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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Why Do Picture Books Matter?


With the death of Maurice Sendak last week, this question has been floating around in my mind a lot lately.  I feel like there is a hole in the world now that he is gone.  Originally, I had ordered a copy of Show Me A Story: Why Picture Books Matter by Leonard Marcus, from my local bookstore before the announcement of Sendak's death, because it featured conversations with so many illustrators that I admire.  Burningham, Oxenbury, Blake, Marshall, Sis, Zwerger, and of course Sendak just to name a few.  There are 21 total included in the book.  But then I started reading because I needed answers.  I needed to hear in their words why what we do is so important to young children.  Why is it necessary?

In an age of digital takeover, the idea of the loss of a picture book in the traditional format as we know it, is almost unbearable to think of.  It breaks my heart to be honest.  The picture book itself is an art form unlike any other type of illustration.  Creating a narrative that marries text and images together harmoniously is incredibly difficult to do successfully.  Show Me a Story includes so many writers and illustrators who had paved the way for picture books as a true art form.  I think most of us as illustrators in this field hope that we can one day accomplish something close to what they did.  I know I do.

When I found out Sendak died, I cried.  He meant so much to so many of us, as readers, illustrators, and human beings.  I remember the first time I read the Little Bear books, they were so magical.  I wanted a bear of my own to be friends with.  Which is funny because I'm currently working on a book with a bear as one of the characters.  So in a way I have found my bear.  I feel like everyone has the Sendak story that they loved and read over and over again and the one that scared the pants off them.  For me, In The Night Kitchen is my absolute favorite.  I remember that was the first time I became obsessed with typography.  I loved the all the design elements in the book.  It was and still is one of the most beautiful books in my opinion.

Now as much as I loved Sendak, Outside Over There, scared the crap out of me as a kid.  I thought the babies and goblins were so creepy looking, staring out at the reader with these big eyes.  Totally freaked me out.  Which I found interesting, when I came to read Show Me A Story and Sendak revealed in his interview to Marcus that Outside Over There was inspired by the Lindbergh kidnapping that happened when Sendak was a child.  Sendak said that his book was a way to deal with the outcome of the kidnapping, which as we know did not end well.  And for a child that was incredibly frightening.  This way he could stage a kidnapping with a happy ending.  The way he wished history would have gone.  It is also said to be Sendak's favorite book.

As illustrators, his stories taught us that it is okay to show naughty children, because let's face it, children can be impossible sometimes.  They don't always smile.  In fact they are rather selfish, still learning how to interact with others.  I think this is one of the many reasons that Where the Wild Things Are resonated with so many of us as children.  It felt like he was on our side.  I always admired Sendak for that.  Which is something Helen Oxenbury, another favorite of mine, wanted to show in her board books as mentioned in the chapter about her in Show Me A Story:

"When babies are eating or on the pot, they don't smile, because they're concentrating on something else.  In making books, what I try to show is how things really are."

This is what kids need.  They need us to be real with them.  To treat them like people.  To show them that the possibilities are endless.  Things may get difficult, but everyday is a new opportunity.  That they can shoot for the moon, and maybe even hit it.

While reading all of these wonderful interviews, I began to realize that each illustrator brought something different to the table.  I found it fascinating that most of them didn't set out to be picture book illustrators, but rather fell in to it by chance.  Some started out in set design, advertising, editorial illustration, teachers, and other various jobs that incorporated art in some way or another.  I was completely the opposite of this, going to school specifically for illustration, which for most of these illustrators wasn't even an option available in art schools at the time.  Now a days a lot of illustrators I meet that are around my age, have specifically studied picture book illustration.  As more art schools began to develop their illustration programs, the graduating body became larger.  Now picture book illustration is something people go and study.  It's amazing how times have changed.  But without Sendak, Marshall, Steig, and many many others, we wouldn't have anything to study in those programs.  They paved the way for picture book illustration programs.  And for that I will always be grateful to them.

I hope after reading this you will pick up a copy of Show Me A Story: Why Picture Books Matter, because right now it is so necessary.  I reminds us all of why we, as writers and illustrators, do what we do.  And why, even after a loss as great as Sendak in our community, it is up to us to keep going, changing, inventing, and discovering new ways to create wonderful picture books for children.  I want to leave you with this quote from Quentin Blake, which I think is the best way to look at what we need to do:

"If someone is asleep in bed dreaming, you don't necessarily want to see [the] bed, but you might want to look at their dreams."

It's up to us to show the dreams.


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