Opinion: Don't Let Picture Books Die!

Dear parents: Illustrations don't make your kids dumb. Illustration by Christopher Healy

Apparently kids aren't reading picture books anymore.

That's what's happening, according to an article recently published in The New York Times. Booksellers are seeing diminishing sales, the piece states, and publishers are scaling back the amount of illustrated fare they're sending to the presses. The article puts the blame squarely on parents who are pushing their very young children away from picture books and forcing them onto chapter books at earlier ages.

This strikes me as somewhat difficult to believe. It's not that I don't think there are crazy, pushy, hyper-controlling helicopter parents out there who would actually do this -- I'm sure there are. But I find it hard to accept the idea that there are enough of them to cause a downturn in an entire segment of the publishing industry.

The Times article does mention that the country's economic woes play a part in this, but it quickly moves on to talk about 4-year-olds who are being forced to read E.B. White. Can so many of us really be anti-picture book? I tend to think that thin wallets are more of a factor here than people want to say.

Picture books are expensive. That's just a fact. Hardcover ones tend to run anywhere from $15 to $18 a piece. And they're shorter than chapter books. The time it takes to read them can be counted in minutes, not hours. For half the price, you can buy a softcover chapter book that will provide exponentially more reading time. I think that may be the thought running through the heads of a lot of people when they opt for a cheap, lengthy paperback over a spectacularly gorgeous and wildly moving -- but pricey -- picture book.

In a time of financial hardship, picture books have sadly become a luxury. They feel like an investment. Or worse, a gamble. If you spend that much money on a picture book, you hope it's one that will get slotted into your child's regular story-time rotation, one that will be read and re-read countless times. Because if it doesn't happen to be a hit with your kid, you've just spent 18 bucks on 10 minutes of mild entertainment.

The Times article mentions that classic picture books (e.g., "Where the Wild Things Are," "The Cat in the Hat," and others you read when you were a kid) are still selling well, which just goes to show that parents are willing to invest the money in a trusted commodity, a volume they know they'll keep in their home library for years to come. So while parents may have slowed down their purchasing of picture books, that doesn't necessarily mean they're stopping their kids from reading them.

I'd be curious to find out if fewer picture books are being borrowed from libraries as well. If that were the case, it could really mean the problem is more than just economic. Unfortunately, the American Library Association doesn't keep specific circulation figures on picture books, just on children's books as a whole. (By the way, organizations like the American Association of Publishers doesn't separate picture books from other kids books in tallying sales figures, either, which is probably why The Times article had to rely on publishers and booksellers themselves for news of the picture-book slowdown.)

So while the decline in picture book sales may not be entirely the fault of pushy, overachieving parents, I still feel the need to address the people out there who are telling their preschoolers and kindergartners that picture books are too easy for them. To those people, I say: Stop! What in the world are you thinking? I can't imagine a better way to raise children who are averse to reading than to force them from a very young age to read things they don't want to -- and probably aren't ready to fully understand. Let kids read what they're interested in; that's how they'll develop a love of reading. And be honest: You're not banning your child from reading stuff by Mo Willems or Doreen Cronin to help your kid -- you're doing it to make yourself feel like you've got a smarter kid. Forcing a 5-year-old to puzzle his way through the complicated wordplay of "The Phantom Tollbooth" isn't going to get him into an Ivy. Although, it could very well make him think reading hard work and not at all fun.

And to state the obvious (although apparently this obvious point needs stating to some people): Not all picture books are of "Dick and Jane" simplicity. As a reviewer of children's literature, different picture books come across my desk every week. Picking up three at random, I see: "The Fantastic 5 & 10¢ Store" by J. Patrick Lewis and Valorie Fisher, a story told in rebus puzzles; "Jack's Path of Courage" by Doreen Rappaport and Matt Tavares, a nonfiction history of John F. Kennedy; and "Jim" by Hilaire Belloc and Mini Grey, a darkly comic tale that tosses around words like "inauspicious" and "foible." Some of these supposedly simpler works would be over the heads of most kindergartners.

So, don't tell your kid that picture books are only for babies. And if you know another parent that is doing so, step in: An intervention is needed. And if you're too cash-strapped to buy new picture books, we understand. Just don't forget about your local libraries. Keep kids reading. Please.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.