Storybook Romance

When a child falls in love with a classic picture book, the magic may last into adulthood

November 17, 1999|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

What makes a classic kid's picture book?

Nobody is quite sure. There is no question, however, that when a picture book reaches the summit of popularity, it can become immortal.

There are a lot of books -- and a lot of kids involved. And a lot of money. And magic.

Most authorities on children and learning and many literary professionals seem to agree on some of the qualities that make up the magic. The classics have to do with basic life truths -- bridges to the grown-up world over such terrifying terrain as death, defiance, loneliness and identity.

These picture books are big -- and important -- business.

Publisher's Weekly, the book industry's main trade magazine, reports that about 3,700 new children's books were published in 1997, the latest year available for their statistics. Many more stay in print from year to year. They range from simple picture books all the way to young adult books.

The Association of American Publishers tracks growth in dollars, not units of books. Most recently, from 1997 to 1998, the total juvenile sales in the United States grew 9.4 percent, while total book sales rose only 6.4 percent. In 1987, $635 million worth of juvenile hardbound and paperbound books sold in the United States. In 1998, the latest statistics available, there were $1.5 billion worth sold.

So there are thousands of picture books to choose from. On the surface, they often seem remarkably similar. They're not.

"It's very easy to write a bad picture book and very hard to write a good one," says Leonard Marcus, the biographer of Margaret Wise Brown, the author of "Goodnight Moon," one of the most popular picture books of all time, which has sold some 8,770,000 copies since it was published in 1947.

Finally, immortality -- true greatness -- is a mystery. What makes the Mona Lisa unforgettable? "The Catcher in the Rye"? "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"?

Picture books designed for preschoolers don't look complex -- a few words to a page, some bright, colorful pictures, a simple story, maybe in rhyme, maybe not.

Simple yet powerful

A picture book is a powerful thing. It can teach a child about kindness, sharing, security and self-esteem. It can quiet a temper tantrum, entice a child into sleep, evoke peals of laughter.

A picture book can help a child learn to read.

Truly great picture books are the stuff of memories.

Practically once a week, Selma Levi, head children's librarian at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, spots a grown-up -- usually a man, usually in his 30s -- scanning the shelves for a certain book. He can't remember its name but when he describes the plot -- a small boy gets sent to bed without supper and plays with imaginary wild beasts -- she immediately knows which book he is talking about.

When she hands over Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are," the look of excitement on his face could belong on a 3-year-old.

Remembering favorites

Sharon Carey's fourth grade art class at Grace & St. Peter's School is full of children who are hardly babies. They read chapter books like "Johnny Tremain," "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Island of the Blue Dolphins" -- books without pictures, thank you very much. But ask them about their favorite picture books, and 20 hands shoot into the air and wave wildly.

Jessica Douglas, 9, can't help but smile as she remembers reading "Where the Wild Things Are" with her father. "My dad would act the book out as we read it and make all sorts of strange noises," she says, laughing.

Emily Waters, 9, not only recalls her mother reading "Goodnight Moon" to her and her sister Kathryn when they were younger. She also knows what happened when Kathryn, then 3 years old and jealous of her baby sister, tore the book up. "My mom cried," she says, shaking her head as if she still can't believe it herself.

Some people take their tattered copies of "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel" and "Curious George" with them to college. Others forget all about their old favorites until they have children of their own.

A good picture book, a classic one, makes you feel warm and safe, no matter how old you are.

A sense of togetherness

"We live in a society which gives lip service to community and togetherness and melting pot and family values, and yet year by year, the different age groups are becoming more segregated," says Ellen Handler Spitz, the author of "Inside Picture Books," (Yale University Press, $25). "I see great picture books as providing occasions for bringing people together and ultimately, learning together, over and over, the joys of the arts and the value of sharing imaginary worlds."

Picture books aren't just about warm, cozy feelings. And there is more to them than the stories on the surface, according to Spitz, a lecturer in art at Stanford University. She maintains that what sets many classic picture books apart from the rest is their ability to address, in subtle ways, themes of enduring importance to young children, themes like curiosity, fear, aging and the death of loved ones.

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