The Importance of Ophelia

As a Picture Book Month Ambassador I was invited to write an essay explaining why picture books are important to me –and how they can change the lives of child readers.

I chose to talk about my favorite book from childhood

The Story of Ophelia by Mary Gibbons and Evaline Ness. The straightforward prose is long by today’s standards, but tells the story clearly. What I found most thrilling were the pictures of the one-eyed, ravening fox. Those really scared me, and seeing Ophelia survive his attack and prevail were very satisfying to good little  girl me.

Please enjoy my essay and tune in every day during PiBoMo this November to read the essays by the other ambassadors.

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Once upon a time I was a good little girl and picture books helped me express my inner, rather blood thirsty heroine.

Whenever I hear an editor or art director caution “ You can’t say/show this or that—that’ll give children the wrong idea. They’ll want to try it themselves,” my favorite childhood  book: The Story of Ophelia, by Mary Gibbons and illustrated by Evaline Ness, comes to mind.

As a child I identified completely with Ophelia: a skinny, rebellious little lamb, with six, fat, goody-two-shoes lamb siblings and a wise, tolerant sheep of a mother.

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When cautioned not to, Ophelia disobeys, enters the dark woods, is chased by the hungry fox, and with the help of the friends she made outside of the sheep paddock, escapes the fox. He is killed by a big bird right there on the page—a thing that never happens anymore in picture books. And surprise-she is not scolded for being naughty. Instead, she is rewarded with 4 new, red socks and a reputation as a fox killer!

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Adults devour thrillers and adventure stories, and, if I was typical, so do little children. I craved that large, heroic, adventurous life that was nothing like my own, and, at various ages, I found it in stories as varied as Blueberries for Sal, Puss in Boots, and The Little Red Lighthouse and the Big Gray Bridge.

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Picture books give young children a safe taste of other worlds: travel to distant lands, peeks into the past, or future, and the satisfaction being able to find their heroic self in a book. Through Ophelia, a human/animal character, or as I call her a ‘humanal,” I had a vicarious adventure that was far more exciting and life threatening than anything I’d ever experienced.

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Please comment and tell me the book that most influenced YOU as a child.

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