A Picture Book Appreciation

I spend Wednesday evenings scheduling a bunch of different KidsOutAndAbout.com newsletters, and the centerpiece of the newsletter is my friend Deb’s publisher’s note. Now, back in Olden Tymes when I only had my local newsletter to worry about, reading Deb’s publisher’s note would often send me back to my own editor’s note, because whatever she writes about usually puts me in the mood to write something, too, along the lines of a “Yes, and. . . ” improvisation. These days, though, I think about how I still need to go through a bunch of newsletters to correct typos, so I squelch the urge. And then by the time I’m finished, I am too tired and cranky to write anything, and by morning I’ve forgotten all about it.

This week, though, Deb talked about how she is “a word person” and how it took attending a conference on writing for children to realize that she wasn’t properly appreciating the art of picture books. This resonated with me because I am, first and foremost, a word girl. I take copious notes at even the most basic meetings because writing things down is how I process information. Over the years I’ve realized that my favorite musicians and songs are really lyric-driven: if I can’t sing along, chances are I don’t like it that much. I love words, and I love reading.

But I also really love the art of picture books. I made a big list of favorite girl power picture books, and part of what prompted me to make the list is that sometimes the girl power books I’d find, like the classic The Paper Bag Princess,  had pictures that just weren’t especially pretty. At our house, we gravitate to the beautiful books. Of course, it’s easy to love the images in an objectively beautiful book.

Sometimes it’s harder to appreciate the artistic skill of an artist when the art looks. . . not particularly skilled. It’s kind of like when people go to a modern art museum and stand in front of a canvas that’s covered in paint spatters or that has three rectangles in different shades of blue and they say, “I could totally do that.” Umm, maybe, but usually,  you can go back into that artist’s history and see various life studies or multiple interpretations on the same still life, and once you see those, you understand that there’s all sorts of skill that formed a foundation for whatever the artist is doing later. That, even if you look at the current product of somebody’s work and don’t understand its significance, it’s likely that there’s a whole thought process behind the artist’s decision to make those three blue rectangles. Which you start to understand with a little research. I wrote about this before when we went to see my little brother‘s art show.

I think of it often when I encounter anything by Mo Willems. Way back in 2011, I was so excited about his Elephant and Piggie books that I wrote about it on the blog and wrote him a thank you note/fan letter. At the time, because I am a word girl, I was really thinking mostly about his words. Little J was learning to read, and I remembered that the problem I’d encountered with M was that trying to motivate M to read easy-reader books was awful because the truth was, most easy-reader books were boring and stupid. My girls are smarty-pants, and even when they were little and weren’t actually readers yet, they’d heard so many stories from us and they’d been exposed to so much language and so many complex ideas that the standard “Dick and Jane” crap was as frustrating and boring to them as it was to me. In contrast,  The Elephant and Piggie books were a revelation. Simple words and simple pictures, but they conveyed so much emotion and humor that both J and I loved them. The series debuted in 2007, but I didn’t discover them in time for M, which made me appreciate them even more when it was time for J to start reading. I was so grateful that I had to write Mo Willems a note. I was thrilled-thrilled-thrilled when we actually received a response. And if you’re counting “thrilleds” you might guess that J was only one “thrilled.” Years later, the postcard is still hanging in a place of honor on my bulletin board, while J has moved on with her life. Here’s what he wrote:

The front of the postcard is the image from his website, with Elephant as an artist depicting Piggie in the style of a bunch of different artists. No, go on: click over to take a look. It’s so fun. Receiving that postcard helped to re-frame how I thought about Mo Willems and made me think about him not just as a writer, but as an artist.

Later, I heard an NPR interview with him in which he talked about how he likes to create characters that are exceptionally easy for children to replicate.

What’s even funnier is that, before I’d heard the radio show about how he encourages kids to draw his characters, a child I knew actually gifted me with a Mo Willems-style pigeon, and I wrote about it on the blog because I loved it so much!

Actually, this was the toughest part about this post, because I was trying to find that old interview, and I just couldn’t find it, and then, in the process of looking for the original interview, I found part of another interview in which Willems is on the phone with a 6-year-old and the first question he asks is, “Do you ever draw my characters?” . . . and then, I swear, I forgot to take note of the url and I can’t find that damn url, either. But I swear! It’s like, his thing! Here’s a (third) interview where he’s talking about it. He talks about how he used to copy comics, and how that helped him to get started as an artist, and he loves the idea of having children take these characters he loves and making up their own stories. He’s made a specific artistic choice to make easy-to-draw characters to seed children’s creativity. I love that so much.

And now I’m stuck in a feedback loop, because there’s something about this improvisation, about Deb’s publisher’s note getting me to write and Mo’s drawings getting kids to make up stories, but I don’t have it in a way that I can articulate it yet. And I was going to talk in this post about one of my favorite picture book images of all times, but then the Amazon book reviews put bees into my bonnet and that’s a whole separate post now. And meanwhile I still haven’t done my NYC follow-up post and I am in my pajamas at noon and my house is a mess and I’m just going to give up for now, because I don’t have the right ending. I’m going to give it up and take Mo’s advice from this interview and let this be a doodle. You know, like, a figurative doodle. Or I will be trapped at this laptop for the foreseeable future.


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