Sunday, June 24, 2007

What makes a picture book successful?

Consider this a question-of-the-week if you want. But as I've been reading my stack of picture books...I've been pondering what exactly it is about picture books that make evaluation so difficult. They either work or they don't. And picture books seem more subjective than any other genre/format. It's not just text you're evaluating. It's not just pictures. You can love the story, but hate the illustrations. Or vice versa. There are many times when I'm swept away by the artwork but bored-to-death with the story. For a picture book to be successful, both most "charm" or "hook" the reader. I typically have one of three responses to picture books.

???? or "zah?" -- many picture books leave me confused and asking why. (Why did the author choose to do this or that? Why someone published it? Why someone reviewed it positively? Why no one else is as terrified, befuddled, or confused as I am? And often with these, I'll just be reading along...not really having a strong reaction one way or the other...and then boom...I turn the page....and it's all over for me. Sometimes I would have been really liking it up to that point, but there is just no recovery at times. When a story takes a weird, unexpected turn. When something too dramatic or over-the-top happens. When something just doesn't work for whatever reason.

Oh, that was cute -- this response is better than the first. I at least liked the book. But it always remains to be seen how long I remember liking the book. My mother calls this response the, "Oh, I would have checked out this book from the library for you kids to read. It's a good book. But I wouldn't have bothered trying to buy it." And really who could blame a parent for having this response when hardback picturebooks cost almost $20. This is the kind of book I'd read once or twice. But it wouldn't become my new *favorite* favorite or anything.

I loved, loved, loved it. -- While my enthusiasm can be a bit over-the-top sometimes, I am always sincere with my praise. Yes, I may enjoy everything. I may say I love most things. But three love's is the highest praise you can ever get from me. It means I love completely, thoroughly, forever-and-ever. What kind of books in the past have I loved, loved, loved. Well, there is always my childhood favorite, Umbrella by Taro Yashima. That one is a given. In more recent years, I'd say I loved, loved, loved Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney and Dog Blue by Polly Dunbar. What is it about a book that makes me love it? The most important thing for me is I've got to feel it. It's got to be a book that I see myself in. It's got to capture part of who I am, my soul. That's not to say that the illustrations have to reflect back what I look like. I'm talking emotionally here. The main character could be a human child, a dog, a monkey, or a monster. But I've got to see me. That isn't the only important thing. But it's one of the things I look for first. Of course there are always exceptions. Do I identify with Tikki Tikki Tembo? No. It's just fun to say. Some books charm with words. Sometimes it's the rhythm. Sometimes it's the rhyme. Sometimes it's the repetitiveness that turns reading into a game or group activity. Some books charm with pictures. The very best are able to charm with both. But the reason Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is a success--a classic--is because it's something everyone can relate to. Everyone is Alexander. Picture books have to capture a truth about life. At least if they want to become a classic.

Everything seems to be more subjective because there are so many variables. What rhythm flows like music for one person--grates on the nerves of another. What some folks call cute, others call cutesie. Picture books are one thing you have to judge for yourself, it's hard to take another person's word on it. And here's another thing I've noticed. Writers aren't always as reliable in this genre/format. You could love, love, love the author...but be very puzzled by the latest book he/she has written or illustrated. So you can't judge by an author either. Each book has to stand or fall on its own.

Anyway, I want to hear what some of your favorite picture books are. What books make you say "WoW!" and which ones leave you asking "why, why, why was this published???"?


Erin said...

Well, I'm not much of an expert on picture books, I rarely read them unless I'm with my little cousins. But I guess two things I think make a good one are
1) the kids you're reading it to/with don't get bored, and when you're finished they immediately ask if they can read it again
2) the older person reading it to the kids doesn't get bored, even if it's the fifth time through

Melissa said...

I love Mo Willems' Don't let the Pigeon Eat the Hot Dog (or whatever it is called -- we call it the Pigeon Hot Dog book). I love Tasha Tudor's artwork (A is for Annabelle). I love a book that begs to be read and reread, because that's what children want: to read it over and over and over (and when it's tedious for me to read, or mundane, I don't want to).

I HATE didactic books. The Berenstain Bears. They are a chore for me to get through EVERY TIME. I also HATE product-tie-in books. While I like Dora on TV, I loathe the books. Same goes for Barbie, Thomas, Bob the Builder, etc. They are just terrible. The only exception to this rule is The Monster at the End of the Book, which is brilliant.