Monday, February 18, 2013

The Death of the Picture Book (and how to give it the jaws of life)

The picture book is dead, or dying anyway. This is according to a NY Times article written in October of 2010.

You can find it here:

There was a major reaction against this article, which I wholeheartedly agree with. Even in this digital age, the picture book is not dead. Kids still love picture books and their relatives still want to buy them.

But the market is shrinking. Both sales of picture books and the amount of picture books being published has gradually declined over the past ten years. That's not the only thing that's shrinking. The word count on the average picture book being published today is close to 500. Not so long ago, that number was closer to 2000. 

1500 words shorter.

Why is this? Is it because our children have shorter attention spans? Is it because parents no longer want to read long books to their children? (maybe...)

Not according to Jed Alexander (artist/illustrator). His blog post here:

basically blames it all on us, as parents. Not for our laziness, but for our ambitions. We want our children to be advanced. We want them to be fantastic readers. We want them to meet all their benchmarks.

I thought of this when my sister-in-law, fabulous mother, concerned about her daughter's reading habits, posted a comment asking if it was okay for her eight-year-old to prefer picture books when she reads to herself. She loves chapter books when my sister-in-law reads aloud to her, but she doesn't enjoy reading them on her own yet, and someone, somewhere is giving my sister-in-law the impression that this is a worrisome thing.

Think about it. My niece is eight years old. She's in second grade. I still read picture books in second grade. You probably read picture books in second grade. There is nothing wrong with reading picture books in second grade. There's nothing wrong with reading picture books in ANY grade. 

What has happened? We are forcing kids younger and younger to read novels and yet we are diminshing the usefulness of picture books by making them only appropriate for preschoolers. We are essentially eliminating an important stepping stone in reading development for children. The longer picture book.

Well, what can we do about? We say as we wring our hands and moan. (Okay, maybe I'm the only one wringing my hands and moaning). 

But the fault lies with us, I'm afraid. Publishers, in general, are answering to what they see are market demands, and as Alexander says, 

We used to have picture books, fully illustrated storybooks, and everything in between. Now by the time kids are in 1st grade they're supposed to abandon picture books altogether. Adults are pushing their kids to read chapter books as soon as they are able. There's no transition point. It's parents at the advice of educators who are doing this, and the picture book market is responding in kind.

And the as the Times article says:

Parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books. Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.
“Parents are saying, ‘My kid doesn’t need books with pictures anymore,’ ” said Justin Chanda, the publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. “There’s a real push with parents and schools to have kids start reading big-kid books earlier. We’ve accelerated the graduation rate out of picture books.”
Here are some examples of what our kids are missing because of this trend:

Product DetailsProduct DetailsProduct DetailsProduct Details
Product DetailsProduct DetailsProduct DetailsProduct DetailsProduct Details Product DetailsProduct DetailsProduct Details
John Henry
Sam and the Tigers
Tale of the Mandarin Ducks
The Snow Wife
Wind Child
The Fortune-Tellers
The Water of Life
The Kitchen Knight
The Boy Who Drew Cats
Beauty and the Beast
The Twelve Dancing Princesses
Tale of the Firebird

These, you will notice, are all folktales or fairytales, or plays on one or the other. Every one of these books is FABULOUS! I love them all. These stories are so important! Stories are the fabric of all cultures around the world, and they matter. They matter to us as human beings, because they represent our history, our world, our lives. They are full of heart and courage and faith and hope. They are full of life. 

But these books have a lot of text, a lot of words. Parents balk. Their first graders should be reading chapter books. Our second graders should not be wasting their time with pictures. 

Read this paragraph from John Henry by Julius Lester:

You have probably never heard of John Henry. Or maybe you heard about him but don't know the ins and outs of his comings and goings. Well, that's why I'm going to tell you about him.

When John Henry was born, birds came from everywhere to see him. The bears and the panthers and the moose and deer and rabbits and squirrels and even a unicorn came out of the woods to see him. And instead of the sun tending to his business and going to bed, it was peeping out from behind the moon's skirts trying to get a glimpse of the new baby.

This paragraph is delicious. This is the funnest book in the world to read aloud, and look at the language! What first or second grader would not see their reading skills improve as they read these words and pour over the fantastic illustrations? 

It's up to us! We have to buy these books for our kids. We have to check them out from libraries. If there were a sudden run on longer folktales with lots of text at the library, the librarians would order more, and when the librarians ordered more, the publishers would notice. Trends would change. Picture books—folktales!—with lots of juicy, rich text would come back into fashion, and the decline of the picture book would reverse. 

Let your kids read picture books—just make sure the very best ones are available to them!

Below is a "Proclamation!" from a group of writers and illustrators devoted to picture books. It may not interest you if you aren't into writing or illustrating, but it is really fabulous. It's a wonderful manifesto to support, and we show that support when we spend our money in support of the best in children's literature.

(If you are having a hard time reading this on my blog, the link to it is here:

No comments:

Post a Comment