As if I haven't read enough of them in the past five years to Cedar, I spent a few hours at the library yesterday morning reading picture books. It might be construed by some as madness, to go using my time off from parenting to read children's books, but I admit I feel compelled to do so. Go figure.
I did this because I am signed up for a picture book workshop next month, put on by the local chapter of the SCBWI. I signed up for this because I am finding myself expressing my writing through children's picture books. The pre-homework assignment for the class is to read some of the teaching author's books, as well as a list of books by other authors. Like I said, I have read more than a few of these books in my time, but this was the first time I sat down to actually study them and think constructively about the work. It was more illuminating than I expected it to be.
The first thing I notice when I read a picture book, and what I imagine is what most people experience doing the same thing, is the feeling it gives me. Each book has it's own depth and stance in the world. It turns out, if you are paying attention, some books are moving, some... not so much. I am resisting using the words good and bad, because I really am not one to judge. I have no formal training, no MFA, no published works to my name, and absolutely no credentials to suggest to you, or any other reader, what is good or bad. But I tell you what, some of those books are good. And some are bad.
I'm sorry, it's true.
I can hardly comment on structure, composition, meter, rhyme, or accuracy of information, but I can tell you how a book made me feel. Being a fairly in tune person, and one who has read loads of books, I notice how I feel rather quickly when reading. As a reader, there were a few stories I read yesterday that moved forward with such pleasure, such joy, that I could not wait to turn the page and discover what the next little gem of beauty would be. I have read children's picture books in the past that have captured life and depth of emotion so completely and succinctly that I have been moved to tears. They somehow recreate a tiny moment in life and bring it forward with care and compassion. Those writers are my heroes.
Then, of course, there were some books that I frowned through, and simply forced my hand to turn the page because I knew I needed to in preparation for this workshop. Books commenting on the dull grey landscape of life covered over by smiley, bright clowns of flat color. They lacked flavor, style, or anything that set them apart from the rest of the drivel. Those books made me sad and whispered warnings to run as quickly as I could from the children's department before I ended up writing a book just like it.
As an adult reading one of these books to my child, I use more rational thought about which to choose for him. I want stories that have some depth. My child is smart, he need something more compelling than bouncing monkeys (and yes, so do I). I want for him something that mirrors life's complexities, if only ever so subtly or slightly. I want something that is beautiful to experience while we read it together.
In the end though, I think it is all just art. Some art you like, some makes your skin crawl. Writing (and with picture books the illustrations go hand in hand) is simply another form of art. A creative expression of someone's soul, their mind, their heart, even if it comes out of a formula they learned from school. Since art is generally pretty subjective, and what I like may not be what you like at all, you may not feel the need to run screaming from the library. We can hope this is the case.
This workshop doesn't happen for three more weeks, but what I have learned in one short morning is worth the price of admission already (though I am still hoping to get lots out of the workshop itself!). Whether one should define art, or writing, or children's picture books as good or bad is beside the point. It's the looking at paintings, the listening to music, the reading of books and noticing how you feel about them that is the greatest teacher in the world. By doing that, and doing it critically, I have gained a clarification for myself of exactly the kind of work I want to create. Now, let's see if I can actually do it.