The Importance of Picture Books

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 SudanOnly 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

26 Responses to “The Importance of Picture Books”

  1. Tina Says:

    Picture books create warm and welcoming laptimes for children and parents. With creative illustrations and wording, they can be entertaining for both parent and child. They also create narrative skills in children, who can “tell the story” to their parents by reading the pictures. They create opportunities for added involvement with the text: children can predict the next page or the end by “reading” the pictures, creating hooks and interest to keep reading the book.

  2. Tina Says:

    PS. I really enjoyed reading your rebuttal, Lisa.

  3. gretchen wronka Says:

    Lisa, once again your keen thinking sets an issue in a rationale context. Thank you! This summer I suggested The True Story…as a read aloud to the supeintendent of the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center. She was a guest reader in te facility’s Freedom School. The teens who are waiting for sentencing are a hard crowd to please. The Superintendent reported that they were wildly appreciative of the book, enjoying her rendition tremendously. She was thrilled that a picture book could elicit such a response. Hennepin County librarians routinely use this book as an ice breaker in a parent literacy program at the County’s Adult Corrections Facilty. It never fails to get these dads involved. Tney see that we’re not the literacy police, we show them that libarians and authors have grand senses of humor and that picture books are ageless…you should see their response to Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, too!

  4. Alice Says:

    Your steam is shared by many, and you’ve articulated what I’m sure many are feeling and thinking. Thank you!

  5. Melissa Taylor Says:

    I don’t think the NY Times got it right — and they misquoted one blogger even.

    I wrote this about how I get my 8 yr old to read picture books and hope it can help encourage others.

  6. Carol Simon Levin Says:

    Lisa, THANKS SO MUCH for doing this! I’ve been simmering (steaming?!) since I read the NYT article — and I read it too late to add my comments (which were similar to yours) to the article there. We’ll definitely do this display and discuss it on our blog

  7. dassy Says:

    Picture books stimulate the whole brain because of the combination of text(left brain) and illustrations(right brain) which in term fosters the development of creativity.

    The emphasis on intellectual development should be on conversing with a child, stimulating them with questions that foster higher thinking and letting them problem solving ever day issues. The average time the father in an intact family spends interacting with his child is minimal. Thank goodness for early childhood programs that focus on language growth with the the aid of picture story books.

  8. leda Says:

    Good job, Lisa. This article has stimulated such wonderful responses from picture book lovers. Maybe it was a good thing!


  9. Douglas Florian Says:

    Bless You, Lisa Von Drasek!

  10. Laura Vaccaro Seeger Says:

    Thank you, Lisa!!

  11. Christine @ Origami Mommy Says:

    I wrote a response to this article, as well, at I am so glad someone posted a link to your article in the comments – I’ll revise my post to include this. Thanks!

  12. Susan L. Roth Says:

    Bravo, Lisa! Now what can we do to get THIS article on the front page of the New York Times?!

  13. Needle and ThREAD: Stitching for Literacy » Blog Archive » Picture Book Pros Says:

    […] a great follow-up to the NYT article about the current state of picture books. Cheers for librarians!Light in the […]

  14. Lisav Says:

    A few people have asked how to get my rebuttal into the Times. We can’t. The Times won’t publish anything that is previously published and the good news is because I have EarlyWord as my outlet, I don’t have to wait for the op-ed editor to decide if they have room for me. If you like what I have to say on the topic, the best way to get the word out is to post links to the page on Facebook, blogs and Twitter.

  15. A Picture Book is Worth MORE than 1000 Words « Write Up My Life Says:

    […] EarlyWord blog compiled a fantastic list of reasons why picture books are so important.  The folks at Darien Library said, “The […]

  16. Sivanie Shiran Says:

    Lisa’s vast knowledge of children’s books and her exuberance about the worlds they invite us into have filled many family homes with warmth and happy memories for years. May her leadership bring pride to the many devoted librarians out there facing low budgets and salaries in these hard economic times.

  17. gae polisner Says:

    I really appreciated this rebuttal!

    I must say as a parent of boys, a lover of picture books, a bookstore frequenter and a YA writer myself, I hope you are right. I know, I, myself, have seen no evidence of a picture book decline among my parenting friends. And my standard “baby gift” for the past five years has always been a supply of favorite picture books. Of course, my personal philosphy is that you’re never too young nor too old for a good picture book.

    If anyone is looking for some amazingly quirky, witty, sophisticated picture books in addition to a few of the outstanding ones you mention, check out any fabulous book by the wonderful Maira Kalman. Man oh man!

    Thanks again, Lisa!

    Gae Polisner

  18. Jamie Renton Says:

    Hi Lisa,

    I LOVE picture books! I purchase and use picture books in the middle school library I work at. I still read picture books to my three children. I rely on picture books to beautifully explain concepts. I immediately think of the book “One” by Kathryn Otoshi. I have shared that book with elementary children, middle school children, parents and principals to discuss bullying and the need to stand up for ourselves and other people who are getting bullied. That book has never failed to help me begin a very constructive discussion about bullying and how to stand up to a bully.

    I enjoyed reading your rebuttal. One item though really bothers me. Why did you have to bring your political views into the rebuttal with the unnecessary comment:

    “Could it be that conservative communities don’t want books with witches or scary tales resulting in fewer fairy tales and folktales?”

    To me, that comment doesn’t even seem to fit. Besides the problems of stereotyping a huge group of diverse people, do books with witches and scary tales truly result in fewer fairy tales and folk tales? I don’t think so. Fairy tales and folktales result from stories being passed down from generation to generation and encompass a wide range of characters, from bugs to kings to witches.

    I am a conservative. Just as there is a huge range of liberal people who don’t agree on everything, there is also a huge range of conservative people who don’t agree on everything. I was really enjoying your rebuttal until I read that and then I just felt deflated. It saddened me. When we (as librarians) stereotype people like you did in your blog, we alienate a lot of people. Please be careful. Rise above the need to do that. We’re all people trying to do what’ s best. In my middle school library, I actively promote challenged and banned books, scary stories, intellectual freedom, books with witches, etc. Based on your comment it seems to me you really meant to say religious zealots instead of conservative communities. Or would saying that be too risky?

    I do immensely respect and appreciate what you have written. I know you were writing from your heart. By sharing your blog, we can hopefully educate a lot of people about the joys of picture books. I just hope that we can do less alienating and more bonding (corny, huh?). We all need to be in this together-conservative and liberal people, black and white people, young and old people, city and country people, religious and non-religious.

    Thank you,


  19. Tanya Lee Stone Says:

    Fantastic, Lisa!

  20. Elizabeth O. Dulemba Says:

    As a working picture book author/illustrator, I must say… THANK YOU, LISA!!
    Well said!

  21. The Readers Review » Children’s Picture Stories Says:

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  22. Lisa Ellenberg Says:

    I am the librarian for preschool for 5th grade at Catlin Gabel School, a Pre-12 independent school in Portland, Oregon. We see undiminished passion for picture books and encourage their use throughout the grades. Clearly this happens mostly in the elementary grades, but middle and high school students can be effectively inspired to discuss sophisticated topics introduced through picture books. They have multilayered power! Furthermore, whenever high school students wander back down to the lower school library, they are inevitably drawn to picture books, and the deep connection to the favorites of their early years is so obvious and heartwarming. Thank you for stimulating this thread in support of the fabulous and irreplaceable picture book!

  23. Evaluating the Cost of Picture Books | EarlyWord: The Publisher | Librarian Connection Says:

    […] After my rebuttal on the merits of picture books, I received this comment from a famous best-selling author by email, Our publisher pals need to re-think ….the high prices they are charging…$18 for a book when you are struggling to keep/find a job is impossible. […]

  24. Walker Says:

    As someone who writes on children’s issues, is a grandmother, and loves children’s books this is a great article. I found that earlier article distressing from the angle of pushing children to ‘achieve’ at such an early age.
    I think there is so much value in picture books. Peter Spier’s books come to mind for children of all ages. There’s so much creativity in picture books with possibly greater importance for young children than being able to recognize and read the word dog.

  25. Arnot McCallum Says:

    YOU GO GIRL!!! I am a retired Reading/Writing Coordinator with a large Ontario School board. i cannot imagine one of our school libraries without a plethora of Picture Books.
    Our classrooms too have well stocked shelves with picture books for the children to see, browse and read.
    Keep up the great work.
    You Percolate!!!

  26. Read Aloud Dad Says:

    You said it beautifully:

    “Parents overlook what picture books can do for young minds.”

    Indeed, that is such a big truth. We often can underestimate how much stimulation the brain gets from fantastic picture books.

    Wonderful post