November 17, 2017

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SLJ 2012 Day of Dialog: Pushing the Picture Book Envelope

(l. to r.) Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Jon Klassen, Tom Lichtenheld, D.B. Johnson, & Mac Barnett

The picture book isn’t dead—in fact, it might be entering a golden age, say some of the most talented and innovative children’s book creators during SLJ’s Day of Dialog.

Moderated by New York Public Library Youth Materials Collections Specialist, Betsy Bird, the panelists on “Pushing the Picture Book Envelope” gave the audience a visual delight that included a presentation of each book trailer, along with rousing commentary from each creator.

Bird, also an SLJ blogger, dubbed Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld, collaborators on Wumbers (Chronicle), the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of children’s literature for their ability to bring “the sound of numbers” in their latest book by using word and number gymnastics. Lichtenheld cites William Steig’s CDB! (S & S, 1968), a collection of pictures with captions written in code, and MAD Magazine, as visual influences, while Rosenthal mentions her love for “tinkering with language” and wordplay as the inspiration behind their work. She says this title appeals to children who aren’t necessarily born readers but who need to be led to the “reading party” through nontraditional themes.

Mac Barnett, author of Chloe and the Lion (Hyperion), crosses into the meta-fiction category, breaks down the fourth wall, and gives him and illustrator Adam Rex active roles as protagonists in their rambunctious picture book. Influenced by Jon Stone’s classic, The Monster at the End of This Book (Random, 1971), which also speaks directly to its audience, Barnett says he’s always enjoyed fiction that escaped the artifice of the “book” and strains the tension between text and image. Evident in the book trailer, this author/illustrator pair’s tongue-and-cheek humor elicited peals of laughter from the audience.

Jon Klassen, an Irma Black Award Finalist, opened with a trailer to This is Not My Hat (Candlewick), the sequel to his award-winning I Want My Hat Back. He says kids are just looking for a good story. Like one of his favorites, P. D. Eastman’s Sam and the Firefly (Random, 1958), picture books have to grab readers’ attention right from the start.

D. B. Johnson, author/illustrator of Magritte’s Marvelous Hat (Houghton Harcourt) and a longtime illustrator of picture books, made a splash with his surreal Magritte’s Marvelous Hat. He believes authors and illustrators of children’s books have to “embrace the nonsense,” let imagination and creativity manifest in new and groundbreaking ways, and not be so tied down by the latest trends. As long as visual language continues to be kids’ native language, then the picture book will continue to be successful, he says.”There’s a purity in it” that can’t be achieved through other mediums.

Maurice Sendak’s recent death was on the panelists’ minds, with Johnson calling him a god. Klassen admired Sendak’s ability to look right at a reader and “tell it to you straight.” Barnett agreed that Sendak was among the first picture book trailblazers, stating that the form is still an arena suitable for innovation and challenge, and contrary to popular belief, we just might be entering into a new golden age of the picture book.

Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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