I have never written a picture book, but I live in a picture book world. A world of images, sounds, smells — all captured in words that create pictures of nostalgia, adventure, joy, and sometimes heartache for me and my readers. As I write, my mind is full of pictures. I see the scenery clearly, hear the voices, watch the characters move.
My earliest “reading” memory is of a girl sitting cross-legged on the grass, her mouth open wide as shes chews her dinner, much as the cow next to her is chewing its cud. Noisy Nora is the name of the book, and Nora is eating outside because of her bad table manners. Oh, the thought of being put outside to eat with the animals! I can remember looking at all the pictures, then chewing very carefully and quietly. Was this little book a positive influence on my life? You bet it was!
Soon after, I was introduced too Tinker Town Tom and learned that characters could have adventures. Tom and his twin sister, Belle, ran away and joined the circus. I turned the pages eagerly, watching Belle walk the tight rope and ride bareback while Tom jumped from trapeze to trapeze, swinging from his long cue. They won the polliwog fish pole prize, coveted by the terrible white-faced clown, who liked to gnash his teeth and clench his fists. Gnash and Clench! What great new words. I said them over and over, relishing the ash and ench sounds.
Every page of words was accompanied by a page of brilliantly colored illustrations, sometimes enhanced by crayolas from my own box. I shudder today at the thought of drawing in an illustrated picture book, but all those years ago I think I was putting the stamp of ownership on the pages. It was the book my father had read to me before he died, and it was somehow important that I put my mark here and there. It was a way of saying, I want to belong to this book, and I want it to belong to me.
Patsy Ann came into my life a few months later. I had never seen anything like this book, illustrated with photographs of a little doll going about her daily routine, just as if she were an adult, not a little girl. Patsy Ann did what all little girls did in those days. She played house. I followed her through her chores, delighted that she had to do them and I didn’t. She lived in a dollhouse, did the washing in a tub with an old-fashioned wringer, ironed, cleaned, and cooked. She also baked cookies, did the mending, and went to the market. But my favorite part of the book was when she went to the seashore, waded in the ocean, and made a castle out of sand.
What did these three books from my young life have in common? What made them essential to me? Why did I return to them again and again, begging for the words to be read aloud?
Patsy Ann, Tinker Town Tom, and Noisy Nora filled my life with characters, and action, and setting: the three essentials for literature. Granted, they were not classics, but who cares when you are only three years old? I hungered for memorable images, for adventure, for the music of words, for the stimulus of imagination, and I found it in pictures, for I was too young to read the words.
I still depend on pictures when I write, but these pictures are the images I see with my mind’s eye. I visualize setting. I imagine characters and hear their voices. At last, they begin to move, to interact, and the intricacies of plot weave their unbroken threads into a tapestry of story. And it all started with pictures.