The buzz you heard over the weekend came from children’s librarians on the listservs, infuriated by Friday’s NYT article, “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children.” According to the article, parents are pushing their preschoolers and early elementary children into “chapter books.” As a result, new picture books “languish on the shelves,” so publishers are releasing fewer titles.
As I read the article, I was steaming. Maybe there are other reasons for fewer titles;
- Could it be that there was a glut of picture books over the last ten years and this pulling back is a sane course correction?
- Could it be that, because of the economic downturn in the last few years, publishing has downsized?
- Could it be that public libraries have lost funding, certified school librarians across the country are being laid off and that is a large part of the market for hardcover new picture books?
- Could it be that conservative communities don’t want books with witches or scary tales resulting in fewer fairytales and folktales?
The article only looks at bookstores. Do library circ numbers reflect a fall off in picture books? It seems not; Joann Jonas of the San Diego County Library system says that “picture books carry our circulation. We budget or funds accordingly.” Sno-Isle (WA) PL reports on their collection development staff blog,
Picture books are not dying out in Sno-Isle Libraries. Our picture book collection is allotted 32% of the overall Juvenile Book budget and circulation figures show that 777,489 picture books were checked out in the first nine months of 2010.
But what about parents snatching picture books from tiny hands and forcing “chapter books” on children barely old enough to decode the words?
Those parents overlook what picture books can do for young minds. Think of Jon Scieszka’s perennial favorite The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf (Viking Childrens, 1989) with its sophisticated unreliable narrator. To enjoy and understand this story, kids need to know the classic Three Little Pigs, they need to comprehend the lying language of Alexander T. Wolf, and have the visual literacy to peruse Lane Smith’s collage art for contradicting evidence of the verbal story. These critical thinking skills are strengthened through reading and rereading picture books.
The hundreds of comments on the listservs lay out salient points for librarians confronted with parents who think their kids are “too old” for picture books. I have tried to distill them below;
- The text of picture books is often written at a higher reading level. Children need to hear this higher vocabulary to acquire language before they can read it.
- The pictures give children practice in visual literacy. Excellent picture books are ones that you can go back to again and again, discovering something new every time.
- Early series chapter books are great for reading practice but their vocabulary and sentence structure are simplistic and their plots formulaic.
- Picture books provide self recognition; think of the work of Ezra Jack Keats, Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems, and Ella Sarah Gets Dressed by Margaret-Chodos-Irvine
- Picture books help negotiate emotional milestones, think Robie Harris’s Mail Harry to the Moon.
- Picture books for older children give a window into history, cultures and communities other than our own with sophisticated artistic representation. Let’s look at just one artist, Gregory Christie, Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Only Passing Through: The Story if Sojourner Truth, and the joyful, exuberant, juicy language-filled Yesterday I had the Blues.
- Rhythm, rhyme, and repetition of early picture books support the learning of reading skills like phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension and fluency.
- Reading picture books does not exclude reading aloud fabulous chapter books like My Father’s Dragon and Ramona the Brave.
My charge to readers — Copy the NYT article and post it along with my rebuttal. Pull the best of your picture book collection for display and label with cards or standees or bookmarks what skills children are gaining by sharing these books with their parents, caregivers and teachers. Do the same on your website or blog. School librarians, rally around the teachers who are using picture books in the classrooms. Continue to buy these books for your collection; if we don’t support these artists and writers, there may come a time when the pickings are slim.
PS. Check out this list of fabulous picture books to read aloud, selected by Bank Street College of Education’s School for Children 1st through 4th graders and almost 2,000 students from our cooperating schools