Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Picture books as a second language

In which I ask you to remember ninth grade Spanish class, and then I go off a little.

I used to speak French fluently. At various times in my life, I have also been able to speak Italian pretty well, to teach a class of mostly Spanish-speaking first graders, and to read and write Japanese at the first grade level. But French is the only language besides English in which I've dreamt, and in which I've read extensively.

I can't do it now. I probably can't do any of it now and it KILLS me. I was looking through all my wonderful French novels and plays today (because I have so much time to kill and it was IMPERATIVE that instead of emptying the dead squirrel* out of the trap in my attic, I make sure every single book I own was catalogued in LibraryThing).

I picked up L'Etranger, by Camus, and thought, "I should read this." Then I thought, "But it will be so HARD" and I pictured myself not understanding and getting all tense and then it hit me. This is how first graders feel. This is how a child just learning to read feels about every single book. Can you remember it? Trying to read in ninth grade Spanish, maybe?

Reading is not easy when you are just learning. We adults can pick up a book and skim it or read a few pages and if it stinks or is mediocre, well, it's just a bit of our time. But when you are just learning to read, reading is an EFFORT. Every word takes determination.

All of which is to say: if you are writing for first graders, you'd better make it worth it. Every word had better be important. Your story must be satisfying, your language precise, your characters easily cheered for, and your whole book had better not be in service of a ridiculous "moral" that you think kids ought to hear. And for goodness sake, if you write in rhyme, don't be lazy. It is so hard to see kids struggle to the end of a rhymed couplet only to get to the last word and have it not rhyme, or not fit, or be archaic and useless just because it rhymes and fits.

So, what books do I think deliver? There are so many, but my two favorites -- for their language and carefulness and satisfying pay-offs.

1. Close Your Eyes, by Kate Banks, illus. Georg Hallensleben
A mother tiger reassures her little tiger as he goes to sleep.
This book is pure poetry, the little tiger is infinitely lovable, and Tink still uses the line "light is just the other side of dark" to reassure herself at night. Good to read aloud or to read to yourself at night after Mom and Dad go downstairs.

2. Is it cliché to say Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnston?
If you haven't read it for a while, read it. Harold is adorable, he has adventures that get my kids' pulses up, there is not a wasted word in the text, and Tink laughs at "draw up the covers" every time.

* yes, he died. Somehow, in the humane trap, he died. Live-blogging of my war on Squirreldom will continue later this week...


C.R. Evers said...

I bought some picture books in both french and Spanish not just for the kids, but also for me. Good Night Moon seems to translate well.

interesting post!


Ello said...

I used to speak French semi adequately and now when I need it is pathetic. My brother in law is French and his parents don't speak English. Sigh. What is wrong with my brain?

I love Harold and the purple crayon - one of my all time favorites - why would it be cliche?

sruble said...

Sorry about your French!

I think Easy Readers are a lot better for this than picture books, actually. That's what they are made for. And unlike PBs, in an EZ, the pictures are there to support the words and give kids the confidence that what they read matches the picture. Plus they are usually in a series, so once they learn how to read one, they can be confident going into the next story about the same characters.

My favorite EZs are the Mr. Putter and Tabby series and the Minnie and Moo series.

Kelly said...

We have a french/english book that my mom got from France. I am impressed by your many languages!
I had two years of Spanish in high school, and currently just started the Rosetta Stone lessons for Spanish!
I never read Close Your Eyes, thanks for the recommendation!

Jacqui said...

Christy, we have Mr. Happy and Mr. Messy as Monsieur Heureux and Monsieur Sale. They're awesome.

Ello, I guess because everyone knows it. But I do love it.

sruble, I agree about early readers, but I think it's even harder to find early readers that are so carefully written. My favorites are the Frog and Toad books, which are easy, hilarious, and have poetry in them.

Kelly, don't be impresssed; as I said, I am useless in most of them now.

Rena said...

Great post, Jacqui. My boys & I love the Frog & Toad books. We were so bummed when we found out there were only a handful of them. If a writer makes you want to read MORE, he's doing it right!

Elise Murphy said...

Harold and The Purple Crayon NEVER gets old. My nine year old still loves it!

Candace Ryan said...

No, Harold is not cliche. If you need any more convincing, read cool kidlit scholar Philip Nel's article "'Never overlook the art of the seemingly simple': Crockett Johnson and the Politics of the Purple Crayon." Children's Literature 29 (2001): 142-74.

Jacqui said...

Rena, I feel the same way. I keep looking anyway, which is silly, but Toad cracks us up.

Elise, I agree. Between your endorsement and Candace's professional reference, I officially take back my cliche concern.

Rena said...

LOL @ keep looking, Jacqui. I do that too! Like somehow, somewhere out of nowhere, a new book will just appear. It's weird, isn't it? We have some of his other books, but they're just not the same.

Kim Kasch said...

We have picture books around the house in Danish. It helps us with the language when we go over to visit my husband's family - a little.