Thursday, July 16, 2009

Those Pesky Picture Books For Adults

I went to the library on Tuesday for a much needed book stock-up. Ms. Eileen, the children's and YA librarian, was helping me find a picture book I'd seen mentioned on our library's blog when she started talking about beautiful picture books that adults love but kids not so much. She brought up the subject. I didn't.

She said there are beautiful picture book biographies, some of which she's not buying because the kids in the local grade school can't use them for reports. "They come in with a page requirement," she explained. The kids have to read biographies that are longer than these picture books, which remain on the shelves.

And which shelves? Ms. Eileen said that shelving them is a problem. Do you put them in biography where they won't be used because they're too short? But if she puts them in with picture books, the picture book crowd won't know what to make of them because they have a lot of text for traditional picture books.

My suggestion, of course, was to place them in an adult area where adults can find them. Older children may feel embarrassed about reading picture books, but we adults are above all that, right? These books are beautiful and the subject matter is interesting--at least to grown-ups. They deserve to be published. But why do we have to insist they're for kids? What's wrong with publishing these things for adults?

If publishers were to create a category of picture books for adults, such books might become more desirable to older children--and to their teachers and parents who want them to read Big Kid books.


Monday, February 18, 2008

Will It Find Its Audience?

In an NPR interview with Peter Sis, Scott Simon never refers to Sis's book The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain as a picture book. Instead, he calls it an illustrated book. That could be a good term for books published in what we think of as picture book formats but with content most definitely not for the child readers we usually associate with picture books.

The Wall is a marvelous memoir of Sis's childhood in Cold War Czechoslovakia. Sounds riveting, doesn't it? The Cold War is a subject, I'm embarrassed to say, that has always left me...uh...cold. I always thought of those Eastern European countries under the Communist's heels as gray, colorless places, much like Sis's sophisticated, highly detailed illustrations. The Wall may have changed all that for me.

On one level Sis uses mature, cartoon-like illustrations with classic minimal picture book text to tell the story of his childhood and adolescence. In addition, though, he adds historical detail along the margins of those illustrated pages. On top of all that he has six big pages of journal entries going back to 1954. That's a lot of material.

Too much, of course, for your preschoolers and first grade students for whom picture books are usually written. This would be one rough read aloud. Too much, I'm guessing, for anyone under, say, fourth grade. It should grab the attention of much older readers, too. (For instance, the part rock played in these young peoples' lives should be of interest to a lot of teenagers; a lot of adults, for that matter.) The Wall would make a great reading list addition to a social studies curriculum.

But will the grown-ups who teach those classes be open to giving credit for reading an "illustrated book?" Yes, the book is good enough to read on your own. But how will young people of the right age to appreciate it find it? It was on the new picture book shelf in the kiddy area at my library. How much is it going to circulate in that age group?

I think this book would also make a great addition to an art program. Sis says at the end, "I find it difficult to explain my childhood; it's hard to put it into words, and since I have always drawn everything, I have tried to draw my life-" Does anyone else see an art project there?

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Picture Books Are Not Just For Preschoolers Anymore

I have been saying for years that the publishing world should create a category of picture books for adults. Well, to my knowledge, no one has done it yet. But I am seeing some movement upwards in the age range for picture books.

A couple of weeks ago when I was looking for Kevin O'Malley books at my local library, I found his very clever Mount Olympus Basketball. It's a beautiful and witty picturebook in which a team of Greek gods take on a team of Greek heroes at basketball, complete with twenty-first century commentators and an "up close and personal" type half-time feature on ancient Greece. ("Thanks, Chet. That was fascinating.") This thing reads as if someone went to O'Malley and asked him to do an educational picture book on mythology, and he said, "You've got to be kidding." You get your info on the gods, alright, but in a satirical, twisted way.

As I was reading Mount Olympus Basketball, I kept thinking that all this was great. Greater than great. But only if the reader already knew quite a bit about mythology. You had to have some base knowledge to get the joke. Would the picture book crowd have that base knowledge?

I took a look at the publisher's suggested age group for the book. It was 6 to 11. This was a picture book for middle grade students. They really should enjoy it.

Now, Mount Olympus Basketball was published back in 2003. Perhaps picture books have been being published for older kids for a while, and I just missed it. If you take a look at the most recent issure of The Horn Book, you'll find reviews in the Picture Book category for even older readers. Margaret Wild's Woolvs in the Sitee (illustrated by Anne Spudvilas) is described as being for Intermediate and Middle School students. And Shaun Tan's The Arrival is listed as being for Middle School and High School students.

That's darn close to adults. I'm hopeful that it will only be a matter of time before we have picture books marketed to them, too. Of course, some would say that all picture books are marketed to adults, since preschoolers don't do their own shopping. Still, I'm talking about picture books marketed to adults for adults.

Final note: I can't help noticing that The Arrival and Woolvs in the Sitee are written and illustrated by Australians. You think maybe those folks are a little more interested in picture books for older people?


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

M. T. Anderson Month, Part I

The Adbooks listserv is discussing M.T. Anderson this month, which is how I came to discover his lovely picture book, Me, All Alone, at the End of the World (illustrated by Kevin Hawkes). Me, All Alone is beautiful looking and elegant sounding, but probably falls into that category that I think of as picture books for adults.

On a superficial level, there's a lot of text in this picture book, and some lengthy sentences. "I liked to lie cozy near the brass-bellied stove, and hear the rain and the thunder fall, and the chuckling beasts with long tails or five legs or big kissing mouths squirm over the edge to go snapping at lightning." That's quite a mouthful for a preschooler or early reader, who might also want to know what "chuckling beasts?" Even a short sentence like "I ate hardtack and gristle" includes some vocabulary that the average kid probably isn't familiar with.

On a less superficial level, while I liked the book very much, I'm an adult that didn't quite get it. I thought it was kind of an anti-development story about an idyllic spot that became a tourist attraction. Sort of like Niagara Falls. It was only through the listserv discussion and after reading reviews that I realized that a more accurate reading relates to the attractions of solitude versus the attractions of, say, the developed Niagara Falls.

I liked that, once I got it. While I have no problem accepting that there are probably grade schoolers out there who would get this book faster than I did, I'd still suggest reading it with children to help them out.

Or just read it yourself.


Thursday, March 15, 2007

Advertising Works!

I saw an advertisment somewhere for Frankenstein Makes A Sandwich by Adam Rex, which led me to pick up the book when I saw it at my local library.

This well-reviewed volume seems to me to be what I think of as a picture book for adults. It is beautifully illustrated but it's a book of poems about classic movie monsters--Frankenstein, The Phantom of the Opera, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, etc. I don't know if young children are familiar with these figures. You can definitely make the argument that they could become familiar with them after reading this book, of course. But the poems that accompany the illustrations are often...long. And even when they're clever, as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Henderson , they're rather mature. Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr. Henderson, a bore at parties. Will kids find that funny? How old do you have to be before you're aware of bores?

Some of the references also seem geared to adults. A recurring poem is all about The Phantom of the Opera who can't compose new music because he has other tunes stuck in his head. A couple of them are common children's songs. But one is The Girl From Ipanema. I did find that funnier on the second reading. But I'm not five years old. Does that forty-year-old song appear on a lot of kiddie music CDs?

The book isn't bad by any means. I just wonder if kids will get it.

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