Monday, November 2, 2015

The Best Picture Books

November is Picture Book Month!  To commemorate I am writing about what makes a wonderful picture book and have included some of my family favorites.  Celebrate with abandon.  It's good for you!

Kids love picture books, and can you blame them?  They are presented with these wonderful little vignettes of humanity, that last for 30 pages, just their attention span.  The stories are imaginative, filled with colorful illustrations and can suit a kid’s mood.  If they need love and reassurance a story can act like warm blanket, cuddling them in the warmth of familiarity.  If they are full of the sillies, a book can tickle their funny bone and channel their inner jackrabbit.  A great picture book can lift them out of the everyday into somewhere special. 

Too often I know that befuddled parents standing at the library or the bookstore looking at an immense selection of stories.  They search on Amazon and read reviews from “book loving mom,” who must know that this is the one book that will bring that little bit of joy into the house, because isn’t that really what a great picture book can do?  

I have had the opportunity to talk about children’s books, and just recently picture books, to a variety of parent audiences.  It got me thinking about the elements that take a picture book from OK to one where the pages are littered with tape because it has been read so many times, where the book jacket was lost long ago, and where my kids refuse to let me throw it out.

Here is what I know:

All exceptional picture books tell a truth.  They bring forward something we know to be important or they remind us of something we may have forgotten along the way.  In its simplest form, these are little life lessons.   But, here is the key, these life lessons are always wrapped in an engaging story so that they aren’t recognizable at first glance.  Any child can see through the obvious stories that are meant to teach first and entertain second.  It is the stories that  start off by grabbing your imagination and then leave you surprised with something more at the end that are the real gems.

You can’t have a really good picture book without gorgeous illustrations.  Now beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so these pictures must suit the tone and mood of the story, but if they don’t help move the story forward the book won’t succeed.  Picture books conserve words and these select words play and intertwine with illustrations to help tell the tale.  If the story is not dependent on the illustrations, the book will not work.  Children live the story through the illustrations while you read.  If the pictures are not compelling, well then neither is your picture book.

All great picture books have a sense of humor.  Now I know you will remind me that some of your favorite picture books are not ones where you and your family are holding your sides, bent over laughing.  But these books don’t have to be laugh out loud funny, they just have to have a clever playfulness to them.  The author and illustrator can never forget that life taken with a sense of humor is probably the best life lived.  That doesn’t mean that the message of the book can’t be thoughtful and serious, it simply means that there must be moments of intelligent lightheartedness that remind us that this is a picture book for goodness sake.

At their best, picture books are part entertainment, part teaching tools, part art history lessons, and part bonding time.  It is amazing to think that one little picture book can do all that, but that is why they remain treasured possessions, why we construct buildings to house these wonders and we are willing to pay for a prime membership on Amazon to have them shipped to us in only two days!  So select carefully and thoughtfully.  Here are a few of my favorites that our family can’t live without!

Arnie, the Doughnut by Laurie Keller

This fun filled adventure starts off in a bakery where Arnie, the doughnut is first concocted.  Imagine his surprise when someone buys him and takes him home and then tries to EAT HIM!  

Let's Do Nothing! by Tony Fucile

In this hilarious story, two friends realize that doing nothing is a lot harder then it looks!

In this mathematical folktale, children are amazed by the power of doubling.  They graphics deliver a powerful sense of the cultural heritage of India.

Brief Thief by Michael Escoffier

In this laugh out loud story, lizard makes use of an abandoned pair of underpants, but perhaps they haven't been abandoned, and they might not even be underpants!

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