uniquely creative in the process of picture book development.

But is that why picture books are “important?” Every art form can probably make a claim to importance on its own merits. Picture books can claim additional importance because of who reads them. Now, again, this is supposed to be a short essay, and picture books contribute SO MUCH to the children who read them (literacy of all forms, information, entertainment, an opportunity to bond with the adult reader, and a thousand more.) But I’m going to talk (briefly) about the one that matters most to me and that’s the emotional connection that picture books make to their very young readers. I do think all books serve to lessen the existential loneliness we all feel by showing us characters who feel as we do, and who face the crises WE’VE faced in similar or exaggerated circumstances.

Picture book readers, however, are only beginning to experience and comprehend their own feelings and the process can be overwhelming. Love? Jealousy? Anger? Isolation? Fear? Excitement? We adults have had those feelings, and we’ve probably had lots of conversations with friends, relatives, and therapists about them. But a picture book that gets to the ROOT of these primal emotions? That might give the young reader a crucial first sense that they are not ALONE in their feelings. And it might provide a precious opportunity to either commune with the character who’s sharing those feelings or experiences, or to talk them over with the sympathetic adult who is sharing the story in that moment.

This is why for me picture books are not just important; they’re essential.

About Arthur Levine
Arthur A. Levine Books launched in 1997, is celebrating 20 years as a literary imprint of Scholastic Inc. This imprint introduced North American audiences to the work of great picture book writers and artists such as Dan Santat, Deborah Bruss, Nicholas John Frith, Andy Rash, and Ana Juan. About thirty percent of the books the imprint publishes are fully-illustrated, working with a group of artists that include the incomparable Shaun Tan and Kate Beaton, well-known masters such as Richard Egielski, David Small, and Komako Sakai, and talented illustrators at the start of their careers such as Tony Piedra, Caroline Hadilaksono and Jean Kim. Arthur is also an author whose most recent book is WHAT A BEAUTIFUL MORNING, illustrated by Katie Kath.

Literacy Activity
November 23 – Grandparents

“Picture books prompt a variety of creative writing assignments.”(from Picture Book Month Teacher’s Guide: Why Picture Books Belong in Our Classrooms by Marcie Colleen, 2013)

Have a Grandparents Day at school or in the library. Give them the opportunity to tell their childhood stories. Record the stories in a podcast and build an oral history collection. Be sure to ask permission from them before the actual recording.

Suggested reading
Infinity and Me written
by Kate Gosford, illustrations by Gabi Swiatkowska
Joone by Emily Kate Moon
Now One Foot, Now the Other by Tomie dePaola
Grandama’s Gloves by Cecil Castellucci, illustrated by Julia Denos
Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say

Be sure to download the Picture Book Month Teacher’s Guide: Why Picture Books Belong in Our Classrooms for more engaging ideas and activities to bring picture books into the ELA, Math, Science, and Social Studies curriculum.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cassandra Gelvin November 23, 2017 at 11:50 am

This is a really fascinating breakdown of all that goes into making a great picture book. I’m so glad to see the adult reader taken into account and the attention you paid to the component of reading aloud.


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