letter to a friend about picture books today

More thoughts on the Picture Book Intensive, before I move on to my 48 days to write before the next travel. I wrote this letter to a writer friend this morning, and I want to share it here on the blog, especially for all those who participated in the Intensive... I've been wanting to do a wrap-up of what I learned, and maybe this will suffice. I'd love to hear what you learned/think as well... xo 

Ideas are endless. Don't you think, though, that readers have changed in the past 20 years (5 years!), and that schools/teachers/education has changed as well? Duh, but you know what I mean.

FOR INSTANCE: I tried all kinds of classics with Abby this past week, and she wasn't having ANY of them except James Marshall's RED RIDING HOOD, and that's because it's a Marshall art/telling, and because she already knew the story. Here's what she wouldn't sit still for: TOUGH BORIS by Mem Fox -- she didn't like the art, and she wouldn't go farther than that. And she loves pirates! SOPHIE'S SQUASH (which isn't that old). HENRY HIKES TO FITCHBURG, remember that one? It's charming. All three of these books are clearly written on a four-five-year-old level, without difficult inference or complicated story lines, but Abby could have cared less about them.
Next time I'm going to try Alice and Martin Provensen's Maple Hill Farm Books, and Cyndi's books -- WHEN I WAS YOUNG IN THE MOUNTAINS and THE RELATIVES CAME, particularly. But I don't have high hopes. She does love Richard Scarry, which is just to my point.

Why this sea change in the way young readers consume books? Because of books like GOODNIGHT ALREADY! and I DON'T LIKE KOALA and WOLFIE THE BUNNY and that skunk book, and more like these that are short and funny and not particularly lyrical or beautiful like Cyndi's work, or slow or soft... those books get tossed aside by 4-year-old Abby, and that may be her taste in reading, or her age, but I am still paying attention.

ENEMY PIE was one that Abby warmed to on the third read. [edited to add: this was also a self-selected book at the library -- Abby is not selective at all in her selections, and we brought home books that were... shall we say... not for me. But she loved being able to self-select, and that's another post... back to ENEMY PIE] --

Like all kids her age who like books, she's into the re-reading of anything that intrigues her, and we happily re-read. It's fascinating to see her understanding deepen and her enjoyment of a book open up as she "gets it." But she has to get ENOUGH of it on the first try to make her want a re-read. If that makes sense.

She ended up "getting" the idea that the enemy could be a friend -- but it took that third read... and she never did get that the dad was helping the kid all along by making the pie and telling the kid he had to spend the day with his enemy... but it didn't matter that she didn't get it -- this is a book for 7 and 8 year olds, or 6 year olds... those who are actively in school/neighborhood and have had dust-ups with friends. It's really a great book, and I didn't like it the first time through, either.

Also, lots depends on the reader of the book. Jim is a terrific read-alouder. When he first read I DON'T LIKE KOALA, he kept saying, "what?" because he didn't get the premise, and he didn't read it well, and Abby didn't like it. But the second time (the next day), when Abby asked for it again, Jim knew the book and was able to give it the heft it needed in order to make sense. So I want to keep that in mind as well, as I write. The art in that book is special, too. It had Janie laughing off her chair.

LANGUAGE has changed so much. ATTENTION SPANS have changed.  But what's important, at rock bottom, has not. That will help me as I go forward... the  delivery system (the kind of picture book) has changed -- that's what I see.

Another book, KID SHERIFF AND THE TERRIBLE TOADS, was a book that BOTH Abby and Jim hated at first glance. The art is terrific (Lane Smith), but the text (Bob Shea -- I've just ordered a bunch of his books and need to go pick them up at the library) is probably for an older reader than Abby. The art was so intriguing that Abby kept giving the book to Jim and asking for it again, and he would read it yet again, but the first time through, they couldn't even finish it -- either of them! And we have a rule here that no book must be finished just because it is begun. If you don't like it, you can say, "it's not for me" and put it aside.

The second time they tried it, they still didn't finish, and the third time Abby WANTED to finish it, so they did. The Wild West and dinosaur mash-up, plus the tortoise joke plus the Toads being the bad guys... it was hard for Abby to grasp, and it was also full of adult humor -- which is another hallmark of these newer books... when they work, they are doing the Sesame Street thing, where there is an adult humor that the kids don't have to get in order to enjoy the book. But in this book, the child reader needs to get it, too. So maybe Abby is just too young. Maybe Jim is, too. hee. Great art, though, and I noticed that Robin Smith really, really liked it in her review (I think for Horn Book). So there's that. I haven't read it on my own, so I will do that with Robin's review beside me, and I will learn something.

I realize I'm working with a four-year-old and you're thinking about 7-year-olds or something (for PBs), but I think the general principles still apply. This is why WIMPY KID is so, so popular. And these kids are going to be the Josh and Tims you work with in middle school. Just as it was when my kids were young, great depth on a subject is going to be embraced when a kid is passionate about a subject. Zach had every Titanic book I could get my hands on for him when he was ten years old. For instance. WWII, not so much. But there are kids (and I knew them) who are passionate about war, and about WWII and soon about Vietnam, as they will have grandfathers who fought there, too... etc. It's all coming back around, all the time... and I know NF is different...

[personal stuff snipped]]

So there's that argument as well, re NF. But it all ties into the same conversation about reading and how we write for young readers.

The point is -- I don't know the point. Picture books have really, really changed. The occasional quiet one slips through. Freshness and uniqueness is still valued -- look at Carson Ellis's HOME. I think it's brilliant. It's a subtle (and not so subtle) new take on all those classic picture books about home that I loved so much as a reader and wanted to write. It's probably 200 words. The art is everything, the way it is with all picture books now.

I have 47 days before I go to L.A. I'm going to stay in my writing zone as much as possible. I can't do like you do -- it's not in me -- but I can write every day a little bit and make progress. I consider my "intrusions" my life, and I won't push them away -- dinner with friends, Abby now and then, time with Jim to go on a field trip, the garden, etc., but I will manage my life well in these next 47 days, please god, and will see how far I can get.

Love, Debbie

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