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Picture Books for Older Readers

by Julie Brinker

Most adults know the (sometimes) guilty pleasure of sitting in a library or bookstore in the children's section, rediscovering old favorites and flipping though anything with an interesting title, cover, or idea. With our society's increasingly visual orientation, thanks to TV, video games, and the influence of USA TODAY on most of our daily papers, it isn't very surprising that we are as drawn to the picture books of our childhood as strongly as ever. And, luckily for us, technology has kept up with this desire to give us more lavishly colorful, profusely illustrated, reasonably priced books than ever before. As Kathleen Horning says on page 24 of her text, FROM COVER TO COVER: EVALUATING AND REVIEWFING CHILDREN'S BOOKS (HarperCollins 1997), "The American population, including both children and adults, was being seen as more 'visually oriented,' that is to say, more responsive to pictures than printed words, and changes in technology allowed publishers to indulge this belief."

Some authors and publishers have openly embraced this trend for years, publishing illustrated fables aimed more at adults than children: Dr. Seuss' OH! THE PLACES YOU'LL GO (Random House 1990) is now a standard graduation gift; Leo Buscaglia's THE FALL OF FREDDY THE LEAF (Slack 1982), subtitled "A Story of Life for All Ages," is a popular alternative to flowers for the bereaved. Heavily illustrated classic children's novels, particularly AA Milne's WINNIE THE POOH (E.P. Dutton 1926) series and Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1865), have been adopted by more adults than children and analyzed for their philosophical and/or countercultural implications.

This trend is continuing in 2004 publication lists. YELLOW SUBMARINE (Candlewick 2004) is a picture book version of the 1968 Beatles movie. While the fonts, formatting, and familiar cartoon illustrations are child-friendly, the book is at least as appropriate for older readers just now discovering (or re-discovering) the unique humor and political viewpoints of the Fab Four.

Jeanette Winter's SEPTEMBER ROSES (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2004) is a picture book memoir of the author's experiences on September 11, 2001, and the days following. While the language and format are appropriate for K-3rd graders, the intensity of Winter's personal experience will probably connect more deeply with older readers who remember their own reactions to the events of that time in history.

In the style, if not the spirit, of Milne and Carroll, Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell's FREE LANCE AND THE LAKE OF SKULLS (Hodder 2004) is a heavily illustrated novel bridging the traditional and graphic novel forms. Aimed squarely at the reluctant teenage male reader, the pen-and-ink sketches on every other page depict graphic violence, hideous monsters, and overendowed serving wenches.

Another welcome bridge, this time between Classic Comics and unillustrated acting scripts, is Richard Rosen's SHAKESPEARE'S ROMEO & JULIET (Candlewick 2004), illustrated beautifully and profusely by Jane Ray. After a brief overview of Elizabethan theater practices, Rosen skillfully abridges the text with narration, leaving intact the most important lines and/or passages. The love scenes are mostly narrated in this treatment, but are not at all censored; the version is aimed at older readers. With a full page of illustration on each double spread, this book also gives the visual satisfaction that is usually reserved for staged versions.

On the nonfiction front, Clive A. Lawton's HIROSHIMA: THE STORY OF THE FIRST ATOM BOMB (Candlewick 2004) is a large format volume with lots of photos and graphics and far less text. But the text that's there is more appropriate for older readers, particularly the discussion of Truman's motivations for dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to end the war before the Soviets invaded Japan.

None of these picture books for older readers are intended for non-fluent readers, though all are appropriate for reluctant readers. But all of them hold just as much enjoyment and enlightenment for the advanced reader who, bringing more life experiences and a deeper ability to analyze and deconstruct, can truly appreciate the simplicity and beauty of these seemingly simple works.


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