Picture books

Sheela Preuitt pleads guilty to her clandestine love for childrens’ picture books

“Read any good books lately?”

It was a casual question in the lunchroom one afternoon. I sensed brimming anticipation of a spirited literary discussion. Sifting through titles in my head, I stated the first thing that popped up.

“One Green Apple.”

“I prefer the red ones,” came the matter-of-fact response.

“No, I mean, ‘One Green Apple’ is my recent favourite, counting only the dozen I read in the last week.”

The genial smile froze part-way, making room for a quizzical look; finally, “One Green Apple?! By whom?” out it came...

As I proceeded to expound on the concept of the book, written in crisp minimal text by one of my favourite writers, accompanied by fantastically rendered full-page illustrations, comprehension re-established its reign.

“Oh, I meant, a ‘real’ book… not a kids’ picture book.” The half-nod with a not-sure-how-to-respond look didn’t escape my notice. Suppressing my urge to plunge into the virtues and educate the masses about why children’s picture books are every bit ‘real’, I smiled knowingly and gave the acceptable answer. Now is not the time to take up arms, I thought. After which protocol took over and we discussed the merits of our respective ‘real’ books in the space of the four minutes it took for the coffee to brew.

Growing up on pictures

Growing up on a steady dose of Amar Chitra Katha and Chandamama; graphic and comic books were legitimate ‘reading’ material when I was young. If we were lucky, we’d find the yellowed and crinkled, translated versions of The Steel Claw comics as well as The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician at some local used bookstores. With those, our summer holidays were made!

My very first picture book didn’t come into my life until middle school. A family friend gave me a brightly coloured book that kindled my dreams—‘Ladushki’ with its charming illustrations by Yuri Vasnestov. The translated words in English had a certain lilt and magical quality that was heightened by the deliciously folksy pictures. The stories were unlike any I had read until then. I was hooked! Why aren’t there more books like these? I wondered innocently, not privy to the inner machinations of the publishing world.

I naturally got the rolling-eyes, shaking-head response when I set Ladushki as off-limits for the kids’ mauling...err, I meant reading. I have it on my bookshelf today, only to be handled by me. Kids can request that book to be read to them by me at any time, while I hold up the book to show the pictures. No touching.

We’re in a picture book utopia

From touch-and-feel board books for a rich tactile experience to noisy squeaking books with pop-up and lift-the-flap pages, kids today get a multi-sensory experience. They truly live in ‘Book Utopia’, at least for those who can afford it, or can find a generous library nearby.

The market today is flooded with child-friendly picture books for all tastes and occasions. From simple ABC and counting books, to books covering emotions, relationships and behaviour, there seems to be a perfect picture book for every conceivable interest. With gorgeous, full-page pictures on every page, there is a plethora of picture books to choose from.

However, prejudices regarding the implied superiority of certain genres, and thereby the inferiority of others, have somehow crept into the collective minds of society. Agreed, there are well written gems and poorly written tripe in any genre, including the picture book variety. However, condemning picture books on the whole as trite and unworthy of adult intellect is not only laughable but also pitiful.

Writing children’s picture books is every bit as tough as any other. With only about 24 pages to work with and an average of 500 words to get the point across, sometimes with even as little as 50 words, the author has to chisel and hone till no unnecessary word remains.

picture-this-200x306And what’s amazing is that very rarely do authors and illustrators collaborate directly. The author sends in the text; while it is the editor and art director who work with the artist for the illustrations and put the picture book together. Unless the book is written and illustrated by the same person, of course, in which case I can’t wait to get a copy and bask in the immense talent of the creator.

If writing takes some talent, I mean writing children’s picture books, then illustrating them takes even more talent. Illustrations complement the story, bring it to life and where possible, add nuance and subtle layers to reach out to the discerning reader. When one sole person is endowed with both the powers—of letters and art—it is mind-blowing, especially when their work speaks to the audience at different levels—from the very young to the young-at-heart.

Now don’t get me wrong, I devour ‘adult’ books, fiction and non-fiction, be it by a Pulitzer winner or by a debut author. But I also relish a few Caldecott winners and Newbery winners, not to mention all the non-winners that are just as beautiful and immensely satisfying.

While young adult novels and certain kid-centric chapter books are hesitantly admitted as ‘adult-worthy’, the pleasures of a fantastically simple, yet profoundly delightful picture book still eludes the grownup reader. ‘Been there, done that’ is the attitude towards picture books. Or, why bother when I cannot relate to it at any intellectual level, is the reasoning. One could also justify that the silly antics of children and animals don’t matter after soaking up Tharoor, Dickens and Pratchett, not to mention Vikram Seth and Shakespeare.

Possibly because I grew up in a generation without these treasures, I am awed by the creativity and cleverness behind the picture books—whether it is the profoundly stirring ones tackling issues like race, forced emigration and loss of a loved one; or gently cheerful ones about a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Either way, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words.

And then there are the wordless picture books. Open to a wide range of interpretations; each reader seeing what they see, while their mind supplies the words. These books can take a life of their own, very different from the one painted into them by the maker.

So, if you see me gravitating towards the children’s picture books’ sections at the bookstore or library, I am not ‘just looking for something for my kids’. I am simply looking for a good book. End of story!

What about you? Read any good [picture] books lately?

Sheela Preuitt juggles the hats of writer, cuisinière, applications developer, childhood literacy advocate, and crazy-craftswoman. She shares her culinary expeditions at www.delectable-victuals.blogspot.in/”

This was first published in the May 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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