As an avid picture book reader, I'm always looking for more suggestions for great books. But, beyond a mere list of recommendations, my favorite part of ReFoReMo was learning why that book or group of books has a lasting emotional impact on the reader.
I study picture books for pacing and plotting and language, but when I dig deeper I find something more profound. Philosophical nuggets and little worldview jewels shine through the voice of any main character. The writer mines the identity of the protagonist in their own experiences and shows that vision in brilliant little packages. When the character’s name is perfect, like Corduroy, that story resonates through generations. The name Corduroy sounds like a little boy’s name, despite its original usage. The word is a dactyl, so it has a contemplative cadence. And, it evokes the unfussy wash-and-wear garment of a playful child. Perfect. The name and identity are iconic and inseparable.
How do we find the perfect, iconic name? I look to picture books with a main character who undergoes this very search for identity:
Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes: This young girl think her name is “absolutely perfect” until the mean girls in her class suggest otherwise. Victoria attempts to reduce her name to an impractical set of characters and cleave it from who she is. Chrysanthemum finds validation in a teacher who is absolutely perfect at handling the problem. (Rule-breaker alert! The main character does not solve the problem, but it is still a winner.)
A Lion Named Shirley Williamson by Bernard Waber: A miscommunication gives a lioness special status with her unusual name. Did she become so winsome because of her name or was it fate? Like Chrysanthemum, there are three jealous lions who want to quash her singular personality, but “Bongo” she is not.
The Cat With Seven Names by Tony Johnston and Christine Davenier: When a cat goes missing, he discovers six more identities and relationships with caregivers until he is found and we know his “real” name. Or, does he have seven “real” names, each of which are intertwined with the seven different relationships? (Do each of us have seven or more names depending on whom we’re talking to?)
Beekle by Dan Santat: Beekle sets off to find his name, his identity, his “real child”. Dan Santat has called this book “a love letter to his son”, to capture the search for a paternal bond yet to be made. When Alice speaks Beekle’s name, the journey is complete.
Michael Karg is a picture book writer, feline veterinarian, entrepreneur, tinkerer, woodland gardener and full-time dreamer. He lives with his wife, three kids and four cats in a cohousing community in Maryland. His parents didn’t give him a middle name, but he found it anyway – Wolfgang.