Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Power of the Picture Book: Matthew Cordell


Man, I love picture books. Am I preaching to the choir? Maybe. But maybe not! Whether you are picture book choir or picture book congregation, allow me to proselytize here for a spell on the power of picture books.

I love picture books for their art. The visual and written synchronicity that lovingly and painstakingly goes into each page and page turn. Picture books inspire me daily as a parent, as a sometimes author, and as an illustrator. When I visit schools and at home with my own two children, I see first-hand how picture books inspire the young minds for which we primarily make them. It’s powerful stuff.

For the sake of brevity, (not always my strong suit) I’d like to single out one of the many powerful aspects of a successful picture book. Picture books that grab you by all the feels. Ones that make you cry. Ones that make you cry for something uplifting or cry for something sad. Picture books can and will do this. With their inimitable and masterful craft of weaving perfectly articulated words with perfectly cultivated images. Here are a few favorites that have done that for me.

A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz, illustrated by Catia Chen. This is wonderful right off the bat because it tackles a struggle that I feel I don’t hear enough about: stuttering. Stuttering and the shame and alienation that are bound to come with. Despite it all, a boy who stutters finds comfort in the one big thing he loves. He loves spending time and communicating with animals. As he grows up and his love for animals grow too, he pledges to be a voice for animals who cannot speak, and defend them from harm. Simultaneously, with much hard work and therapy, the boy slowly begins to speak without completely stuttering. But he is forever changed and feels most comfortable alone or in the company of animals. Time moves on and the boy becomes an adult. He becomes a zoologist and conservationist specifically interested in the study and protection of threatened jaguars in the jungles of Portugal. He vows to protect these big, beautiful cats in every way he can. As afraid as he is of public speaking, he goes before the prime minister of Belize in defense of jaguars. And ultimately a jaguar preserve is established in part because of his testimony. The book closes with a breathtaking series of spreads where the narrator comes silently face to face with a jaguar in the wild of the jungle. The final page is only words. Words that will leave you in tears.

Someday by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. I can’t be absolutely sure, because I’ve only read this book as a parent, but I think this book might work its magic best on the Moms and Dads of the world. There is a very specific type of feeling we feel when we watch our children grow up and succeed in life. It is a great big pride juxtaposed with a great big sadness, almost a breaking of the heart even. How can we not be ecstatic when our child grows and does great things? Because it’s happening too fast, and time passes by without any consideration for my feelings whatsoever. It feels awfully selfish to admit to feeling this way, but there it is. And that, my friends, is the power of Someday. As the book begins, we see a Mom welcoming her baby into the world and being witness to all of the firsts. First words, first steps, etc. And on it goes with all the wonderful things the child proceeds to learn and accomplish and some of the bad things too. Like not getting into a first-choice university. Time marches on and inevitably we must let go as parents. I dread this day. Time goes by relentlessly, giving us the most wonderful things, but also changing us from hands-on parents to observers. As the end of the book approaches, we see that that one-time baby has become an adult. One who has welcomed her own child into the world. And time marches on. It is beautiful. It is heart-wrenching. You will sob.

Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by G. Brian Karas. If, by chance, you are not familiar with the story of Ivan the gorilla, it goes like this. Back in 1962, two western lowland gorilla babies were poached from the jungles of Africa. They were kidnapped from their families and shipped to the United States. The gorillas were sold to a shopping mall owner in Tacoma, Washington.  Shortly after that day, one of the babies, Burma, died. Ivan was raised and kept at the family’s home for three years until he became too big to keep safely at home. At which point he was moved into captivity at the man’s shopping mall. An oddity of sorts for people to come and watch through a glass window. Ivan lived there for much of his adult life, making the best of it, watching tv, finger painting, and playing with the few things that were inside his enclosure. Fortunately, the public began to see how unfair it was to keep Ivan at the mall, and public outcry led to his release at a zoo in Atlanta, Georgia. He was given care from scientists who understood and loved him. He was given a natural environment in which to roam. And the company of other gorillas. Ivan’s release is told and illustrated spectacularly. This final few pages of words and pictures will put a serious lump in your throat. And the final spread and back matter will do you in for sure.

Great picture books treat kids and grown-ups with respect and kindness and patience. Their page turns bring the biggest and smallest hands and eyes and ears together in one magical place. They make us think. They make us laugh. They make us cry. And that’s powerful stuff.


Matthew Cordell is the author and illustrator of many books for children. His newest written and illustrated book, Wish, has apparently made many moms and dads around the world cry. Which makes him feel a bit bad, but it’s, like, a compliment at the same time. Visit him online at matthewcordell.com. And on Facebook at facebook.com/cordellmatthew. And Twitter: @cordellmatthew.