How fitting that our new CBCA Picture Book of the Year Judge, Karen Macpherson, presents a delightful reflection on her love of picture books.
When I was a young girl, if I had been especially good, my mother would bring down from its place on the top shelf, an exquisite picture book copy of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. She would tell me how she had received it from her own grandparents and it seemed inconceivably old and precious to my six year old self. The illustrations were stunning, the book itself was not a traditional book shape, and to top it all off, one could look through little holes in the pages and catch glimpses of secrets yet to be revealed. It was the start of a lifelong love of picture books.
I think there was something more going on than just my admiration of the book though. Picture books represent snuggling up with a much loved grown up, silly voices, a door to extraordinary new places, people and dilemmas. Still taking pride of place on my bookshelves today are some of my childhood favourites, now looking much loved following my own daughter’s enjoyment of them. Jane Pilgrim’s Mother Hen and Mary probably had a lot to do with my subsequent love of owls and also my becoming a teacher. Tales of the Countryside arrived on my eighth birthday and immediately became a favourite escape with its amazing world of animals, gnomes and fairies. It prompted the budding author in me to write similar adventures, some of which went on to win junior writing prizes.
My daughter had her first picture book read to her in hospital at just a few hours old. Maybe all she saw was a flash of bright colour, the movement of the pages. Maybe she could smell that wonderful book scent that she still claims will mean books will never be replaced by e-books. Or maybe she just associated my voice, the way I held her, with warmth and love. Now at the age of sixteen, we still on occasion curl up in bed and have a picture book marathon. Favourites are the wonderfully rhythmical The Strange Things by Ann Martin, Time for Bed by Mem Fox (which we read without fail every night for years and was the first book she “read” for herself). There is Billywise by Judith Nicholls about the little owl who doubted he would be able to fly. Floss by Kim Lewis came along when we lived in an inner city unit with no pets allowed and represented everything she would have hoped for in a pet at the time. And of course, the incomparable Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak.
As a teacher, picture books often were the vehicle I would use to broach difficult topics like loss, bullying and sadness. Others would be the catalyst to get students thinking about a unit of work. The amazing thing was that it didn’t matter what year level I taught, picture books were still appropriate because they often dealt with incredibly complex issues in a deceptively simple and safe way. Even as an adult reader, it is hard not to be touched by books like Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death and the Tulip.
There are some who question the longevity of the picture book. Children today have access to moving pictures on any number of devices and there seems to be a push from many parents to move children on to chapter books as soon as possible. What a shame that would be! Can you imagine childhoods without a story on Grandma’s lap, daddy’s silly character voices or pouring over illustrations for minute details with a sibling? How many artists were inspired by the often stunning illustrations in the picture books they read as children? As long as there are children, and children at heart, there will always be a place for the picture book.
CBCA Picture Book of the Year Judge