Last week's spotlight on Brian Lies demonstrated the power of illustration not only to tell, but to swell a story to (and even beyond) its potential.
This week let’s take a closer look at some picture books in which the words can be just as potent. In every quality picture book the illustrations can and must carry their weight, but some books have a Suess-like capacity to intrigue and rivet our attention with the words themselves.
For a challenge of those proportions we can turn to Verla Kay’s books. Her series of historical fiction picture books are densely packed treasures of information delivered in the signature style she labels “cryptic rhyme”. Using tightly metered and rhymed short passages, her words tell childlike stories yet depict fascinating details about times and places in the past.
HORNBOOKS AND INKWELLS, illustrated by S. D. Schindler, provides examples. Her “terse verse” combines with Schindler’s double page spread of the interior of a colonial one room schoolhouse to plunge the reader back in time, costume, custom, and standards:
“Sternly standing, master greets. / Pairs of children, taking seats.
Hardwood benches, musty smell. / Children scurry, final bell.
John Paul bristles,/ ‘Take that back!’/Brothers bicker, / Thick rod, THWACK!”
Schindler's illustrations temper the ominous quality of the text, and each page unveils further aspects of a child’s life at that time, many of which are quirky and appealing (hornbooks, inkwells), many quite familiar (struggling to read, recess, daydreaming). Verla Kay’s cryptic verses require making inferences, using context, managing unfamiliar vocabulary, and visual literacy. This text can raise as many questions as it answers, but endnotes provide background and further factual snippets. These are books that trigger investigation, discussion, and imagination.
After reading HORNBOOKS AND INKWELLS you'll want to read WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE PONY EXPRESS?; ROUGH, TOUGH CHARLEY; COVERED WAGONS, BUMPY TRAILS; GOLD FEVER; IRON HORSES, TATTERED SAILS; and just released in 2012- CIVIL WAR DRUMMER BOY.
Since the subject is the power of a few well-chosen words in picture books, let’s wrap up here with a brief mention of picture books specifically focused on figurative language, word play, and tongue-twisters. Here are some you'll want to know about:
Find a review of RAINING CATS AND DOGS: A Collection of Irresistible Idioms and Illustrations to Tickle the Funny Bones of Young People. by Will Moses at BooksForKidsBlog.
Check here for a Kirkus review of MUDDY AS A DUCK PUDDLE And Other American Similes by Laurie Lawlor, illustrated by Ethan Long.
TEN SECOND TONGUE TWISTERS by Mike Artell, illustrated by Buck Jones.
Finally, for some laugh-out-loud (overused, I know, but it is the best description here) word blunders, be sure to read an old favorite, DON’T FORGET THE BACON by Pat Hutchins.
That only scratches the surface of possible picture books in which the language invites repeated readings, sharing, investigation, and imitation. More proof that picture books are NOT only for babies!