I’ll tell you why in a minute.

First let’s discuss the New York Times article last week that caused quite a kerfuffle in the children’s publishing world, particularly among children’s book authors and publishers.  The article in question made three points:

  1. Picture Book sales have declined over the past year.
  2. Many parents are pushing children into chapter books sooner (called “reading up”) due to either the parent’s or the child’s belief that picture books are “too easy.”
  3. Publishing houses are now publishing fewer picture books.

Each of these three statements, taken alone, are true.  The problem with the NYT article is that it used these statements to support this erroneous conclusion: “Picture Books are No Longer a Staple for Children.” In other words, picture books are dead; children and parents are leaving them behind to languish while they scoop up chapter books by the dozen.

Even casting aside shoddy journalism (Mother Reader covers this very eloquently here) and the fact that the one parent quoted in the article said her comments were taken out of context, the article struck a lot of nerves.  The fact is, picture book sales have been declining, and that has writers very nervous, wondering if it is part of a natural cycle or a permanent trend.  Because sales are declining, agents and editors are acquiring fewer of them.  Then we all start to wonder how children will be impacted.  Because regardless of what some parents and teachers may think, picture books are essential in teaching children early literacy and reading.  But don’t just take my word for it.

The EarlyWord blog compiled a fantastic list of reasons why picture books are so important.  The folks at Darien Library said, “The picture book is a unique work of art.  Combining text, illustration, and design elements, a good picture book does more than simply tell a good story.  Picture books can teach and engage a child’s understanding of visual literacy (a skill that this new generation of digital natives will absolutely require to be successful in both academia and professional life).” Miss Print talks about quality versus quantity in reading and why picture books are a critical gateway to other books.  She also notes that because picture books are meant to be read aloud, they often have far more sophisticated language than chapter books that children can read themselves at a young age.

The fact is, some parents do push their children into what they perceive as more challenging books sooner than they did before.  But this is not just the “mean” parent that snatches a picture book out of a child’s hand with a reprimand to read something more grown up.  There are very real pressures on parents and teachers to get kids to meet testing goals.  Picture book author Tara Lazar did a great job addressing this issue on her blog.

And yes, publishing houses are acquiring and publishing fewer picture books – right now.  This is do more to the economic realities and uncertainties of the future market than a condemnation of the picture book as a “dead” format.  Mary Kole, an agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, devoted an entire post to the economics of producing picture books.  Short version: it’s not insignificant.

Here’s my two little cents on a few other things that make picture books so special and so necessary:

  • Exposure to poetry.  And I don’t mean just rhyme, although rhyme is hugely important in developing early literacy, word recognition and speech patterns.  Mem Fox put it better in an essay called Reading Magic. “Songs and rhymes provide comforting rhythms…and also expose kids to gorgeous forms of language.  They are a natural extension of the heartbeat of the mother and the rhythmic rocking of a child in loving arms or in a cradle.” However, the best picture books, whether rhyme or prose, have poetic elements.  With so few words, picture books can’t help but draw from poetic form.
  • Exposure to fine art.  If you haven’t perused modern picture books lately, I urge you to go to your nearest library or bookstore and take a look.  What you will find is some of the finest art being produced today, right there on the page and ready for the very youngest of our children to appreciate and learn from.  Philip Nel at Nine Kinds of Pie said it best by calling picture books a “portable art gallery.”
  • Learning comprehension.  Pictures in stories help children learn reading comprehension.  Period.  Last year, I was a leader of the Junior Great Books program in Em’s school.  JGB focuses on developing critical thinking skills among children using literature.  Her first grade teacher then asked me to lead a group of advanced readers in the classroom using the approach.  She said, “They can read the words – even very advanced words – but they don’t necessarily understand what they are reading.”  Being able to read and decipher words is not the same thing as being literate.
  • Story structure.  Picture books have a clearly defined beginning, middle and end that even the youngest kids can identify because the story is short enough for them to remember.  In this way, picture books not only teach kids to read, but also to write!
  • The sweetness at the end of the day.  Truthfully, there is no more profound or compelling way to spend the last few waking minutes with a child at the end of a day than curling up with a picture book.  Yes, my daughter sometimes likes to read a chapter or two of her book on her own, or I read chapter books to her.  But without the pictures we lose the “cuddle factor.”  She can be across the room listening to a chapter book, but we need to be side by side to read a picture book.  As a result, most nights we sit, together with Jay (4) and read favorite picture books.  We all love them equally, which makes them perfect for quality family time.
  • A childhood rite of passage.  There is so much pressure on our kids to grow up so quickly.  I say, let them have all the picture books they want for as long as they want.  One of my favorite things is when I come home from the library with a stack of picture books for research purposes, and Em says, “Oh I LOVE that book!  Mrs. Morris read it to us last year.”  Then it’s all I can do to get it back from her, which is fine by me.

Where, you ask, in all of this is the reason why picture books are worth more than 1000 words?  For one thing, the pictures often tell a deeper story or even a different story than the text.  For another, each word is chosen very carefully in a  picture book.  There is no room for filler or extraneous text – every word is chosen for beauty, humor, emotion, and/or to move the story forward.  Last, but not least, a picture book will get read over and over and over and over again – maybe even 1000 times.  The inspiration they provide to children along the way is worth every word.

Me reading Twas the Night Before Christmas to the kids – an annual Christmas Eve tradition

What are your favorite picture books?  What role did they play in your childhood?  Also, do you know of any other great responses to the NYT article?  I will compile a list here and add to it as I go.

P.S. The NYT article was the topic of last night’s #kidlitchat on Twitter.  Check out the great discussion on the transcript.

P.P.S. I will post links to other articles/posts written in response to the NYT article here as I find them.

Five Reasons Why Children NEED Picture Books – exceptionally well-researched post by author Terry Pierce

The PICTURE: Kids’ Play: In defense of picture books–and other childish things – article in The New Republic by art critic Jed Perl

NY Times missing the point and why indies do rock picture book selling – by indie bookseller Aaron’s Books

Don’t Forget the Beauty of Picture Books by Jenna Hatfield

What I DID find to discuss in the New York Times article... by Carol Rasco, CEO of Reading is Fundamental

Categories: Books, Childhood, Children's Books, Picture Books, Publishing · Tags: , , , ,

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11 Comments

  1. My Favorites . . . anything by Dr. Seuss:

    The Cat in the Hat
    Green Eggs and Ham
    Fox in Socks
    One Fish, Two Fish
    Horton Hears A Who
    The Lorax

    Timeless tales. Dr. Seuss is why I still love reading . . . and writing.

  2. Excellent post, Julie. Great compilation of resources and other responses as well. Thank you!

  3. This is the BEST response I have read since the NYT article! So comprehensive, and positive at that! I don’t know that my own personal response – unwritten – would ever come close to ADDING to the discussion in any way. Thanks again. What a wonderful read! Now I’m going to go tweet about it.

  4. Great post!

    The “sweetness at the end of the day” is the best part of picture books. My kids, just like everyone else’s, are growing up, but I still read to them. We’re reading The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow right now.

    I know those moments are priceless. They won’t be living at home forever.

    My favorite picture book is Goodnight Moon.

    • Lisa – we’re reading The BFG right now, which is also fun. There is certainly nothing wrong with kids reading chapter books or reading them aloud. I love ALL books in ALL forms, but picture books are special for that “cuddle” factor and for igniting the love of reading.

      The kids do grow up, but at least their favorite PBs are always there. 🙂

  5. I agree. This is the best response I’ve read – thanks Julie for this, and Christie for tweeting me to it!

    Personally I’ve sometimes felt pushed to write for preschoolers primarily, and not the 5 – 8+ year olds who I always thought were part of my potential audience. It makes me sad. I do understand why publishers are producing fewer picture books these days, but I know school librarians who wish they would publish more for their early elementary age students (and beyond), for the reasons you list.

  6. Deborah,

    Thanks for coming by and commenting. It’s funny you say you wish publishers would produce PBs for older kids. The recent trend has been books that are 500 words or less, but now I’m hearing calls to bring the “picture storybook” back. I feel certain the pendulum will swing the other way at some point.

  7. What a great article Julie! I simply cannot fathom giving up reading picture books to Julian. To say we both cherish those times cuddled up on the couch would be a huge understatement. We enjoy looking at and discussing the pictures on each page as much as reading the story itself and the pictures bring the story to life! I’m heartbroken at the implication that children should be (or are) reading for any reason other than the joy of reading itself. With all of the academic pressures children and parents are bound to face I find it unthinkable to deprive children AND parents of the simple joy of reading picture books. I find it impossible to believe that the majority of parents are replacing picture books altogether with chapter books, certainly not enough to declare the picture book dead!

  8. Love it, Julie! I’ve been saying my bit here and there, so all I’ve got left is – you hit the nail on the head. And I love the photo you posted. That alone should convince the masses that picture books are not dead.

  9. This was a great post with lots of good points and resources, and I will link to it in the comments on my own post on picture books. Thank you!

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