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Picture books | class #1, fall 2016


For our first class on October 12, we will be reading two picture books and three articles.

Where the Wild Things Are is a classic now, but when it was first published in 1963 it was controversial. If you knew this book as a child, what did you notice this time that you might not have picked up before? Can you see why it could be problematic for adults, particularly in the early 60s?

Mirror is a wordless book constructed in a way I’ve never seen before (or since). Is there a right way to read wordless books? How might you share this one-on-one with a child? What would you do differently if you read it with an entire class?

The great children’s literature specialist Rudine Sims Bishop has written about books for children needing to be both windows and mirrors. Mirror seems to me to be the epitome of that idea, calling for empathy with both story strands, as well as a sharp eye for similarities and differences. There is so much to notice in both of these books.

As you read all the books for this class, try to do so with both your child brain, or lens, and your adult one. Think, too, about the choices made by the books’ creators. The three articles we are reading this week will help you understand the picture-book-making process:

Please comment on any aspect of any of these books and articles in the comments below. Blog readers who are NOT in this class, we particularly invite you to comment and help broaden our discussion.

Added October 8: Each week, certain students will be asked to research people and topics related to the week’s readings and report their findings in a comment. Carli Spina, one of the teaching assistants, has posted comments about Sendak and Baker below, as exemplars.

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.



  1. Catherine says:

    I must confess I’m having trouble seeing what might have once been considered controversial in Where the Wild Things Are. Perhaps in the 1960’s people cared more about books for young children containing well-behaved characters? (I recognize I’m making an assumption here that people care less about this today….) If this was the case, then certainly Max—gleefully chasing his dog around the house with a fork—would have caused some problems. But I find Max so endearing, it is hard to imagine that he caused any issues, especially since the reader never even sees the adult characters he defies so boldly.

    Reading this book alongside Jon Scieszka’s article on design was extremely eye-opening for me. My favorite example of the design in this book is how the illustrations grow larger and consume more and more white space as Max goes deeper into the land of the wild things, culminating with three full-page illustrated spreads that depict “the wild rumpus.” Then, as Max returns to the world of his bedroom, the illustrations slowly shrink again until the final page, where the words stand alone to create an unexpectedly poignant moment. Awesome.

  2. Here’s some information about Maurice Sendak.
    Maurice Sendak (1928- 2012) seems to be best known for writing Where The Wild Things Are, which was edited by famed children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom (she also edited Goodnight Moon, the Little House books, and lots of other classics). Wild Things was published in 1963 and has been the subject of a number of adaptations over the years, including film projects and an opera. He was deeply influenced by several historical events, including the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the Holocaust, in which many members of his extended family died, and these influences show up throughout his works. One of his other well-known books was In The Night Kitchen, which proved controversial and was frequently challenged in libraries. Throughout his career, he was committed to not portraying an idealized world for children, leading to the darker nature of many of his works.

    Here are some interesting links:

    Just for fun, a clip of the Where The Wild Things Are opera:

  3. Here’s what I found out about Jeannie Baker.
    Jeannie Baker is an English author and filmmaker who now lives in Australia. She has written and illustrated several children’s books using collage. Her collage projects typically take three to four years to complete and often after a book is published the artwork becomes part of a traveling exhibition or even a short animated film. She is frequently inspired by her surroundings, particularly including Australia’s scenery and environment. Her inspiration for Mirror came during her travels in Morocco in 2003. Later, she lived there for three months while working on the book and even stayed with a Moroccan family for several weeks.

    There’s more information at these site:

  4. Alice Bingqian Wang says:

    In “the words”, Charlotte Zolotow said that “children experience anger, loneliness, joy, love, sorrow, and hatred whole and plain; we, through our adult protection and veneer”. I am suddenly surprised by how long I have been living under a mask. I have been trying to be brave, logical, calm and unemotional. I have been trying to “grow up”.
    Today, I spent a whole afternoon in the COOPS reading children’s books, I read whatever I picked up, and felt I was little again. When I immersed myself in all those children’s books, I found the real me again. I started to smell the fall, to observe the stars, to smile to the flowers… for a moment I can feel I am alive.
    I think maybe when we take off our protection, our masks, our so-called rationality, we’ll see the world in a more transparent and tranquil way. And when we read children’s books, we should be little and pure again.

  5. Catherine’s observation about the growing/shrinking illustrations in Wild Things is very astute! It gives the book a nice ring-structure, also shown by how the text mirrors itself at the beginning and end (with mentions of days/weeks/year, and of “terrible” roars/teeth/claws). It’s a comforting structure, as it presents a return to normality and familiarity when he makes his way home.

    Scieszka’s article was remarkably prescient of web design and online content. Back in 1998, he said that “modern kids” are very “visually literate,” but this is even more true in the internet age! How can books keep up? Well, Mirror has a design concept that can’t be replicated online, as it ingeniously juxtaposes the right-to-left direction of Arabic with our usual left-to-right reading experience.

    The cover of Mirror initially connotes isolation, but we find the book is actually about connection, between family members (like sneaking into your parents’ bed) and across cultures. The carpet is a classic symbol of transporting yourself to another place, but we also see the weaving of it, foretelling the weaving of these 2 narratives. I also love the detail of the forgotten flower that finds its way into both households.

  6. “You may not consciously know it, but when you pick up a book, you are reading its layout and typeface and color palette for clues about the story.”

    While I may have engaged in the process Scieszka describes above subconsciously as a child, I have noticed myself very consciously doing so as an adult. When I walk into a bookstore or a library, I am utterly overwhelmed by all of the options, all of the shiny covers begging to be opened. I rarely go in with a purpose or a specific book in mind, instead I browse. And in browsing, perhaps unsurprisingly, design matters. I find myself drawn to pull books off the shelves based on the bold or simplistic or engaging design on the cover or spine. Logically, I know this could be causing me to overlook many a great book, and I know better than to simply choose a pretty book and walk away without reading the synopsis, but I can’t help myself. In a world this noisy and busy, we need something that grabs and focuses our attention initially, that pulls us to a particular flotsam in a sea of information.

    However, as I read the descriptions of design choices and Scieszka mentioned the use of red text to highlight the hen’s annoying voice, it struck me: what is the experience like for those who cannot engage with visual design for one reason or another? What do they lose? What might they gain? How could books be otherwise designed to enhance their experience? Sounds? Smells? Textures?

  7. I particularly liked the book “mirror”. It is quite different from what I had previously imagined, but it made so much sense once I started to read it! The book is so centered on details! The texture of the scenes, the little connections that the author tries to build within – The light shedding through the window on both homes; the carpet; the goodness shown in both cultures. It is absolutely amazing! This book reminds me again how much we are alike, and how we are similar to each other despite the different cultures we live in.

  8. Joyce Rafla says:

    Perhaps it’s too late to post this but I’m going to go ahead and post it anyways.

    My first reaction to Mirror was “wow, this is great… a book in both my languages” and when I flipped through the first pages, I started asking myself some questions.

    For starters, why did the author choose to juxtapose a city with a village? For children who are probably not good at seriation (knowing the difference between a country, city, village…etc.), they might assume that this is a typical Australian/Moroccan lifestyle. I think the comparison might have emphasized already existing stereotypes. While it’s great to use the book to introduce (western) children to different cultures, perhaps we should start with something that is starkly different than their home culture especially that sometimes children are less comfortable with differences than adults.

    For a Middle Eastern child, s/he might notice -for example- how the man is portrayed as an affectionate husband (by putting his arm around his wife’s shoulders) whereas the Moroccan man is portrayed as being a loving father. That might aid to the already-existing message that people should get married for social acceptance and not for love.

    While some introduction is better than nothing, I felt like I couldn’t identify enough with that version of “this part of the world.”

  9. Joyce Rafla says:

    One more thing: the opposite of Mr. Tiger:

  10. Kate McDonald says:

    “Hello. I am Peter Brown, and it is my professional opinion that everyone should find time to go a little wild.” Peter Brown wrote and illustrated Mr Tiger Goes Wild (2013) and was influenced by artists who inspire him to create the illustrations for this book. For example, Mary Blair (a former Disney artist) influenced his use and range of expressions for Mr Tiger; Alice & Martin Provensen’s work influenced the use of white spaces; whereas Eyvind Earle (former Disney artist) explores adding texture, pattern and elements, allowing Brown to combine lushness and sparseness in his illustrations for this book.

    Brown was born in New Jersey in 1979. Before moving to Brooklyn NY in 2002, he travelled and spent time sketching his surroundings. He was working on animated TV shows when he signed a book deal to write and illustrate his first picture book, “Flight of the Dodo.” He went on to write and illustrate a number of picture books (see below). Brown admits that most of his characters are based on aspects of himself. His illustrations for Creepy Carrots!, written by Aaron Reynolds, earned Brown a Caldecott Honor in 2013. Brown has recently released his first novel for children The Wild Robot. More information about his process to investigate, story map and create this novel can be found on his website.

    Brown has written and illustrated: Mr Tiger Goes Wild; Flight of the Dodo; Chowder; The Fabulous Bouncing Chowder; The Curious Garden; Children Make Terrible Pets; You Will Be My Friend!, My Teacher is a Monster (No I am Not); The Wild Robot; and has also illustrated the following books Barkbelly; Snowbone; Kaline Klattermaster’s Tree House; The Purple Kangaroo; Creepy Carrots!.

    • Brown’s website is
    • Brown talks about his creative processes and artistic influences that shaped Mr Tiger Goes Wild in this website
    • Brown is interviewed about creating Mr Tiger Goes Wild
    • Brown spoke at the Library of Congress 2014 where he read his first book he wrote when he was 6 years old and discusses My Teacher is a Monster (No I am Not)

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