Feb 16, 2017

Seeing the World in the Pages of Picture Books

When I launched this blog five years ago I named it after my workshops for educators, librarians, and anyone interested in working with kids and books: Unpacking the Power of Picture Books. I extended my in-person workshops to this blog in an effort to  reach a wider audience and maintain an archive of picture books and comments as a resource. My thesis in both platforms is that picture books are a) alive and well, and b) high quality literature with powerful benefits for many ages.

 I'm not the first to notice that not only are picture books thriving in the publishing world, they are finding wider attention among bloggers, educators, and readers of many ages. That's despite predictions of the demise of picture books in 2010 New York Times article. 

As for the power of picture books for any age, let's consider two examples in this post. First, though, I offer a caution that I've repeated in many posts and in workshops.
Books are meant to be experienced intact, whole and complete. Quality books of any kind, but especially picture books, offer immersive, absorbing engagement, visual feasts, luxurious narratives, and page-turning entertainment. Each book deserves to be read, initially, in that way. Often repeatedly. In fact, before returning to explore books as mentor text for writing, tools for concept discussions, or other analysis, 
HONOR THE BOOK as a whole.
And then, dive in more deeply.
Beach Lane Books, 2009 
ALL THE WORLD is written by Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrated by Marla Frazee, a magical pairing of talents. It was released several years prior to recently organized efforts to raise awareness of and opportunities for greater diversity in images and stories in every format for young readers. (We Need Diverse Books)
Even so, the universality of Scanlon's  lilting, rhythmic, rhyming text  finds it's ideal expression in a visual community realistically and inspiringly varied in age, ethnicity, interest, and expression. It resonates with a natural diversity that sets a high bar for all others.
In scenes that range from expansive to intimate, small visual narratives invite exploration and discussion. Lives intersect and culminate in a gathering in which any and all readers can find themselves revealed. The lushness of the settings contrast with the economy of lines and strokes in the characters' expressions and movement. The cast of dozens, on page after page, offer up ingredients for stories of individual and interconnected lives. The potential for discussions of relationships, mentoring writing craft, and the balance of visual and verbal narrative is unlimited.
Read what New York Times had to say about it, here.

Chronicle Books, 2016

Next, turn to another Caldecott honor winner, more recently released. Both words and images for THEY ALL SAW A CAT were created by Brendan Wenzel. Again, this book must be savored, multitple times, in its wholistic glory. As a cat walks through page after page, it maintains essential traits (whiskers, ears, and paws) but is utterly transformed by the point of view and attitude of each observer. The inherent relationships (and assumptions) of "the others" shape and color their perceptions of what a cat is, or can be. 

Eventually, though, it's worth considering on another, deeper, level. THEY ALL SAW A CAT offers an extended metaphor of the way in which many rely on narrowed perspectives to define others based on individual, predetermined expectations and protective assumptions. Rich discussions can emerge from examining the double-page spread on which the cat is portrayed as bits and pieces of each viewpoint. Being defined by others' limited perceptions of us, especially in adolescence, can have a similarly jarring, disorienting impact. 
At any age, and especially in the pervasive environment of social media, the views of others can shape one's identity, one's sense of self. When teens find narrowly defined labels offered by others disrupting their personal development, a book like this can be a lifeline of perspective and validation. 

Then, in the final page turn, we see the ultimate truth: even when trying to view ourselves honestly and directly, what we discover is ever-changing, not fully accurate, and requires frequent reflection and consideration.

I hope you'll take a close look at these two books, and then find readers of many ages with whom to share them.

Feb 10, 2017

Protection for Future Generations: Reading Widely

One of my earliest posts after launching this blog was focused on my lifelong belief that the potential for a better future rests with our youngest citizens- of this country and of the world. In that post,  History Repeats, Picture Books Heal, (here), I referenced the lyrics to that SOUTH PACIFIC song, You've Got to Be Carefully Taught.
Image: We Need Diverse Books

"You've got to be taught

To hate and FEAR

You've got to be taught from year to year

It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear

You've got to be carefully taught."

Mass media/social media are frighteningly effective at teaching young people precisely this polarization, which reinforces a victim/victor mentality, helplessness, anger, zero-sum resolutions, and a "them vs us" view of life. This has been so effective, in my opinion, because it's fully immersive, surrounding small humans with vitriol. 

My hope for combating those messages lies in providing equally immersive experiences with openmindedness, generosity, selflessness, and, above all, empathy. Lending another a hand doesn't weaken us, but strengthens both, and even those who view the action. That's already happening on several fronts, including Ellen Degeneres's  long-running "BE KIND TO ONE ANOTHER" campaign, as well as the broad coverage of massive outpourings of love and support in the Women's March and protests of travel bans. 
An ideal immersion experience for young people is found in reading, in the empathetic process of losing ourselves in the lives of others. This happens in many ways, but two are worth considering more closely. We readers are strengthened by recognizing ourselves in characters and experiences that reflect our own lives. Even more powerful, though, are the opportunities to "walk in another's shoes" when those shoes, or sandals, or bare ground paths lead us far beyond our individual, limited experiences. When we make those journeys we realize that there, too, we can recognize ourselves.

The Washington Post ran an important article about proactively teaching/leading middle grade readers to a more inclusive and empowering approach based on KINDNESS. 
From www.readbrightly.com
But this is a blog about picture books. We, as in "mainstream Americans", seem very open to reading stories of European immigrants, ones that reflect our own more distant immigrant pasts and feature characters who resemble us in physical and cultural ways. Sadly, this attitude has played out in the book-producing industry in the past, resulting in fewer selections for adults to actively share or for young readers to discover on their own. 
That has begun to change in recent years. You can explore a few of those more recent releases (here). Sometimes the focus of the books is subject-specific, and in other cases the books merely portray universal stories with images and details that reflect the wide world in which we live. An ever-expanding community of authors, illustrators, agents, editors, publishers, and industry professionals are actively working to expand the quality diverse literature available through #We Need Diverse Books (#WNDB). Check it out. 
Every voice matters.
In an effort to support and expand Muslim voices, to allow young people to see themselves in the lives of ALL others, agents Cindy Uh and Clelia Gore launched a challenge to other agents for open submissions by MUSLIM authors. Read more about their campaign here, and please pass on the information to those you know who may feel their stories are unwelcome, or only suited to a narrow market.  
Every voice matters.
Every story matters.
Shape positive values and views of the world one book at a time.

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.