Picture Book Decline

Critique partner, Chrissie, pointed out this article in the NY Times about languishing picture book sales. One reason for this, the article explains, is that parents are pushing their kids to read chapter books at younger ages. What a shame!

First and foremost, kids should be allowed to read whatever they want to read. I think the single most important point is that they learn to enjoy reading, and for that they must be free to follow their interests.

Additionally, pushing kids to read chapter books in an effort to develop reading skills faster and earlier may be counterproductive. As the article points out, since picture books are generally read aloud by adults, they often contain more sophisticated language than chapter books, which are intended to be read by the child. Children understand many more words than they typically use and more than they are able to read on their own. Picture books read aloud can expand vocabulary in a way chapter books cannot.

Another benefit of picture books is that the illustrations expand the story beyond the words, and it’s up to the child to integrate the images with the words, filling out the story conceptually. I think this is important. Maybe it teaches kids to “read between the lines,” to understand there can be more to a story than the words explicitly state, and, ultimately, to seek and imagine more. To think beyond the story.

Chrissie appreciates how chapter books allow kids to make their own pictures, and I can appreciate that, too. I wonder, though, if picture book experience better enables kids to create those images. Maybe they are better able to add details to enrich the story that are not mentioned verbally. As novel writers, we know that scenes are verbally painted with broad brush strokes because who wants to read the verbal equivalent of an illustration? As the saying goes, one picture equals roughly one thousand words. Chapter books create images but not the way picture book illustrations do. While both are important, I don’t think one is a substitution for the other; kids need both.

Something the article doesn’t address is the value of the art in a picture book. Picture books are an introduction to visual art. Kids learn to look at images, interpret them, evaluate them, and compare them. They learn to find stories in them, to see both details and the Big Picture. Maybe they discover a desire to make their own images. If we tell children they can “do better” than picture books, are we telling them art isn’t worth viewing, let alone making? I think the role of picture books as visual art is underestimated.

As I’ve said here before, I think picture books are for all ages. Experiencing a story told in part with pictures (huh, sound like any other medium you know?) is a pleasure that can and should be enjoyed by everyone. You know that Mike reads out loud to me while I stitch. Those books are novels and text-heavy nonfiction. But he also reads picture books out loud to me when I’m not stitching, when I’m just looking at the pictures and listening to his voice. His sister enjoys this, too. At some time during every visit with her, Barb appears with a stack of picture books (she’s a book seller–and buyer). Mike sits in the middle of the couch with Barb on one side and me on the other, and he reads to us. It’s an experience I value; there’s nothing like it. Instead of reducing the age-range for picture books, I think we should expand it.

Categories: Reading

3 replies »

  1. Just to clarify my stance:

    When I’m talking about parents reading to the kids and the imagination, I’m alluding to a package deal (the closeness of parents and kids and the growth of imagination), and I don’t mean it should replace picture books. I think a balance of both is very important. I know in Waldorf education, children don’t touch books until they are 7 – they get stories through oral tradition. I love that! But I also don’t love it….

    When I was too young to read chapter books on my own, my mother read classics to my sister and me: Gulliver’s Travels, Don Quixote, Little Women, etc. In a telling tale of the power of imagination from my own past that my mother recounts (I don’t remember it), I was six years old and standing in line for the Peter Pan ride at Disney World when I burst into tears. When my parents asked what was wrong I cried out, “Peter Pan doesn’t look like that!” My imagination had been free enough to come up with a completely different image. I appreciate having parents that gave me stories without pre-formed images so I could do that.

    However, I also loved times curled up with my kids and great picture books. I liked how kids absorbed the art and, thanks to the images, would “read” before they knew their letters.

    Re: This article – I resent the idea that picture books are getting brushed aside as parents pay obeisance to the all-powerful standardized test. I do, however, think that exposing chapter books to kids at a young age is not completely terrible. The bottom line is that it’s all about balance. A little bit of everything, please!

  2. *)Books with out pictures: I do agree whith Chrissie: ” I appreciate having parents that gave me stories without pre-formed images …” I have many similar experiences like she writes about above 😉
    **) And pictures made me make up my own stories. I early became a storyteller my self. This I do even as an adult, making stories when I need to daydream to relax.

    —> I vote for both type of books.
    —> I vote for reading aloud to children (and to adults)!
    —> I think children shall not be underestimated, but be given stimuli by advanced words and by easy words to build up language and expressions.

    I have been reading (and writing) since I was 4 years old 😉