Emmy-nominated director and producer Joanna Rudnick believes so strongly in the power of picture books “to foster literacy and spark creativity, and to foment a more empathetic and diverse portrait of the world and our society in the minds of the next generation of its citizens,” that she and her creative team at Oakland, Calif.-based Storied Studios are producing a feature-length documentary about them. The film, called Story & Pictures By, focuses on much-lauded author-illustrators and picture-book creators Mac Barnett, Yuyi Morales, and Christian Robinson, as they share their life experiences and offer a detailed look at their ongoing work on several projects.
Production of the documentary began last year and is roughly at the halfway mark. On October 22, Rudnick launched a Kickstarter campaign seeking $40,000 in funding to continue the project. To date, the effort has raised more than $27,000, and the campaign ends November 22. We spoke with Rudnick about where her passion for this endeavor stems from.
“The origin story for the film is truly that I’m a parent,” she said, noting that reading to her own daughters, now seven and eight years old, served as a creative spark. “I rediscovered my love of picture books and remembered some of the classics from my childhood and started to appreciate how children’s books have changed,” she said. “The time that I spend with my children reading at night is probably the most rich time we spend together as a family.”
Struck by the active, theatrical nature of reading picture books, Rudnick began investigating the many questions she had about picture books with the eye she developed while building her extensive journalism and filmmaking resume. She uncovered research about the importance of picture books in developing “visual, auditory, written, and emotional literacy,” as well as a love of storytelling. Her previous arts and culture documentaries about choreographer Bill T. Jones (Bill T Jones: A Good Man) and the Rolling Stones (Crossfire Hurricane), as well as some of her earliest professional work at the PBS program American Masters gave her a certain comfort level for tackling this new venture. “I have been very interested in process and how artists work and communicate for a very big part of my career,” Rudnick said.
As she looked around for documentaries on the picture book, Rudnick did not come across any works that she considered a “living documentary. I didn’t find anything that looked at the picture book as a whole and did so by following contemporary picture book makers,” she explained. “I thought, ‘No one has ever made this film—I want to make this film.’ ”
The subject matter is also a good fit for Rudnick in her role as a champion of social issues. “I think picture books are doing so many things at once and they’re educating a whole generation of children,” she said. “They’re reflective of the times we live in. This is a scary time, where children are exposed to quite a bit of rhetoric and other unrest in the world right now—they’re worried about climate change, they’re worried about gun violence. Where are they working these things out? I realized that one of those places is picture books, and it’s a place where they’re also developing their world view. I think picture books are a lot more important than we give them credit.”
Close-Up on Picture Book Stars
Narrowing her lens to just three author-illustrators from the many talents in the field was a bit of a challenge, according to Rudnick. In addition to doing her own deep dive into reading picture books, she approached librarians, agents, editors, and publishers in the children’s book industry, asking their opinions. In the end, Barnett, Morales, and Robinson were “the three voices that percolated to the top for me, and they all offered a different perspective,” she said.
Rudnick cites Robinson as a creator who is “really changing representation” in picture books by portraying children of color and kids of different abilities as protagonists in his stories. Rudnick admires Morales’s book Dreamers (Holiday House/Porter) as well as her efforts “to create a common narrative about what is happening in this country, and her dedication to representing the Latinx community.” And in addition to praising Barnett’s “complex and creative narratives,” Rudnick notes that he is “also a historian of the art form,” which has proven invaluable to the documentary. In fact, Barnett drafted “A Picture Book Manifesto” back in 2011, as a call to action for the industry to strive to, as he noted, “keep books fresh and bold and engaging for our readers.”
Rudnick hopes to complete Story & Pictures By in winter or spring 2021, but the schedule is dependent on funding. “We’re shooting this film over the course of at least two years,” she said. “That gives us time to see a new book idea come up, to see the evolution of that, to watch the first illustrations. We’ve watched Christian create a book [You Matter, S&S, May 2020] that we’re now going to see him look at the color proofs in New York, and we’ll also be there when he’s recognized for Another [S&S], which is on this year’s New York Times Best Illustrated list.” Just Because by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault (Candlewick), was also selected to the NYT Best Illustrated list, so Rudnick and her team had cause for extra celebration at the New York event for the honorees.
Other highlights of the film include footage of a recent trip to the U.S.-Mexico border with Morales when she spoke with biologists and activists as research for her next picture book, Bright Star, about wildlife that live in the ecosystem that exists between the two countries and doesn’t quite adhere to a border.
Post-production, Rudnick plans to work with a team to “add the layer of animation and motion graphics to bring the audience experience deeper into the picture book.” Once the movie is finished, she envisions outreach campaigns and screenings that tap into existing programs to promote literacy. She believes that the potential audience for the film is “incredibly broad,” and includes “anyone who has ever read a picture book or had a picture book read to them.” But one element of the project that especially pleases Rudnick is that unlike many documentaries, which often tackle tough subject matter, Stories & Pictures By “is a breath of fresh air. The picture book is in a time of change. Yes, it needs to change more, but we can see some shift there and that is offering an unapologetically hopeful view of the world right now, when maybe we need it.”