Thursday, 2 April 2015

The History of Picture Books: The Text

"See Spot.  See Spot Run.  Run, Spot, run!" (excerpt from Dick & Jane book)

Before the advent of the picture book, parents read to their children from collections of fables and fairytales.  Mother Goose, written by Charles Perrault and Grimm's Fairytales were two popular titles. In Germany, Der Strubbelpeter, which my father in law read to my husband as a boy, was common.

But the fables and fairytales gave way to the picture books by the mid-20th Century.  The Dick & Jane basal readers, written by William S. Gray and Zerna Sharp, first appeared in American schools in the 1930's.  Using the sight word method of teaching reading, the books were full of repetition and followed a simplistic formula.  Characters included a boy named Dick, a girl named Jane and a dog named Spot.  

In 1942, Simon & Schuster brought the picture book to the masses with the debut of Little Golden Books.  Previously picture books were priced at $2 to $3, too expensive for the average Joe; but at 25 cents a copy, these books were affordable for almost anyone.  The company recruited illustrators from The Artists and Writers Guild.  Janet Sebring Lawry wrote the original title, The Poky Little Puppy, which has sold 15 million copies to date.  Famous authors like Lucy Sprague Mitchell, a proponent of realistic children's books, penned other stories, along with Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon. While the original set of Little Golden Books numbered 12, now there are almost 900 titles.  For more information, visit my post "How a Poky Little Puppy Brought the Picture Book to the Masses" at 

Despite the success of the Little Golden Books, it was still the Dick & Jane series that sat on the shelves of the American public schools.  In 1955, Rudolf Flesch published a book called Why Johnny Can't Read? which cited statistics on childhood literacy in America, which was far behind its European counterpart.  He condemned the Dick & Jane readers, suggesting phonics, rather than sight words, as the correct strategy for teaching children how to read.  

Two year later William Spaulding, the head honcho at Houghton Mifflin, got involved in the debate. He made a list of 200 words which he gave to Theodor Geisel, challenging him to write a children's book with just those words.  Mr. Geisel added some words to the list and the result was The Cat in the Hat.  For more information, read my post "How the Cat in the Hat was Born" at

Mr. Geisel went on to write 46 more picture books, all with basic vocabulary words.  He also added a few of his own made up words.  But with his energizing tone, and his use of repetition, his books were an instant hit, never losing their appeal.  On a recent top 100 list of children's hardcover books, Dr. Seuss had 16 titles including Green Eggs & Ham, Cat in the Hat and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.  

Dr. Seuss was promoted to editor at Vanguard Press.  A young couple pitched a series about a bear family; their debut title was Freddy Bear's Spanking (later changed to The Big Honey Hunt).  While Dr. Seuss liked their illustrations and story idea, he didn't like the choice of a bear.  However, when the book appeared on the bookstore shelves, it sold like hotcakes.  The Berenstains' wrote dozens of titles, each including a moral or safety lesson, each the same length of 1100 words.  The story formula remained the same:  the cubs had a problem, Papa Bear presented a solution which made it worse and Mama Bear fixed everything.  According to the Berenstains, Mama and Papa were largely based on themselves.  Today, The Berenstain Bears series consists of over 300 titles and has sold over 260 million copies.  For more information, read "How the Berenstain Bears Got Their Name" at 

The Berenstain Bears Too Much Junk Food courtesy

The more recent Froggy book series by Jonathon London helped my daughter learn how to read. Again, the repetition was key to giving her a sense of confidence.  I found that the variation of the print colour helped as well.  When Froggy's mother yelled his name, it was always in red capital letters.

For a picture book timeline, visit, 

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