Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 4, 2009

Reading Picture Books when Nobody’s on Your Lap

I remember the first time after my daughter was reading on her own, and had left behind most picture books, that I went to the children’s department in the Jones Library and chose a small armful of books. I felt sneaky as I approached the desk. Could I really check these out without a small child at my side, or one waiting at home? It seemed I could. And today this remains one of favorite places. Right up there with lattes for a pick-me-up. The kind librarians ask about my daughter in college as they check out my wide slim books. No explanations, no apologies. Often they’ve read some themselves, and not to their grandchildren.

You might not have the pleasure of a child’s company, but that shouldn’t keep you from the pleasures of picture books. A biographical one often gives me just enough information about someone: I’m not keen on thick biographies that spend the first chapters on ancestors. I recently read The Road to Oz: Twists, Turns, Bumps, and Triumphs in the Life of L. Frank Baum, Kathleen Krull’s picture book biography, and learned something, though I’d read other short biographies of him. I admired the way she structured this book about a man who took some decades to find his calling. Illustrator Kevin Hawkes made the book very very emerald, and put echoes from the author’s childhood rose garden into Oz.

Since I love this genre, (and adding to Becky’s beckylevine lists), another picture book I just read was Before John was a Jazz Giant by Carole Boston Weatherford illustrated by Sean Quails, and which just received a Corretta Scott King Honor from ALA. While Krull, who specializes in amazing biographies (my daughter was raised a bit on The Lives of the Artists, Writers, etc.) works by accumulating fascinating details, this book is short and swingy, a riff, while the afterword I expect has a bigger word count than the text. If you love rhythm you’ll love this book. Here’s page one: “Before John was a jazz giant, he heard steam engines whistling past, Cousin Mary giggling at jitterbuggers, and Bojangles tap-dancing in the picture show.” There’s some music on every page, with words and Sean Quail’s whimsical, lively paintings, with bubbles and dashes and zigzags indicating sound.

Aside from learning about people, I like the way picture books offer the pleasure of narrative, the sweep and elegance of a clear beginning, middle and end, and often give the attention to language of poetry. When I taught children’s literature last fall, some of my college students were delighted to discover their library had shelves of books with pictures. Books about mischievous monkeys, well dressed penguins, George,Madeline, Madlenka, Tango, and Angelina Ballerina. One student began to use that section of the library as a place to escape stresses, a fantastic idea. Brevity, brilliance, often humor. What’s not to like?



  1. I still have a bit of this awkwardness–I get my books, including PBs, at the bookmobile. They know I write for kids, so nobody says anything–still, I need to get over this! I never feel this way about MG or YA. Just still stretching into a genre, I guess.
    And thanks for the additions. Have you seen the one about Lincoln & Douglas?

  2. Yeah, get over it! Well.. I haven’t yet sat and read one in public.
    THanks for reminding me about that book which I think is being published this month. Kelly Fineman did an interview with Nicki Giovanni about it I believe in Dec. at I.N.K.

  3. LOL. Okay, I’m cracking up. Obviously, you need a plain brown wrapper. 🙂

  4. Oh I ADORE historical picture books. They were one of my first loves. I recently did a huge housecleaning of picture books because I need more space on the booksheleves. I told myself that except for a few favorites, and books by friends, I was only keeping the historical ones. I had 6 shelves of picture books and figured to pack most of them off to my grandson.
    Alas, when I was done sifting through things I still had 4 shelves of books. Evidently most of what I buy are historical PBs. 🙂
    Don Brown is one of my idols and Mac Made Movies is one of my all-time favorites.

  5. What a wonderful post! I have no “shame” over checking out PB’s, OR reading them in public. Once, my aunt was embarrassed to see me reading a MG novel on an airplane. “I write for children,” I told her. “It’s an honor and pleasure to read a well written book, regardless of what age group it’s for.”
    That Frank Baum book looks very good (and very green).

  6. Oh, Jama, I know you’re shameless. And love that. I hope you stood up and talked to every single passenger when you gave your aunt that lecture.
    But truly, it is an honor and pleasure. Granted, I teach children’s lit students in college so it’s self selected, but these smart and wise people have told me about the children’s books they’ve brought along, and what a comfort they can be. Which is so cool.
    Okay, there’s not much green in Massachusetts, so maybe that was why I whipped that book off the shelf. But there are interesting and funny (as Krull always is) nuggets about the author’s long way to Oz.

  7. I do the same thing at my local libraries, and my home town librarian is great about saying, “Have you seen this picture book?”
    I say more parents, when they get home from work, should read a picture book to their kids instead of reaching for a beer or martini. Nothing is more relaxing than a child on a lap with a book to laugh over, study the pictures, and simply enjoy.

  8. Yay for keeping those historical picture books! I know that sort of vetting is so hard. Lucky you as Don Brown seems to keep putting out books on a very regular basis. I love Diane Stanley (also very prolific) and Deborah Hopkinsn and of course Kathleen Krull and Jacqueline Briggs Martin… okay, I’ll stop! Someday I’m going to have to see your shelves!

  9. Absolutely re getting home from work, and if you don’t have a kid, don’t let that stop you either! That’s why I’m so glad to see my students unstressing with children’s books rather than .. whatever.
    That’s great about your librarians. The other great de-stressor in my life. Just their smiles when I come in; priceless.

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