Picture books are for kids, but they aren’t just for kids. While picture books are short and presumably written in language that is fairly accessible, they’re deceptively complex. They are concise. Every word matters, but structure, rhythm, plot, emotional resonance, and character arc do too.
There’s virtually no topic that is too large or too serious to tackle in a picture book. And while the illustrations can draw in a child of any age, they’re art and as wonderfully complex as the words they’re paired with. The pairing itself is equally complicated as they art and the words, must work together even though the creators often work separately.
My friend and critique partner Maureen Tai has been posting wonderful photos of her elderly father delighting in picture books along with her. They both get it.
Then there are people who don’t. The friend who drops the comment, “You know, I think I’ll publish a book too. I’ll probably just write a picture book also. They’re easy. Right? How do you find all this people to draw the pictures? And can you send it to your agent to publish for me?”
And don’t get me started on people that insist that their grandchild, a seven-year-old, is much too advanced to read a picture book. This is the same person who has asked when I will be good enough to write a real book.
What I’m going to suggest is that neither of these people, the genius writer or grandparent of a genius, have really stopped to think about how extraordinarily complex these little books are and the range of emotions and topics that they tackle. Sure, sometimes I also hide some of the longer books and the heavier topics under the kids’ beds when I really need to get them to sleep fast. I fall back on old favorites that we read so often that they can ‘read along’ with their eyes closed like Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney or Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. (Note: Where the Wild Things Are is actually incredibly deep and emotional, but it also works on a surface level reading. It was and remains one of my lifelong favorite books.)
And both of these are incredible and that’s partly why we read them so often, but without moving from my chair and just reaching behind me to pull a few books off the shelf behind my desk, there are so many other books that I take the time with my children and for myself to really read and discuss. We examine the art and the words and how they work together. We read and then reread the back matter and sometimes search for more on these events.
There’s The Journey by Francesca Sanna, Blue:A History of the Color as Deep as the Sea and as Wide as the Sky, by Nana Ekua-Hammond, illustrated by Daniel Minter, One Wave at a Time by Holly Thompson, illustrated by Ashley Crowley, and The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson, illustrated by Nicholas Smith. And that’s just a few within my reach. They all distill major events and complicated emotions through words and pictures perfectly and that is not easy to do.
I hope my genius friend and the grandmother of a genius are reading this (or that anyone is at all). Have a look at these and many others just on the small shelf behind my desk. I’m happy to give more picture book recommendations too. It will be impossible not to be moved, transported, and elevated. These books are for kids, but they’re certainly not just for kids.