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Editorial: As Pretty Does

Back in 1998, the Horn Book Magazine published a special issue devoted to picture books. With articles about picture book history, reviewing and writing picture books, and a baker’s dozen of first-person “Studio Views,” it became a children’s lit classroom staple and is easily the most requested special issue we’ve produced.

We ran out of copies of the Picture Books issue many years ago, although I am happy to say we have now put it online. I am also very happy to present you with this year’s special issue, Illustration (which includes one of the original Picture Books issue articles, “Design Matters” by Jon Scieszka and Molly Leach — now in color!). Note the broadening of theme: just as picture books themselves expanded beyond their traditional preschool audience in the 1980s, so have illustrators gone on to stretch the very definition of the form. While the selection of the 500-some-paged Invention of Hugo Cabret for the 2008 Caldecott Medal will probably always be a controversial choice, there is no doubt that it, along with the entrance of comics and graphic novels into the realm of children’s book respectability, makes us all think more broadly about what we mean by a “picture book.” Not to mention the resurgence of illustrations in middle-grade fiction, from Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid and Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate to the winners of this year’s Newbery Medal (Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses, illustrated by K. G. Campbell) and Scott O’Dell Award (Kirkpatrick Hill’s Bo at Ballard Creek, illustrated by LeUyen Pham). Illustrators are showing up everywhere in books for youth these days, and we’re delighted to bring you another thirteen Studio Views (also in color!) from members of the present generation.

The New York Times’s report that picture books were in trouble (“Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children,” 10/7/10) was being debunked as soon at it was printed. Publishing has always been a game of trending, tacking, and correcting course as interests change and populations shift. But perhaps the alarm did force us all to make a little bit more noise about a genre whose virtues were being out-shouted by blockbuster/doorstopper YAs. And noise was something we had all become very good at since 1998, when social media meant AOL. Defenses of the picture book flew through cyberspace, campaigns to tout their use were disseminated among blogs and Facebook and Twitter. Such dialogue (and surely it’s time for a better word when it comes to conversations that routinely involve thousands of people) continues, as you can see on our Calling Caldecott blog and all the other virtual spots where pixels dance in defense of paper. While technical advances in the creation of illustrations have (as Julie Danielson shows us) made mixed media a term even more mysterious than ever, to my mind the children’s book community, fostered by the internet, has had a far greater effect on picture books than have the latest advances in Photoshop.

Are we in a picture book boom? No, and I am glad about that, because the last picture book boom that ran from the 1980s into the 1990s wasn’t pretty. I must immediately correct myself to say that it was too pretty, with lots of big, beautiful, empty books whose pictures forgot they had a job to do. I woke this morning to Facebook scoldings about an Oregon Department of Education report that too many of the state’s kindergartners were not academically prepared for first grade, that is to say, they did not read well enough. To echo another social media meme, Leave the Kindergartners Alone! It’s our job to read to them; it’s their job to look at the pictures; it’s the pictures’ job to join the story with the imaginations of those who read it and those who hear it. As the many examples in this special issue demonstrate, that job continues to be performed admirably.

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.



  1. Janice Del Negro says:

    Hooray hooray for putting that 1998 issue online! Thank you very much.

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