The Sign on Sendak’s Door

Although grateful for the support of publishers who place advertisements in The Horn Book, I’ve never before felt the need to direct you to such from this page. But I do so now: please go and read the advertisement on page 57 and then come back here. I’ll wait.

Imagine a picture book world where such principles governed, a place where artists, publishers, reviewers, librarians, and teachers kept this proclamation pinned to their walls and close to their hearts. To my mind, however, they largely already do. So why, then, did these twenty-two authors and illustrators put together their pennies to buy a full-page ad in The Horn Book? I think it is because there is a disconnection between what is in our hearts and what we are publishing for children. And let me urge you back to page 57 again. This is not just about picture books: I challenge you to find anything there that is not equally pertinent to fiction and nonfiction published for youth.

I was lucky enough to spend a day in September with Maurice Sendak and his “Sendak Fellows,” four illustrators nominated unawares and selected by Sendak to spend a month with him, and given studios, support, and advice. Here was the Proclamation in action. The four artists—Ali Bahrampour, Denise Saldutti Egielski, Frann Preston-Gannon, and Sergio Ruzzier—had a month to work on what they wished, whether it was a painting, a portfolio, a new book, a contracted manuscript, a resurrected project, or nothing at all. I saw tentative sketches and nearly complete dummies. The light-filled house where they stayed and worked, the presence of enough peers for camaraderie, and the example of Sendak, someone who was living the principles of the Proclamation since before its signers were born (I peg signer Jon Scieszka as the token old guy, and he’s my age), were prods to both freedom and industry.

Over lunch with the Fellows and me, Sendak described how his career grew, from illustrating picture books and chapter books by other people to books of his own, the first of which (Kenny’s Window) was not commercially successful but whose promise nevertheless encouraged his publisher to sign him up for another one and another one, with Where the Wild Things Are not appearing until seven years later. “Are illustrators still allowed this kind of growth?” he asked. Glum faces around the table answered him. I was reminded of what my friend Elizabeth Law once told me, that while there is support for and attention paid to first books, it’s the second ones that really need the help.

But if we all agree that a book “should be fresh, honest, piquant, and beautiful,” then why are “imitation, laziness, and timidity poisoning a great art form”? (If in fact they are—safe and formulaic books have always been with us.) Who is allowing this to happen? It’s easy to blame greedy-guts publishers, but I can’t think of one house that doesn’t publish something each season out of sheer love. Yes, they should do this more often. But we—librarians, teachers, parents—have to do our part. We may pride ourselves on our ability to find for a young reader “another one just like it!” but if we stop there we’ve left the job half done. If we want artists and writers to take risks, and publishers to do the same, we have to read, and promote reading, with the same spirit.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Comments

  1. I wonder if part of the problem is the demise of the picture story book. When I started in this business twenty plus years ago, the average length of a picture book was 1200 words. And it was common to have picture books of over 1500 words. But current editorial wisdom says that families with two working parents are too busy to read such lengthy books. The cut-off for picture book manuscripts keeps getting shorter and shorter. Jennifer Laughran, agent at Andrea Brown Literary recently wrote on her blog that 300-550 words is the “sweet spot” for picture books. She advises her clients not to submit books over 800 words.

    Now talented writers have been able to create incredible works of art within these tight constraints. But some stories need more elbow room. And while 300-550 word stories may be fine for the three year old, many that are being published today don’t have the depth to hold up to hundreds of readings by a five or six year old. I imagine parents in these tough economic times flipping through a book with a dozen words per page and wondering if it’s worth $16.99.

    Perhaps it’s time to bring back the picture story book. In a culture that is so visually oriented, wouldn’t it be wonderful to create longer, richer texts with luxurious illustrations that can bridge the gap between the short picture book and the chapter book. As for those busy parents, surely if they have time to read a chapter to their preschoolers, they’ll find time to read a 1200 word picture story book.

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  1. [...] and books. (Via the print magazine, link shared by @ImaginationSoup on Twitter). Also do check out Roger Sutton's editorial about the Picture Book Proclamation that was included in the recent Horn Book issue. Food for [...]

  2. [...] and books. (Via the print magazine, link shared by @ImaginationSoup on Twitter). Also do check out Roger Sutton’s editorial about the Picture Book Proclamation that was included in the recent Horn Book issue. Food for [...]

  3. [...] The Sign on Sendak’s Door A proclamation to get [...]

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