At the beginning of this year, in an attempt to broaden my reading horizons and allow myself to be able to recommend a wider range of books to a wider range of people, I set a goal for myself to read at least two children’s picture books a week.
After reading two picture books I went to Goodreads to add a short review and rating for both – and then stopped. When I go to add a review there are several things I consider such as the plot, writing style, characters and development, etc. And I found myself hesitating to comment on these things because, well, these were picture books. Did the same exact criteria apply?
I thought, Do I consider the same things as novels? What about the artwork? Do I treat this like a graphic novel? How do I know if I’m being too critical of something that’s made for a 5-year old? I felt a little odd reviewing a style of book that I had never previously read critically, only for enjoyment back as a child.
So I went a did a lot of digging and reading, and I’ve come up with 4 key points that I think are vital in reviewing children’s picture books, and thought I would talk a bit about them. The key points I’ve come up with are Appeal, Artwork, the Bigger Meaning, and Character.
Audience here is key. With adult books, the author had a little leeway to start slowly and build up the engagement, but children need to be pulled in a little faster. Picture books are also shorter, so the story needs to be fairly concise and certainly well-paced. And whether the goal of the book is to excite, soothe, or teach a child, there needs to be some sort of appeal.
I went to look at some “classic” children’s picture books to see if I could spot the appeal and what it was that had kept these books so popular over the years.
For both The Cat in the Hat and Where the Wild Things Are I definitely think part of the appeal is the presence of the fantastical: two slightly bizarre situations where giant talking cats and a bedroom turning into a beast-filled jungle become reality and children are delighted by it. And for Goodnight Moon I would say one of the biggest draws are the bright colors and the cozy bedroom that invites the eye to explore the pages. All three of these books seem to artfully pull in the young reader with one particular element and then keep them there with the other elements, like the funny rhymes in Cat or Max ruling the beasts in Wild Things.
This is probably the main element I’m making sure I keep in mind while reviewing children’s picture books. As a woman in her twenties, my idea of “appealing” is certainly different than a 5-year-old’s, so considering the intended audience is definitely important!
For this, I’m going to point to The Picture Book Review’s post on Little Rabbit’s Questions by Dayong Gan. This review points out how the art in this book, done in ink wash painting, is “a perfect parallel to what it is like being a parent — it can be extraordinarily tedious, requires an incredible amount of patience, and hurrying often results in a meltdown and some level of disaster.”
In short: the art needs to amplify or enhance the themes or story. Because picture books are, well, picture books, the visual aspect needs to not only be appealing but be gracefully meshed with the story. Imagine watching a documentary about World War II but done in the art style of a Pokemon cartoon. As…interesting as that might be, the two aspects just don’t fit well with one another, and neither aids to the overall development of the other.
I also explored the criteria used to judge and award books with the Caldecott Medal, an award given to the most distinguished artists of children’s picture books published in America. One of the most notable portions was the phrase “visual experience”.
It’s not enough that the artwork is good but the artwork needs to let the reader be immersed in an experience for 32 pages. The whole idea of a “visual experience” is reminiscent of movie reviews- the viewer is not just listening to a story but seeing it unfold as well.
On The Write Practice blog, Marianne Richmond notes that “Good stories can teach simple concepts about numbers, letters or colors — OR they can teach about diversity, love, manners, and acceptance.” Whether the picture book is about learning shapes or learning how to share, these books impart some kind of wisdom or learning moment.
Some picture books have a much more clear-cut lesson, such as Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian and Mike Curato. This book is about two worms who love each other and decide to get married, but all their insect friends keep reminding the worms of traditions like the wedding rings, bridesmaids, dresses, and tuxedos. The worms are unbothered and just happy to be with one another, no matter who is wearing the dress or if there is a cake. The worms reassure their friends that if tradition is preventing them from getting married then they’ll “just have to change how it’s done”. In the end, all that matters is that Worm loves Worm. This picture book is both an entertaining, bug-filled tale but it also provides a bigger narrative on love and tradition.
Some books bigger meaning may not be as straightforward. For example, Laura Numeroff’s highly popular and beloved If You Give a Mouse a Cookie may not seem to have a very clear message at first, but take a look at the circular, repetitive pattern of the story. Personally, I’ve come to think that the bigger meaning in this story is that every action has a consequence, every movement affects the next step. (Although apparently some people argue that this book is actually about millennials are entitled- yeah, I don’t get that argument either😂😂.) However, the meaning is there, and this book can be used to teach young readers a lesson on action = consequence.
Animal or human, mythical or real, the character(s) of a picture book can change the entire feel and experience of the story. Look at some of the most popular children’s books; most of them have a main character who is lovable or entertaining. Clifford the Big Red Dog, Amelia Bedelia, the Very Hungry Caterpillar, Sam I Am, Corduroy Bear, Pete the Cat, Madeline- the list goes on!
It is important to have a unique character to make a lasting impression on the reader. Children are constantly learning and taking in new information, so having a character who is memorable. Consider these three mice characters: Angelina Ballerina, Maisy Mouse, and the If You Mouse.
Despite all being mice, each character stands out in their own way. Angelina is a graceful mouse enthusiastic about dance; Maisy’s thick lines and bright colors help her stand out in her cozy stories; the If You Mouse and his big ears and overalls create a friendly fellow who loves cookies. They are each distinct and recognizable, and provide a pleasing character for young readers to root for and relate to. If the character is lacking, the story probably just won’t be as fun or memorable to young readers.
So now what?
Now I feel like I have some groundwork with which to begin reviewing. This isn’t some sort of end-all guide to reviewing picture books, but rather my thoughts and ideas on a way for me to begin approaching these books with both an appreciative and critical eye. Learning to review them is likely going to be a developing process for me, but I wanted to share my ideas either way! I’d love to hear your input and thoughts as well. 🙂
Until next time,