Celebrating innovation: New ideas in “children’s picture books”

Reviews by ReadTheSpirit Editor DAVID CRUMM

The world’s first human media? Sketches on cave walls—and thousands of years later, humans still thrive on visual culture. In publishing, today, the crescendo of that age-old journey is a flood of graphic novels and children’s picture books. (The “Children’s/Young Adult” segment of American book publishing is growing faster than other genres at 20 percent last year.)

When did this “trend” start? You could argue that children’s stories are thousands of years old, dating back to Aesop and ancient religious storytellers. But historians say that our modern concept of children’s books didn’t start until people accepted the cultural idea of “childhood” in the 1700s. Then, the widely recognized Father of Children’s Literature came along: John Newbery, the namesake of the famous prize established by librarians in the 1920s.

So what can possibly be innovative in children’s picture books after all these centuries?

The answer lies in the secret behind great books for kids: They’re as much for the adults who love children—as they are for the kids. That’s why inexpensive Little Golden Books exploded after World War II. Mom and Dad were a soft touch when kids begged for a quarter (“Just 25 cents, Mom, pleeese!”) to bring home a brightly colored Golden Book.

But that was harmless kids’ stuff, right? The idea of adults reading children’s books on their own? For decades, adults who loved picture books tended to be fans of—horrors!—comic books. Then, in the late 1970s, as comic books were recovering from their long, dark era of shame, Will Eisner published the ground-breaking “graphic novel” A Contract with God—and the rest is, as we journalists like to say: History.

A secret no more, serious writers know that adults don’t need an excuse to enjoy “picture books”—and both genres (children’s and graphic novels) have been furiously evolving for years. As I’ve watched that evolution, I keep watching for innovative children’s books to recommend to readers. And, this summer, two titles are worth snapping up for your home library.



As a student at the University of Michigan in the early 1970s, I discovered the life of the brilliant Oglala Lakota leader Red Cloud and that contributed directly to my life’s vocation as a journalist connecting people across diverse cultural lines. I am proud, today, that we publish 100 Questions, 500 Tribes: A Guide to Native America along with Native American journalists and the Michigan State University School of Journalism.

So, I was pleased to see Indiana-based Wisdom Tales release a gorgeously illustrated picture book on one of the great moments in Red Cloud’s career: the strategic defeat of an encroaching cavalry force in 1866. The new book is called Red Cloud’s War and the battle is best known today as the Fetterman Fight, the cavalry’s worst defeat until the Little Big Horn a decade later.

Wisdom Tales says the book is for kids aged 6 and older—but is aimed at a 5th-to-6th-grade reading level. This truly is a war story, told from the Native American perspective. Many died in the battle—and that bloodbath led to far more horrific violence in the decades that followed. So, this certainly is not a book for preschoolers. In fact, adults who read this book with kids will need to share the larger context—which fortunately is a fairly easy matter now, given all the films and books about American Indian history. (Hint: Click the 500 Nations link, above, and buy a copy of the MSU book, too.)

Red Cloud’s War really is a cross between a graphic novel and a children’s picture book. What makes the account of the conflict so gripping is the style of these illustrations that seem to race and leap back and forth across the pages.

At the end of the book, I appreciated finding a final acknowledgment that Red Cloud ultimately decided to stop fighting—a heart-breaking acknowledgment of the force of U.S. military expansion. He was a courageous, strategic genius. But, he also was a wise and philosophical leader of his people. In recent decades, he has been inducted into the state of Nebraska’s Hall of Fame. He has been honored on a U.S. Postal Service stamp and millions of Americans, like me, have been inspired by his story.



It’s fair to say that more than a billion people around the world have been inspired by the late Pope John XXIII, who is featured in an equally innovative book from Eerdmans, a publishing house far better known for serious books about theology than for its series of books for young readers.

If you’re Catholic, you know all about St. John XXIII. For non-Catholics, here is his Wikipedia biography. The key thing you need to know: John XXIII trusted that God’s spirit was moving throughout the entire worldwide church. He opened the Second Vatican Council, which revolutionized the world’s largest church. And he is best known for saying he wanted to “throw open the windows of the Church and let the fresh air of the spirit blow through.”

Many Catholics view the new Pope Francis as more akin to the spirit of John XXIII than to either of Francis’s immediate predecessors. After all, it was Francis who insisted that John XXIII would be named a saint, in April 2014, at the same time John Paul II was canonized. Francis didn’t want anyone to mistake the iron-willed John Paul II as the only spiritual guide for the worldwide church. The spirit of John XXIII still is blowing through the Vatican!

What Eerdmans has brought us is a slice of John XXIII’s core spirituality—the text of his famous “daily decalogue.” The Vatican provides the whole text, but in a somewhat different English translation than Eerdmans uses in this picture book, illustrated by Bimba Landmann. I like the reworking of the text in this picture book and I was thrilled to see this lavishly illustrated picture-book design for John XXIII’s meditation.

In the late 1980s, I traveled with the press corps covering John Paul II’s two-week tour of North America and, in that era, the only papal “picture book” was a short-lived series of—you guessed it—comic books. I can’t imagine many American families still have the 1987 John Paul II comic book on their shelves—but I can envision this new Eerdmans book read on a daily basis in many homes.

Whatever your faith, if you find yourself looking for more spiritual meaning in your daily life—buy a copy. Have no children at home? Who cares? You’ll still love this picture book.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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