The Promises Of Books

According to Nancy Kress (author of the writing book Beginnings, Middles & Ends), every story makes two promises to the reader:

1. THE EMOTIONAL PROMISE

Read this and you’ll be

  • Entertained
  • Thrilled
  • Scared
  • Titillated
  • Saddened
  • Nostalgic
  • Uplifted
  • But always absorbed

2. THE INTELLECTUAL PROMISE

  • Read this and you’ll see the world from a different perspective
  • Read this and you’ll have confirmed what you already want to believe about the world
  • Read this and you’ll learn of a different, more interesting world than this. (This last promise can exist on its own or coexist with either of the first two.)

THE PROMISES OF PICTUREBOOKS

1. THE EMOTIONAL PROMISE

  • Almost all picture books aim to entertain. At the moment there’s a bit of a publishing boom going on with ‘single gag’ books. The best-seller lists are full of authors (almost all men, by pure coincidence??) such as Lemony Snicket, B.J. Novak, Jon Klassen, sometimes Oliver Jeffers, Mo Willems and here in Australia we have Nick Bland. 
  • Those that aim to scare will usually end on a reassuring note, unless the picture book is for older readers, or secretly for adults. See The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klaassen.
  • One of the most thrilling picture books for my daughter is one by Jez Alborough, It’s The Bear! The mother goes away to retrieve a forgotten picnic item from the car and while she’s away an enormous teddy bear turns up.
  • Some authors, such as Oliver Jeffers, often write stories with a touch of sadness, though I’d say ‘melancholy’ is a better word.
  • Titillation is off limits for young readers, though it’s well-known that in kid lit food basically equals sex. So there are a number of picture books which ‘titillate’ in respect to food. Perhaps The Biggest Sandwich Ever? I’m sure there are better examples — think of books with beautifully rendered food illustrations, in which food takes centre stage. The deluxe versions of the Faraway Tree books did this for me as a kid. The food at the top of the tree often looked delicious.
  • Are young readers too young to even experience the emotion of ‘nostalgia’? I’d say yes, although there are plenty of ‘retro’ picture books which aim to evoke nostalgia in the parent co-readers. For example, Mr Chicken Goes To Paris will evoke memories for adults who have holidayed in France. Mercer Mayer’s earlier books are set in an American 1950s era, and the setting hasn’t been vastly updated since.
  • The odd picture book for young readers manages to uplift the reader. (Though the vast majority seem to reassure rather than uplift.)

2. THE INTELLECTUAL PROMISE

Because of the young readership, ‘seeing the world from a different perspective’ is a big promise in picturebooks. But as underscored in the recent and ongoing talk of diversity, children ALSO need to see themselves and their own, familiar environs depicted in picturebooks as confirmation that they matter. In other words, they need the second promise, too.

When I think of ‘different, more interesting worlds’ I think first of science fiction, though fantasy is far more common in picture books than science fiction. In picture books we very often enter an interesting world not via some sort of portal (a wardrobe, a mirror) but simply via the young child’s imagination. We might be left to wonder how much of this fantasy is ‘real in the story’ and how much is conjured up. But often picturebooks are simply carnivalesque stories in which a child takes a hum drum situation and ‘lives it up’ for a while, Cat In The Hat style.