If I say ‘picture books’ what do you think of? Stories about bears who can’t sleep and hares who love each other ‘to the moon and back’? Books about caterpillars turning into butterflies, and families going on bear hunts? Books for young children in other words. Most people think children ‘grow out’ of picture books, that they are too simple for children who can read. Well, I’m in my 40s and I still adore picture books. I read them with my children yes, (age 11 and 8) but I also read them for myself. Some of the greatest art out there is sandwiched between the covers of picture books, plus they’re beautifully written, with not a word out of place. Haiku for aliens someone once described them as, and they were right.
I’ve always loved art and as a child I was lucky to have a dad who brought me to art galleries. After school I went on to study History of Art (with English) at Trinity College, Dublin, where I spent hours in the library pouring over the pages of the glossy art books. I also studied picture books – I was obsessed with Maurice Sendak (and still am). I’d like to share some of my favourite picture books with you and explain why I love them so much.
1/ Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
A Spread from Where the Wild Things Are
One of the most famous picture books of all. Originally published in 1963, at the time adults thought it a disturbing book. They thought the monsters would terrify children. But they underestimated youngsters, who recognised (and still recognise) the humour and mischief in the beasts. I bought a hardback copy of this book for my son, Sam, when he was born. I was a children’s bookseller in Waterstone’s and I loved reading this one aloud at story time. It’s so beautifully written, the words just flow off the page. It really has stood the test of time and the artwork still looks fresh and original 50 years on. A true classic.
2/ Monster Mama by Liz Rosenberg, illustrated by Stephen Gammell
An Interior from Monster Mama
I was a single mum for many years and I loved curling up and reading picture books with my son. This one is all about a mum who is a ‘monster’ and fights off the bullies who threaten her son. It’s about maternal love and the illustrations are highly coloured and very unusual. It’s a book full of powerful emotion and reading it always reminds me how strongly I felt and still feel about my son (who is now 20!).
3/ The Red Tree by Shaun Tan
An Interior from The Red Tree
The Last Page of The Red Tree
I’m a huge fan of Shaun Tan’s work. He’s an extraordinary writer and visionary artist and I urge you to seek him out. His books are for all ages, especially The Arrival, which is more graphic novel than picture book. But my favourite is his ode to hope and renewal, The Red Tree. It’s a simple story about a girl with red hair who is having a rough time. On each page there’s a tiny red leaf, and at the end of the book, the leaves have become a bright, shining tree. The text is beautifully written but it’s the illustrations that really blow you away. Everyone has days (or weeks or even months) where they feel tired and down and lonely, and I find this book – and its message of hope and its inspirational artwork – so reassuring. Nothing ever seems as bad after reading it. His latest book, Rules of Summer is also pretty special.
Here’s some of the text of The Red Tree: ‘Sometimes the day beings with nothing to look forward to
And things go from bad to worse/Darkness over comes you/Nobody understands . . .
But suddenly there it is
Right in front of you/bright and vivid
Quietly waiting/just as you imagined it would be.’
More of Shaun Tan's Work
Shaun Tan's Latest Book
To find out more about Shaun's work see: www.shauntan.net I also love Owl Babies by Martin Waddell (as it has 3 little owls – and my children used to re-name the owls with their own names and the dark, atmospheric artwork by Patrick Benson is superb); Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School by David Mackintosh (a book celebrating difference with stunning illustrations); and Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers (which has a strong friendship theme and the most wonderful rowing boat illustration – there’s a whale gliding underneath it). And I also adore the work of Lizbeth Zwerger for her quirky imagination and her use of colour + line.
The Work of Lizbeth Zwerger
What’s your favourite picture book and why? I’d love to know.
Yours in books,
This blog post first appeared on the Girls Heart Books blog: www.girlsheartbooks.com