Kick off: what makes a picture book good, besides the pictures?

Alright. This mission to steal back the illustrated book needs a kick-off. As well as some parameters and some caveats for this whole idea that these books are worth reading. After all, I would never suggest that Barbies Day at the Mall or even really the Berenstain Bears (though, god knows I loved those bears) are works to place up there with the likes of Munroe Leaf’s Ferdinand the Bull or Stephen Gammel’s Mudkin. Like boxes of chocolate, beer, and car engines, not all picture books are created equal. That much is obvious. What is much less obvious, however, is why some books are better then others, and how. But, in the name of properly outlining this mission to make the lovely world of picture books ours, we have to embrace this unavoidable fact of inequality.

We have to start by sweeping away any and all obvious money makers: kid’s books don’t make money. Just like literature doesn’t. And so, any and all books spanned from the likes of Cars, Toy Story, Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake, they need to get the initial boot. Come on, you already knew that. Its a cheap shot: make a kid fall in love with a movie and then make their parents buy everything they can get their hands on with Nemo or Thomas the Engine in it. Side (Side note: nothing is always black and white. For example, The Little Engine that Could dates back to the beginning of the 20th century and is a pretty rad story. Thomas the Tank Engine, on the other hand, is a new incarnation of that story and a mega-million dollar operation of toys, cartoon series, and, of course, books. I don’t necessarily dislike him. I just wouldn’t recommend his series with their feel good and see-through morals. Though, trains do rock. And diggers and steam rollers. A really cool three year old just taught me that.)

Anyway, once those less than worthy stories are out of the way, it gets more nuanced. What makes a book good? There is a whole range of qualifiers that fulfill this, and some are more simple than others.  For example, if the pictures blow you away, you might call it an amazing book even if the text isn’t mind blowing (unless of course the story actively makes you puke).  After all, these are mixed-media products, and both arts– the pictures and the story– play equal parts.  That said, it’s sometimes a bit harder to decide if a story is “good.”  You can pretty much intuit the artistic talent behind a picture, but the success of words, with their whole world of “meaning”, can seem a bit more nuanced.  

So what makes a story “good”?  Pin-pointing this is really tricky.  Vaguely: lots of qualities makes something good for lots of different reasons.  And we don’t really live in a time where anyone feels all too comfortable pointing to any one thing, standing firmly in a belief, credence, category, etc.  Post-modernism destroyed our confidence in the solidity of definitions because now we know someone, somewhere will prove us wrong.  I am a firm product of this same moment in time. But here it goes…

In my opinion (and please, go ahead and scoff at this moment of simplicity, I would), what you’re hoping for is a thoughtful contemplation of something sort of complex. Big issues like death, infinity, being, whatever. But something that doesn’t necessarily try to answer the question asked. Or even ask it, really. Just present it. Isn’t this what we want to teach our kids anyway? To give them the moment to consider shit they don’t understand but let them answer it for themselves? And while a kid might be seeing ideas for the first time, an adult most likely isn’t.  But just because you already know these things doesn’t mean you shouldn’t always revisit their complexity: adults should be reminded. Read books that don’t hold your hand, that just present an unanswered bigness (which might be why I particularly like the imaginative seemingly non-sensical books like Rain Makes Applesauce). I’m still speaking rather vaguely…. guess I really am a product of the anti-truth crisis…

To make it a little more concrete: for an example of an adult author that is the master of the unanswered, far-from-trite bigness, take a look at Jorge Luis Borges. Here is someone who has combined that tangible imagination with humorous, sharp, tongue-in-cheek presentations of death, infinity, intellectualism, fate, and knowing. If you haven’t read the man, you should. His stories are very short and concise. “The Lottery of Babylon” (Andrew Hurley’s translation, my favorite) is online here. Or try “The Circular Ruins”. The list goes on…

So to break it down, this is where I see the success of a kid’s book.  Simple, yes. Simplistic, no. Instructive, most likely. Pedantic, definitely not. Always bigger than itself, always asking for your imagination to fill in the blanks, asking you to put yourself in there, and never telling you how. And most importantly… never trite or overly sentimental. And I realize that this is the Platonic Form of a kid’s book, that not even the really good books will always uphold this criteria.  So I guess it basically comes down to: if you can read it now as a “grown up”, not throw up in your mouth, and leave it feeling like a better person, it’s doing something right. Of course, how that all goes down… well, that’s what we get to look at from here on in.  Cheers.

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