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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Of Songs and Parades

Websites Are Not Picture Books —

One of the first things that anyone who works in books for younger readers learns (my experience is in publishing, but this must surely also be true in classes taken by future librarians and teachers, right?) is the artful marriage of art and text in picture books. When a picture book really works, there is no illustration — instead there is a weave of two kinds of narration. If the text says Sally rode on an Elephant — the art probably should not be Sally seated squarely on the back of the large gray animal with its trunk raised. That kind of picture is illustration — what the text states the art depicts. No, in fine picture books the art advances the story, so as you are picture Sally on the elephant the art shows, maybe a monkey in the branches reaching down to grab her doll — the shift in perspective and expectation creates new interest — the text plods along with the ride, the art adds playful counterpoint, fun, small sideplots for alert kids to pick out. The reading, listening, interacting experience as a whole comes from weave of the parts — in precisely the same way as words and music blend in song. Sure in some songs if the words say "my heart skips a beat" the band dutifully plucks a string, or syncopates the rhythm to illustrate the skipped beat. But in great songs the music is carrying you somewhere that you know and cannot quite state, while the poetry of the words teases your mind — the music is current, the words are wind — the song is the ship that takes us on a voyage. That is precisely how picture books work.
          Because we are trained in picture books, as we go on to write or edit middle grade and YA non-fiction, we aim to use art the same way — to narrate, not just to illustrate. In other words, books for us always have three elements — words, art, and, most importantly, design. I mention all of this because so many people who are ready to chuck books, to shift to databases, assume that books are like websites. Websites have plenty of art, and in full color. They may well have audio files or video clips — they are fully illustrated. But they are precisely not designed. They are created to allow you to mix and match, to go here or there. Art is never woven into narration — it is a separate track. If a picture book is like a song, a web site is like a parade — full of floats, action, bands, clowns — fun stuff — but there can be no blend of the parts, each element does its own thing. 
       Some may say that we cannot afford the luxury of songs, or that kids prefer parades — they can pick what they like. But that is irresponsible. When we give materials to kids we are not just pleasing them, we are teaching them — we are showing them possibilities they did not know existed — well designed books show kids that, well, you can design well, you can weave art and text, you can narrate by bringing separate parts together in a larger whole. That is what illustrated books model for young people — they teach them how to compose, how to perform, and how to sing.