Poem or Picture Book?

Since this week was Children’s Book Week, I thought I’d end the week by writing about another amazing children’s book — REMEMBER by Joy Harjo. This picture book began life as a poem by poet laureate Joy Harjo. Not every poem can become a picture book.

How do you define what a poem is? I did some reading in preparing to write this post. It surprised me that every definition that I read discussed a poem as something that is written. But then I thought of slam poetry. Although these poems start out in written form, they are meant to be spoken, to be performed. So it goes beyond that.

Something else that I read is that a poem evokes an emotional response and calls to mind a deeper meaning, beyond what is written. A poem can rhyme, but that isn’t essential. A poem plays with the form and the sound of the words.

That makes a poem sound a lot like a picture book! But, while a poem in print can be illustrated, a picture book is illustrated in a very particular way. Picture books include approximately 14 spreads which use a combination of the written word and the illustration to tell a story. The text alone couldn’t carry the story. It is deepened and added to by the illustrations.

To become a picture book, a poem needs to have a certain breadth. I’m not saying that short poems lack depth but they may not have the breadth required to fill 14 spreads, each with a unique illustration that includes variation in action, characters, mood and tone.

In the note at the back of the picture book, Harjo explains that she wrote this poem to remind herself what it is to be a human being living on this generous earth. It is a story about the stars, the moon and the sun. It is about all of the people and the animals. And the interconnected nature of the world.

The first time through, I focused on the text. Before long I was lost in the illustrations. The two together tell a powerful, resonant story. If you have written a poem that you think might make a good picture book, check out REMEMBER. Poetry lovers and picture book lovers will both fall in love with this book even as they fall into the illustrations by Michaela Goade. Goade took inspiration for her artwork from Tlingit traditions and stories.

This is definitely a book to cherish through repeated readings.