In honor of the 75th anniversary of the Caldecott Award, Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., hosted a picture book panel on May 19 called Through the Ages for All Ages. Children’s book historian Leonard S. Marcus moderated the discussion, which drew a standing-room-only crowd; panel participants in the free-ranging and forthright conversation were publisher Neal Porter; picture book authors Jon Scieszka, Meg Medina, and Mac Barnett; and author-illustrators Laura Vaccaro Seeger and Christopher Myers.

In his opening remarks, Marcus discussed how 19th-century illustrator Randolph Caldecott, an avid theatergoer, likened the best picture books to the theatrical experience: when the curtain goes up there’s magic, and the same thing happens when you turn the page. Marcus went on to talk about his own fondness for the medium: “Picture books are one of my favorite things in the world,” he said. “One reason is that [they] are stories told in two languages: one in literature and the other in art.” He noted that these two languages capture the reader’s attention and create a third language in the mind.

A good picture book, he continued – one with staying power and multigenerational appeal, such as Goodnight, Moon – may seem easy to write, but is truly difficult. Much of what makes a good picture book good comes from the spare distillation of ideas paired with the very best images.

In his first question addressed to the panel, he asked Porter for an assessment of the state of the picture book business as a whole. Porter also reached for a theater analogy, saying that just as critics have been writing Broadway’s obituary for the last 100 years, three years ago the New York Times pronounced the picture book dead as well. “Not by a long shot,” said Porter. “I am heartened by the sales of the books I publish. They are not easy or obvious books. I do them because I love them. The audience is quite large.” He discussed what he sees as the limitations of digital options, such as the Kindle, iPad and Nook. He likened them to filmstrips of old, and said there was no real market for them because no one seems to really want picture books in those formats. “As things go digital there is a newfound appreciation for the physical book, and I intend to spend a lot of time making the books as physically appealing as I possibly can,” Porter said. “Nothing competes with the physical book.”

Scieszka tackled the issue of the divide between rich and poor and the issues involved in engaging reluctant readers, especially boys. Unfortunately, he said, many programs aimed at addressing this gap give some of the “crappiest books” to these at-risk readers. To address this, his Guys Read initiative aims “to motivate kids to be readers by giving them something great,” he said. This remark was met with approval from the audience and sparked further discussion. Barnett related the origins of Golden Books, which in its inception provided reasonably affordable titles that were also of high quality. By contrast, he said, today the imprint focuses more on licensed tie-ins. The panel as a whole gave high marks to the Open Book Foundation, which makes quality titles and author visits available to high-risk schools.

The discussion segued to a question for Medina, who has experience writing for and reaching out to the increasingly large Latino audience in the U.S. She said that there are beautiful picture books by Latino authors, but they are largely absent from schools except on Cinco de Mayo and during Hispanic Heritage Month. “I would like to see a rich multicultural library in every school all the time,” she said. Because, she added, at $17.99 per copy, a picture book is an out-of-reach investment for many, including her own mother.

Myers continued this line of thought by addressing the ideological conflicts inherent in publishing books for children. “The great thing about working with picture books,” he said, “is that it cuts straight to the ideological issues facing our country. It’s a heavy conversation.” He delineated the tension between what we want our children to be – and therefore the books most publishers think they want – and the realities of their lives. “What we want our children to be is whimsical,” he said. And though there's clearly a place for whimsy in children's literature, he noted that the pressures of the world and the problems that children face can be difficult. Myers said he sometimes encounters resistance from publishers when he wants to do a book that is “going to be a hard book.” He talked about Margaret Wise Brown’s belief that there needed to be space for experimentation in the picture book, but that sometimes that was hard won. Porter gave an example of Ballet for Martha, a book he published about Martha Graham, and how that picture book showed the complexity of performing art and how it is a rare thing. Marcus commented that the only book Parenting magazine ever refused to review was Children of the Great Depression by Russell Freedman – because editors deemed it to be depressing.

Reaching the Audience

All the panel members nodded as Porter discussed the international marketplace, and the oft-discussed puritanical mindset of U.S. publishers. He marveled at the number of gatekeepers that stand between a picture book and its reader: “author, illustrator, editor, sales department, publisher... and then down to the book buyer, the reviewer, the librarian, the teacher, and sometimes a parent, before it gets to the kid at the end of the line.” He noted that it’s amazing any book gets through all those gates.

Seeger, when asked by Marcus “how do you experiment in your work?” replied, “I kind of approach every book I do as [one].” She said she likes to challenge readers, whether by employing vocabulary that is just a bit more difficult or creating something conceptually or visually complex. But she worries that many children are not learning anything about the what’s happening in the literary world, and have limited exposure to, for example, Caldecott and Newbery winners. The panel again noted that the price point of the average picture book is a barrier to many readers. Porter discussed how paperback versions largely fail to sell. Marcus compared the $18 hardcover price to the cost of a pizza or a second-level necktie – which drew laughs from audience and panel alike – and deemed the picture book the better investment.

To view the full panel discussion, click here.