A large audience gathered in Washington D.C.’s Politics & Prose bookstore on November 8 for its third annual picture book panel – this time exploring the role of the picture book for older readers. Panelists included author and illustrator Jason Chin (Gravity); author-illustrator Christopher Myers (Firebird); illustrator John Parra (Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans); illustrator Chris Soentpiet (Amazing Places); Newbery Honor author Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming). Blogger, columnist, and author Julie Danielson (Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature) moderated.
Danielson began by posing the central question, how the authors and illustrators observe their work used by middle and high school readers and beyond. They agreed that they do not see a limit to the audience for their books. Parra said, “I don’t think there is a target age to enjoy picture books. We are all young at heart.” Woodson noted, “You can get different things from picture books depending on your age. An adult can read a whole other meaning to the book and readers of all ages can appreciate the poetry, the rhyme breaks, hidden rhyme schemes. The possibilities are infinite.” Soentpiet joked about how on author visits middle school readers initially roll their eyes but quickly come to attention, won over by the work. Chin, who writes and illustrates nonfiction books about science, noted that he “focuses on explaining as clearly as possible. And if it’s clear enough for myself then a young reader can understand; but truly then any reader can understand.”
The panelists said they understand why publishers must fit their books into specific age categories and market them accordingly. However, they see an audience that transcends these narrow confines. “The books themselves are not finite,” Myers said. “They grow with the reader and that is part of what makes a successful book. Part of the action of loving a book is to read it again and again.”
The panel specifically addressed the stigma surrounding picture books for older readers, and discussed how both parents and educators can often dismiss picture books as babyish. These adults act as gatekeepers and often push children into chapter books at the expense of a rich and rewarding picture book experience. Myers emphatically stated, “I never experience that stigma with young people, only with adults who make that decision.” Panelist agreed that readers search for good storytelling and asserted that picture books are a vital part of this tradition.
In choosing picture books for older readers, the panel urged parents and educators to revisit picture books as a powerful medium. . Woodson said, “Adults set the tone for so much in young people’s lives.” She urged adults to consider the range of social issues, the activism, and the relevance of story as well as the complexity of rhyme structure, vocabulary use, and content. “These books offer something to readers of any age.”
The discussion also explored how the power and potential of picture books is always evolving. Chin observed that with his books, “high school and middle school readers who may not be as excited to learn can be attracted to the visual format of picture books and then learn science along the way.” Myers noted that in our multimedia society, “picture books are a multimedia experience and that is why they still have currency.”
A topic of interest to the aspiring writers in the audience, Danielson asked how the authors use picture books in writer’s workshops. In noting that the most important way to become a better writer is to read widely, Woodson and others agreed that picture books present an efficient and meaningful way to study language. Myers presents his workshop participants withother author’s picture books to convey complicated use of language and storytelling. In addition, the authors and illustrators cautioned audience members to not narrowly define their audience while creating. “When writing I am not conscious of who’s coming to the work, but conscious instead of what it delivers to me. If it delivers to me it will deliver to the reader,” said Woodson.
One question explored how English language learners can employ picture books. Parra noted that much of his work is presented bilingually, which can make a difference not only to readers but also to their families. “It offers a way for ESL [English as a Second Language] students to connect with parents, and gives an opportunity to bond and relate,” he said. Of his experience coming to the United States from South Korea at eight years old and learning English, Soentpiet remembers reading Where the Sidewalk Ends . “Though I didn’t understand much, I did understand the pictures. And that made a big impact.”
While the panel discussed how picture books encourage readers to read deeply, Soentpiet shared how this is similar to the same process an illustrator uses to come up with the pictures. “I read [the text] not just once but many, many times. One word, just one word, might inspire an entire painting. It’s about studying the word.”
The event concluded with panelists encouraging parents and educators to broaden their thinking of picture books to include older readers and to see the value of them for any age. When discussing the algorithm publishers use to determine age categories, Danielson urged, “There is not an algorithm for poetry.... These books are sophisticated, employ complex storytelling, have a visual literacy, and are portable art galleries.”