Ten writers for children. All with something to say.

10/13/10

Picture Books and Me

Ever since the NY times posted that article about the "Picture Book is Dead", I have wanted to write about it on this blog. It was the picture book that assured me one-on-one time with my mom, sitting in her lap, listening to the rise and fall of her voice while I had the luxury of "reading" the pictures without interruptions from my siblings. I had favorite picture books; carrying them from room to room, waiting for my mom to be finished in the kitchen or return from dropping my older sister off at nursery school and put my younger brother down for his nap, so I could curl up with her in the rocking chair and rock back and forth with her reading aloud. I loved the pictures and was not in a hurry to read myself. Picture books meant "love" and if I learned to read chapter books on my own, then I was alone-- or at least that is what I felt until I got hooked on Nancy Drew in the second grade and I have been an avid reader ever since.
When I was in the fourth grade, my family moved to Mt. Lebanon, a small suburb of Pittsburgh, PA. I had a wonderful art teacher, Miss Yingling, who noticed my shyness, being the new kid, and who also noticed my passion to draw. At that time the Carnegie Museum of Art had a program where art teachers in the public schools could choose one or two students to attend an art class held in a huge auditorium on Saturday mornings. I remember taking the city bus downtown to the museum, then getting in line with what seemed like hundreds of other 4th - 6th grade students to be given a 11 X 14 masonite drawing board, a sheet of manilla paper, a box of crayons, and a pencil. We took our places in the auditorium and wrote our names, address, and phone number on the back side of the paper in the upper left-hand corner. We used the crayon box to outline a horizontal box and a vertical box for thumbnail sketches, then used the slim side of the crayon box to outline a narrow rectangle in which we used our pencil to shade from dark to light. A color wheel with complimentary colors and secondary colors was drawn-- all of this was accomplished while waiting for all of the students to be seated. Then the teacher, whose name I cannot remember, would use a microphone and an easel and teach us to draw. There was usually a theme and we would watch, then draw two ideas for a picture- one in the horizontal box and one in the vertical box. This was the first hour of the class. The second hour was spent drawing the full-size picture on the other side of the paper in color with crayons. When the hour was done, we waited in line to turn in our supplies and place our drawings on the pile with hopes that our drawing would be "chosen." To be "chosen" would mean receiving a phone call mid-week and asked to come to the stage the following week and reproduce your drawing really big at an easel in colored chalk while the teacher taught in front of the stage. Then at the end of the two hours you would get to go up and speak into the microphone to briefly speak about what inspired you, and receive a pin. All during my fourth grade year, I yearned to be asked up onto the stage. In the fall of my fifth grade my mom finally got the call. I had drawn a kid jumping in leaves paying special attention to hands and feet, as we had learned how to draw them the week before. I remember donning a white painter's smock. There were ten easels on stage as ten students were chosen each week. I remember the feel and smell of the large colored chalk in one hand and holding onto my drawing from the week before in my other hand, referring back and forth as I enlarged it in front of all the other students in the audience. I remember my voice cracking in a whisper and being asked to speak louder into the mike. And then the pin. A little round pin. I felt like a real artist. An official artist. Two more times I went to that stage to draw before my family moved again. And what do picture books have to do with this? It was picture books that taught me to understand and connect to the world around me. It was picture books that inspired me to draw-- I learned about shape and expression, movement and composition that was re-inforced by the lessons I learned at the Carnegie Museum of Art. I no longer have the drawings except in my memory, but I have the three pins-- those three official pins that told me I was "real".

14 comments:

Edie said...

Oh my goodness, Lauren, I just got goose bumps reading this! What an amazing experience and affirmation of your early talent.

My sister-in-law sent me that article earlier this week. Picture books cannot die! They are too integral a part of life.

Lauren said...

The New York Times is excellent at these inflammatory articles with little research and interviews with the most extreme cases-- like the mom in Texas who won't let her son return to picture books, saying he "doesn't want to work to read"-- how many moms would take picture books away from their four year olds? Meanwhile, circulation of picture books in libraries is up-- I call that a sign of a sour economy-- the picture book is alive and well.

Stephanie said...

This is so cool. You were meant to be an artist:)

Christy said...

I was almost teary reading this! I identify strongly with much of what you have written. Those pins are like the medals in Wizard of Oz--something tangible that affirms a characteristic or skill that already exists. Picture books will not die, but I love that we are all discussing their importance again.

Lauren said...

My editor from Beach Lane Books sent me the quote below from the wonderful author/illustrator, Marla Frazee, in response to the NY Times article. She was asked for a response to the article from a local school near her. I think Marla's statement about the magic that happens when reading in the lap of an adult resonates with my own picture book memories. I asked if I might copy it to our discussion here-- so here it is:

"I hated this article! I felt it was irresponsible journalism and actually, the woman they quoted who has that blog has gone on record as saying she was grossly misrepresented. It seems to me that even those they quoted who should know something couldn't defend picture books because even they don't really understand them. And these were publishers, editors, and booksellers. They should have talked to teachers and librarians who are actually in the trenches with kids and who have something solid to say about how picture books are crucial rungs on the ladder to literacy. Children read pictures to understand story. They can easily grasp very complicated, convoluted narratives all on their own. They do not need to be taught this skill and in fact are better at it than grownups are. When that is paired with words read aloud to them – either while they sit on a parent's lap or in a storytime circle – the words and pictures and theater/intimacy of the moment combine in a multi-sensory experience that is absolutely a necessary step on the road to raising readers. And plus, it is magic! Who would want their child to miss out on that?" -- Marla Frazee

Edie said...

Lauren,
Thanks for sharing this response from Marla Frazee! If all the people currently enjoying and producing picture books, as well as all those with warm and inspiring memories of them, responded to this article, the New York Times would be overwhelmed.

Kerry Aradhya said...

Hi, Lauren. Thanks for this wonderful post and sharing your early memories of your passion for art. I had heard about the New York Times article but hadn't actually read it until now. I, as an adult, am madly in love with picture books. I have a 3-year-old daughter and a five-year-old daughter, both of whom also love picture books. My five-year-old is becoming a pretty good reader these days, and I see some of her friends carrying chapter books around, and we've gotten read-aloud chapter books from some of our friends as gifts. So, I definitely feel some sort of pressure to stop reading picture books. My heart, though, is telling me to keep reading the picture books for as long as my girls stay interested (which I hope is a very very long time). I have had this tug-of-war going on in my head about what to do for a while now, but the comments on your blog are affirmation that I should follow my heart. Long live the picture book!

betsy woods said...

Lauren, this blog, this blog, this blog--I still have picture books I read, and then read again to my children. I am a picture book collector, they are art.

Lauren said...

Hi Kerry, I just returned from a walk with a friend and then a visit to Birch Bark Bookstore-- a small independent, where I could not resist buying two picture books. I have been a judge for the Marion Vannett Ridgeway awards for the past four years-- an award for "first" picture books. Every year I have a picture book party where I invite neighborhood kids to come and help me with the judging-- these kids range from ages 12 to 18 and they love it! They remember so much from when they were little and use that expertise each year. Keep on with the picture books-- even my 15 year old son still pulls his favorites off the bookshelf when he is in a particularly "quiet" mood.

Lauren said...

ps- Kerry, we read picture books to both of our kids until they were 12 years old-- we had favorites that none of us wanted to let go of and which still elicit awww's and "Oh, I remember that one, I love that book!" And yes, both of my kids are avid readers of chapter books.

Julie said...

I loved reading this part of your history, Lauren. It shaped the you I know now.

Of course, that article infuriated me. I spend my days with children and picture books and know the picture book should not be "left behind"! Each week I carefully choose books to read aloud, and I'm never disappointed in students' reactions. Two weeks ago I read Uri Shulevitz's THE TREASURE, and the discussions we had about the artwork, the word INSCRIPTION (and where we find them in the world), and the message about the treasure were fabulous. Last week we discussed in detail the incredible Pack Horse Librarians after I read Heather Henson's THAT BOOK WOMAN. There are so many things to learn, and I love how the time I spend with kids, reading aloud and talking, brings us all to a calm understanding.

Like you, we read aloud and still read aloud to the boys from picture books - 14, 16, and 18 years old!

Kerry Aradhya said...

Hi, Lauren and Julie. Thanks for letting me know that picture books have stayed in your lives and the lives of your children for so long. I've always thought to myself, "What am I going to do when my kids grow out of picture books?" But it is really good to know that there are teenagers out there who still appreciate them. And Lauren, your neighborhood picture book party sounds like so much fun!

Diane Adams said...

Lauren, what a beautiful story. I actually think it would make a wonderful picture book!

A friend sent me the N.Y. Times article, and I was so dismayed. Thank you for Marla's quote. I can't imagine a world without picture books.

I was also a little worried about Kindle, et al replacing books for children until my mother-in-law reminded me that children like to throw things, and Kindles, unlike books, break when they are repeatedly dropped, chewed on, stepped on, and tossed in the toy box. Long live children's books!!

David LaRochelle said...

Get rid of picture books so kids can do better on standardized tests? That is so ridiculous in too many ways to count! For one thing, picture books often have richer vocabularies than chapter books and beginning readers. And as my dental hygienist (!) today told me, picture books teach kids about beauty and art. But then again, there's no standardized test for beauty, is there...