The Wisdom of Children’s Books
I started paying serious attention to children’s picture books for two reasons. The first reason, you can probably guess: I became a parent. The second reason was that I opened a bookstore. Both for my own children and for my customers, I wanted to make sure I had a really good selection of children’s picture books.
The question was: what makes for a good children’s picture book?
This leads me to mention something I’ve learned in my publishing career from working with writers and wannabe writers. Lots and lots of writers want to write children’s books. And why is that? Because they think it’s easy. After all, picture books don’t have a lot of words. That must mean they’re easy and quick to write, right?
But actually, the opposite is true. Just ask a poet or a short story writer. The fewer words you have to work with, the harder it is to get your point across.
So back to the question: what are the qualities of a good children’s picture book?
A good children’s picture book has to be well-written. The language should be beautiful, each word well-chosen. I don’t like silly rhyming couplets. I don’t like books that sound like they are talking down to children. The more sophisticated a book is, the better. Let the children appreciate the sounds of the words. Maybe they’re complex and therefore funny to say. Maybe they are rhythmic and repetitive and lull the reader with a sense of comfort And sure, maybe they are silly and just plain fun. Just try saying “click, clack, moo” over and over. It’s fun to say!
And then there’s the art. I’m not drawn to anything that’s bright pink or glittery. Mermaids and unicorns feel clichéd. I want art that’s art. It’s beautiful and it shows the talent of the artist. It’s interesting to look at. You might even wish to hang it on your walls.
If a customer is trying to find a picture book and doesn’t know what they want, I always tell them to follow their eye. Pick something that looks good. If you like the art, there’s a good chance you’ll like the text, too.
Let’s finish by talking about probably the most important part: the message. Because children’s books almost always have a message. That message might be: go to bed! That message might be: learn colors or numbers or shapes.
But the more children’s picture books I read, the more I found ones with this message: feel good about yourself. Believe in yourself. Be who you want to be, no matter what anyone says.
That’s a good book. That’s a book I wish I had when I was growing up. That’s a book I’m happy to read to my kids and to recommend you read to yours.
A good children’s picture book is a hard thing to create. Choose carefully.
Here are just a few of my favorites: