Defining picture books is a tricky business once you start to try. Do they need words and pictures? What about just pictures? What makes them different from comics? Despite the difficulty of defining them, however, society at large seems to have a shared idea of what they are. Part of that shared idea is that picture books are for children. They are first to be shared by adults teaching children to read. They are then to be used as beginner books for new readers. Like most art forms associated with children, the reputation and prestige of picture books has suffered as a consequence.
Adults and older children often do not want to be seen reading picture books because of the assumptions that surround them. There is the assumption that pictures are less sophisticated than words. The assumption that short works cannot be complex or deep. The assumption that picture books do not have complex vocabulary. The assumption that reading is all about vocabulary and one should never read “below grade level.” These assumptions are all false. Text is not inherently better than pictures and a short quote can say something more profound than an entire novel. Plus, picture books often have quite complex vocabularies because they are meant to be read and shared. And reading is not only about learning new words and sentence structures. Reading is so much more!
Perhaps some artists are starting to challenge the idea that picture books are so simplistic only children would want to read them. Lately, I have seen a few picture books that seem to me to be written more for adults than for children. However, because we tend to think of picture books as primarily for children these books are typically shelved in the children’s section of every school, library, and bookstore. Adults without small children are, quite simply, not going to come across them. And, when they do, they are likely to be perplexed, much like readers of wordless picture books. After all, if you are trying to teach your child to read, what do you do with a book with no words?
Rethinking the way we categorize and shelve books might help. Simply placing some in other sections might begin to destigmatize them. At the same time, however, we do not want to begin to assume all over again that more complex works are only for adults and not for children. That is, there is no need to remove certain picture books from the children’s room and say that they are now for “sophisticated” readers only! Rather, I propose that we begin dissociating children’s literature from assumptions of inferiority. Cross-shelving books might help us to begin to do so, as it will suggest to consumers that these books are meant for all of us and are not supposed to be grown out of.
Some Picture Books Adults Might Like
This book, with its dreamy illustrations, tells the story of a man delivers the messages in ocean bottles to the intended recipients. The theme of loneliness and longing for a friend could appeal to children who have also felt isolated. However, because the focus is on adults, older readers may be able to relate on a different level. (Being a lonely single man at the age of 30 is different from not yet having found a friend at school.)
The Fog by Kyo Maclear and Kenard Pak
This is the kind of book adults like because its ambiguity is apparently supposed to make it deep. A mysterious fog begins to cover an island and goes away only when a bird and a human work together. Exactly what they do is unclear and may be allegorical. Again, the type of book adults like, though the beautiful illustrations and the friendship between the bird and the girl may appeal to younger readers, as well.
This picture book has a lot of words and is probably not suitable for reading aloud at storytime. Furthermore, it would be difficult to read aloud because each page begins with an introduction not related to the action of the book: an except of various stories the main character imagines in her head. This narration might be confusing to younger children, but the book is about the magic of words and the power of story–just the type of thing book-loving adults (teachers, librarians, and parents) would want to buy.