Picture books are a different breed of read. I’m not talking about longish storybooks, easy readers, or basic concept books. I mean the concise, every word counts, rhythm aware, yummy sounds and images that enchant-us-to-tears books. A librarian once told me that my books were never the “behind the couch” books at her house. When I asked what she meant, she said that when they got tired of reading something over and over to their kids, they would nonchalantly drop it behind the couch so it wouldn’t reappear for at least a few weeks. She said they never tired of reading my books. On the other hand, a blogger once said that although her son “loved” my books, she thought the language was beyond young children and that I should tone it down.
Picture book philosophy and interests vary, producing a myriad of possibilities with unlimited potential for creativity. I can’t tell you how often my jaw drops and my heartbeat rises because of a quirky, divine, packed new picture book. “Why didn’t I think of that?” pops into my head, but I don’t lose my grin. I buy the books, hoard them like candy after Halloween at our house, scold my children when they turn the pages too ferociously (my copies, not theirs), decorate my writing room with them, study them, share them with others, wish I was back in my library to have that ever-ready sold-out audience for my performance of this crisp, newly-found treasure. Picture books are meant to be read aloud. The action and dialog is immediate, often playful, often lyrical, packed with images and the ever-present promise of delight.
Because they’re written for the youngest book lovers does not mean picture books are simple in any way. The plot may arc as grand as any blockbuster novel, with word choice as precise and thoughtful as a poem. Scenes are packed with action, scenes change (providing necessary new images), emotions change (the heart of all fiction), and we grow attached to the characters, resonating with their flaws and predicaments, rooting for their successes. These books hold the keys to understanding literature, and the learning occurs in palatable, compact 32-page packages. I’ve used picture books for teaching the elements of writing not only in elementary schools, but in high school classes and courses for teachers of all levels. Practicing the art of writing picture books is to distill a coconut grove into an acorn.
Guess I got carried away again. I meant to say that I’m having a ball working on an online picture-book continuing education course for teachers. Sign up for my email newsletter to hear when it’s available.
Tell me how you use picture books to teach writing!