Picture books: not just a pretty page

This week’s post takes the chance to ignore the 7-11 target for once, and look at the ever-growing, ever-more-sophisticated range of brilliant picture books for younger readers. I have, as it happens, an unsteady heap of them, not quite the height of a small toddler, on the desk next to me as I write: this is the cream of my children’s extensive collection, the ones we couldn’t bear to send to the Oxfam shop even long after the children were “too old” for them.

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Picture books have often been treated as the slightest and fluffiest sort of children’s publishing, itself shamefully marginalised (did you know that one in four books bought in the UK is a children’s book, yet children’s books barely attract one in forty reviews?). There’s no question that picture book publishing has become far more sophisticated over the past ten, twenty, thirty years: illustration has become subtler, colour printing has become smarter and it has become possible to incorporate all kinds of whizzy extras: pop-ups, textures, sounds, smells. At the same time, the more appealing and colourful picture books become, and the more widely they become available (not only bookshops but supermarkets, garden centres and service stations), the more they are treated as consumable and disposable: like candy, which is wonderful if you want to sell more of it, but a bit of a problem if you want people to take it seriously.

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Because the best picture books aren’t just eye candy or mind candy, they have serious food value for the very young reader, all wrapped up in a very few brilliantly-chosen words and superb pictures. (By the way, here’s how to really upset a children’s author: say “What a great job, you hardly have to write anything at all!” As with most things minimal, what takes years of practice and judgment and effort is the stripping out of everything else to leave exactly the right words and no more.) The finest picture books, and there are so many, are captivating without being precious, clear-voiced without being simplistic, and may well be gently moral but are never moralistic.

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Do picture books still matter in the digital age? Without turning into a Guardian debate, I really think they do. Of course, very young children find animated screens just as appealing as their elders, and for parents, tablets and smartphones have lost the stigma of television and videogames a generation back – there is something far more reassuring and less passive about letting children explore a carefully-chosen app than parking them in front of the screen or the console (and that also has its place: children need down time just as much as adults do). It’s easy to assume that clunky old books can’t compete (the pictures are static! You have to read the words out loud! You even have to turn the pages!); and easy to forget that the inconvenience of reading books with the very young, the needing to sit down and read with them at their own pace, is actually their great strength. Books make parents (or grandparents, or carers, or aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters and longsuffering family friends) and children sit down together and talk about what they’re reading, and at the time of writing that is worth more than the smartest app in the store. Specifically, learning to understand books – learning to understand and enjoy the way a story works, and learning how to read from page to page, from the front to the back of a book – seems ridiculously obvious to any adult reader, but is invaluable in setting a young child up for the crucial process of learning to read independently.

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So enough of the theory, what about the books? For the very young (up to 12-18 months), there are half a dozen classics that have only proved their brilliance over the years and sometimes decades. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Dear Zoo and The Gruffalo need no introduction: they work, and have worked, for a generation or two or more of children, enchanted as much by the joyfully recognisable phrasing as by the perfectly contained story as by – in their different ways – the art, from Rod Campbell’s essential ink line animals through Eric Carle’s bright collage to Helen Oxenbury’s lonely pen-and-wash bear on the shore. Other, less high-profile favourites include Charlotte Voake’s Ginger, the fuzzy warmth of the story gently spiked by the irrepressible character of the pen-and-wash drawings, outraged house-cat Ginger and cheeky interloper kitten; and Elfride Vipont and Raymond Briggs’ now-fashionably-retro The Elephant and the Bad Baby. Any modern infant – for whom a costermonger is as strange a thing as a mother who responds to your day-long disappearance by making pancakes for all your new friends – will still adore the refrains of “rumpeta-rumpeta-rumpeta all down the road” and “he never once said ‘Please’”.

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For the next stage, 1-2 years, there are some lovely books too. It becomes all the more important to choose books that you will enjoy as much as your child, since you may very well be reading the same story many nights in a row: clever authors and illustrators contrive to write for both very young children and their adult readers without either feeling they’ve been short-changed. Quentin Blake’s Zagazoo is an enchanting case in point: for very young children, it’s delightful but not especially odd that a baby should change into a baby vulture, a warthog, a small dragon and a strange hairy creature, whilst parents might ruefully recognise various stages of childhood and adolescence before the longed-for “One morning… Zagazoo had changed into a young man with perfect manners.” Mister Magnolia may not have the same split-level reading, but is just as joyful and re-readable – could anyone else have pressed such liveliness and wit from the range of words rhyming with “oot”? Those two stand out, but nothing that Quentin Blake turns his hand to is anything less than gold, and it becomes only a matter of carat-counting.

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Polly Dunbar has a gentle direct style that allows her to tell both simple stories and more difficult ones. Penguin is a pitch-perfect picture book that bears reading again and again, with the increasingly frustrated toddler Ben and the stoical, silent Penguin finally breaking into marvellous, bright-coloured voice. For older readers, Looking After Louis is a subtle and sympathetic story of a school, a class and a classmate responding and reacting to a new arrival with ASD.

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Viviane Schwarz produced one of the most successful and satisfying interactive books of the last few years with There Are Cats In This Book, smartly followed without any loss of form by There Are No Cats In This Book. Schwarz’ cats are a little rougher round the edges than Charlotte Voake’s, but at least as full of character; and she also has a fine line in rats (Cheese Belongs to You), hamsters (A Place to Call Home), sharks, lobsters, strong pyjamas and awesome robots. (If you’re not intrigued yet, I absolutely give up on you.)

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It’s at this point that bedtime books – not just a bedtime story, but a story about bedtime with a soothing, lulling rhythm all of its own – start to prove their worth. The Elephant and the Bad Baby is one such – after the riotous adventure of the day, everyone has pancakes and goes home and the Bad Baby goes to bed; Goodnight Moon is another, well-loved American classic. I am particularly fond of The Sun’s Asleep Behind the Hill, which successfully settled my own three over the years: now sadly out of print, it’s a charming story-rhyme, Armenian in origin, that sees first the sun, then the bird and the squirrel, then the leaves and the wind and finally the small boy playing in the park all settle to rest for the night.

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Some picture books have an obvious educational value: word books, alphabet books, counting books, colour books spring to mind. These are more and more beautifully produced, with some wonderful illustrators: Alison Jay has done a delicious set for Templar, with wonderful quirky figures, warm colours and her trademark crackle-glaze effect. Details from one picture turn up unexpectedly in another: the red toy racing car on one page suddenly whooshes to life size on another, driven by a white rabbit with long ears flying in the slipstream. Look carefully and you may find familiar fairytale and nursery rhyme figures threading through: always something to talk about, always something new to discover.

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Books about books can have a very special charm, and Greenaway-medal-shortlisted Katie Cleminson produced a gem with Otto the Book Bear. The story is delightful and heartwarming, the illustrations are irresistible and there are few better tales to convey the magic and potential of reading to the very young.

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Another Greenaway-shortlisted illustrator, Catherine Rayner consistently produces dazzling books with wonderful animals and gorgeous colour and texture. Augustus Finds his Smile makes the most of its tiger protagonist and his increasing delight in the natural world: the colours absolutely sing.

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There’s another stylish and lovable predator in Footprints in the Snow, with Mei Matsuoka’s wolf determined to go against type and produce a story in which the wolf isn’t the villain. But can the leopard (so to speak) really change his spots? There are wonderful textures and enchanting details in every snowy scene.

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Time for some animals that aren’t so scary… Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffeler’s Gruffalo is by far their best-known collaboration, but the gentle fable of The Snail and the Whale has its own magic, from the wonderful world tour that the adventurous snail enjoys with her immense friend to the chance for the snail to repay the kindness and potentially save a life. The seasonal Stick Man is a treat, too, with the hapless hero being swept from one misadventure to another, further and further from his beloved family tree, until a timely rescue by a certain well-known, temporarily “stuck man”.

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Hard to credit it now, but Lauren “Charlie and Lola” Child’s style, part spiky pen drawing and part collage, took a while to find a willing publisher. Winsome Lola and forbearing Charlie may be well on their way to world (or at least West London) domination thanks to multiple books, TV series, stationery and party tableware; I loved the original three Charlie and Lola books, written by Child herself, but also the slightly more anarchic That Pesky Rat (Smarties award winner) and Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book?, which has huge fun with fairytale characters and their reader, Herb, who falls into the stories one night, only to discover the havoc he wreaked when younger and more badly-behaved. There’s also an excellent pop-up version.

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Oliver Jeffers may yet achieve world domination ahead of Lauren Child. I’ve always been slightly ambivalent about his books, finding the stories not quite as substantial as the artwork is stylish (hundreds of thousands of readers disagree, mind), although Lost and Found made a sublime animated feature film, as I mentioned a month or two back. Recently, though, I happened upon The Day the Crayons Quit, with Drew Daywalt on story-writing detail, and absolutely loved it. A small boy, Duncan, opens his crayon box one day to find no crayons but a stack of letters of complaint: Red feels overworked, constantly called upon for fire engines, strawberries, Santas and Valentine’s hearts; Black resents only being used for outlines; Yellow and Orange argue over who should be allowed the sun, and Pink hardly gets a look-in except to colour princess dresses for Duncan’s little sister. How can Duncan possibly keep them all happy? Perhaps the ending is a little too tidy, but the journey there is smart and funny, with Jeffers’ crayons both bright and superbly expressive (poor old Beige, with nothing more to look forward to than colouring wheat).

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Jon Klassen is a fresh new talent in recent years, with a distinctive style and palette of reds, greys, browns and olives. I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat combine an apparently simple, even banal text with subversive, contradictory illustrations. You’ll find them not only in the children’s sections of classier bookshops but also in art bookshops and galleries. The Dark brilliantly combines Klassen’s button-eyed figures and quirky, slightly sinister interiors with A Series of Unfortunate Events’ Lemony Snicket, in a spooky and ultimately heartening tale of a small boy and a scary dark cellar. I’m not sure this will actively cure a fear of the dark, but it’s an intriguingly fresh and thoughtful perspective.

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ALA

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