“Proclamation: We are tired of hearing the picture book is in trouble, and tired of pretending it is not.” So opens “A Picture Book Manifesto,” written by Mac Barnett and signed by him and 21 other picture book creators, including Brian Biggs, Sophie Blackall, Carson Ellis, Laurie Keller, Adam Rex, Jon Scieszka, and Lemony Snicket. The document, posted here, is running as an advertisement in the November issue of the Horn Book. Barnett, whose picture books include Guess Again! and Mustache!, says that the manifesto “grew out of issues I’ve been thinking about and talking about for years with other writers and illustrators, and it just felt like it was time to do something.”
Encouraged by a former college professor who suggested Barnett write a manifesto, the author collected some of his ideas and shared it with fellow picture-book authors and illustrators. “Some sent me feedback, some did not,” says Barnett, “and there was some recasting before the manifesto was finalized.” The document was designed, illustrated and hand-lettered by Carson Ellis.
Emphasizing that he is speaking for himself and not necessarily for the other signers of the document, Barnett explains the thinking behind the manifesto’s initial proclamation. “I think there’s a lot of hand-wringing going on now about the picture book and its place in the market and in our culture,” he says. “You hear nay-sayers who think the picture book is over, and too often the pro-picture book response is that everything is fine, that the picture books are inherently magical. And great books are a kind of magic, but kids don’t need to be told that: they already know. We need to make exciting books that kids will want to read.”
Among the document’s tenets, listed under the heading, “We Believe,” are “Imitation, laziness, and timidity are poisoning a great art form”; “A picture book should be fresh, honest, piquant, and beautiful”; and “We need more robust criticism to keep us original.”
Barnett is a strong advocate of these interrelated beliefs. “Originality and thoughtfulness are vital to the longevity of this art form,” he says. “I think there is a lot of lazy repetition of plot lines and stock formulas, and this laziness is not always called out by critics. People think that even if we adults have heard a story 100 times before, kids haven’t. But kids have heard these stories before. They've read lots of books, and watched many TV shows and movies, and by a young age children are already familiar with conventional narrative structures. We need to keep books fresh and bold and engaging for our readers. I believe that sometimes the critical discourse is less rigorous than it should be, and books for kids are just given a nice pat on the head.”
Launched on October 21, the manifesto’s Web site has already had more than 20,000 views, and Barnett says that there have been comments about it on Twitter, Facebook, and various blogs. “And people are coming to the site through Google, which is cool, because it means they’ve already heard that it exists,” the author says.
The target audience for “A Picture Book Manifesto” is quite sweeping, Barnett notes. “It is really an exhortation to everyone—writers, illustrators, editors, publishers, art directors, booksellers, librarians, and parents—that we could all be doing better. The only people who are doing fine are the kids themselves. I really believe the rest of us should be doing better.”
Barnett’s goals for the manifesto are simple and straightforward. “I hope it leads to great picture books, and I hope it starts interesting conversations about picture books and that people feel comfortable giving their own takes on it,” he says. “Those would be fantastic outcomes.”