Picture books; the good and the bad

Let’s not even get onto the subject of the ugly. Because there are picture books out there that are all this, and more.

I don’t often blog about picture books. It’s not because I don’t like them. I do like them. But with no children to read to, and picture books not generally being something I sit down and read for my own fun (they finish before I’ve barely begun), I don’t see so many of them.

There are some absolutely beautiful picture books, but I started wondering who likes them. Is it just the adults? Does it matter which picture books children read?

As a child I had some classic books, but I also had books that were nothing special at all in a literary sense, but which I loved and read over and over again. So did Offspring at that age. We had some quality books, but that didn’t prevent them loving ‘rubbish’. You just do, for whatever reason. I suppose it’s the book equivalent of enjoying Brio toys and McDonalds’ freebies equally much.

When I’ve been sent picture books for review, I generally only blog about the ones with adult appeal. That’s not to say that the ones I ignore aren’t capable of being loved to pieces by lots of children.

So how choose? And why?

10 responses to “Picture books; the good and the bad

  1. My children and I have very conflicting ideas about what is a good picture book, that’s for sure. We do agree on some stuff: Mini Grey,Emily Gravett, Oliver Jeffers, Marc Boutavant and a few others. But I cannot make my daughter love Lauren Child for example. She loves the BBC Charlie & Lola books but does not enjoy te original C&L or even her latest book, despite it being very pink!
    Anyway, we try a healthy diet of what I like mixed with what they like …I try to take the view that any reading is better than no reading at all … even if it means a lot of Princess Poppy books!!!

  2. It must be very interesting and at times frustrating to be a children’s book illustrator. On the one hand, you have to be pretty serious about being an artist even to be asked to do it, but on the other, your real audience is not by definition composed of the most discerning critics.

    I have adult friends who admire them but I’m afraid that I just see the pictures as sort of given and tend not to notice the artist behind them at all, unless they are someone like Sendak or Steig, who have made their mark in a larger way.

  3. Yes, I’m sure it’s seen as even less of a proper job than writing children’s books.

    Lauren Child feels to me to be very much an adult’s choice.

    I suppose I ought to test illustrations on a small child or two, but I’m not sure it would work.

  4. Funnily enough I have just posted a blog about The Gruffalo. I came late to this picture book and bought it just before Christmas to see why it was so popular. The story is not particularly original (think Henny Penny/ the Gingerbread Man) but it is charming and the language has a rhythm that makes it easy to read out loud. My 22 year old son (studying illustration) is a big fan of Charlie and Lola, too, and Oliver Jeffers.

  5. I only got The Gruffalo last year when I met Julia Donaldson, and was surprised to find I liked it. As you say, it’s not very original.

    Oliver Jeffers’ paintings are good enough to hang on any of my walls, but then he goes for the sort of style I love.

  6. Ooh yum, a picture book post! What a treat for the festive season! I could rant about this subject forever, but I’ll try and keep it brief… I think you should choose picture books for enjoyment – that of the adult AND the child. The child needs to like looking at them over and over again, and the adult needs to enjoy reading it aloud repeatedly. Not many picture books are good enough to satisfy both, and you’re right Bookwitch, there are far more bad and ugly picture books out there than good ones. I find this very frustrating as a picture book author – how on earth does so much rubbish get published in such a difficult niche market? As with any work of fiction, the best picture books are the ones that tell the best stories (through words AND pictures) and I think this is where stuff like the above mentioned Charlie and Lola falls woefully short. It’s easy to pick on C&L, but while we’re at it… I think their appeal is to mums who like their homes to be full of Cath Kidston-esque pretty things. They may look nice, but have you ever tried reading one aloud to a child? Not fun! I don’t think the style really works for reading aloud or for such young children, whereas the Clarice Bean stuff is brill. And good old Julia Donaldson – the Gruffalo may not be super original but it IS a brilliant read, as is most of her stuff. She writes brilliantly, you see, and little children love rhythm. It’s also fun to read out loud. Another ranting point here – when it is so hard to get rhyming texts published because of translation issues, how do terribly written rhyming texts slip through the net? A certain story about extraterrestrials and knickers springs to mind. I just cannot read that one aloud without stumbling over the words. Oh, and all the page spreads look the same too. But it sold in thousands, so it must be just me.
    Ok, I’ll shut up now.

  7. I don’t like saying publicly which ones I don’t like, so won’t. But I, too, wonder how so many mediocre books get published when it’s so hard to get published at all. And you’re right about the reading. You have to do it aloud, and then you’ll find those that don’t work.

  8. I looked at a zillion picture books for a year end roundup on radio 4 and most of the ones I read were pretty awful, but isn’t that true of any round-up? A few I loved were:
    Kevin Waldron’s Mr Peek and the Misunderstanding at the Zoo, Millions of Snow (Lerryn Korda), There are Cats in this Book (Viviane Shwartz), Jeannette Winterson’s The Lion, The Unicorn and Me, and Can You Whistle Johanna by Ulf Stark, which is a bit older, but divine.
    I guess like love, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince. Or something….

  9. Frogs? I’d settle for lots of handsome and witty and interesting men.

  10. bridgetstrevensmarzo

    I think the kids are doing the ‘kissing’ or testing in any case but not with our gatekeeper mentalities. How much better pre-readers are than most of us, at ‘reading’ pictures and spotting the visual sub-texts! Of course they have to decipher the world that way. Some interesting stuff, a propos, in Salisbury and Styles’s ‘Children’s Picturebooks, the art of visual storytelling’.

    I love to see young kids sift and sort, choose a book for familiar character or another for a picture and then pour over it, to work out what is going on – no need always to be read to. Characters lead them into those other worlds, a forest, the busy world of Richard Scarry, Rupert Bear’s village, the attic in Quentin Blake’s Cockatoos, a jungle, igloo or a leaf.

    As for quality control, I’ve worked with them enough as an illustrator to know they are not bothered about good or bad taste or artistic style or originality, whatever that means in picture books. It’s all about a variety and they don’t all have to be stories either, do they? They don’t all have to be read out either. What about Where’s Wally and mazes and doodle books? I’m just sorry that economics means that the UK misses wealth of great picture books from other countries, including US classics such as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon.

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