How Much Can A Picture Book Do?

update 01/17/16: Scholastic is no longer distributing this title. 

The picture book, as a form, has been around for years, and has contributed to literature some of its most stunning masterpieces, in terms of both text and illustration. No one can dare deny the genius of Sendak, Kraus, Keats, Williams, or Raschka.

The picture book can do many things, and tell many stories, yet on the whole is often closer to poetry than to prose, even when a narrative is involved; with only 28 to 30 pages for actual story, the best picture books include meaning and poetry with their covers, end papers, and even in dedications and author’s notes.

The realm of picture books is vast; it contains multitudes. Yet, how much can these slim volumes be expected to reveal and share? Can every story be told well and accurately (and by accurately I include emotional as well as factual or historical accuracy) within the constraints of the form? Just as a poet knows when to use a sonnet, villanelle, or haiku, should an author know when to choose between a picture book, a chapter book, or a biography?

I ponder these questions because of a new title that is generating a lot of discussion, A Birthday Cake for George WashingtonI have not had a chance to review this book myself, so I am only going on reviews and descriptions– there has been much written on it already, including essays by both its author and editor, and a response from the publisher, wherein they sort of admit that the book might fall short of its intended aim:

Because we know that no single book will be acceptable to every reader, we offer many other books and resources that address slavery and Black history here and here.

The author, Ramin Ganeshram, certainly seems to have done an immense amount of research, yet one review notes that there are no sources cited in the actual book.

Ganeshram defends the upbeat, positive tone of the book and its cheerful (and admittedly beautiful) illustrations thusly:

Bizarrely and yes, disturbingly, there were some enslaved people who had a better quality of life than others and “close” relationships with those who enslaved them. But they were smart enough to use those “advantages” to improve their lives.

It is the historical record—not my opinion—that shows that enslaved people who received “status” positions were proud of these positions—and made use of the “perks” of those positions. It is what illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton calls out in her artist’s note as informing her decision to depict those in A Birthday Cake For George Washington as happy and prideful people.

This is not something I will endeavor to dispute. Slavery was an immense, complex, and shameful time in our history, and like any other grand horror, the feelings it inspires, in both those who lived through it and those who can only learn about it through other channels, including testimony, biography, and yes, even art, will not be easily or neatly categorized.

Ganeshram goes on to write:

In a modern sense, many of us don’t like to consider this, fearing that if we deviate from the narrative of constant-cruelty we diminish the horror of slavery. But if we chose to only focus on those who fit that singular viewpoint, we run the risk of erasing those, like Chef Hercules, who were remarkable, talented, and resourceful enough to use any and every skill to their own advantage.

I do not fault the author, illustrator, and editor for wanting to explore this facet of an American tragedy, or even this facet of Black history. There is a definite need for books that reflect diverse experiences. The black experience is about so much more than just slavery or the civil rights movement, and even within those historical narratives, I’m sure opinions and feelings on the situations varied widely.

But here’s the thing: just last year a textbook was published that called slaves brought over from Africa “workers.” This usage slipped past countless editors and educators, only to be caught by a boy named Coby as he read the textbook in his classroom. This term was used on a page discussing “patterns of immigration.” Now, slanting enforced capture and kidnapping as “immigration” is offensive and inaccurate, no matter how you try to slice it.

This indicates that in many ways, many children–and adults–are still not learning about or aware of the accurate history of what happened during slavery, and many (white) people in power are still deeply in denial about it:

Still, Ratliff, a Republican, found 16 other references to slavery in the geography book that he believes were accurate. He says the story of that one, problematic caption has “gotten blown out of proportion.”

Dean-Burren disagrees. She’s concerned about the words textbooks use — or don’t — to teach our nation’s rich history. Still, she’s proud of her son and the lesson he’s learned.

In this light, can we reasonably expect any picture book, no matter how well-intentioned or well-researched, to do justice to this infinitely complicated subject?

We could contrast this effort with a picture book that has been well-reviewed and well-received– Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad*.

Kirkus describes Henry’s Freedom Box thusly:

Related in measured, sonorous prose that makes a perfect match for the art, this is a story of pride and ingenuity that will leave readers profoundly moved, especially those who may have been tantalized by the entry on Brown in Virginia Hamilton’s Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom (1993). (emphasis mine)

Ganreshram places Henry’s Freedom Box and other picture books like it in this context:

In the sadly not-so-distant past, enslaved people were often depicted in children’s literature as childlike, foolish, or happily insensible of their condition.

Counteracting the industry’s previous wrongs, recent books like Dave The Potter, Henry’s Freedom Box, and The Story of African Americans have been gorgeous, intense and…pervasively somber. These depictions lend legitimate gravitas to their subjects—but the range of human emotion and behavior is vast, and there is room in between how the literary world depicted historical African American characters [then?] and how it does now.(I think perhaps she’s missing a “then” in that sentence)

 

Again, not having read Ganreshram’s book, I can only surmise certain things, and it seems like she’s saying her book is an update because Hercules is aware of his condition (that condition being slavery), but is making the best of it anyway. Which is not, I suppose, a wholly untenable approach to take in a story. After all, didn’t Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl detail how she made the most of a horrific situation?

Yet– consider the formats. Anne Frank’s work was a diary, consisting of hundreds of pages, allowing her narrative, characters, and setting the time to bloom and be fully explored. The complexity of her situation is given the time and the space to develop, giving us a fuller picture of what was happening, and providing us the context required to understand her and her story.

Within the constraints of a picture book, I think Ganreshram is hard pressed to succeed in her mission, no matter how well-intentioned, and thusly Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s beautiful artwork will also suffer within the context. I just don’t think that the complexity of Hercules’ story is possible to condense into the poetry of a picture book at this moment in time.

I think those “pervasively somber” books are much more successful because they have a unified vision for the work. The story and art work in tandem, evoking the sorrow and sometimes horror of what they describe, whereas A Birthday Cake For George Washington is trying to have its cake and eat it, too, by calling Hercules a slave yet not indicating any of the darker emotions that entails, and having no tension between the art and the text.

I believe that the story of Hercules is an important one, and deserving to be told; but I don’t think that the picture book format, as versatile, diverse, and wonderful as it is, is up to the task of this complex narrative and character.

*Henry’s song inspired another picture book telling, Freedom The Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown. Even in 1849 it was included in a book of children’s stories:Screenshot 2016-01-16 09.07.14

author, author!

The past couple of conferences I went to, there was some chatter about author visits at libraries—namely, how do you get anyone to care about and come to your author event? (I’m assuming here you’ve found the money already. Top notch authors are almost always going to be quite expensive, so start budgeting now and looking for financial partners. Also, start locally if you’ve never done an author visit before. Cutting down on travel costs cuts the budget significantly). I’ve done a few author events at my library, and seen other well done events in action, so I thought I would share some of my hard earned wisdom with you, my dear and lovely readers.

1) Choose your author wisely.
Not every great book has an author worth visiting with. Harsh, but true. When selecting an author to bring to your community, you need to consider reputation, charisma, and speaking skills just as much as you consider the quality and appeal of the author’s work. People have already spent time with the book(s). You want to get them excited about spending time with a person. When choosing an author, make sure to….

2) Consider your audience.
Think about who your author writes for– lower elementary, upper elementary, middle school, or teen. Sometimes there is overlap. Andrea Beaty has both picture books and chapter books, and is great for Prek-5th presentations. Adam Selzer has middle grade, middle school, and upper YA novels, as well as adult nonfiction about Chicago history and hauntings that appeal to teens /and/ adults. You really want to target your audience, because this will tie in so much to your promotion of the event. You can have an author present for more than one audience, but make sure those events are clearly delineated. Also, think about your community– is it conservative? Artistic? Older? Younger? Make sure you have a population that will be interested in the person you’re bringing in.

3) Promote.
This seems like a “duh” moment but it’s very important. It’s not enough to put a few lines in your newsletter or a picture on your webpage. You need to hustle. This is not a drill, people. Most authors worth having are going to be expensive, and you want to make the turn out worth everyone’s while. So target your audience. For me, I hit the middle schools–and I mean hit. At the two middle schools in our main district, I physically went to the school and presented a 15 minute, high impact promotion about the author to as many kids as I could. (At one school, I managed to see every student during the day; I was on my feet from 8-3 and it was amazing.) I’ll talk more about my specific promotion strategies at the end.

4) Get a bookseller.
If everyone’s done their job, there will be a hunger for your author’s work, and people will want to get their copies signed and maybe even take a picture. Also, you want your authors to make money so they can keep writing books. Partnering with a local, indie bookseller is imperative. Further, booksellers often have insider knowledge about when and where certain authors will be touring– if you form a strong partnership, oftentimes a bookseller can get you free author appearances for your library. They are more likely to do this for you if you have a record of bringing out good crowds for events, which you will if you follow these guidelines.

5) Make the event an EVENT.
You’re essentially throwing a party, so throw a damn party. Have a cake decorated to look like the book cover. If there’s a special or unique food mentioned in the book(s), serve it. Decorate. Have music that relates to the tone of the book playing before the start. Make sure to introduce your author with appropriate excitement and pomp. Hype everyone up. Throw your hands in the air. Whatever you have to do, do it. Bust out your best Neil Patrick Harris hosting the Tonys here, because that’s what it deserves.

Let’s walk through an example of an author visit that I worked on.

ADAM GIDWITZ!

860661_515247835185202_1408791629_o1) Choose your author wisely.
Adam’s visit to my library and local schools was already in the works when I began my job last fall, but I quickly jumped in and started implementing my master plan. Adam is a perfect visiting author. He is energetic, engaging, interesting, and an excellent performer. His books–A Tale Dark and Grimm, In A Glass Grimmly, and The Grimm Conclusion–are excellent and have high appeal factors for a wide variety of readers. Adam was also extremely gracious and easy to work with, providing me and my coworkers with lots of information we could use to promote his visit– including making a short video just for our middle schoolers.

2) Consider your audience.
From working with the schools and the school staff, we knew the personalities we were dealing with, and we knew that plenty of kids would be excited about seeing Adam. Word of mouth about his books spread quickly as kids talked it up to each other. We also knew the fairy tale element–fairy tales being one of the text types in the new Common Core State Standards–would lend the presentation a whiff of educmacational value, which doesn’t hurt when talking a program up to parents.

3) Promote.
I’m lucky to have a great marketing department to work with, so they did a wonderful job of getting this event in the newsletter, on the website, and in the community (including a local newspaper blurb!) As the School Outreach Librarian, it was then my job to TAKE IT TO THE SCHOOLS. This is one of my favorite parts of the process, and while I’ve found a formula that works for me, be aware that your mileage may vary. Like any creative, personality driven library presentation you need to promote in a way that makes sense for your style, especially if you’re working with kids. You need to be genuine and genuinely enthusiastic. If you’re not, your promotion will fall flat, and no excitement will be generated.

My promotion formula is based largely on the author, as illustrated by this mostly gratuitous pie chart:

piechartStart off with a quick, punchy book talk about the author’s works. I talked up Adam’s two novels (this was before the third one was released) and also showed an awesome book trailer in German, because everything sounds more awesome in German. Then, I segued into talking about Adam as a person and an author. I gave a brief biographical sketch, including–and this is important—pictures of Adam when he was the same as the teens I was promoting the event to.

I cannot state enough how cool this is. Even the most jaded eighth grader will guffaw when shown a picture of someone in their youth. Suddenly the teens can relate just a little bit easier to this person, just by seeing their dork-tastic 90’s hair and braces. Contrast this with a picture of what the author currently looks like, just so the kids know who they will actually be seeing at the event.

Also: food. Most people are into food and get excited about it. I ask authors their favorite foods then and now. Adam’s answer for his current favorite food was blood pie. I used this heavily in my promotion. “WHAT is a BLOOD PIE?” I asked dramatically. “You’ll have to come to the event to FIND OUT. Because we will be SERVING one.” Cue 45 middle schoolers groaning excitedly about BLOOD.

All of my presentations were about 15 minutes (yep, only 15 minutes). I wanted my message to be brief and intense. Between the BLOOD PIE and Adam’s middle school picture, and a gory 3 minute retelling of Cinderella, the teens were left with strong images and a strong incentive to attend the event. You can see my keynote slides here: gidwitz copy

4) Get a bookseller.
The bookseller we brought in sold out of paperbacks and sold almost all of the rest of the stock he brought with him. This made everyone happy.

4) Make the event an EVENT.
Our attendance exceeded expectations. We were hoping for around forty five people but had over one hundred kids and teens  held in thrall by Adam’s presentation, which included a full telling of the fairytale “The Juniper Tree.” As promised, we served BLOOD PIE (berry pie with no top crust). No one was more surprised and delighted by this than Adam. “Wow. That was just something I made up,” he said. That’s me…the person who makes dreams come true. Especially when they involve BLOOD. We also had cookies decorated to look like the cover of Adam’s book. They were so gorgeous, one girl just held her cookie, crying that it was too beautiful to eat. IMG_0400 IMG_0402Not mandatory, but forcing your author to pose by the food can’t hurt. You can see the BLOOD PIE to the left (to the left, all the blood pie is on the table to the left). We also had BLOOD PUNCH because BLOOD. BLOOD YOU GUYS. This entire post could have just been the word BLOOD.

So that’s how I (and my awesome coworkers) achieved author visit success. What about you?

Colorlicious Tea Party Storytime Special

Want to cash in on the super-popularity of Pinkalicious but don’t want to alienate boys (or, more likely, the parents of boys)? Then throw a Colorlicious party instead! Fans will still get to enjoy the sublime Pinkalicious, but with a bit of variety to cut the cloying gender paradigm.

Here’s the program we presented at my library, to the best of my recollection:

Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni
We just did a straight up reading of this classic, which I love, love, love. Best not dwell too long on how they hugged so much they became green; that could become an awkward conversation. Sometimes I’ll ask the kids if they’ve ever been so sad that they cried themselves to pieces. I tell them I hope they never do.

Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh, with special guest the mouse
I brought in my own personal white mouse puppet to introduce this book. As we read the story we draped him in the appropriately colored scarves. It was pretty interpretive puppet dance-tastic.

Make a Rainbow (fruit salad flannel board).
See the pictures below. Our “pot” kind of looks like a robot, so of course I made it talk in a robot voice, demanding fruit.

Make a Rainbow
(some good soul who typed out our copy made this poem all grammatical by using “have”, but the rhyme demands that you use “got.” Usually I am a grammar stickler, but poetry takes precedence, and colloquial usage is near and dear to my heart, so please, got it up here. Although the last line doesn’t rhyme with anything, but after all that vigorous stirring, you just have to hope no one notices or cares. The robot voice helps distract from the crappy lack of rhyme as well.)

Take some cherries and put them in a pot.
Stir them, stir them, stir them a lot!
Pour them out and what do you got?
The prettiest red you have ever seen!

Repeat with: oranges, lemons, limes, blueberries, and grapes. If you can’t figure out which colors go with which fruits on your own, might I suggest another line of work?

Pinkalicious!
Ah, the book we’d all been waiting for. This book was a hit with everyone.

“Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows” with shakers! (dance party)
We handed out shakers to the kids, put on this song, and busted a move. If you don’t dance in your storytimes, might I ask why you hate having fun?

And that’s it!