Photographs by Kirk Montgomery
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette new book Illustration
Monday, April 16, 2018
While doomsayers predict that the end is nigh for the printed book, Americans continue to invest in children's picture books. It's a boisterous, artful, diverse, foaming sea into which thousands of joyous and/or annoying little books bubble each year.
2017 was a case in point, with many standouts, including Dave Santat's widely hailed After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again), published by Roaring Brook Press, and Jory John and Pete Oswald's realistically nonchalant ugly duckling story The Bad Seed (HarperCollins).
That seed is a sunflower seed whose traumatic childhood appears to have doomed him to grow up rotten. But then he doesn't. You know, people change.
And Humpty Dumpty is a role model for recovery that sadder, wiser adults will recognize. Clumsily reassembled by king's horses and men, for a long time the poor egg's cowed by his awareness of life's hazards, but slowly his courage returns until, in an act of determination, he rises above fear.
Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, who created the 2015 Caldecott honor book Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, added in 2017 a memorably lovely and funny item to their Shape series with Triangle (Candlewick Press). These Shape books teach the words of geometric shapes using stories that illustrate their differences. Scampering across an eloquent landscape, sneaky Triangle plays a trick on his buddy Square, pretending to be something Square fears; but Triangle's giggling gives him away. He's chased back to his triangular house by Square, who can't fit through the triangular door -- but is able to block the light.
And Triangle is afraid of the dark.
A similar blend of coy education and humor dances through Isabelle Simler's Plume (Eerdman's Books for Young Readers). A black cat, or its parts, stalks finely detailed and realistic birds, and their feathers, across these 42 pages.
Now one might assume these books are so fabulous that not even the pickiest parents would hesitate to share them with children. But everyone is different. I overheard a mother in a Little Rock bookstore complaining to her friend that Humpty Dumpty "glorified climbing up on ladders."
Not every well-received book is well received in every home -- or right for every child.
Glittering illustrations by Sydney Smith deliver a melancholy but heartening social studies lesson in Joanne Schwartz' Town Is by the Sea (Groundwood Books). The sparkling simplicity of a child's daily routine in a seaside town contrasts with his father's toil in a dark coal mine; Grandfather is in the graveyard that overlooks the sea; but at the end of the day, a loving family cuddles together.
Brilliant. But 52 pages become a lot of pages when one is reading aloud to an energetic child.
Parents who want to talk about race will be glad for the triumphant vision conveyed by That Is My Dream (Schwartz & Wade). Daniel Miyares' illustrations of the Langston Hughes poem "Dream Variations" gleam, and Hughes' words will lift the hearts of readers who feel the hope embedded in the words. Children of all colors are seen sharing the dream, and the poem can be read on more than one level.
Adults want to know what's in books before we share them. But there are thousands and thousands of choices -- that's overwhelming. And sometimes, otherwise terrific books contain one page or one line that troubles the squeamish parent. In 2005, there was a small dustup on parental chatboards over Keiko Kasza's The Dog Who Cried Wolf (Puffin Books, reprinted in 2009). Moka, a dog, becomes dissatisfied with his happy life after listening to his little girl read aloud a book about wolves. He runs away to play wolf.
Expressive pen-and-watercolor pictures show him jumping and dancing, and urinating "wherever he wanted."
Harmless, humorous, and it infuriated some people. They didn't want to encourage toddlers to go about pretending they were Moka.
DEFAULT TO THE BACKLIST
According to the NPD BookScan 2017 market report, "children's books continued to thrive with a 3 percent boost in 2017, led by R.J. Palacio's Wonder and Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid #12: The Getaway. There were lifts in early childhood books, with 11 percent year-over-year growth in board books and 20 percent growth in graphic novels, tied to the success of Dav Pilkey's Dog Man series."
Board books are those very short stories for babies printed on such heavy stock they seem indestructible and yet can be gnawed clean through by a teething rug rat. And you remember Dog Man -- he's an action-adventure spinoff from the cheerfully vulgar Captain Underpants series, and aimed, by the by, at ages 7 and older.
Licensed books -- books tied to movie characters and toys -- were 28 percent of the U.S. children's book market in 2017. Dr. Seuss was the top licensed brand; the Walt Disney Co. was the leading license owner; and Penguin Random House was the leading publisher of licensed books in the market overall.
Wanna guess the No. 1 best-selling board book of 2017?
The 2017 release Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, sold a respectable 113,520 copies, according to NPD BookScan, which collects data on about 85 percent of the print market. But the year's top-selling board book was not that.
It was 1947's Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown (1910-1952), illustrated by Clement Hurd (1908-1988). A bunny lying in bed in a great green room chants goodnight to random items, including a bowl of mush that has gone uneaten for 71 years.
Why is this old book still so popular? Is it literary greatness, humor or sheer familiarity? As with other popular items published just a decade or more ago, people buy it because they know what's in it. The modern trend of giving board books rather than greeting cards at baby showers is said to be a genuine market driver, witness an op-ed piece Aimee Bender wrote for The New York Times in July 2014:
Bender reports her baby shower gifts included colorful board books, big illustrated books, collections of Sandra Boynton and nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss, but she received multiples of only one title: "a board book Goodnight Moon, a flimsy Goodnight Moon, a large lap book Goodnight Moon, and an anthology by the book's author, Margaret Wise Brown."
Of course, she thought. "It's that one that says good night a lot. I figured I'd read it before, just a story of going around the room saying good night to stuff, and I thought it was popular as a gift because it's so appropriate for bedtime and everybody wants babies to sleep."
But we can't all take Goodnight Moon to the baby shower, people.
MEET THE INTERNET
The way to make better selections is to educate ourselves before we select. Spend time in bookstores and libraries, consulting the experts who work there and experiencing the books for ourselves. But do we have the time?
For those who don't, the internet offers some surprisingly helpful websites.
For starters, the Central Arkansas Library System has NextReads, an email newsletter service that will send you updates on various topics, including new picture books. See cals.org.
• YouTube.com is a secret universe of read-aloud channels, some sanctioned by publishers, some not. Type a book title and the words "read aloud" into the search field. Look for videos that last less than 10 minutes -- anything longer will be blather. And it's smart to scan through to be sure the book's pages are shown more often than the reader's face.
• Storyline Online (storylineonline.net/library) is a free collection of 44 videos on which Screen Actors Guild Foundation union members read picture books aloud. You click the book cover and select Youtube.com or SchoolTube.com as your playing portal. (SchoolTube is a fun video channel on which you can learn frog dissection, among other education.)
Alas, the camera spends about as much time on the actors' faces as on book pages, and some videos animate illustrations in (potentially) annoying ways. For instance, parts of Beatrix Potter's originals are made to waggle and hop during Rose Byrne's otherwise lovely seven-minute reading of The Tale of Peter Rabbit (Penguin Random House).
But Tara Calahan King's pastels are allowed to stand for themselves unmolested as Camryn Manheim spends 10 minutes reading Enemy Pie (Chronicle Books) by Derek Munson.
• The International Children's Digital Library Foundation, developed at the University of Maryland, lets children ages 3 to 13 read digitized books in 59 languages, all with permission from copyright owners. The website at en.childrenslibrary.org was designed for and tested by children; but adults can use it to evaluate the books.
• OpenCulture.com is a vast portal of downloadable items, many of them books that can be viewed on e-readers such as Kindle.
• The Library of Congress website read.gov has rare editions of classics available to download as pdf, beginning with Kate Greenaway's A Apple Pie (Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd., 1886).
And for the adult who buys that Goodnight Moon to share because he longs for a more innocent time in which children's books were not about adult agendas (ha! as if!), there are more than 6,300 children's books from the 18th and 19th centuries available for viewing in all their original glory, page by digital page, at ufdc.ufl.edu/baldwin.
This is the digital Baldwin Library of Historical Children's Literature at the University of Florida, and it is astonishing. Click "View Items" in the toolbar, and when the next page opens, select your language and sort by "Date Ascending." Prepare to be really overwhelmed.
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