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If you’re seeking to understand the significance of yesterday’s Newbery Medal being awarded to a picture book, grab a cuppa and settle in.

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Photo courtesy of author Carter Higgins from AlltheWonders.

Five years ago, The New York Times published an article that caused consternation among picture book creators: “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children.” In fact, the words within plunged a dagger directly into our hearts.

Parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books. Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.

It felt as though No Child Left Behind was leaving we authors and illustrators behind. A children’s bookseller was even quoted as saying that picture books sat languishing on their shelves, dying sad little deaths.

OUCH.

As a parent of young kids, I saw it happening. I’d be at the library and witness tots being steered toward thicker books that didn’t have pictures, children being told they’re smarter than 32 pages. Parents suggesting, “You don’t want this,” while in the picture book section. The word “this” dripping with disdain. At the school, parents bragging about their 2nd graders finishing the entire Harry Potter series.

And I remembered being in 2nd grade myself and being told to abandon picture books…and being devastated.

What parents were missing, and some may still be missing, is that chapter books, while perhaps longer, aren’t necessarily more “difficult” than picture books. In fact, I just had a discussion with my agent this week about the pros and cons of revising a manuscript and turning it into an early chapter book series. Since these books are for newly independent readers, the language is far simpler to allow autonomy. I expressed my concern over having to simplify my sentences and vocabulary. I felt my word play and structure would be limited. That’s right, writing a chapter book would force me to be less complex in my storytelling. (I should emphasize I’m talking about early chapter books here, not middle-grade novels which are for older children and are the standard Newbery fare.)

Back in 2010, the economy also played a role in what some saw as the picture book’s demise. The recession lingered and families had less discretionary income. Some publishers reported signing fewer picture book projects. No one was quite sure what to make of ebooks and iPads competing for kiddie eyeballs in the coming years, either. Would everyone migrate to digital books and snub hard copies?

Fast forward five years. Juvenile ebook sales have actually declined (by 1.4m units in 2014, according to Nielsen). iPads did not replace a parent’s lap and a physical book. The economy bounced back and children’s books have emerged as the bright spot in publishing. “The Children’s/YA market in 2014 represented 36% of the overall print market…slightly bigger than the adult fiction market,” reports Nielsen. Moreover, the price of children’s books has remained unchanged for over a decade. In other words, picture books are a terrific financial value. Now let’s talk about their intellectual, artistic and just plain JOYFUL value.

With yesterday’s announcement of Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson’s LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET winning the Newbery Medal, an honor typically bestowed upon middle-grade novels, librarians are sending a clear message that debunks the NYT article of yore:

PICTURE BOOKS ARE IMPORTANT CONTRIBUTIONS TO CHILDREN’S LITERATURE.

They are not simple little books with cute drawings. They are art. They are motion and emotion. They introduce children to the complexities of the world around them in a charming, engaging manner. They teach life skills while they entertain. They relay a story both visually and contextually, challenging children to solve their playful puzzle. They introduce children to irony and satire, history and innovation, wit and wisdom. They expand the imagination and teach storytelling skills. And they do all this while amusing parents, grandparents and caregivers as well. How’s that for a nifty little package?

They’re for ANY AND ALL AGES. ANY TIME. ANYWHERE.

As Dr. Seuss once said, you can read them in a box. You can read them with a fox. (Or was that something to do with breakfast?)

So bravo to Matt de la Peña, Christian Robinson and the ALA. We all won yesterday, folks. WE ALL WON.

 


Historical notes: The Newbery Medal was awarded to a picture book once before in 1981, although A VISIT TO WILLIAM BLAKE’S INN can be categorized as an illustrated collection of poetry and, at 48 pages, not necessarily a traditional picture book. Other picture books have received Newbery Honor recognition: MILLIONS OF CATS (1929, prior to the Caldecott), FROG & TOAD TOGETHER (1973), DOCTOR DE SOTO (1983), SHOW WAY (2006) and DARK EMPEROR AND OTHER POEMS OF THE NIGHT (2011).

by Laura Gehl

kwameUnless you live in a cave (a real cave…hiding from the cold under your covers doesn’t count), you know that Kwame Alexander won the Newbery Medal on February 2nd for his book THE CROSSOVER.

On February 19th, I was lucky enough to hear Kwame speak informally in a Question & Answer session at the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C.

Listening to Kwame was so inspiring that I began furiously scribbling notes, with the idea that I could share the experience with other children’s writers.

Ten things I learned (all over again!) from Kwame Alexander:

1. Kwame can’t write at home because his six-year-old daughter tries to make him dress up like a princess. So he writes at Panera instead.

My Takeaway: We all have distractions in our lives.

2. Kwame also likes to write at Panera because he can steal from those around him…a snippet of conversation, the way a man touches a woman’s cheek…

My Takeaway: You are always working as long as you are aware of the world around you. Yes, this means you can totally go to Hawaii, sit on the beach, and consider it work. (Please consult your tax advisor before writing off the trip, however.)

3. THE CROSSOVER took five years from concept to sale.

My Takeaway: Be patient. (My critique partners know that this is not exactly my strong suit.)

4. Kwame got twenty-two rejections on THE CROSSOVER and was considering self-publishing before he finally got an acceptance.

My Takeaway: Those twenty-two editors must feel like idiots. Just kidding. My real takeaway: Don’t give up. Or, as Kwame put it, “You have to say yes to yourself.”

5. When he needed to revise THE CROSSOVER, Kwame Googled “novel in verse writing coach” and then worked with his coach for months.

My Takeaway: Revision is hard. Nobody can do it alone. Also, thank goodness for Google.

6. Kwame said, “Publishers don’t know what they want until they get it.”

My Takeaway: Write what you are passionate about, not what you think editors are looking for. If your book is great, it will get published.

7. When Kwame was speaking, every single person there…from picture book writers to YA writers to nonfiction writers to illustrators…from the unpublished to the multi-award-winning…was captivated. Enthralled. The whole room crackled with excitement, and with happiness and pride for Kwame.

My Takeaway: The kidlit community is amazing, and we can all gain knowledge, inspiration, and support from one another.

8. Other Newbery winners told Kwame, “The price of a Newbery is a book,” meaning that he should give himself a break this year and just enjoy the ride.

My Takeaway: Successes can be few and far between in this business, and it is easy to immediately go from “YAY! I GOT A CONTRACT TODAY!” to “Okay, now I need to sell another book.” We should all take time to truly appreciate and enjoy every success—big and little—along the way.

9. The night before the Newbery announcement, Kwame couldn’t sleep. He drank root beer, watched TV, worried and wondered…could all of those who said THE CROSSOVER was a Newbery contender maybe, just maybe, be right? Around 3:00 am, Kwame decided to re-read the book. He found a bunch of errors and decided that his awful book could not possibly have won the award.

My Takeaway: We all doubt ourselves. Especially at 3:00 am.

10. Kwame said, “We are at our best when our passions become our jobs.”

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My Takeaway: We are incredibly lucky to be writing books for children. Who could possibly ask for a better job???

Oh…and one more thing I learned, as a bonus for those of you who read this far:

11. A year and a half ago, Kwame was selling his books from a small booth at Eastern Market in Washington D.C. (and had happily paid $100 for the privilege of selling books from that booth).

My Takeaway: Just like the boys in SAM AND DAVE DIG A HOLE don’t realize just how close they are to an enormous diamond, you never know just how close you may be to enormous success. [Refer back to #3…Be patient…and #4…Don’t give up.]

lauragehlLaura Gehl’s newest picture books are AND THEN ANOTHER SHEEP TURNED UP and HARE AND TORTOISE RACE ACROSS ISRAEL. She is also the author of ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR, a Charlotte Zolotow Honor Book, and the PEEP AND EGG series (hatching Spring 2016). You can visit Laura online at LauraGehl.com and Facebook.com/AuthorLauraGehl.

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COMING SOON:


BLOOP
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
July 2021

ABSURD WORDS
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
November 2021

"PRIVATE I" SERIES #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
2022

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