It began when my mom told me a story at bedtime about a mermaid and a tower. It was watered with books like Bears on Wheels and the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It was fed by The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and fertilized with The Hobbit. It sprouted new shoots with Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man and it followed an offshoot for a while with Terry Brooks. (Brooks was a favorite when I was twelve. So much so that I wrote him a fan letter. He kindly replied, commenting on the uniqueness of my name and asking if he could use it in a book sometime. I agreed so long as the character was not the bad guy. I still have that letter, it being one of a handful of things saved from a house fire in New Orleans.)
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I grew to appreciate the children’s picture book in a new way. The beauty of illustrations. The ability to tell a story through the marriage of words and pictures (and sometimes no words at all!). The exposure to an accessible world of artwork at a time in my life when the closest museum was a few hours’ drive away.
I handpicked and purchased the books I loved, looking first at illustrations, the story second. Being drawn into imaginations and worlds through pictures fed me and my own journey of imagination and creativity and painting and writing. A picture is worth a thousand words, right? So a picture book, usually about 32 pages, would be worth…incalculable words. Simple multiplication does not apply.
My library grew. I collected in college. I wrote an essay about it during my senior year in 2002. My college held an annual competition for the best essay about the importance of a personal library. I wrote about my children’s picture book library.
I wrote in part:
…my personal library contains a special collection of nearly two hundred children’s picture books. In the best interest of my six-year-old sister, I keep these books on the lowest shelves of my bookcases so they are accessible to her who, like I, spends many hours leafing through the thousands of brightly illustrated pages, being transported to various realms where spirituality is commonplace and honorable behavior is a universal standard.
That collection was destroyed a few years later in the above mentioned house fire. And that collection was one of the first things I began to replace, book by book, in the weeks that followed that loss. I think I may have even gone to Barnes and Noble and bought Where the Wild Things Are before I went to the mall to begin replacing my wardrobe.
The influence these countless picture books have had on the life of my imagination cannot be measured. And probably can’t even be summed up sufficiently. But I’ll try. And I’ll try with the last paragraph from my essay:
As I look over to my bookshelf, I think, “I love my books.” Why? They certainly contain lovely stories and illustrations, but beyond this I recognize that children’s picture books are more than entertainment. The magic of storytelling nurtures the imagination—an important faculty to maintain throughout life in order to help keep fresh the innocence of childhood. George MacDonald addressed this childlike innocence in the dedication to his “Little Daylight.” He wrote, “I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” Well-written and illustrated children’s picture books teach children, and remind adults, of the wonders and mysteries of childhood—and of life.
How do you feed and water your imagination? What’s the very best fertilizer you’ve found so far?