Amid the fuss over e-books, picture-book fans keep showing some spine
E-books may get all the attention these days, but children's picture books -- the physical, printed kind -- remain both beloved and popular with American parents and their children.
That was the conclusion of a star-studded panel of children's book authors and illustrators who convened recently at Politics & Prose, an independent Washington, D.C., bookstore, to discuss the "present and future of picture books."
Picture-book lovers packed the store to hear people like Jon Scieszka, author of "The Stinky Cheese Man" and the first National Ambassador for Children's Literature, declare that the picture book remains a vibrant literary form.
"You motivate kids to be readers by giving them something great to read. It's as simple as that," said Mr. Scieszka, who also has established a popular website for reluctant boy readers called Guys Read (www.guysread.com).
Other panelists agreed that printed picture books aren't a dying form, as was predicted in 2010 in a provocative New York Times article headlined "Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children."
"The truth is that is not happening -- not by a long shot," said Neal Porter, editorial director of Neal Porter Books, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press. "I'm incredibly heartened by the sales of many books that I've worked on.
"And these are not necessarily the easy books or the obvious books. But they have found their audience, and that audience is large. ... As things have gone digital, there is actually a newfound appreciation for the physical properties of a picture book."
Yet that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement in picture books, said Mac Barnett, author of several picture books, including "Extra Yarn," which won a 2013 Caldecott Honor for the illustrations by artist Jon Klassen.
Mr. Barnett spearheaded a response to the Times article by writing "A Picture Book Manifesto," which began: "Proclamation! We are tired of hearing the picture book is in trouble and tired of pretending it is not."
The manifesto, which was signed by nearly two dozen other children's book creators -- including Mr. Scieszka -- can be read at www.thepicturebook.co/.
"One reason that I love picture books is that the history of picture books is an experimental history," said Mr. Barnett. " 'Goodnight Moon' [the classic picture book by Margaret Wise Brown], for example, is a deeply weird book. You're saying goodnight to socks ... and then you're saying, 'Goodnight nobody.'
"But I do think that that book gets to the fear felt by children. ... It's a dark kind of incantatory book."
That kind of experimentation, however, isn't necessarily the norm in picture books these days, Mr. Barnett added, noting that "darkness is so tough" to sell to American parents, "despite the fact that kids all have problems and need to read books that reflect those problems."
Mr. Porter agreed, saying that publishers in other countries see Americans as "uptight."
"They say that 'You Americans are even scared of nipples' " of nursing mothers being shown on the pages of children's books, Mr. Porter said. "The really tough thing for me is that I know that there are these books [published in other countries] that kids here would love, but there are so many gatekeepers," including editors, publishers, parents, librarians and others.
Meg Medina, whose picture book "Tia Isa Wants a Car" won the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award, said her picture books and children's/teen novels are considered experimental mainly because she writes about Latino families.
"The fact that I write for Latino kids is seen as unusual," said Ms. Medina. She cited statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin showing that about 3 percent of the 3,400 books reviewed in 2011 were written by or about Latinos, while the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that almost 25 percent of public-school students are Latino.
Despite these problems, there are many reasons why parents and children connect so deeply to physical picture books, said Leonard Marcus, a children's literature historian and author and editor of such books as "Show Me a Story!: Why Picture Books Matter" (Candlewick Press, $22.99, adult book).
"Picture books are stories told in two languages -- text and art. A third language is added by putting these things together as the story is read," said Mr. Marcus, who moderated the Politics & Prose panel.
The panelists agreed that digitized picture books are a poor substitute for the physical, print version.
"Digital books break a lot of the magic that makes picture books," Mr. Barnett said. "The page turn, for example, is a basic piece of language in picture books. That's how you show surprise and suspense. But, in digital books, the page turn is a fake" because all you do is slide your finger across a screen.
But he also said that he believes that digital media "can be a great way to tell a certain kind of story. But those stories need to be written specifically for digital media."
Christopher Myers, whose illustrations for the book "Harlem" won a 1998 Caldecott Honor, said he was prepared to address both the digital issue and also the fact that picture books -- with a typical price of $16-$18 -- are priced out of the range of many families.
"I'm going to try to do one book as a PDF and see what happens," said Mr. Myers. He added that he would do the illustrations in black and white so that the book would be less problematic and less expensive to print out. "I'm just going to see what happens."
Meanwhile, authors Mr. Scieszka and Mr. Barnett have teamed up with artist Matthew Myers to create a physical picture book that attempts to push the literary boundaries of the form, despite the misgivings expressed by the publisher about how the book will be accepted by adults. The book is scheduled for publication this October.
What their book does, said Mr. Scieszka, is take a cloyingly sweet picture book with the title "Birthday Bunny" and transform it into a militaristic story titled "Battle Bunny" by making it look as though a young reader has drawn and written on the pages of the original story.
"Our publisher is terrified," said Mr. Scieszka.
If the Politics & Prose audience reaction is any indication, however, "Battle Bunny" is destined to be an immediate hit and yet another example of why the physical picture book remains so popular with both kids and adults.
Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park Maryland Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.