The End of Picture Books? Say It Ain't So!

>> Friday, October 8, 2010

Yesterday's New York Times published a story called Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children. I just about cried when I read it. I saw the writing on the wall when I was a bookseller. It's always been tough for new picture books to battle against old favorites, and people especially like to buy their own childhood favorites when it comes to picture books. In spite of aggressive handselling of our favorite new books, our bestselling picture books were always classic backlist titles.

Things got worse a few months ago, when Barnes & Noble took away their lovely picture book displays--entire walls full of inviting face-outs of beautiful picture books--and replaced them with crappy activity books and book & toy sets. The bookseller in me understood that they'll get more dollars per square foot out of the crappy activity books, but the picture book lover in me mourned the loss.

The NYT article mentions a lot of reasons for the decline, but the one that got my blood pressure up is the one about parents pushing their kids into reading chapter books at a younger and younger age.

Parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books. Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.

“Parents are saying, ‘My kid doesn’t need books with pictures anymore,’ ” said Justin Chanda, the publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. “There’s a real push with parents and schools to have kids start reading big-kid books earlier. We’ve accelerated the graduation rate out of picture books.

Booksellers see this shift too.

“They’re 4 years old, and their parents are getting them ‘Stuart Little,’” said Dara La Porte, the manager of the children’s department at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington. “I see children pick up picture books, and then the parents say, ‘You can do better than this, you can do more than this.’ It’s a terrible pressure parents are feeling — that somehow, I shouldn’t let my child have this picture book because she won’t get into Harvard.”

This isn't new. Booksellers have been dealing with these parents for a long time. I'll never forget the woman who told me her five-year old son was reading Kafka. I resisted the urge to shake her and, instead, tried to sell her Beetle Boy (now sadly out of print). She insisted on a chapter book. Of course.

Some parents say they just want to advance their children’s skills. Amanda Gignac, a stay-at-home mother in San Antonio who writes The Zen Leaf, a book blog, said her youngest son, Laurence, started reading chapter books when he was 4.

Now Laurence is 6 ½, and while he regularly tackles 80-page chapter books, he is still a “reluctant reader,” Ms. Gignac said.

Sometimes, she said, he tries to go back to picture books. “He would still read picture books now if we let him, because he doesn’t want to work to read,” she said, adding that she and her husband have kept him reading chapter books.

Hmmm. . . could it be that all the parents desperately pushing their kids away from the books they love and on to "more challenging" fare have something to do with the "Death of Reading" that we keep hearing about? Maybe iPods and video games and television have nothing to do with it after all--except as retreats from the constant pressure to read ever more challenging books.

On the plus side (since I'm always looking for the silver lining) maybe this whole bad situation will at least encourage publishers to do more illustrated chapter books. I know nothing makes Jo happier than opening up a juicy-looking novel and finding art inside.

That's right--kids love art. And they love their stories laced with art. That includes illustrated chapter books, graphic novels and--yes--picture books. If they love what they're reading, they'll read more. If they read more, they'll read better. And if they read better, they won't struggle with (and consequently hate) more challenging books. So let them read what they love!


Cari October 8, 2010 at 12:29 PM  


The ALA has a program, Every Child Ready to Read, that details the 6 skills children must grasp before they can become successful and life-long readers. One of those skills is "Print Motivation" or the love of books and reading. No wonder that woman's kid is a reluctant reader! He's not having any fun!

At the library we struggle with parents who want to push their kids into reading extremely early. The parents don't seem to understand when we encourage them to take their time...

One of the things kids miss when they begin reading the "Dick and Jane" books at age 4 is the vocabulary found in picture books. If the kids and their parents concentrate only on the easy words found in early reading books, by the time they get to the harder words in 2nd and 3rd grade (when test scores start to matter), these early readers won't have any idea what the words are or what they mean! They'll struggle not only with reading, but with comprehension.

It's a never ending battle...

Andrea October 8, 2010 at 1:11 PM  

I can't really comment on pictures books over chapter books. My son is only 3 and I'm not going to push him into doing anything but learn his ABCs and read to him everyday. I'm a librarian so I completely understand the value of reading, but I'm of the mind that reading is good in any form so picture books are just as wonderful to me as any other book.

What I wanted to say was that the quote by Amanda Gignac is completely out of context. She is a great parent and encourages all her children to read anything, but is mindful of what the school requires. Anyway, I know her through her book blog and she is most upset by her portrayal in this article. Her recent blog on this topic is here:

Mariah October 8, 2010 at 3:07 PM  

As someone with a very active imagination I was reading chapter books at a pretty young age but I understand not all children are adept at visualization. I never lost my appreciation for art in books to this day and I agree that kids may like reading more if they enjoy what they're reading instead of being pressured into reading harder books.

There is a big difference between sounding out the big words and actually understanding the text you are reading.

CL October 8, 2010 at 9:13 PM  

I love picture books and I'm 47. I was going to read that article, but now I won't-- because I know it will make me cry!

Picture books rule! It's not a question of picture books being 'too easy.' That is just dumb! Look at the great vocabulary and sophisticated humor in a book like Shrek. Or The Grey Lady and The Strawberry Snatcher by Molly Bang (no words at all). Or The Story of Ferdinand. Beatrix Potter!

A beautiful picture book is a work of art! (Sylvester and The Magic Pebble!)

Rose Brazeale October 10, 2010 at 2:57 PM  

My mom let me read whatever I wanted, pretty much. I'd even read books that only had pictures in it - like that one by Pablo dePalo about the lady and her pancakes. I had fun making up my own dialogue for each picture.

While I wasn't a huge reader until I read the Harry Potter books, I still enjoyed reading and had a higher reading level than all the other kids my age, long before I started being home-schooled. And sometimes I still look at picture books just because they look cute.

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