With summer on the horizon, can a good beach read be far behind? Well, forget the sexy chick lit, the political thriller or the sophisticated sleuth, it’s time to return to picture books. Yes, picture books. You know, those large books for children. The ones cast aside like Margaret Wise Brown’s velveteen rabbit once the kiddies learn to read chapter books.

I’m not sure who spread the crazy notion that once a child can read a chapter book, that child no longer needs pictures to go along with the text. Even worse, some parents are under the misconception that any story worth its weight should come sans illustrations. One of the great pleasures of working at a bookstore is the reading of new picture books before they’re shelved. The ability to write truncated stories is a gift in itself, but to illustrate the story so that pictures enhance the tale and enchant the reader is an art.

Case in point: A Story For Bear. This magical tale of a bear who discovers a woman reading in front of her summer cabin is the most perfect explanation I know for the joy of reading. The story is built around a most curious mountain bear who is a sucker for a pretty woman who has a way with words. Author Dennis Haseley has the woman reading a mythical tale of an ancient sailor far from home. LaMarche gives life to the bear with illustrations that fill the page and colors that satiate our senses. You can almost smell the pines and the expressions captured on the faces of the woman and the bear are as real as the words. What is she reading? The Iliad? Maybe Sinbad the Sailor? My vote is for The Odyssey. The bear misses nothing. He knows the scary parts by how she holds the book, the humorous parts by the sound of her laughter, and the quiet parts when she lowers the book and looks out past the pages, into her imagination.

But all vacations, like summer itself, must end. How does bear cope on the day he goes to the cabin and finds the woman gone, the Adirondack chair empty? Ah, that would be cheating if I told you.

Is A Story For Bear for children? Of course it is, but don’t be surprised if the book ends up on your coffee table. We’ve forgotten that Austen, Dickens, Longfellow, Cather, Hemingway, Steinbeck, all the great writers were illustrated. The history of book illustration is an old and noble one.

If we didn’t believe pictures were important, we would shut our eyes when we go to the movies. So the next time you visit a bookstore, do not pass up the picture books. Pay attention to the illustrator as well as the author. If you see Jim LaMarche’s name, pick up the book and open it. Be prepared to be enchanted.

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