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Upon the Four Year Anniversary of This Most Reckless and Intemperate Endeavor


We all know someone who can be relied upon to drop the word “anyway” into conversations we thought were just getting started. This often has the effect of calling attention to disagreements we didn’t even know were there. “Lovely” is a little like that, a formerly lovely evocation now best employed to describe lunches and performances and other people’s children we can’t with a straight face call good or even halfway enjoyable. Something conditional seems built into the very structure of the word: I would have loved it. It was, perhaps, lovable. If I were the type of person that ever loved such things.

Similarly “delightful” and “enchanting,” especially when the subject is picture books, and apparently when they are accompanied by fairy dust. Really, who speaks this way anymore? Apart from the odd duchess in exile and Fancy Nancy.

A moratorium then, on such euphemisms, lest consumers begin to suspect this is really a subject requiring obfuscation. Or worse: ventriloquism. Tell me how you feel about a book. Tell me how your children feel. But please don’t tell me how you’d feel if you were your children.

That is the generally sedative approach wherever picture books are listed – by publishers and the major media outlets who serve increasingly as their handpicked chorus – and it makes my scalp tingle personally, yet finally more alarming are the risks to this genre as a whole.

Four years ago last month, this website was created with the belief that there are picture books around – published last month and fifty years ago, in New Zealand as well as New York – which we need not conceal our hard-earned grown-up sensibilities to enjoy, or otherwise resign ourselves to delivering in smarmy, kooky voices. It shouldn’t be that hard, believe me. It isn’t, if you know where to look. 

Oh, mothers and fathers and caregivers, take my hand, and let me lead you to the back of your library, your corner store, your Amazon warehouse, between the towering displays and omnivorous marketing of Pinkalicious and its candy-coded spawn! To that flicker of literature’s promise! To laughter and heartbreak, to misfits and bloomers, to many years and generations folded into twenty-eight pages, to five minutes that may last a whole life. 

Four years ago, and seven hundred and something books, and many thousands of dollars and e-mails, death, debts, and dramas I could not have anticipated when my kids were seven and twelve years old – I probably pictured a couple of paradigms toppled right now, and me in a cape, doing word-to-word combat with faceless executive ninjas.

Not miraculously, however, a project which was conceived to shine a light on the underexposed has struggled for exposure itself. Call this poetic if you will, or call it whining, but today as I type this some first time parent is confronting the monolithic availability of Emeraldalicious in his local Megamart, and tomorrow he may never read a picture book again, which I would call lamentable, minority though he may be. Amazon’s top-rated “reviewers” have all tended to make a big deal of the recycling angle here (“Green really is the new pink!”), but I swear to God all I saw was a princess with a jackalantern face waving a wand in the forest and getting whatever she wanted. Magical garbage indeed.

Still, far from the teeming diversity which promised one reader, one bookstore, one oddball a voice in the publishing racket, it’s the creepy unanimity in venues such as Amazon’s, as well as the growing inevitability of ever landing there, which hints at the Internet’s potential for magnifying a consensus rather than uncovering its miscellaneous parts. A million people will have said this better than I, but four years ago the Internet looked like a perfect place to launch an insurrection, and now its where you’d go to bury one alive.

I’m trusting by nature, maybe tragically so, but for all of my faith in the idealists at Google, there is really no good way to tell the difference right now between what is promotional on most sites and what is editorial, nor do we seem very interested as consumers in finding out. Maybe we’re just worn down by all of the marketing shenanigans – the badges and giveaways, the traded links and fitful keywords that sound like they were conceived in a dubbing studio where nobody really understands English. Educational! Environmental! Pinkatastic! Maybe we can use all the exclamation mark we get. More likely, we just don’t want to be sore sports. Hey, everyone knows its just a game! 

Alas, consumer, this is a game you cannot win, and the future of picture books promises an altogether less welcoming climate for the riskier and more sophisticated titles that might just keep this genre relevant as it competes for screen space against whatever else that is shimmering across your portable device. Would Emeraldalicious still compete? Probably. This looks like the beginning of an app.

Anyway.

When my now eleven-year-old and lifetime picky eater was two, we tried to introduce him to the universe of food by calling everything cake. This started naturally enough with muffins, though pretty soon just about everything was falling into that category – bagel-cake, grilled-cheese-cake, lasagna cake – and I don’t even know why I’m telling you this, except I like stories about cake.

Or maybe I’m just tired of arguing. Most days the rewards of this project seem hardly to match the responsibilities, and yet every so often when I am at my weariest and most confounded, a book will appear to remind me what is now more than ever worth celebrating in this underrated art form. I’ll feel a warmth, a rushing sense of optimism about the world that there are storytellers still out there with the talent, the wisdom and imagination to speak to children as though they did not belong to an entirely different species.

So bless you, Chris Monroe and Christopher Myers. Also Tony Johnston and Ellie Mackay and Henrik Hovland and Torill Kove and Stephen Krensky and Alvaro Villa and each of the writers and illustrators responsible for my latest round of faith. The books on this page have all come to my attention in the last several weeks, many against odds, from Norway and Michigan and 2011, and the chance that you will stumble across them here because you were looking for something else entirely seems well worth the cost to my serenity, for this moment at least. 

Are they great? Who can say? But they are the product of singular visions, full of rough edges and unexpected geometry, of hopelessness and bewilderment, of pride, foolish or not, and the often private legends we tell ourselves to get through the day. There are robots and crocodiles and dogs who walk on two feet and man-bats swooping around the moon, but mostly what these stories have in common is a kind of unpredictability which does not typically derive from corporate synergies, and cannot be pegged with a keyword. Eccentric maybe, like the people still seeking them out. We are One Potato.


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