Why Aren’t There Picture Books for Adults?

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“Why aren’t there picture books for adults?” The question may have crossed your mind as you browsed shelf after shelf of picture books for kids. Often full of color and beautiful illustrations, they seem innumerous. Silly ones. Serious ones. Biographical ones. Wordless ones. And more you couldn’t even begin to describe. It may have seemed that there was every type of picture book available except for adult ones. But if you’re wondering why aren’t there picture books for adults, the answer is: there are.

Picture Books for Adults

Picture books for adults? Sure. Perhaps most famous is Adam Mansbach’s Go the Fuck to Sleep which was popularly read by Samuel L. Jackson to the delight of many. Beyond that are other humorous stories, parodies, and more that make up the catalog of picture books for adults. In fact, we even compiled a list of picture books for adults

Could you read Go the Fuck to Sleep and its spin-offs, You Have to Fucking Eat and Fuck, Now There Are Two of You to your kids? No one is likely to stop you in the privacy of your own home. Try to pull one of these up at the local park, however, and you might get some side-eye at least. Ultimately, these picture books are intended for adult enjoyment. If the titles alone aren’t evidence enough, take a look at your local library’s catalog. Public libraries that own these books shelve them with other adult books. My local system, DC Public Library, places Sleep in adult nonfiction (call number 817, to be exact).

When you visit the Goodreads page for this book, suggested titles include other picture books for adults. There, you’ll find All My Friends Are Dead by Avery Monsen and Jory John. A few more clicks and you end up at Jomny (or, Jonny) Sun’s Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too.

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Why So Much Humor and Satire in Adult Picture Books?

What’s up with all the humor? Because a lot of these picture books are parodies of the idea of picture books (Mansbach’s certainly is), it reduces the stigma of reading these particular titles while reinforcing the stigma around adults reading picture books for their own enjoyment overall. When the readers don’t take the picture books seriously — when the picture books aren’t asking to be taken seriously — readers can’t be made to feel ashamed by others who think picture books for adults are somehow “less than” traditional adult books. It stands to reason that if this is the effect humorous, satirical, and parodical picture books have, people are more likely to read them. If people are more likely to read and buy them, publishers are more likely to obtain and publish these kinds of books.

What About Comics and Graphic Novels?

“But wait!” you say. “Everyone’s a Aliebn is a comic.”

Well, maybe. Merriam-Webster defines “comic strips” as “a group of cartoons in narrative sequence.” Book Riot has a slightly more specific taste, describing comics as “the thing with the words and the pictures and the speech bubbles.”

It’s true that Everyone’s a Aliebn is a series of cartoonish drawings in a sequence that tells a story (in this case, of an alien on a mission to study humans). It’s also true that this book essentially implements the concept of speech bubbles, although I’d point out the dialog is not actually contained in bubbles or other shapes, but rather float above or near the speaking character.

What makes the difference is that Everyone’s a Aliebn does not use panels. It’s true that not all comics and graphic novels use panels on every page, but you’d be hard pressed to find a comic or graphic novel that does not primarily use panels in their formatting.

Furthermore, children enjoy both picture books and comics/graphic novels. Yet when books are formatted similarly to Everyone’s a Aliebn, such as the case with Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, they are considered picture books and not comics or graphic novels. With I Want My Hat Back, the story is told through dialog, with which speaking characters are indicated by font color and context. Chris Haughton’s hilarious (and also adult-appropriate, if still intended for children) Shh! We Have a Plan has a similar format — dialog floating freely above speaking characters.

Everyone’s a Aliebn may not seem immediately like a picture book because it is shaped like a traditional novel on the outside (that is, in height, width, and depth) and is reminiscent of a comic in its format, but with a closer look, it’s easy to identify it as a picture book for adults.

Crossover Picture Books

There’s also plenty to be said for picture books intended for children that also throw a bone to the poor adults stuck reading them ad nauseum to the children in their lives. Like the movie Shrek, lots of picture books written with children in mind fit in plenty to laugh at or otherwise enjoy for adult readers. Shh! We Have a Plan is one of those, with amusing banter that not all kids will pick up on, but will tickle adults.

We might also look at illustrations in picture books and how different ages appreciate different levels and kinds of illustrations. Babies, for example, tend to be most captured by black and white picture books due to their still-developing eyesight. It follows that we become more interested in more intricate illustration styles as we age and are able to process more details. This is, perhaps, why I now appreciate Jan Brett’s books much more as an adult than I did as an elementary school kid, no matter how much my second grade teacher tried to point out how beautiful and clever the illustrations were in The Mitten and other of her works. Books like Jan Brett’s are great for training kids to engage with details (like how the borders of her pages tell more of the story), but these are not necessarily things kids will appreciate automatically as adults might.

Of course, picture books need not cater to adults in order to be enjoyed by adults. Plenty of books written strictly with children in mind can be just as valuable to adult readers.

Then, there are books like A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss. Bundo began as a parody of a book about former Vice President Mike Pence’s pet rabbit. Twiss, a writer for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, ran with the idea, ultimately collaborating with the show’s writing team to complete the picture book. The book was then published and discussed at length as a comedy bit on the show, with Oliver urging viewers to buy the book, the profits of which were donated to AIDS United and the Trevor Project. In comparison with Sleep, Bundo is shelved with children’s materials at DC Public Library. Considering the background of this book and its content, it has the vibe of a picture book for adults that has crossover appeal for children, rather than vice versa. While it’s entirely child-appropriate and accessible, the larger political and cultural context involved means children will generally miss much of the core of this book. This is different from books like Shh! because the experience and understanding of Bundo changes pretty drastically when you have this adult perspective, whereas the experience and understanding of Shh! does not shift much with an adult perspective. Instead, adults just may get a few extra laughs.

Ambiguous Picture Books

Several years ago as a children’s librarian, I came across a book and its related controversy. The Beach at Night by Elena Ferrante appears, at first glance, to be for children. The cover depicts a watering can and a doll — albeit a decidedly creepy one with a haunted expression — in the sand. Also shelved with adult books at DC Public Library now, I recall originally finding it in our children’s picture book collection. While Publisher’s Weekly noted “it’s the disconcerting combination of the doll’s intensely human emotions and complete lack of agency that leaves the strongest impression,” this is hardly of interest to most children. But at the same time, Times of London described the book as “for brave little readers…classic Elena for beginners and their Ferrante-fevered parents.” There’s also the matter of language in the book. One set of lines reads “Open your maw / I’ve shit for your craw / Drink up the pee / Drink it for me.” Some reviewers have suggested this is simply a matter of translation choices. School Library Journal wrote further about the book and these issues. In this case, it seems entirely up to the reader as to whether the book is a picture book for kids, a picture book for adults, or something else.

The Beach at Night is certainly not the only ambiguous picture book out there, but it is one of the best well-known ones.

But Why Aren’t There Picture Books for Adults?

By now, I may have convinced you that there are picture books for adults. But certainly there aren’t as many for adults as there are for children. It’s likely fair to say that publishers don’t publish a lot of picture books for adults because they simply don’t sell at the same rate as do traditional books for adults and picture books for children. Perhaps this could change in the future, but for the time being, I suspect it boils down to two things: stigma and embarrassment, as well as investment. 

As far as stigma and embarrassment go, the fact is that adults typically aren’t seen reading picture books in public. Like any lack of representation, it can feel strange to engage with the behavior when we don’t see others doing it. And, what’s more, it’s easy to imagine the off-hand comment by rude passers-by, judging an adult reader with a picture book. (Or silent judgment, even.)

With investment, particularly as many adults already contend with limited funds, it’s difficult to justify spending the same amount of money one might on a paperback (or in some cases, even a hardcover) on a picture book. Due to the brevity most picture books embody, the payoff just doesn’t seem the same, even when you consider that picture books may in fact be more work, in some ways, than traditional novels for those creating them.

So, what can you do? Money talks. Buy the adult picture books that exist. If you don’t have cash to throw around, request your library add more adult picture books to their collection (many libraries have a form or other process for requesting new books). If you’re a book blogger or otherwise have a platform, talk about how you want to see more picture books for adults in these forums. The emergence of more adult picture books isn’t an impossible scenario to imagine. In the last decade, we’ve already seen more pop up. But to keep up the momentum, we’ll have to prove to publishers it is worth their time and money to produce more.

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