Why I Cry at Picture Books


Last night I was reading Ladybug Girl and Bingo to my daughter, and something happened.  I cried.  Was there a dramatic death scene, or heart wrenching tragedy?  No.  I cried when Ladybug Girl pretended to be a firefly. 

What is it about children’s literature that makes me weep at simple story lines and common experiences?  I don’t know about you, but this is a frequent occurrence in my world.  I’m fairly sure that my children think I’m crazy.  “There goes mom again!  I guess she really can’t stand fireflies.”

Everyone knows the really gut wrenching children’s books.  The ones you dread reading because you know that half way through, while your kids are trying to focus on the basic plot, the deeper symbolism will bring you to your knees.  Your voice will shake, and you’ll try to hide it for the sake of your unaffected and oblivious children.  The last thing you want to do to your burgeoning little readers is scar their read aloud experiences with memories of your overly-loud nose blowing and ugly-cry. 

Yes, we all know the common offenders.  I don’t trust any sadist who doesn’t tear up a little reading classics like The Giving Tree, Guess How Much I Love You, or Love You Forever.  But Ladybug girl and Bingo?  This belongs on a different list, and perhaps represents a completely separate phenomenon. But it’s not alone.  I cry routinely trying to get through Mahalia Mouse’s college graduation, have to brace myself for the moment Knuffle Bunny becomes a pen pal, and for some unknown reason I can barely even open Blueberries for Sal
What is it about the sweet and simple world of children’s literature that challenges my emotional reserve?  I rarely even cry at funerals, especially if my children are anywhere in the vicinity, but Otis the tractor has me sobbing like I just lost my best friend. 
This is what I love about picture books, and also why it is so difficult to write quality ones.  Picture books aren’t just a book, they are a sensory experience.  Good picture books are layered and filled with underlying meanings.  You never outgrow them.  Reading these books aloud to your children creates moments that you will all remember.  There’s something unexplainable about sharing these simple stories, which often foreshadow life’s landmarks, with warm little bodies cozied against you, unaware how much those simple experiences on the page will eventually form the trails of their childhood.  They squirm to touch the illustrations, making it difficult to hold the book and turn the pages.  Their hair smells of baby shampoo while they point out a concept that you didn’t realize they were even old enough to grasp…something they couldn’t grasp last week…oh geez.  There I go again.
Having children is full of moments that are less than magical.  There are days when they scream endlessly because their shoes “aren’t right,” dinner “looks funny,” or, God forbid, their sister “looked at me!”.  There’s a lot of vomit, sleepless nights, and sticky hands.  Some days feel very long.  But, without fail, every time we open a picture book the world slows.  The noise quiets.  The story comes to life through the eyes of a child.  My child.  In those moments, I see their little years flying past.  I see them as suddenly six years old, pretending to be fireflies.  I see them, not so different from Mahalia Mouse, finding their way through college.  I become Otis, not so useful anymore and happy to just sit under an apple tree.  Those moments are full of magic.  That’s why I write picture books.  It’s also why I cry when I read them.