What’s the secret behind a successful picture book? Although the best ones are often informational, they’re also mischievous, subversive, and exhilarating, says Patti Lee Gauch, a former editorial director at Philomel Books who has edited three Caldecott-winning books.
Speaking at a September 15 New York Public Library Children’s Literary Salon session called, “Acts of Mischief,” Gauch described how books that introduce chaos into a controlled environment and that are characterized by fun and playfulness tend to resonate with young readers.
Gauch showed the audience a display of moments from classic and modern works, such as the overflowing pasta pot in Tomie dePaola’s Strega Nona (Prentice Hall, 1975), Pigeon’s explosive temper tantrum in Mo Willems’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (Hyperion, 2003), and the dramatic, whirlwind of a catfight in Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats (McCann & Geoghegan, 1928).
She also peppered her lecture with anecdotes about working with well-known picture book authors and illustrators, explaining, for example, the origins of Jane Yolen’s Caldecott-winning Owl Moon (Philomel, 1987). Gauch said that as a first-time editor, she knew few illustrators. So when she received Yolen’s manuscript about a father and daughter’s moonlit journey tracking an owl through the woods, Gauch sent it to a 19- year-old former student whose father, John Schoenherr, came across the book and decided to illustrate it.
Touching upon what she perceives to be an omission in the Caldecott criteria selection, Gauch says she believes a book’s art shouldn’t simply mirror the text but should also enhance the story. As an example, she cited the Caldecott winning book that she edited, So You Want to be President? (2000, Philomel), whose whimsical drawings echoed illustrator David Small’s past as a political cartoonist.
Gauch tackled picture book critics, in particular addressing a 2010 New York Times article, “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children” which claimed that picture books were no longer relevant, with many parents preferring their children to read advanced books at an earlier age. Gauch defended picture books as vital to children’s development, stating that they are a “child’s first introduction not only to art but to narrative form.”
Gauch also addressed digital picture books, acknowledging that electronic versions do have their place. Gauch, however, stressed that a physical book is in and of itself an art form, describing the amount of effort that goes into designing a book’s endpapers or binding and concluded that children should have access to both formats.
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