Finding greater vision in picture books

Mar. 22, 2014 @ 01:19 PM

I know the language of picture books well. I cringe at dialogue that doesn't ring true and prose that clunks. I swoon over unusual word uses. I also believe that some of the most glorious art in America is found in its picture books.
I’m often wowed by illustrations, but not always sure why. Recently, I taught a 10-hour continuing education class specifically for art teachers. My goal was to link reading, writing, art and Common Core State Standards. My suspicion was that I would learn more than I taught. I was right. I wasn't alone; those in the class who were non-art specialists had our eyes opened by the superb vision of two amazing art teachers, Deb Cox and Barbi Bailey-Smith. Here’s a small peek at the kind of things we learned.
I’d read aloud Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen’s “The Dark” (Little Brown, ages 6-9) many times, but hadn’t thought about how the pitch black endpapers set the tone for the story of a small boy who’s afraid of the dark. Neither had I realized how Klassen’s ink drawings create the feeling of a “big place with a creaky roof” as do the absence of warm art on the walls and the spare old-fashioned furnishings. 
Aaron Reynold and Dan Santat’s “Carnivores” (Chronicle, ages 6 and up) is a satiric story of a shark, timber wolf and lion who bond because they feel excluded by animals they prey upon. Again the humor begins before the actual tale starts as the front inside cover shows an inverted food pyramid crowded with startled animals and the back inside cover shows the same triangle empty, save one acorn. The initial illustration is dark as disapproving animals surrounding the lion who cowers in a rounded position.  The composition of angular details of wildebeest and gazelle accents their judging expressions and contrast with the lion’s stance. Our art teachers noticed how lightness fell on the  carnivores when they had ideas as if they were enlightened, or how the colors brighten with the sunny ending. The ironic words and text are perfectly paired in this book.
A favorite author-illustrator was Laura Vaccaro Seeger. We checked out both “Green” (Roaring Brook, ages 4-adult), a highly textured study of different kinds of greens — from khaki to wacky green and “Bully” (Roaring Brook, ages 4-7), Seeger’s first fictional story which stars a small bully who gets bullied and then approaches other smaller animals in this same way. Both books have the same quality — viewers are immediately engaged in wondering before the concept or story becomes clear. The ideas and illustrations are so intriguing you want to flip back and forth between the pages and you can do this without losing sense of the whole, each relook letting you discover more layers of the Seeger’s gift. Small cut outs in the early pages of “Green” herald and even spell out the next color introduced. A review of “Bully’s” pages shows him filling the frame of pages as if he’s full of himself. There is only room for his face at the climax, he’s shame-faced and shaky-lined typeface giving a tonal quality to his behavior-changing understanding. 
One of my favorite read-alouds, Jacqueline Woodson and EB Lewis’ “Each Kindness” (Nancy Paulsen Books, ages 9 and up) made more sense because of its illustrations. The story tells of Maya, a new girl, who reaches out to Chloe. Chloe, however, ignores and then bullies Maya with a pack of mean girls. Chloe realizes her misdeed, feels shame, but Maya moves before she can make amends. The book has been critiqued for not having an ending, but I’d always felt the resolution implied that Chloe has been changed forever because of what she’d learned about herself. The art teachers saw proof of this in the illustrations. Throughout most of the book, Maya looks away from viewers, her gaze often seems unfocused. The last picture, however, shows her looking straight into a pond at her own reflection as if, metaphorically, she is seeing her true self for the first time.
These were just a few of the titles we shared and appreciated. Here are others that blend illustrations and story. 
Julie Anderson and David Lopez’s “Erik the Red Sees Green” (Whitman, ages 5-10)
Jen Bryant, illustrator Melissa Sweet, “A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin” (Knopf, ages 8-10)
Jason Chin, “Island: A Story of the Galapagos” (Roaring Brook, ages 9 and up)
Kristy Dempsey and Floyd Cooper’s “A Dance Like Starlight” (Philomel, ages 7-9)
Paul Fleischman and Bagram Ibatoulline’s “Matchbox Diary” (Candlewick, ages 7-10)
Patricia Geis, Meet the Artist Series, “Alexander Calder” and “Pablo Picasso” (Princeton Architectural Press, ages 7 and up)
Mordicai Gerstein, “The First Drawing” (Little Brown, ages 4-7)
Martin Jenkins and Vicky White’s “Can We Save Tiger?” (Candlewick, ages 9 and up)
Jerry Pinkney’s “The Tortoise and the Hare” (Little Brown, ages 4-6)
David Shannon’s “Bugs in My Hair” (Scholastic, 5-10)
Joyce Sidman and Beth Krommes’ “Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature” (Houghton Mifflin ages 5 and up)
Bill Thomson, “Fossil” (Two Lions, ages 5-8)