BOOK NOTES: Sharing picture book magic

Discovering some amazing talents while immersed in the realm of pictures and text.

By: Joan Ruddiman
   There was a time when most of what I read was picture books. Everyone in the house had his or her favorites. Trips to the library were not just weekly events, but often daily. But those readers are now quite grown up, and no little ones have moved into their spot as yet, so I don’t often think about books for younger readers.
   A recent project for middle-school readers that involved picture books once again immersed me in this magical realm of picture and text. In looking for connections to middle level themes and content, I discovered some amazing talents. Art aficionados need to find anything done by the illustrator David Wisniewski. He works with multi-layered paper cutouts and intense colors, that when transferred to print literally appears to be three dimensional on the page.
   Peter Sis won the New York Times award for Best Illustrated Children’s Book in the 1991 for "Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus." In his Note to the Reader, Sis shares how he imagined Columbus as a young boy in Genoa, hemmed in by the "walls" that isolated Europe from the rest of the world. Sis writes, "Columbus didn’t let the walls hold him back … he followed his dream," which resonates in Sis’ own life.
   "I, too, grew up in a country surrounded by a ‘wall,’ known as the Iron Curtain."
   With simple text and powerful illustrations, Sis celebrated the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ daring voyage. Intermingling colors and sepia tones, historic images and imaginative renderings, Sis makes a very familiar story come alive.
   Jane Yolen, a masterful storyteller, teams with illustrator David Shannon in "Encounter," the Columbus story told from the point of view of a Taino boy. The book stands alone as a worthy read aloud. Paired with the Sis book, young readers are encouraged to think in gray areas. Teacher pal Ginny using the Sis and Yolen books actually did Venn diagrams with her third-graders — using hoola-hoops — to compare and contrast the two points of view.
   The power of picture books is that they are both pictures and words. Reading those words aloud is what unleashes the power of poetry, humor, and great story telling.
   Cynthia Rylant is a poet. This girl from West Virginia knows how to spin words to tell a story ("All I See" with Peter Catalanotto), get a laugh ("The Relatives Came" with Stephen Gammell) or pull at the heartstrings ("Silver Packages" with Chris Soentpiet). She evokes a time and place, often from her own youth ("Appalachia" with Barry Moser) that resonates with anyone who knows how it feels to be deeply rooted to home and family. Kids love her. "A is for America: An American Alphabet" is a wonderful example of words and illustrations that appeal to all ages simultaneously.
   Author Devin Scillian plays word games with people, places and ideas on each alliterative page. Pam Carroll provides the counterpoint in pictures. Also on each page, Scillian pens a sidebar that elaborates a person, place or idea, often by clarifying misconceptions.
   For example on two pages with a gorgeous white egret unfolding a scene of an eagle flying over the Grand Canyon, with a light bulb peeking out from the corner of the page, the text reads: E is the elegant eagle, soaring about the hill, and the ever-flowing everglades where egrets eat their fill. E is an endless echo in the Grand Canyon at dawn. And eureka! It’s Thomas Edison turning the light bulb on.
   Then under the sidebar, the author notes: "While Thomas Edison was a brilliant man who invented many things, the light bulb wasn’t one of them. … he actually improved on the designs of others." If you are reading to "stair-steps" who run from preschool to elementary ages, this will entertain — and enlighten — everyone in your read-aloud crowd. The first time around with little ones, I loved the Berenstain Bears, who are still with us in many new adventures, and Amelia Bedelia, and of course Dr. Seuss.
   Read alouds also are about sharing a good laugh. We missed the Magic School Bus series, however. I found this one when Teacher Ginny suggested "The Magic School Bus and the Electric Field Trip" as a super way to teach kids about how electricity is made and gets to us.
   What a hoot! Ms. Frizzle (aptly named!) takes her kids to the power plant and then through the power lines. They get stuck for a bit when Grandpa strands them in the vacuum cleaner that he turns off to watch TV. (At least he’s watching "The Magic School Bus" show!) The pictures capture the outrageous flavor, but it is the dry asides by the young narrator that are a delight.
   Take advantage of what picture books offer to kids and their read-aloud partners. Public libraries have all you need for free. Your little readers will not only love the books, they will love their trips to the library — and you for loving them enough to share the magic.
Joan Ruddiman is a teacher and friend of the Allentown Public Library.